Sunday, 20 January 2013

Sermon for Unity Sunday

A sermon for Unity Sunday (Epiphany 2C readings)

These are my sermon notes from this morning: the context was a service held jointly with the local Methodists. This isnt an exact script, and some parts are more in note form than others!

What is unity?

Specicifically, what is Christian unity?

It's a question that has been particularly live for us in the Church of England over the past year. It's certainly been a key question for me in 2012, as a member of General Synod until the summer.

We began the year by the dioceses voting on the whether the proposed Anglican Covenant was a good way to deal with serious theological differences across the communion. We decided overwhelmingly that it wasn't, and I think that was the right decision. But it dies of course leave us still with the question, and we don't have an alternative answer at the moment. We spent much of the year working our way through the final stages of the women bishops legislation, trying to find a way both to have women as bishops and accommodate those who think women's ordination is unacceptable, only for that compromise to be rejected at the last hurdle in November. And then at the very end of the year the government's proposed legislation on same sex marriages reopened what were very fresh wounds in the body of Christ.

So what unity means - really means - in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences among Christians is no abstract idea for us today. It's not just a nice to have, a lovely idea that we all say we would like, pray for together today and then ignore for the rest of the year. Christian unity is the cutting edge of church theology and church state relations at the moment. If we can't get to grips with it, we may well end up with the Church of England disestablished, and with the Anglican communion a distant memory. And that's just the internal situation. Unity with other denominations remains a distant dream. Certainly structural unity with Methodism has been ruled out until we open the episcopate to women. Methodism and other denominations such as the Quakers have been pushing to be allowed to hold same sex marriages in church, and the governments current proposals drive a deeper wedge between us as denominations. And our ability to engage in ecumenical discussions both nationally and internationally is seriously hampered by our inability as a denomination to know how to handle our own internal differences.

This stuff really matters. Im not going to solve the problems this morning: the best minds of our generation have been working on these problems and not sorted them out yet! If I had the solution to Christian Unity I'd have told Synod about it....

But let's look at what our readings this morning say about unity, when we read them with this question in our minds.

Each of  our Bible readings this morning shed light on what unity is from rather different angles. Isaiah gives us the image of marriage as a metaphor for unity. John tells us a story about Jesus at a party. And Paul gives us a densely argued piece of theology, with a surprisingly radical message.

Images of unity : marriage, party (eating and drinking together). Cf communion. Not abstract theory but practical reality. We are unified if we eat and drink together. This approaches the queation of who we are in communion with from a completely different angle to those who say they won't share communion unless we are unified. Or that we are in imoaired communion with those who don't agree with us, or do things differently to us. The suggestion here is celebrating together creates communion. Is the real reason people refuse to take communion with others a deepseated sense that they do believe in the power of taking communion together, and fear having communion created with thise with whom they profoundly disagree?

Unity is action, not theory. And delight, celebration,joy. Never dour, solemn, agreement: lavish hospitality, exuberant delight. In Isaiah, delight, marriage and rejoicing are used virtually as equivalents - no sense here of marriage as a loveless contract or submissive relationship, Here it is all about joy, delight, love, celebration. Unity in joy.

It hardly needs saying, I hope, that Unity is not about being the same. The image of marriage is of two very different people coming together in mutual joy and delight - God and Jerusalem, a young couple. The story of the wedding at Cana is obviously about a large group of different people finding unity in celebrating the marriage of two of their friends or relations, and in drinking together.

But even more notably, this story starts with one of the most arresting moments of dramatic conflict in the gospel stories. Mary notices that the party has run out of wine, and tells Jesus. And Jesus' reply, however much we know it is coming, still has the power to shock us. It is very uncomfortable to hear. 'Woman, what concern is that of mine?' It is a shockingly rude way for a young man to speak to his mother! But she ignores him and simply turns to the servants and says 'do whatever he tells you'. And so the miracle happens. It seems to me that this begins to address  some of the very real questions we bring to the question of unity. Unity doesn't mean not being in conflict. It doesn't mean necessarily being polite to one another. It is unity of action that matters, not unity of words. Jesus' words are rude, harsh, dismissive. But he does the business, and his actions speak louder than his words.

Our reading from 1 Corinthians takes a different approach. Instead of metaphors or stories, Paul gives us some densely argued theology. Paul focuses on the Holy Spirit, on what is animating our actions.

'Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone'.

It is interesting that even Paul the theologian again focuses not on the differences in what we believe but the differences in what we do. Gifts, services, activities: these are our business, our jobs, our work. And he goes on to list various examples, again busy busy busy: speaking wisely, teaching, healing, working miracles, prophecy, languages and so on. It is very interesting that Paul puts faith in this list - here, as elsewhere, it is clear that for Paul, faith is active not passive. It is something we do, we act out our faith.

Paul deliberately lists a bewildering variety of activities, some of which may seem rather alien to us. He is deliberately demonstrating the very wide variety of activities that the Holy Spirit animates in different people. The link that unifies this bewildering variety is the Holy Spirit,  from whom these gifts come and by whom they are activated.

So, does anything go? Is unity simply a question of recognising that the same Holy Spirit is working in and through each one of us, regardless of our very obvious and sometimes very serious differences?

Nearly, but not quite.

Paul addresses this question very directly in the previous paragraph. 'I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says 'Let Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.'

Thats it. As far as Paul is concerned - Paul the stickler for getting theology right - that is the one, simple test of whether someones gifts and activities are animated by the Holy Spirit or not. I find that quite mindblowing. Paul, of the rules and regulations? Paul, constantly writing to churches all over the known world teling them what they are getting wrong? Yup, that Paul says here that it is this simple.

So, what is unity in the light of these passages? Isaiah gives us the image of marriage. Its about delighting in each other, finding joy in the differences. John tells us a story: its about celebration, eating and drinking together, and what you do not what you say. And Paul gives us a theological test: anything that is animated by the Holy Spirit - anything that goes alongside acknowledging Jesus as Lord - is held together by that same Holy Spirit.

All of them seem to me to focus more on actions than words, and more on joy than correctness. Unity, it seems, is about eating and drinking together, delighting in one another, and accepting that the Holy Spirit is active in a bewildering variety of ways.  It is something we do, not something we say. Unity is what we are doing this morning, as we sing and eat and drink together.

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