Sermon, Sunday 22 January 2023, Epiphany III, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – the Reverend Glen Ruffle

It’s a game of two halves – and our gospel reading today definitely had two parts! The Kingdom of God, and the calling of the first disciples. In the latter, we have four names given to us: Simon Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, sons of Zebedee (not he from The Magic Roundabout).

There is something interesting about these names. Simon Peter has a mixed name – Simon is Jewish, but Peter is from the Greek Petros. Andrew is a name derived from the Greek, Andreas. In their names, these men – who are Jews – show the mixed nature of their part of Galilee.

James and John, on the other hand, both carry very clear, Jewish names: Yohan and Yakov (forgive my pronunciation if you speak Hebrew!). Thus even in the calling of the disciples, there is a hint that the message of Jesus is going to reach out into the pagan, Greek world.

Indeed, Matthew quotes Isaiah, pointing out explicitly that Galilee of the Gentiles (gentiles are those who are outside of the covenant of God) – Galilee of the Gentiles has seen a great light. This area of mixed influence, where Jew and Gentile intermingle, has experienced the dawn of a light.

In other words, the good news of Jesus – of forgiveness to live a new kind of life – is for all people, Jew and Gentile, Black and White, British and European, even Arsenal supporter and Tottenham supporter… this is good news for everyone.

Good news for everyone – yet we divide!

This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is rather an embarrassment that this week exists, given that the one we claim to follow commanded unity and prayed that we would love one another, and showed how we could care. But alas, we have this week of prayer because in the last 2000 years we have often done the opposite. And it is no wonder that the good news of Jesus, which is for everyone, is often overlooked because we Christians are slinging mud at each other.

Different denominations, and splits within denominations, all plague the global Christian church. We Anglicans are of course part of it – born of a division with the Catholic church 500 years ago; and of course the Catholic and Orthodox branches split 500 years before that.

At the heart of much division is idolatry: saying I am SO right that I can act like God and judge you. Division is us trying to be God.

And of course this week we’ve had announcements from the House of Bishops about same-sex marriage that have caused even more accusations to fly. Many Christians seem to think there is nothing better than trying to shape everyone else into their own image. “You should think like me, and I will batter you until you do so”!

First things First

Don’t get me wrong, these are important issues, but I can’t help but feel we are drowning the good news and getting attention for the wrong reasons, and rather missing that basic call to be followers of Christ, meaning that he is the judge, the adult; we are just the little children, the learning disciples.

And this is what Paul is talking about in our reading from 1 Corinthians. Division is in the church, and Paul is pointing out that everything – who baptised whom – is peripheral to the core issue of following Jesus.

This week (on Tuesday) we remembered Saint Anthony of Egypt, who lived 1700 years ago, and on Thursday we remembered Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, who lived a mere 1000 years ago. These men of the church spent so long praying, serving the poor, and teaching the faith they had inherited, making sure they were not trapped by love for worldly things, that we remember and honour them millennia later.

What would Britain be like if the church copied them and the many women of faith who have come since? What if we were taming ourselves, seeking only deeper knowledge of God through serving each other? What if we were too busy praying for and helping drug addicts that we missed whether someone had the same view of church hierarchy as we do?

Kingdom of God v Kingdom of Career

Our gospel reading today showed the preaching of Jesus: repent, for the Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is the rule of God in the lives of believers. When you make your behaviour adapt to reflect how Jesus lived, then you are living according to different rules – to the rules of the Kingdom of God.

Yet it all begins with the word repent – stopping the process of living purely for our own gain, and turning round to reorder our lives for the sake of a higher calling. Paying the cost of discipleship.

When I was working in business, I tried to do good work, and tried to make sure my good work was noticed, to further my advancement up the ladder. I did overtime whenever requested, to impress my bosses. Promotion meant more money. Basically, I was living under the rules of the Kingdom of Career. Self promotion, seek money. The Kingdom of Career. I’m not saying you don’t need to do those things, but they are the rules of a different kingdom.

But as a Christian, I found I needed to change my life. Was it important to sacrifice time talking with my family for the sake of possible promotion? No, for me it no longer was. People became more important – knowing my mum desired nothing else than time with me, and knowing that the work would still get done tomorrow, helped me change priorities.

Under the Kingdom of God, I had to reorder things. Did all my salary go into savings? No longer: I found I needed to start giving to support the church and Christian mission organisations. I began living under a new Kingdom. Just like St Anthony lived differently, and Wulfstan lived differently, and those first disciples of Jesus lived differently.

Do not judge

And if Jesus is my Lord, he is also my judge, and he is the one I listen to. Jesus says “Do not judge, or you too shall be judged”. As a follower of Jesus, I don’t want to pronounce judgement on people but instead I want to point them to humble obedience to Christ. We’ve done enough judging each other over the past 2000 years – perhaps we should put more energy into remembering that God will judge us – so if we do judge, we had better be careful to make sure we are in line with him, and not just seeking our own selfish desires!

Work for unity and listen to the other

I am technically still the curate of St Andrew’s Church in Moscow, and that church is still technically in the Diocese in Europe, and the prayer for Christian unity is very much part of the Diocese in Europe’s work. As minority groups, Anglicans in Europe seek to build bridges with other churches, such as the Orthodox and Catholics.

There is so much we can learn from Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and different denominations, but in order to do that, to work on a path of unity, we have to first lay down our agendas and to be humble and willing to listen to others. Of course we have our opinion, but until we consider that our opinion could be wrong, we remain trapped in a silo of ignorance.

I spent some time in Israel a few years back with a mixed group of people. The most difficult ones in the group were those who were utterly convinced they were right and we were wrong. There was no way to even have a discussion with them. I was already judged, I was wrong and a heretic and thus there was no basis to even discuss anything with me.

But when you let in different ideas and opinions, and respect them, and listen to them, you allow a person into your life, you show respect, and you show humility. And on that basis, you begin to build bridges.

Differences are a strength!

I want to make it clear though that unity does not mean uniformity. There is a great book by the late Professor Rodney Stark called The Triumph of Christianity. I thoroughly recommend it – and in it, Stark asks why has Christianity in America survived so well and been so vibrant? He concludes the answer is the freedom that allows diversity of expression – a freedom Europe very often did not allow because of state control over churches. In the US, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, independent – all have freedom to flourish – and compete – meaning people can find a church where they feel most comfortable. Thus differences are a strength: and it is good that Anglican churches in London cover the whole spectrum, from freestyle wave-your-hands through to high choral masses! We have a choice where we go, to worship God in the way we feel most suited.

Let’s wrap up:

  1. We have seen the work of the Diocese in Europe, building bridges and helping us learn more about Catholic, Orthodox and other expressions of Christian faith, and we join them in prayer for more Christian unity.
  2. We have explored that judging each other is only to be done with great care – far better to live each day humbly knowing that God will judge us individually!
  3. We have seen how the good news is that Jesus is for all people, and through submission to the Lordship of Jesus, we can end the cycles of division and begin the work of bridge building and reconciliation.
  4. And we have seen that unity is not uniformity, but that we are focused on being disciples of Jesus, and obeying his teaching and commands, following the person of Christ who still leads those who seek him.

It is amazing for me that, as I pray, read and reflect on the Bible, bring my life to Jesus, and spend time with God’s people – that’s you lot(!) – I find I am gently led into places and directions I never dreamed of going before. Doors open, meetings just happen – Jesus leads in his mysterious way!

So let us copy those first disciples – Peter, Andrew, James and John, and then Anthony, and then Wulfstan, and now all Christians across Europe – and let us commit to unity, to judging only ourselves, and to seeking Jesus in prayer, the bible, and in each other, our church family, the body of Christ.

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