A sermon for the week of prayer for Christian Unity preached at the Tyburn Convent
There is a fashion to say that the church was always divided. After all, we are told that there was from the beginning the argument between the Greek speaking and the Hebrew Christians. We are told the ecumenical project is therefore doomed, and we should be content with the divisions we know in the church – or at least leave their solution to the Parousia. But the Scripture itself will not let us do this. With the prayer of the Lord that we should all be one ringing in our ears we read the various descriptions of the unity of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles; and then there is the evidence of the First Letter of St Peter from which the short lesson at Vespers tonight comes.
The letter called 1 Peter seems to have been a collaboration between Peter and Sylvanus, leaders of the Hellenists and the Hebrews in the apostolic church. It is a fascinating text. It would appear from the end of the letter that Sylvanus, or Silas, the associate of St Paul, was the secretary who took down the letter, and from its Pauline theology and language he seems also to have had a considerable influence on its composition. And yet the letter’s opening declares it is from S Peter. Beyond simply the opening greeting ‘From Peter,’ and despite those who would claim it is a pseudonymous text, the indications are strong that the Prince of the Apostles was directly involved in the writing, not least because, if Silas was simply looking for an apostolic name to append to his own text it wold have been more natural and more in tune with the theology to choose that of St Paul.
Baptism the Principle of Unity
The first letter of St Peter has unity at its heart, for it is a text about baptism. It has so many references to the fundamental sacrament of Christian Unity that it has been described as a baptismal sermon and even as a baptismal liturgy. It draws heavily on the typology of the exodus. The letter opens by addressing the Christians of Asia Minor as exiles, and makes reference to that moment in the narrative of the flight to freedom of the chosen people when the people of Egypt give the Israelites jewels and silver, contrasting their redemption by perishable gifts of precious metal with the redemption offered to the Christian in the new exodus through the blood of Jesus Christ.
By Baptism, By God’s great mercy in calling us to the healing waters we have been born anew to a living hope. This living hope into which the baptised are born is a hope for freedom and new life following a new exodus out of slavery, and rebirth into the promised land of the liberty of the children of God. It is a living hope, that is, a hope, by which one may live; a hope around which to configure one’s life.
All this springs from the fundamental unity of the Church in Baptism. Thanks be to God for that great fruit of the ecumenical movement by which we recognise one another’s baptism despite all the other things which may yet divide us. When all else is said and done there is a simple clarity that we accept that all those baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit receive the gifts of grace in baptism, know the remaking of the marred image of Christ, and are incorporated as a Member of His Body. This is an astounding and precious gain from the seemingly endless and fruitless conversations of the last years. Blessed indeed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born again into a living hope. Because we have been born again with others into this hope we may share with them and travel together on the way.
In the context of this fundamental unity we should consider more deeply what this Living Hope might mean. So much of what brings division among churches may be traced to questions of authority. What was the authority – or not – of the Old Law over those who have the new and living hope? What is the authority of the Son of Man – is the authority of a creature or the authority of God incarnate? Where is the authority to add or subtract from the Creeds, the nub which continues to divide East and West? In the West we have debated to the point of martyrdom the authority of the Roman Pontiff, and in my own church we with much pain debate the authority or otherwise of Synods over the nature of Holy Order and now of Marriage.
|We have debated to the point of martyrdom|
When authority is at issue the question becomes acute as to whether baptism is in fact not the exchange of one form of slavery for another. There is inevitably an implied loss of freedom when one enters any community. Whether members of the sports team committing to train together, colleagues in the workplace doing what is needed in the shared endeavour, members of a family who have to share one television and take turns in the bathroom, or Religious living under a Rule, to be yoked to others implies a loss of freedom and an inhibition of our own free will as the individual becomes a member of a group, as the Member joins the Body.
A modern world which exalts the individual and which has atomised each person into a lone “economic unit” rebels against everything that is implied by the commonality of Baptism. And so one of the great deceits of the devil for the modern world is the illusion that freedom – individual limitless free choice – is the main and best object of hope. The devil’s lie for modern man is that in heaven you will get just what you want at last.
"The devil’s lie for modern man is that in heaven you will get just what you want at last. "
I expect you know the story of the golf course. There was once a man who enjoyed golf. There was never any time to go to church because of the time that was spent on the golf course. The man died, and was met by an angel at the Pearly Gates. He got in first with his request: “I want golf.” The angel asked, “are you sure?” And the response was “of course, I want golf.” So the man was taken to the most wonderful golf course imaginable, with just the right level of difficulty to make it challenging, just easy enough to be satisfying, with his angel as his caddy. At the end of the round the angel set off again, and thinking that he had had the most wonderful round and that he would really quite like some more golf he set off on a second game. At the end of that he was tired. But the Caddy angel again gave him the clubs. “I do not want to play golf any longer” he said, “I want to go and have a drink in the clubhouse and then a nice dinner.” But the Caddy angel said, “You asked for golf, and golf is what he shall have. The man said, “I do not want to play golf, I want my dinner, and here I can have what I want, after all this is heaven.” To which the Caddy angel replied, “Who said this was heaven?”
Obedience, Idenitiy and the Living Hope
The reality is that in our lives we are all imprisoned in different ways. We cannot just have what we want even though we might pretend that what we get is indeed what we want. Circumstances and abilities or disabilities, financial resources or all sorts of things prevent anyone from having just what they want. To those of us who live in the world, enclosed Religious are a powerful reminder that true freedom is found not in a the mirage of choice, but in the loving service of God, and in his choice of us. In this chapel and in this context I do not need to unpack that point, but we can profitably consider the paradox that we form our characters and gain our individuality only when we are in thorough engagement with others. It’s why parents take their children to nursery to be “socialised” and learn to develop their own personality in play with other children. I become more me because I have met you and given myself a little to you.
In this we reveal that we are made in the image of God for in the interaction of the Persons of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, each is perfectly united with the others, such that each Person is infinitely immersed in his fellows and we may speak only of One, but at the same time that infinite participation perfectly forms the individual characters such that we must speak of Three. The Living hope into which we are born is therefore one which points not simply to simple union, but to a perfect union which implies, requires, community. If this is true of individuals in their growth as Persons, and of the very Godhead, surely it is true in our institutions, and in the supernatural institution which is the Body of the Baptised?
The Living Hope is a pattern both for our individual engagement with societies and for the ecumenical endeavour of the whole Body of Christ.
I don’t have a programme to offer as to how this approach, the approach of Baptism, might work out in practical ecumenism. At least not in the broad sense of how institutions and churches might respond. To offer such a programme now would not be helpful since those among us who are policy makers or canonists must work in those structures not out of the community we are forming here and now. But how might this apply personally to each of us, to policy makers and canonists, and also to Religious and to all the baptised that we might make some contribution from the Living Hope which is ours?
"Obedience calls the Community into Being"
A hero of mine is Fr George Congreve, an Anglican religious who helped many late 19th and early 20th century communities to flourish. He offers some thoughts on obedience, as the basis by which a Community must live, whether it be a Convent or a Family. Obedience for him is the foundation by which community is lived, enacted by each individual.
Congreve wrote that obedience “calls the community into being” and went on, “Obedience does not give the external act of obedience merely, but it gives our heart along with the act. And the Christian, the Religious, cannot say, I will keep the rule and I will obey the authority of the community life, but my heart, my inmost heart, my mind, my sorrows, my joys, what are they to the community?… Oh no, obedience keeps nothing to itself, no sphere of nature in which self is to remain.… Obedience to our Religious Rule in spirit and in heart develops great simplicity and sincerity and openness of character. I wish to have no thought, no delight, no sorrow, no hope which I cannot share with all my brothers in Christ Jesus … And so by choosing His will all day long we are taken up into His self, and we go forward with him in the glorious progress of the life of God. His wisdom, his power, His love acting us as we live in loving obedience. It is this perfect union with God which obedience means. ‘I live, yet not I, Christ lives in me.’” The purpose of obedience is to live as “Loving others, whom God loves with God’s love.”
An Ecumenical Manifesto
This might be the manifesto for our life together, a union which is founded in Baptism and leads us by the path of obedience to a commitment to others which by a seeming paradox that derives ultimately from our creation in the image of God, enables our own individual expression to be set free. The more we all live like this the more our institutions might come to reflect the union to which we aspire, which is in the end, union with God, that we might be one with those others whom He has united to Himself. We may not see it now, but we can hope and: Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope