It’s the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity again, and I’m preaching at a united evening service today.
In my young Christian days, I used to go occasionally to charismatic renewal meetings held at a Catholic priory in North London – Christ the King, Cockfosters, where a wonderful priest called Dom Benedict Heron used to invite speakers from across the ecumenical traditions to inspire those who gathered.
One evening, however, someone gave a simple, short prophecy that has stayed with me ever since:
‘Weep, for my Body is broken.’
And I think that’s the default position we often adopt when it comes to Christian unity. The Body of Christ is broken. I wouldn’t deny it one bit. Schisms and arguments among and within churches are awful. It is an embarrassment to explain it to non-Christians. We have a hard job explaining it to ourselves, as well.
However, Ephesians 4 brings a different perspective. However much we may struggle with the disunity of the Church, Paul here assumes the unity of the Church. As I once heard an Anglican friend of mine, April Keech, put it: ‘Unity is a given’ in Ephesians 4.
Now I know, of course, that whoever Ephesians was written for, it wasn’t addressed to a group of different denominations like us. But even if part of the Christian unity struggle is about the unity we don’t yet have, another part we need to remember is the maintaining and growing of the fundamental unity we already do have. And it’s that which I want to address tonight: I’m not going to discuss how we deal with our differences over church government, the sacraments (or ordinances), and so on. We must have those discussions, but not this evening. I want to take the unity we all have, and look at what Paul says here are ways of building on it.
Firstly, unity is based in God. Listen for how God – whom we would later refer to as the Holy Trinity – crops up in Paul’s thinking as fundamental:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Verses 4-6)
One Spirit, one Lord and one Father are all central to unity. They are foundational. The unity of the Godhead is the basis for Christian unity. We, the people of God, are meant to reflect in our unity the unity of God.
Let me put it this way. Whenever I preach about the Trinity, I am fond of reminding congregations that the most basic statement about God made in the Scriptures is that which is said in 1 John: ‘God is love.’ Love is the very nature of God. This is who and what God always is, always will be and always has been. Now how can it be true that God is love before creation? Surely we find an answer to that in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father has always loved the Son and the Spirit; the Son has always loved the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit has always loved the Father and the Son. So there is an internal unity of love within the Godhead.
But furthermore, love has to reach out beyond itself. Otherwise it is a kind of mutual narcissism. Hence God in love chose to create. Most commonly, for example, a married couple will express that love in the desire to have children. However, that doesn’t always happen and it doesn’t always happen at first. When I prepare couples for marriage, I ask them how their mutual love is going to reach out to others.
And so I see these aspects of God’s loving unity as needing to be reflected in the Church. There needs to be an internal unity of love that characterises our relationships. But that love within and among ourselves needs to reach out.
So let us ask first of all this evening whether our unity is reflected in our love for one another and our love for the world – ‘that they may be one, that the world may believe,’ as Jesus prayed.
Secondly, such united love is a challenge to our character. The unity of which Paul speaks in verses 4 to 6 is the reason why prior to that he calls the Church in verses 1 to 3 to ‘live a life worthy of the calling [we] have received]’, to be humble, gentle and patient.
I of all people should know this. I went to a Church of England secondary school, my first theological college was an Anglican one, and I married a Baptist. My best friend since the age of seven (and who was best man at our wedding) is a Catholic. Before coming here, I spent thirteen years working in ecumenical churches with Anglicans.
But … the Anglican chaplain at my secondary school described me as ‘a rabid Methodist’. (The Methodists might be surprised by that!) I was never more Methodist than when among Anglicans, but I am never less Methodist than when among Methodists. When I conducted my first infant baptism service in the ministry, it was on a Sunday when the Bible readings focussed on the baptism of Jesus. I made an idle joke in my sermon about ‘John the Baptist and Jesus the Methodist’, only to be introduced over lunch afterwards to some relatives of the twin baby girls, who were active members of … Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford.
It takes something to show humility and patience in building Christian unity. Sometimes we are so keen to trumpet the things we bring to the wider church that we forget the humility we need not to boast of our traditions but to receive with gratitude what our brothers and sisters offer us.
So I want to ask you if you can name what you appreciate about the other Christian traditions in our village. For me, I value the contemplative strands of Catholicism, the sense of history that my Anglican friends bring (we Methodists seem to think that church history only began in the eighteenth century) and the commitment to every member ministry that is at the heart of much of what the Baptist tradition values.
And that final example leads to the third and final point I want to share from Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 about unity. It is that unity requires diversity. I don’t simply mean the differences of opinion, referenced by the conversation at Christ Church Woking this afternoon between Steve Chalke and Peter Ould about Christianity and homosexual practice. Rather, I mean the diversity of gifts that we need in order to be more fully the Body of Christ.
So here, Paul talks about God’s gifts of ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers’ (verse 11) to equip God’s people (verse 12). Now I’m not specifically going to look at those five callings, which themselves need to be more fully present in every congregation, in my opinion – and which all our institutional structures militate against, sadly.
But I do want to say that there is a wider issue for broader Christian unity, the unity we have been given and which we are to live out. It is this. When I was going to train for the ministry, a friend who in my younger days mentored me said to me, “Remember that no one church is the whole Body of Christ.” Many are the churches that fail because they think they should do everything. However, it is together that we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit that all need in our work for the building of God’s kingdom.
That’s why a moment ago I listed some of the things I appreciate about the other Christian traditions represented in our village. To take just one of the examples I gave, let me say a little more about my appreciation for the more contemplative approach to the spiritual life that my Catholic friends bring. It is a much-needed corrective to the kind of spirituality often found in my tradition, that tends to value those who are busy and active. I am valued more for what I do and achieve than for a life of prayer. My tradition has an untold story of burnout. How fitting it is that our friends from St Hugh’s have invited the rest of us to participate in a Week of Accompanied Prayer in May – and how significant that the week in question ends with Pentecost. After all, if you know your Bible you will know that the Spirit fell on the disciples at Pentecost after a prolonged period of prayer.
I don’t want anyone to feel embarrassed about the good things their traditions enshrine, but I do want us to embrace the diversity of gifts among us. If we don’t, then the only Body of Christ we’ll have is an amputated one.
Indeed, that’s the danger if we don’t take Christian unity seriously. If we don’t see that our unity is based in the nature of God and that the God who is love calls us to love one another and his world, then we have lost something essential. If we don’t let the call to unity make us humble, we are going against the grain of Christ. And if we don’t embrace all the gifts God gives to his body, then we shall have a sick Body of Christ.
Of course maintaining unity is hard work – ask almost any married couple! But how can we who follow the Christ who went to the Cross bail out of the hard work? The prize is too great.
Let us make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Verse 3)
Media attention is hovering around Steve Chalke’s article (due to be published in an abridged form in the next issue of Christianity magazine) in which he declares his support for faithful, permanent, exclusive gay relationships. The ‘extended’ article is here. For reasons of pastoral care – to protect deeply vulnerable, at-risk people – Steve takes the argument beyond exegesis to hermeneutics.
I have to say that on a first reading not every part of his biblical argument convinces me. Even his dear friend Tony Campolo writes sympathetically, but still committed to a conservative position.
Why do I think it’s too much to hope for that the result of this will be a thoughtful, respectful conversation, one which is more about light than heat? Please, Christian world, prove me wrong.
UPDATE: the Christianity magazine material is now online. In addition to Steve Chalke’s piece, there is a ‘taking the temperature‘ article by editor Ruth Dickinson, and a conservative response by theologian Greg Downes: this is the extended version. There is also a brief response from Steve Clifford of the Evangelical Alliance, with the promise of a longer response later and a theological one from Steve Holmes of their Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission.
As my current frantic schedule continues, we have moved onto a new sermon series where we use the biblical book of Daniel to look for models of Christian witness when we are a minority in a non-Christian culture. This Sunday’s sermon will be the only one I get to preach in the series, due to the fact that we’re only looking at the first six chapters of the book and other ‘special’ services arise that I need to take, such as Remembrance Sunday, where it will not be appropriate to follow the theme. So here goes …
Anyone who thinks we are in a Christian country is in for a shock today. We may still have an Established Church, but that is about all that remains of the notion. Don’t expect in forthcoming media coverage of Hallowe’en that the church will be quoted, despite our concern about the occult: rather, expect Age Concern to have spokespeople available to warn about Trick Or Treat. Don’t expect that I will get extra respect in the community because I am a minister: on the contrary, some sections of our society will assume that I am either fleecing the flock or fiddling with the children.
The fact is, Christians are now a minority in our culture, and we have to live and witness from that perspective, whatever memories some of us have of when Christianity enjoyed a privileged status. Although the Gospel doesn’t change, our application of it alters, because our situation has changed.
All of which is why I chose a sermon series on the first half of Daniel. Because Daniel is in that situation. He is part of a minority, living in a different culture, where he seeks to be a faithful witness to the one true God. He is a young Jew who has been forcibly deported to Babylon by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon’s values are different from Israel’s, as our society’s are increasingly different from ours.
So last week in chapter one, Rob Gill will have shared with you the story where Daniel and his young friends decide which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t. They accept Babylonian names, despite the association with Babylonian gods, but they don’t accept the rich food from the palace and go vegetarian instead. Many of you will know that same dilemma of pondering where you need to take a Christian stand, perhaps at work.
Now in chapter two Daniel is presented with an opportunity for witness. It comes right out of the paganism that dominated Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar has a distressing dream – so unnerving that he forgets it. And just as today when people turn not to Jesus but to clairvoyants and astrologers for guidance in confusion, so the king turns to ‘the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers’ (verse 2) at hand. What could be less surprising in a place like Babylon, the probable origin of occult practices such as horoscopes?
In those circumstances, what is a faithful Jew like Daniel to do? As the Jews pondered their place as a minority in Babylon, the Holy Spirit led them to see that practices such as astrology were contrary to their faith. We see that played out in the section of Isaiah that refers to this period of exile (chapters 40 to 55).
A young man like Daniel might well have considered that the prophetic thing to do would be to condemn the wickedness of relying on occult sources of spiritual guidance. Certainly that is what I did as a young Christian. On my first day of work at my office in the Civil Service, the training officer suddenly said to me, “So what’s your star sign?” I replied in quite a huff that I didn’t believe in such nonsense.
I still believe horoscopes are completely out of bounds for Christians. I remain disturbed by the number of churchgoers who read their stars more than they read their Bibles. But what we see in Daniel is something quite different. We see someone who displays the first quality for mission when we are a minority in an alien culture. And that first quality is compassion.
Nebuchadnezzar makes an unreasonable demand: tell me my dream and interpret it, otherwise I will have you and all the wise men in Babylon executed. And that included Daniel and his friends (verses 8-13). At first when they pray, it is so that they will not be killed, along with all the other wise men (verse 18). However, by the time he has the interpretation, his concern is for all the wise men:
“Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.” (Verse 24)
Ultimately, he’s not just out for a personal escape while thinking “Serves them right if they suffer” about the native Babylonian occult experts. His desire to know the king’s dream and interpret it is driven by more than a desire for personal survival: he has compassion for those others who will suffer, however much he thinks they are wrong and might deserve a fate like this.
Surely we can translate Daniel’s example to our lives. When we mix with people outside our circle of faith, some of those are bound to be folk whose moral values and practices are different from ours, in some cases plain contradictory. If we are not careful, we might end up like Jonah, who we were thinking about recently, and become infected with self-righteousness. We might long for the day when they get what’s coming to them.
But if we are to be a serious missional presence in the world, then Jesus calls us to show compassion. Who knows what fears they have? What if the Christian at the office is known as the person who cares for those facing trouble? What if the Christian home in the street is known as the house where people can ring the doorbell, because there are people who will listen and care?
What does it take? It takes a heart like that of Jesus. Do you remember in Matthew’s Gospel when he looked at the people of Israel all ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’? What does Matthew tell us of Jesus’ attitude? ‘He had compassion on them’ (Matthew 9:36).
So we ask to see people as Jesus sees them. If we do, then like Daniel we shall have compassion for them. We shall be motivated to undertake acts of love and concern for them. We may speak up on their behalf. We shall offer to pray for them.
This is why Debbie and I deliberately lingered in the school community during the last appointment. This is why one of the things I later did at my office after I’d got over some of my early youthful confrontational attitudes was to be the secretary of my union there. You could say it’s where I got my first experiences in pastoral care. Like the young woman whose job was under threat, because her standard of work had dropped. She came and talked to me. It turned out that she had been dating a man at the office. They had gone away on holiday to Majorca, where she had discovered he was bisexual. When she faced him with this, he beat her senseless and she woke up to find herself in a Spanish hospital where she spoke no Spanish and the staff spoke no English.
Friends, let us be known for our compassion in the circles we move in. It’s important for Christian mission. We won’t have to sacrifice our belief in what’s right and what’s wrong, not if we pray to have a heart for people like Jesus did.
Daniel also displays a second quality for mission. It comes in the context of events suddenly being upon him. How will he react? To illustrate what I will label as Daniel’s second quality for mission, I am going to retell a story that Tom Wright tells in his book Virtue Reborn:
On Thursday 15th January 2009, an Airbus A320 plane took off from LaGuardia Airport, New York, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. Captain Chesley Sullenberger III, known as ‘Sully’, completed all the standard pre-flight checks. Then, two minutes after take-off, while flying over the Bronx in New York, the aircraft ran into a flock of Canada geese. Both engines were severely damaged. The plane plummeted towards this densely populated area.
What would Captain Sully and his crew do? There was little time in which they had to make decisions that would either save or lose many lives. There were one or two small airports nearby, but they would not reach them in time. They could land on a major roadway, the New Jersey Turnpike, but that would create huge dangers for cars and drivers as well as their own passengers. There was only one realistic option: the Hudson River. Except pilots cannot make tiny errors when crash-landing on a river, or the aircraft would break up and sink.
In the space of two or three minutes they had to shut down the engines, set exactly the right speed for gliding without power, and get the nose down to maintain speed. They had to override all the automatic systems, make the plane as waterproof as possible and glide the plane on a tight path that would bring it in going with the flow of the river. They could only do this with battery power and the emergency generator. Then they had to straighten up the plane so it was exactly level on impact and bring the nose up again to land straight and flat on the water.
So … did they do it? Yes. Every life was saved.
But how did Sully and his crew manage to do all their precise tasks in that short period of time? The truth is that not only had they been highly trained, they had repeatedly practised emergency drills, so that when the time came, everything came naturally to them as by habit.
Now I want to suggest to you that Daniel’s second quality for mission is that he was practised in spiritual habits. We see one obvious spiritual discipline in this chapter: he resorts to prayer. But in Daniel’s case, he was not a man who simply turned to prayer when there was a crisis. For him, prayer was a habit. We see that elsewhere in the book, such as in chapter six, where his regular practice of praying three times a day is used against him by his enemies to get him thrown into the lions’ den (6:10).
So if you wonder how Daniel is so tuned in to God as to hear the content of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation, consider this possibility. He had so made prayer a spiritual discipline, that over time his attention to this habit made him more naturally tuned in to the voice of God. Because of this, he is able to bring the word to the king that – like Captain Sully and his plane crew – saves many lives.
Mission, in other words, is not all about doing. It is underpinned by taking the time to be tuned into God. That means spiritual disciplines such as prayer and regular Bible reading. There is no short cut.
A Christian friend of mine is an acclaimed guitarist. As well as being highly respected on the Christian scene, he has played with many well-known musicians, such as Gerry Rafferty and Joan Armatrading. I was once with him and another friend over lunch. The other friend was a Christian singer and guitarist who mainly led the worship group at her home church, and occasionally at inter-church events. She asked him the secret of his skills.
“There’s no secret,” he said, “I still practise for two hours every day.”
It’s the same for us. If we want to be effective in mission as a minority group in our vastly different culture, we need to be practised in prayer. Then we shall have something special and unique to offer that can only have come from one source – the living God himself.
I am fond of drawing attention to something Steve Chalke has said on this subject. He has said that for effective Christian engagement in the world, we need two things: intimacy and involvement. We need both the involvement with the world, but at the same time we need the intimacy of spiritual life with God.
And I’m not far off saying that something like that is at the heart of Daniel chapter two. In advocating that first quality for mission of compassion, I am asking that we invite Jesus to transform our hearts that involvement with people who are currently lost from his love becomes a natural and radical part of our lives. In advocating the second quality for mission of developing spiritual habits, I am arguing that there is no sustained fruitful mission except when we commit ourselves to listen carefully and regularly for the voice of God.
In other words, anyone looking for the quick fix for Christian outreach in our deeply non-Christian culture had better look elsewhere. Instant results are only offered by hucksters and charlatans.
What I’m inviting – no, urging – you to take up is a long term approach to Christian mission. Isn’t it fitting as we prepare to celebrate seventy-five years of this building that we commit to the long term, too? So yes – long term involvement with non-Christians, as we open our hearts to be softened with the love of Jesus for them. And long term involvement with our God, as we take the time to get used to the sound of his voice and learn more closely what he is saying and doing, so we can share that with people for the blessing of the world.