Sermon for Eucharist

21 January 2007 at :00 am

I Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21

Any of us who supposes that being a Christian, and living as a Christian, is easy has probably missed the point somewhere. Following Christ is not easy.

In this Epiphany season, the Church continues to focus our attention on the manifestation of Christ. We are discovering again how people came to follow Christ, to see in him something more than just another magician or philosopher, of whom in his age as in ours there were plenty. In the past few weeks you could have been forgiven for supposing that it was easy for Jesus to attract support and easy for people to follow him. First we saw the wise men coming to see Jesus; they fell down and worshipped him. Second, we heard God proclaim his pleasure as Jesus was baptised by John in the river Jordan. 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.' Lastly, we saw Jesus' disciples coming to believe in him at the wedding at Cana of Galilee. They seem to have grasped the point, when he changed the water of the old ritual of purification into the precious and overflowing wine of God's love, the best wine kept until now.

Today's gospel adds an edge to our thinking about how Jesus is manifest as the Christ, how people come to see and believe. We learn that it's not that easy. What we heard in the gospel was that Jesus, returning to his home town, claimed great things about himself and his role. He claimed to be God's anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ, who would bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives and the oppressed, and sight to the blind. Luke tells us at first everyone was amazed and delighted. But the gospel reading was quite short and omitted the end of the story. The attitude of Jesus' hearers changed. It's not absolutely clear why. But Jesus certainly upset all the people in the synagogue by denying that he would be able to do signs and wonders in their village. Perhaps all they wanted was someone to entertain them, to divert them from the pain of their daily existence. Finally, in a rage, they drove Jesus from the synagogue and from the village.

This is a salutary lesson. It is salutary because it reminds us that not everyone who hears Jesus or hears of Jesus is going to be willing or able to follow him. People have the freedom to decide for themselves. And following Jesus is no soft or easy option. Indeed the gospels have many stories of people deciding that they are better off as they are. The rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, on being told that he must sell everything he possessed and give it to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus, went away sad because he had great wealth. The crowds who followed Jesus in the early days soon abandoned him. Even the great number who walked with him as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey shouting Hosanna to the Son of David and tearing down palm branches to wave in triumphant expectation of victory, soon turned into those who shouted Crucify him, Crucify him when they realised he was not offering what they wanted.

It's not that easy following Jesus: the way is not smooth and wide; rather it is narrow and rough. Put another way, the questions life poses - the questions Jesus poses - do not have easy answers. It is not just a simple matter of discovering what Jesus would have done and doing it. No doubt that's why so many people dropped out as they started to follow Jesus during his life, and that's why so many Christians have fallen out with each other in the process of trying to live the Christian life over the centuries.

Division between Christians is of course no new phenomenon. It goes right back to the earliest days of Christianity. St Paul recognised that the church he had founded in the flourishing and cosmopolitan Greek port of Corinth was already only a few years later showing signs of division. He wanted to explain that people could and should be united despite the differences. It was not possible or necessary for everyone to approach issues in the same way, to behave in the same way, to do the same things. There is dignity in difference, to quote the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, but there can be an essential underlying unity as well. Paul used the brilliant metaphor of the body: every part different; every part essential to the whole; every part worthy of respect, especially the parts people normally keep hidden.

We are in the heart of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which celebrates its centenary, from its very small beginnings, next year. Judged by one standard it may seem as though this annual round of prayer has been pretty unsuccessful. It seems that in the early years, the aim of many promoters of ecumenism was nothing less than full structural reconciliation between the different churches, leading to one great Church, of which all would be members. Such schemes were indeed partly successful in some parts of the world, especially in South and North India, although even there they excluded the largest churches, in the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox traditions. In the United Kingdom, the litany of failed unity schemes especially during the last third of the last century is fairly depressing. I think of the scheme promoted in the late 1960s for reconciliation between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, the so-called Ten Propositions for Unity and more recent schemes in Wales and Scotland. St Paul's image, however, of the Body with its many limbs and organs, each with different purposes and functions, but all contributing to the successful operation of the whole, suggests to me that the current ecumenical approach, different in style and expected outcome, is in fact more suitable. Now we are not looking to extinguish difference through corporate mergers or take-overs but to recognise each others' ministry and sacraments. A couple of Fridays ago I attended the 12.30 Eucharist in the Abbey and was delighted that a group of young people from the Church of Sweden, which is Lutheran, were there too. They all received Holy Communion. But in fact their priest, who was with them, would have been welcome to celebrate the Eucharist in the Abbey, as a result of the agreement between the Church of England and the Scandinavian and Baltic Lutheran Churches signed ten years ago at Porvoo in Finland. This sort of ecumenical progress would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago.

Before the end of the Epiphany season, on 30 January, we are to welcome the Archbishop of Canterbury to a special Evensong. His Grace will be accompanied by the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew I, head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. They will celebrate that day the successful conclusion of the work of a theological commission exploring mutual understanding between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. Recently too, during his visit to Turkey last year, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Ecumenical Patriarch committed themselves to continuing the theological dialogue between their two Churches, not with the object of structural absorption one of the other, but of the restoration of full communion, in other words the healing of a schism a thousand years old. This almost coincided with the successful visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Rome the same month, which confirmed the continuing dialogue between the Churches and took account of the important work of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission set up forty years ago and to which the Abbey through the membership of Canon Nick Sagovsky has made a contribution. In the meantime, the covenant between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, a hopeful sign of a future of full communion without absorption, is symbolised by the Superintendent Minister of the Methodist Central Hall being the guest preacher in St Margaret's Church this morning.

In this era, people can only come to see Jesus through His Body the Church. If we are fragmented and divided, offering so false a vision of Jesus Christ, it is no wonder that people turn away sad. Following Christ is not easy. We can fall off the way. We can fall out with each other on the way. What we need is the gift of perseverance, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, for which St Paul suggested his hearers should pray, as they strive for the higher gifts, the gifts of faith and hope and, the greatest gift of all, love.

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