Psalm 82, Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
With all of the division present in society these days, it seems like the last thing we need is a gospel text that seemingly predicts even more division. And these predictions coming from the mouth of Jesus himself!
But Jesus was right, you know, he always is. It has to be said that Christianity was never meant to be easy or straight forward. Accepting Jesus and this faith presents us with a life changing challenge and some are up for that and others not. Christianity does divide – those who believe and those who do not and there are those who are positively anti. But even within the community of believers there are many different interpretations of scripture and many different approaches to doctrine.
When we look at the Christian church throughout the World, we see many different churches and traditions and by no means do they all agree on everything. We live in what I hope is a much more tolerant and forgiving age. In the church, we do not cast out or put to death those with whom we disagree these days, thank the Lord. But there are still many divisions, many differences, many misunderstandings. Although Jesus understood that divisions would happen, he did not want this to happen. He just understood humanity far better than we do.
In the second part of the gospel passage, in verses 51-53, Jesus says that following him will not be easy, particularly because the gospel will not always bring peace. Families were being torn apart when the gospel spread because it changed everything. Even today the demands of following Jesus can create division in families, in societies in friendships. There is no doubt that many churches have experienced division at some time in their histories.
When I think of this, I am reminded of the old and lovely hymn:
Oh thou who at thy Eucharist didst pray
That all thy church might be forever one,
Grant us at every Eucharist to say
With longing heart and soul “Thy will be done”
Oh may we all one bread one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of Unity.
Unity or ecumenism as it is known, getting the church of Christ to talk to other parts of itself in an era of increasing secularism and atheism is so important. And this brings me back to the theme we had the other day of “Why I am here”.
Many of you may not be aware that I am the Chair of a little known organisation based at Lambeth Palace called the Nikaean Club. It was founded in 1925 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson on the 1600th Anniversary of the Council of Nicaea. This council is regarded as the first ecumenical conference of the Church, when the early Christians got together to agree on the basics of Christian doctrine and belief through prayerful discussion. From this we get the Nicaean Creed, which we still use today.
The Nikaean Club seeks to promote ecumenical relations with other churches through hospitality offered to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s senior guests from other churches. We organise three or four big dinners a year, mostly at Lambeth Palace, but with one a year pre-Synod in the Archbishop of York’s Residence, Bishopthorpe, in York. There is a club membership of about three hundred people, mostly clergy, but some lay people, all of whom have a keen interest in ecumenism and an enthusiasm for promoting close relations with other churches.
About six years ago I was approached and asked if I might like to take on the role of Secretary of the Club as the previous secretary had had to leave unexpectedly for family reasons and they were in something of a pickle. I said I would be happy to take it on temporarily, to deal with a rising pile of paperwork and get the membership lists up to date. I did this for some months until a new secretary was appointed. In the meantime, the Chair decided he felt it was time to step down. To cut a long story short, with some encouragement, I agreed to offer myself as one of the list of potential new Chairs and the Archbishop of Canterbury decided to appoint me. I have now just started my second five year term as Chair.
My point in telling you this is that we held a dinner for 135 people in Canterbury on 2 August to coincide with the Lambeth Conference. Even within the Anglican Communion there had been much disagreement on such things as same sex marriage during the conference. On the day of the dinner there had been a long day of discussions, which seemed to end in an amicable enough agreement to disagree, but to continue discussion as brothers and sisters in Christ in love and understanding and respect for each other.
So after a difficult day many very senior Anglican church people from around the World sat down to eat in harmony and friendship. With us as guests were a large number of Roman Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox Archbishops. Representatives from the Lutheran, Evangelical and Scandinavian churches and representatives of the Salvation Army, the Pentecostal World Fellowship and many others. The Guest of honour was His Beatitude Theophilus lll, the Orthodox Patriach of Jerusalem, who addressed us on the joy of being together as Christians of different traditions of the church.
The breaking of bread together reminds us of our Lord’s last Supper and his promises to us.
As conversations develop over a good meal, friendships are made and renewed, differences discussed and understandings reached. As I looked out over the room full of influential Christians from so many backgrounds, I felt happy that what unites us, our love for Jesus, is far more powerful than what causes us to disagree.
As Christians we believe that God is at work in all situations. God has claimed us all through our baptisms, not because we are perfect Christians, but because he loves us. We all need to strive for better relationships and friendships. Divisions will not easily go away from within the church as they do not easily disappear from many contexts. The important things is that, if we disagree, then we do so in love and understanding, fixing, as ever, our eyes on the Cross, which unites us all.