Sermon for the Renewal of Covenant – Sunday, 23 September 2018
Revd Canon Helen D. Cameron, Chair of Northampton District of the Methodist Church
It is a pleasure and privilege to take part in the service today.
From the Gospel according to John:
‘Abide in my love’
The readings we have just heard [Ephesians 4: 1–6 and John 15: 1–9] are core texts for ecumenism ,so they present a preacher with a range of challenges, not least that they are so familiar that to say anything fresh is a big ask. Perhaps it would be best if I were just to say: ‘God in and through Jesus dwells in us, and we in God, and so become what we are – one in the love and self-giving of God.’
What else needs to be said?
But at the risk of disappointing you and not stopping here I have to ponder why it is that with the explicit, unequivocal promise, prayer and command of Jesus that we may be one, we are not. I want to focus on Jesus’ prayer in John’s gospel, so we may be renewed in our faith and hope for the unity of God’s people.
One way of being renewed in our hope for the unity of God’s people is to be encouraged, and we can be encouraged because we have come a long way. The ecumenical movement, and a century of work to heal the divisions between Christians, has changed our churches beyond recognition. The division between the churches has been a scandal which sapped our mission and denied the gospel we preach. All kinds of initiatives have broken these barriers down – at the highest levels in our churches, with councils and synods, as well as at the most local levels where Christians have worked and worshipped together and discovered fellowship and solidarity. There is much to be encouraged about.
Yet, I am also discouraged. I wonder whether these gains have become a kind of vaccination – we have just enough reconciliation, just enough cooperation, to be immunised against real unity. Since we do not hate each other, do not treat each other with derision, since we appear happily to co-exist, our lack of unity is no longer such a scandal that we feel impelled to change. Our so-called post-modern culture welcomes variety and choice, so having different brands of Christianity is not a problem. It is hard to summon much energy or urgency for unity.
So to deepen our thoughts and I trust to deepen how we may be renewed in our energy and urgency for unity, I want to focus on Jesus’ call for us to abide in God, and for God to abide in us. We are a body: one body who can bear one another’s burdens and bear with each other, in love.
To abide in God as one body, as a vine with many branches, is to be close and proximal. DH Lawrence in his travel narrative Sea and Sardinia, observing fellow passengers getting on the ferry to Sicily commented with many hugs and touches as goodbyes are said – ‘Italians’, he observed, ‘are like lemons, they like nestling close together…’
So for Christians where is the unity, the mutual indwelling of the Father and Son most profoundly known, the point at which God’s unity is most profoundly revealed: in the obedience of the Son and the self-giving of the Father on the cross.
Where else then do we learn what it is to be one, to share in the unity that God has already given us, and the one people which we must work for and seek to become: it is at the cross.
If this is so, if unity, and knowing the God whose glory is embodied in Jesus, are inextricably bound up with the cross, what might this mean? I want to suggest three things.
First, and most obviously, the unity that God gives and wills is costly. The trust, openness, mutuality, that John sees embodied in the cross between Father and Son is what unity means for us. To be one is to learn to trust even when this looks foolish, to be open to those who are different from us even when this looks like surrender, to allow another to be intimate even though this may require that you change. None of this is easy, and we know all too well that our desire for unity quickly gets overtaken by our fears about losing, letting go, and becoming different. But if the cross is the place where we are truly one, then we need to learn again the strange upside down nature of God’s order: what appears to be loss is found to be gain; what appears to be death is real life; what appears to be desolation is glory. To be renewed in our faithfulness to God’s gift and promise of unity is to be renewed in our willingness be where Jesus is in his lifting up on the cross.
Second, to be where Jesus is on his cross is to be on the margins, outside the city walls. In this supposedly god-forsaken place of the town dump, Golgotha, God’s glory is revealed; in this place where people are treated as nothing, the identity of God’s being is most fully disclosed, and therefore our identity as those who are loved into being is also known.
I think this contests one of the comments I most often hear about our Christian identity and our belonging: I am told that only if we are secure and strong in our sense of our church identity, our denominational identity, can we then begin to encounter and learn from others. First put deep roots down in your particular tradition or denomination, and then barriers between others can start to come down. It’s a variation on the adage that strong fences make good neighbours (even though that adage was invented as an ironic comment). I suggest that the cross invites a different process: it is when we are taken to the edge, when we are least safe, when we are in the company of those who are least like us, when we are ‘de-centred’, that is when we come to know most clearly who God is and who we are as the people of God.
Finally, the cross stands as the symbol of what the ‘powers that be’ do to God’s peaceable kingdom in the name of security and religion. To be where Jesus is on his cross is to suffer and resist the powers that be and their vision for the world. When I am lifted up, says Jesus, I will draw all people to myself. To be where Jesus is on his cross is necessarily to have a universal horizon. Christian unity is not an end, it is a necessary step toward the unity that God wills for the world. What you do today in renewing your Covenant is vital and essential and significant but it is not enough.
To be renewed in our search for Christian unity is to commit ourselves to a larger and more urgent unity, which includes most obviously, at the beginning of this century, the divisions between religions and faiths. Unless Christian faith can envision and foster unity between religions, the unity we seek between Christians is at best trivial and at worst a contributor to the polarisation of our world into competing faiths. To be with Jesus at his cross is to dare to share that fundamental mission in which all people are drawn into the life and love of God, in which we find unity, love, and glory.