3rd of the Year, 22 Jan ’23
It may surprise you to hear that I was never very good at sport at school! I enjoyed football (I was never amazing but I quite enjoyed it) but at the local state secondary school I attended it was a bit snooty about the game and so we had to play rugby. Ultimately the game and I didn’t get along with each other though and one day I broke my collar bone: my promising career as a future sportsman cut short in its prime. What a shame, I hear you say. One thing I’ve continued to love about watching sports like rugby or football is when you see teams working together. The passes all get lined up and follow smoothly one after the other. One player draws the other team members towards him or her and then passes the ball to someone who’s free and a goal or a try is scored. Excellent team work.
I want then to think about the unity of the Church, Christians working together for our shared goal which is to give glory to God, to build up His Holy Church and to draw many more souls to give themselves to the Lord. This is the week of prayer for Christian Unity and last Sunday I bid us all to pray earnestly for that spirit of unity within the hearts and minds of all believers and especially those who lead the Church. This period of prayer concludes on Wednesday and so it’s not too late to offer up entreaty to the Lord on this matter.
The timing of the week of prayer for Christian Unity was originally significant as it spanned the eight days from the old date for the Feast of the Chair of St Peter on 18th January to the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, which we continue to celebrate on 25th January, on Wednesday this week. The unity of the Church was then, as always, to be grounded on these two apostles, Peter and Paul, the princes of the Church. A big part of what is significant about linking Christian unity to these two is that we are told that they had their disagreements during their ministries on earth. In Galatians 2:7-14 we see a record of such a disagreement where Peter is accused of hypocrisy for having eaten with Gentiles until the arrival of a delegation from St James, the bishop of Jerusalem, and then he did something different once they were there. Peter and Paul go their separate ways but agree to cohere around a concern for the poor and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We see such divisions bubbling up in our second reading from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. St Paul has had regular correspondence with the Christians in this city he had visited and some of the residents he knew well. “I appeal to you,” he writes, “to be united again in your belief and practice.” He criticises slogans that are appearing: some supporting Paul himself, others supporting Apollos, others for Cephas (who is almost certainly the Apostle St Peter, using his name - rock - as given by Christ Himself (St Matthew 16:18)). These divisions in Corinth seem to have been exacerbated by social and economic divisions which were in turn compounded by meeting in people’s home, which was a practice the Church abandoned as soon as she could, once it was safe and permitted to build Churches.
So, division among Christians isn’t new.
What is then our response as a Church family to be to the schisms that rent asunder the Body of Christ (besides of course our prayer)? First, our liturgy, our practice, our belief aim at building up such unity. The rites we use are the same as found in the majority of the world’s countries. When we go to Roman Catholic Churches in France or South Africa or the United States we will find there the same structure and the same basic words as those we use here so even if it’s in a language we don’t understand we will know that when the priest is saying “the Lord be with you” and that the answer is “And with your spirit.” We will know too the order of Confession, Gloria, Collect, Scripture Readings etc etc. Our liturgy here at St Mary’s and at the Good Shepherd expresses a unity for which we should long.
Secondly, that unity is revealed in us being a community where people from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” are included (Revelation 7:9). This phrase comes from a description of Heaven in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse or the Revelation to St John. Our call here on earth is to reflect the beauty we will know in Heaven. When we ask for the prayers of the saints, among them those commemorated in images around our Church, we do so not just pondering their trials through which they were faithful here on earth but also contemplating what their joy must be like in Heaven, gazing eternally at rest worshipping the Maker of Heaven and earth. So, we are to ensure that our Church family reflects the various ethnic, cultural and national groups of which our congregations are made up, and not just the one we ourselves are a member of. It might be you have a particular national celebration you’d like to do something for after Mass here and everyone - wherever they come from - can join in that celebration. Let me know.
Unity then, we discover, will not stifle diversity and nor can unity be maintained without a shared life at the heart of the matter. This must always be a life looking at the head of the Church, Christ our Lord. It is with the same focus on our Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself and came to this earth for us poor sinners, that our search for unity will lead us to tricky places.
We are reminded that we’ll end up in tricky places if we are being faithful in the Gospel we’ve just heard proclaimed. Here Jesus finds Himself, still at the beginning of His public earthly ministry, leaving Nazareth, his parents’ family home, and going to Capernaum. St Matthew, as we heard, links this to the death of St John the Baptist. Jesus was not fleeing to a safer place but rather going to the place where the danger was even greater, he was going to build on the ministry of the Baptist, who had been executed by the reigning Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. St Luke elsewhere makes clear that this the movement from Nazareth to Capernaum is because Jesus no longer felt safe in Nazareth (St Luke 4:28-31). St Matthew in today’s Gospel emphasises too the significance of Galilee, picking up on what was prophesied in our first reading from Isaiah 8 when this region was heavily Gentile territory, non-Jewish, a place of un-orthodox belief. To such uncomfortable places does the Lord of all Light go, that the people who walked in darkness might see a glorious light. Unity will then require us to stand a little less highly on our horse and rather be willing to sacrifice some of our own principles, living in charity with one another, being in difficult places.
One of the ways we will be confronted by the divisions among Christians is in our day to day interactions with others who will worship in different denominations. And that word denominations is important, meaning the traditions within the Church, be it Roman Catholic, Church of England, Pentecostal, Methodist or whatever. They are not different churches for the Church can only be one hence we say every Sunday, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” The next thing to observe is that often we notice the least important bits of the differences between the different denominations: whether they use guitars or organs, whether the priest wears jeans or a cassock. These are in many senses issues of secondary importance: it’s the belief and practice which matter, namely focusing on what they say about Jesus, what His Church is, and what the call of the Christian is to be. These will differ and it is those differences that need to crumble that the solid rock of truth might be furnished to the glory of God.
When we encounter folk from different Christian denominations or indeed different religions there is a temptation to end up being subjective about these things, which is when we say, “Oh it’s fine for them to do their thing, I do my thing, they’re all the same really.” This doesn’t make sense and moreover does a disservice to our Lord, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Indeed as St Paul says in that second reading, being a bit tongue in cheek, “Has Christ been parcelled out?” In other words, has He been cut up so there are different Christs and we can choose which type of Jesus we want to follow? No, of course not, don’t be daft. So, there is such a thing as objective truth - the truth - and just because people we love or respect believe certain things doesn’t mean they are correct in those beliefs if they fall out of the Church teaches us to be true.
This valuing of the truth, my friends, must not lead us to arrogance, however, or indeed to be judgmental. We are called to discern what is right and what is wrong, but we are not called upon to decide what happens to those who believe or live out something different, that would be judgemental and an exalting of ourselves, something we are not called to do by our Lord Jesus Christ. For if footballers or other sports persons were constantly being judgemental of their fellow players, the team would never work. It seems so obvious to say that and yet we forget it is also how the Church, the Body of Christ, will flourish. May we be one as Christians that the world may believe. May our faith and practise, and indeed our liturgy, always reveal this unity among believers worshipping the same God. And may all peoples know they are welcome to be here among the great diversity of God’s people. Amen.