I’m going to reflect on some aspects of the gospel reading first, and then tell you a little about the Lambeth Conference where I served for a week. The conference saw 650 bishops from Anglican churches across the world gather to pray, study and worship together.
But I can’t leave today’s gospel alone! It’s one of those readings that grabs our attention! Gone is gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Today Jesus says he’s bringing division, fire and causing family rifts. What’s going on?!
Jesus says he comes to bring fire. Fire is a symbol of destruction and judgement – it is to be feared. But equally, it contains a cleansing element. After the fire there remains ash, and seeds. New life can grow after the cleansing judgement – but the judgement is there to cleanse, to eradicate the evil and to show us the consequences of our rejection of God.
It made me reflect on where we are as a nation. In 1940 Britain had a national day of prayer, when the nation – probably awkwardly, probably with a lot of doubts – took some moments to just throw up prayers in anguish, hoping for help. I don’t pretend Britain was a Christian country, but I do think many ordinary folk did just take a few moments of humility, asking God for help. A few days later the Dunkirk evacuations took place with the English Channel in a unique state of calmness, facilitating the small armada of ships.
In 2022, we don’t want to talk about that fact, we instead want to say the soldiers were heroes, our nation is great, and faith should be a private matter. When Covid sent millions to an early grave, the churches were shut and national leaders offered little attempt at national prayer. After a time we came up with a vaccine but then failed to share it widely internationally because of copyright issues, condemning many more to death. And as politicians skip work, the ground burns, the earth warms, the land disappears under concrete, Ukraine is destroyed by bombs, people risk life and limb to flee wars, and the consequences of printing money and massive debt are coming home to bite us all as a recession, why don’t we see the signs…?
Jesus also says he comes to bring division not peace. Now this has to be read carefully and in context. Luke is adamant that the arrival of Jesus is peace towards all humanity, it is God reaching out to us in peace. We are called to live in peace.
But this world is in rebellion against God. Peace with God places us at odds with the world. 2000 years ago this was very clear, and today in some cultures this is a reality: your faith is not just a private matter, it is your identity. If you leave your religion, you bring shame on your family. Fathers can and indeed do betray sons to death.
Of course we are called to love our families and our biological relationships are the first calling in our lives, but equally we are to look beyond our tribes. We are called to live in peace and love with everyone if we can, and to realise that our own family might reject us because of our faith. But fear not: the Christian family is a new creation, a new family of people.
William our vicar has a lovely family, but when I had to leave Russia suddenly, I was welcomed into his family, given a place to live, fed at meal times, treated with kindness, care and respect. I have no biological connection to the Gullifords, but that hospitality shown to me is exemplary of the new family we are called to be in, showing Christian love and kindness to other Christians!
And the same with Christians in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, the Americas. These people are just as much, and sometimes more, our family as your brother or sister. That is a revolutionary idea, but a great comfort to people who were thrown out of their community for following Jesus.
And so to Lambeth. And this is the connection: I met bishops from across the world. Bishops with tribal scars on their faces. One bishop who had actually fought a lion as a child. Bishops from the war in South Sudan, bishops dealing with historic abuse cases in North America. Bishops struggling day-to-day in Israel / Palestine. These people came together at Lambeth and shared their stories, told how God was faithful to them, and strengthened each other.
These people, and their churches, are our brothers and sisters. They are our family. Jesus calls us to love them as we love our parents or siblings. Are we listening to them, responding to their needs?
We had about 650 bishops, plus 650 husbands or wives, plus a few hundred extras like me! The days started with prayer, breakfast, then a bible study on the first book of Peter. Peter, the lead disciple of Jesus, dealt with all of the same issues we experience today – persecution, division, bad ideas about God, and suffering. Then the bishops had time to study, then they had time to share their stories, then they came together in the afternoons to make calls to the wider world.
These Lambeth ‘calls’ are the united voices of the church’s leadership urging Christians to take action and committing themselves to taking action.
It means that when someone has committed abuse in a church, that abuse is not covered up, but the abuser is arrested and the abuse compensated, even if it bankrupts us. It means us in the West using our power to bring justice for those in poorer states. How can we sleep well having eaten food that was grown by a poor Christian working almost as a slave? How can we rest easily when our emissions are burning the soils of poor Christians in South America? There is much we can do to help our brothers and sisters internationally.
Of course there was talk about human sexuality, and there is a great division between the majority of the church and minority Western churches, but the bishops chose to walk together, recognising that people will always disagree, but Christ calls us to be committed to loving one another. We are all unique and different, but Jesus said humanity will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
I checked the BBC headlines during the week, and was saddened. When the leaders of 85 million Anglicans committed to planting a Communion Forest to combat climate change, the media ignored it. For some reason, Kym Marsh being on Strictly and Chrissy Teigen’s pregnancy were deemed more important. Whoever she is, I wish Chrissy all the best and pray for a wonderful baby for her, and hope Kym enjoys Strictly, but if that is news, I’m a turnip.
But this is what Jesus is saying (not I’m a turnip!!) – the world is going to hate and reject us. Christians are at odds with the world. Even the Science and Faith commissions launched at Lambeth to make it clear to the world that there is no clash will be ignored, because the world does not want to hear the message of repentance and submission to Christ.
The world wanted a big dispute about gay marriage, but instead got bishops who wanted to work together. The world wanted a fight, but my experience of Lambeth was hundreds of bishops signing up to link their dioceses together – poorer parts of Africa joining in work with richer parts of London or America. That is brotherhood, sisterhood, and the revolutionary new family of Jesus.
Let us commit ourselves to seeing how we might serve and love our international brethren. Amen