Words for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, preached at Colton Methodist Church.
In a former life as a teacher, I once asked a class of 10 year olds why there are so many different religions. There was a long silence – then someone said, ”because some people like cheese, and some people hate cheese.”
I never worked out whether he was very silly – or very profound…but it seemed as good a place as any to start thinking about Christian Unity this week.
I suppose he was saying there are different ways of having faith – or different ways of being Christian – because people are different. Just as some people prefer a mild cheddar or Red Leicester, whilst others feel only a really ripe Stilton worth eating…so some feel closer to God in silence, whilst others need to sing traditional hymns or modern worship songs.
I’m sure there’s some truth in the cheese analogy, and it can be a tempting way to look at Christian Unity. After all – it makes it quite safe. I might find it hard to imagine that anyone could possibly enjoy Stilton – but we’re unlikely to come to blows over it. I’ll probably never agree with my son about cheese – but we have so much else in common that the cheese issue doesn’t come between us.
So should we this morning concentrate on what we Christians have in common – think of our differences as cheese preferences? Mark, in our gospel reading, makes the shocking point that Jesus’ call has priority even over the commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’, as Zebedee is left without sons to work his boat. Surely the fact that we are all responding to Christ’s call is more important than how exactly we do it…surely in this week of all weeks we should just concentrate on what we have in common?
I’m not so sure. Obviously dis-unity between Christians is not what God wants…but the things that profoundly divide our two churches, and us from the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches did not arise on a whim, or because of a preference for type of building, art or music.
When churches split, it’s because people have agonised and wrestled with an idea or a practice they believe dishonours God, or misrepresents him…it’s because people feel they can no longer worship God truthfully where they are. If we ignore these issues, we ignore things that make us and other Christians who we are.
But you might say, these divisions have led to violence and hatred, have led to statements like “You don’t really believe that do you?” Statements that might devalue years of intellectual struggle to get to that belief. Statements that threaten the way people understand themselves in the light of God.
Thankfully I’ve never heard that in Leeds 15 – so shouldn’t I let well alone? Well I’ve not heard that, but when I taught RE, children often said things like…”I’m a Christian, but my Grandma is a Roman Catholic, or a Methodist”…I’m sure none of us would make that mistake, but if someone asked us what Roman Catholics believe…what makes them not Methodists or Anglicans would we be sure?
And if we’re ignorant of one another’s beliefs we can make vague, sweeping and probably inaccurate statements that make them sound ridiculous. Perhaps this is a week for examining our differences, for taking them seriously – in love, as fellow followers of Christ.
For example our understanding of communion, the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper? (Even the names cause division!)
…well perhaps if we just read a definition, or pick up a vague idea from a TV drama, the idea that bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood, or indeed that they don’t change at all, might seem ridiculous. But if we talk to someone who has wrestled with the idea, and decided it is part of their truth, their identity as a Christian, then at the very least we might recognise how it helps them in their Christian journey.
Rowan Williams – former Anglican Archbishop – suggests we ask ourselves ‘Can my Christ save you too?’ and if the answer is no – how have I distorted the vision of Christ that I see him only saving me or people who think like me.
He says we should ask, ‘Can your Christ save me too?’ If I can see how your vision of Christ can be life-saving or life-giving to you, even if I don’t agree, I might learn from it some truth that speaks to me.
Of course this exchange means we have to be ready to answer questions too. When I’d been an Anglican for about 40 years a new vicar put on a course called “What is an Anglican?” I went along because I was embarrassed to realise that I didn’t really know.
Does it matter? I think it does – how can we expect the world to take Christ seriously if we who claim to follow him know little about our own church and less of our fellow Christians?
Because theology, unlike cheese, is a matter of life and death. Our beliefs should be more than a preference for this or that style of worship or building, they should be the core of our identity, the foundation of our hope.
The Jesus in whom we hope does not tell us how exactly we should worship him. Jesus who said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ – didn’t explain exactly what happens when we obey.
We have to interpret, put into words, because we are human and language is how we make sense of our world; but as we wrestle to express our experience of Christ, so do others.
So my prayer for this week is that we take seriously the ideas that divide us…that we take the time to find out what exactly is a Methodist, an Anglican, a Roman Catholic, a Baptist…that in sharing our differences we each enlarge our vision of the God who is bigger and more mysterious than we can ever comprehend.