Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pentecost 2

I guess one of the advantages of there not being any cameras around in the first century is that you’re free to picture Jesus any way you want.  One of my favourite pictures of Jesus is a painting called, ‘Consider the Lilies’ – the only picture I’ve ever seen that shows Jesus as comfortably overweight, bending over with his enormous rear end in the air and his face stuck delightedly into a bunch of wildflowers.  Certainly the happiest-looking Jesus I’ve ever seen – the picture makes its point with gentle good humour – live in, if not for, the moment – be content – open your eyes to the beauty of God’s creation, or to put in more contemporary terms, wake up and smell the roses.

What more can a preacher possibly add to this wonderful, reassuring parable?  Relax! God’s got it all under control!

Except, is this image a bit too simple?  I learned soon enough when I was doing emergency food relief over at Belmont that you don’t tell a single mum with three kids and nothing left in the cupboard until pension day not to worry.  How do we hear Jesus’ promise that God cares about us, that we can trust God to look after our basic needs, that we don’t have to get anxious and tie ourselves in knots – how do we hear that in the aftermath of the devastation in the Irrawaddy Delta, families torn apart and homes smashed, fertile land contaminated for years to come by salt water?

Our gospel reading this morning comes on the going home side of the Sermon on the Mount – after the teaching on prayer and Jesus’ warnings about the pitfalls of wealth.  We’ve got the message loud and clear, you can’t serve two masters – over-the-top consumption, accumulating for ourselves more than we really need means, somewhere along the line in a global economy, denying to others the bare basics – looking after number one eventually means dividing human society into those who can compete and those who get left out, and Jesus tells us it also eventually results in a split and divided self – if you try to find your security in insurance policies or real estate and bank accounts, or in the distractions of wall-to-wall entertainment and consumer goods then you’re not listening to the voice of your own deepest self, you’re not attending to the spirit that is in you – you can’t serve God and mammon – that Greek word that we might best translate, maybe, as ‘stuff’.  You can’t serve God and fill your life with stuff at the same time.

We need to be careful about this teaching because some brands of Christianity don’t see it as such a stark contradiction.  Just put God first, good-looking and well-dressed preachers assure us, and ‘all these things will be added to you’.  This is the brand of Christianity that sees material success as God’s reward for your loyalty, like cosmic Fly-Buys – because, really, the stark choices Jesus offers us are uncomfortable, the temptation is to bend it round, rework the gospel until it comes out that God and stuff are on the same side again.  A slightly more subtle version of this is that we just have to wait for our rewards until the next life, meantime we’re collecting frequent flyer points every time we come to church.  But actually neither of these versions have got a whole lot to do with the gospel, both of them are variations on working out how we’re going to be alright Jack, because we’re on the right team.  So we need to listen again to Jesus telling us we have to make a choice – do we choose the God who makes us feel alright, or do we choose the God who challenges us to declutter our lives – less stuff, more sharing; less security, more compassion; less smugness, more love.

Well, that’s the background to today’s gospel.  The uncomfortable ultimatum for would-be disciples.  But can we afford it?  That’s actually the question Jesus’ parable today is talking about.  We can’t deny the reality of our own needs – for the basics of life, for food and shelter, but also for family, for fulfilling work – we have needs and God made us to care not only for those around us but for ourselves as well, in fact the commandment that Jesus says is half of the Law says ‘love others as you love yourself’ – actually I think our ability to love, respect and care for others is interwoven with how much we love, care for and respect ourselves.  Love doesn’t mean denying our own needs, but it does mean putting them in the context of the needs of others.  And I think that where Jesus is coming from with these sayings about the ecology of birds and wildflowers is that your needs and the care you owe to others are interdependent, interwoven.  You don’t need to be anxious, just get on with the business of living and loving.  Trust in the goodness of creation.  All around you living things are busy growing towards wholeness without having the first clue how to go about it.  So you can get by, too.  You don’t need to be anxious.

There’s a sort of rural charm about all this that in our post-industrial, environmentally-conscious world has got an undeniable appeal.  Grow your own vegetables.  Compost, recycle your grey water.  Drive less, walk more.  Don’t be a captive to glossy advertising techniques.  Keep global poverty in mind when you make decisions about what you really need.

As an actual strategy for how to live, it probably worked well enough in the villages and back lanes of Galilee.  A subsistence economy with not much to spare, but enough to go around, most of the time.  It meant that Jesus and his disciples really could live like the birds, landing on the doorsteps of strangers and sympathisers in the villages they travelled through and expecting to be fed in return for some quirky stories about what life would be like if God was in charge, the healing power of hands unafraid to come into contact with disease, self-loathing and despair.  A good exchange, and the more Jesus’ message of forgiveness and radical inclusion was heard, the more this world would begin to approximate a place where men and women really could live without worrying how at least their basic needs would be met.

And there are two basic points here.  The first one is that seeking God’s kingdom first and not worrying about how you’re going to pay the grocery bill next week is not a prescription for impracticality.  It’s not a prescription for turning away from practical concern with human need, including your own need, and praying a whole lot.  On the contrary, the implication of what Jesus is saying is to take more and more notice of the basic interconnectedness of human existence.  Not to turn away from human need but to turn towards it, not to close our hearts to the people of Myanmar or Sichuan or wherever else we see the infrastructure of human society crumbling because we are afraid of what it will cost us.  Actually, it’s not people who live in places where there isn’t enough food, or the basic needs of human survival aren’t guaranteed, who need to be reminded about the parable of the lilies and the birds.  Ironically enough, in situations of extreme need human beings naturally live like that, sharing the little they have because they know their own survival may just as easily depend on someone else’s generosity.  They don't need to be told to look at birds and lilies.  But we do, so that our self-preoccupation doesn’t become an obstacle to living with a heart open to the needs of others. 

The second point is that this is not a recipe for individuals, but for communities.  A single lily soon stops flowering because there’s nothing to pollinate it, the birds of the field who live cooperatively in the building of nests and the raising of young don’t do too well on their own.  There might be exceptions like wedge-tailed eagles, I guess.  The injunction not to worry because we are secure in the care of God is experienced in our day-to-day lives as the blessing of living in the safety net of mutual human concern and shared responsibility.  Human beings are designed just like wildflowers and birds to depend on one another, to live in communities of care.  Modelling this is one of the core businesses of the church.  We don’t flourish as hermits or loners, looking after number one is really a recipe for looking after nobody at all.  The anxious individualism of our modern culture is literally killing us. 

Jesus tells us to wake up and smell the roses.


Saturday, May 17, 2008


I’m a little bit worried about Dot.  Now I’m not talking about either of our Dots here at St Michael’s, I’m not worried about either of them.  I’m talking about Dot the character on Eastenders – the whole episode I saw on Friday night consisted of Dot talking to herself – more precisely she was reminiscing about her life into a cassette recorder for her husband, Jim, who’s in a coma.  If it sounds a bit like a plot for a soap opera that’s because it is.  I’m a bit worried about Dot because it seems to me the writers of Eastenders are hardly likely to devote a whole episode to her unless they plan to bump her off.

For anyone who doesn’t know the Eastenders, Dot is the Christian one, the one who makes you cringe a bit because she’s always going on about Baby Jesus, and generally quoting the Bible at people – she does a good job of making Christianity look a bit corny – but she’s also the one who manages to see the good in other people when everybody else is ready to write them off, Dot is the one who gets made fun of a lot, the one who gets left out a lot, but she’s also the one who helps other people out when they’re in trouble, the one who forgives people no matter what they do.  So I hope the writers think again about doing something dastardly to her.

But what struck me as particularly poignant about Friday night’s episode is that, as she talked to her husband who might or might not ever get to hear what she is saying Dot tells him that she can only ever remember being happy once, for a short time during the war, when she was evacuated from London and billeted with an elderly couple in the country.  ‘All the other children cried when they left London on the train’, Dot tells us, ‘but not me.  I knew I wasn’t wanted anyway.  But Aunty Gwen and Uncle Joe, they wanted me.  I remember sitting between them, on the couch, while they talked to each other, one on each side of me, and I was ever so happy because I knew I wasn’t in the way’.  The point is that Dot hasn’t had a very happy life.  But she knows what happiness is.  It’s to be with people who love you, people who love each other enough to let that love stretch out a little bit at the edges and wrap it around you too.

And that reminded me of the Trinity.  It reminded me of some other stuff as well, like Jesus telling us as he has been these last few weeks in St John’s gospel, ‘abide in my love – love one another just as I have loved you, and I will abide with you’, or the succinct-est ever definition of God that we get in the first epistle of John, ‘God is love’.  Not, ‘God loves a lot’, or ‘God is loveable’, but an actual definition of what God is, ‘God is love’.  And that’s the basic truth of God, God’s love that spills over in the act of creation, God’s love for human beings made in God’s own image, and it’s also the central and most important theme of holy scripture.  Theologians sometimes make it sound more complicated than that.

And I think that the ancient belief in God as a Trinity is most importantly a statement about the experience of God as love.  We need to understand God as a community, because it’s in community that we come to understand what love is about.  So belief in the holy Trinity of Creator, Redeemer and Spirit is a claim that God has created us in God’s own image, as creatures both of earth and of heaven, and has given us the breath of life.  And it’s the confidence that God loves us enough to share the reality of our lives, both the joy and the suffering of human life, so that we can be joined together in love forever.  And it’s the belief and experience that God loves us enough to be the Spirit at work in us disturbing our complacency, inspiring out creativity, igniting our love and illuminating our lives.

We come across the doctrine of the Trinity in all the ancient creeds of the Church, but I must admit I particularly like the Creed of St Athanasius, that mouthful up at the very end of the Prayer Book that refers to, ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’.  To which theologian Dorothy Sayers added, ‘the whole thing, incomprehensible’.  Of course theologians have grappled with the concept down through the ages – some creatively and helpfully, others less so.  But I think the basic gist of Trinitarian faith is not an academic exercise at all, it belongs just as much to all of us who have ever tried to work out what it means to belong, to be loved, to be welcome.  What it means to abide in love in the community of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is exactly what Dot is telling us about on the Eastenders, as she sits there with a fag in one hand and a cuppa in the other, and she remembers the warmth of sitting there in between Aunty Gwen and Uncle Joe and being included in their conversation and the unspoken embrace of their love  To stand up in church, as we do every week, and say, ‘I believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit’, is the same thing as saying, ‘God is love.  God loves the world that God has created.  God loves everyone, everywhere, no matter what, and welcomes us into the flow of God’s own life’.  To think of God as Father/Creator, as Redeemer and as Spirit reminds us that God above all, is a God of relationship, that God’s own self is relational, that God is known to us most fully in relationship.

God is not static and remote, but intimately interconnected and breathing with the life of all creation.  And that means God is not only in relationship with us but is present to and moving within our relationships with one another.  Just think of that childhood memory, the little girl sitting between two old people, listening to their conversation and feeling the warmth of their love for one another and for her, too.  This is a family relationship but more than that, it’s an experience of God’s own life experienced and interwoven into our family, personal and human relationships.

The belief and description of God as Trinity means something deep and profound in our own lives, and it also means something deep and profound in the life and mission of the Church.  Because when we see God as a community of love – as Father, Son and Spirit – then we begin to understand the whole purpose of the Church is to incarnate that love – to give it a concrete, human shape - and to proclaim the welcome to that everyone, everywhere, and always.  The understanding of God as a Trinity of persons reminds the Church that loving relationship is both at the heart of God and at the heart of the identity and call of the Body of Christ.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus himself articulates the call and mission given by the God who is Trinity. "Go, teach, proclaim, baptise..." These are the action-oriented ‘Trinity verbs’ found at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. They grow directly out of our experience of God’s love that we have seen fleshed out in Jesus, and they suggest – to me, at any rate - that the whole purpose of us being the church is to announce that love broadly and hopefully – not just in what we say about it, but in how we enact it, how we give it flesh and blood.

In my last parish, at Belmont, my sister in law Chris used to come fairly regularly with all six of her children – my little nephew Peter who was just going on nine used to sit as still as he possibly could whenever he had to sit through one of his uncle’s sermons but clearly thought there were better ways of spending a Sunday morning.  So I was a bit surprised once when Chris told me she had asked Peter what I had talked about that morning.  ‘Oh, the same thing he always talks about’, Peter told his mum.   ‘He just goes, blah, blah, bah, blah, God loves you, so you’ve got to love each other’.

And that’s about it, really.



Saturday, May 10, 2008


I wonder how many of us have seen the episode of Mr Bean where he goes to church?  I guess you have to wonder why he’s there in the first place – after all the wonder of Mr Bean is that he is completely and unreflectively self-centred with an attention span measured in microseconds – but for some reason here he is, and he comes right up to the front row – not an Anglican, then – and right away begins to fidget and look for something – anything – to relieve the absolute crashing boredom of the service.  The hymn starts and it’s one he knows – or at least he knows a line of it - ‘O praise him, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia’ – Mr Bean has to fake the verses because he hasn’t got a hymnbook and there’s no way the man he’s standing next to is going to let him look at his.  So what he loses in vagueness during the verses he makes up for with double volume on the alleluias.  And on the snores that start a minute and a half into the sermon.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of comedy always makes me squirm as much as it makes me laugh.  It makes its point by exaggeration, which means there’s just enough truth in it for us to recognise, and maybe even to recognise ourselves.  Church sometimes is like that, sometimes I’m a bit like that even though I do a slightly better job of covering it up than Mr Bean does.

It’s a stereotype of church that’s just a little bit true.  Are we just going through the motions, are we secretly boring ourselves? Have we actually fallen asleep?  Well, today’s the Day of Pentecost and it’s time to wake up!  Hold on to the edge of your seat, because today’s the wiz-bang sound and light show, today sparks fly and if you’re not paying attention you’re going to get singed.  Today the church gets whatever it is that Jesus has been vaguely promising us all this time, today the waiting comes to an end.

Mr Bean would not have drifted off or spent an hour chasing a runaway Kool Mint under the pews of St Luke’s church.  Many churches go to enormous lengths to put on a visual display to catch the party mood, red balloons and cellophane, I even read a recipe the other day for something called a Flame Font – apparently if you make a mixture of Epsom salts and rubbing alcohol you get a flame that burns bright red with no smoke, but I had an ordination to go to yesterday and that was whizz bang enough.  So the way Luke tells it, the disciples were all together – probably doing what Jesus told them to do when he said, ‘go back to Jerusalem, back to where it all went pear-shaped, and just wait for what happens next’.  Or else they were doing what St John says, all sitting around behind locked doors waiting to be arrested and dragged out by the temple police.  And then – wind and flame, one for each of them, sort of hovering over the top of everyone’s heads.  And then their tongues are loosened, they start talking and it’s all downhill from there because the whole of the Roman Empire can never shut them up again.

Scary, unsettling, but invigorating, empowering.  Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, the coming of the Spirit of power that Jesus promised.  Pentecost is the day the disciples – that’s us, by the way – wake up to (a) what it is that Jesus has been telling them and showing them, over and over again, since day one, and (b) what the heck God wants them to do about it.  Except, here’s the unsettling thing, for me, anyway.  I generally feel more like the before photo of a disciple than the after.  When’s the pyrotechnics supposed to happen, I’d like to ask?  What’s all this about power and talking crazy but being understood?

Well, I guess I’m not giving the game away too much by suggesting that Luke’s made for TV version probably has a bit of poetic licence in it.  For a start today’s Gospel reading, St John has got a different and altogether less flashy take on what the gift of the Holy Spirit is all about.  No flames, not even a 40 day buildup, the risen Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, ‘that’s all there really is, folks.  My life is yours, now.  My spirit is in you – what I have always been about, now that’s what you’re about.  Do what I have taught you – live my way of love and forgiveness and I will live in you’.  Words to that effect.

And of course people knew about God’s Holy Spirit hundreds of years before Jesus told his disciples about it.  In our reading from the Book of Numbers the cloud of God’s presence comes down and rests on seventy of the elders of Israel so that they prophesy – according to Jewish legend on that occasion 70 tongues of fire descended, one for every nation of the known world – so in fact we might wonder if Luke is repackaging an old story for a new audience – or in the passage we read from Ps 104, the Spirit of God is the breath of life, the atmosphere we breathe, the very stuff of creation as Genesis tells us in the 2nd verse of the whole Bible.  We know that God’s Spirit is heard not only in the voice of our own tradition but in the wisdom of other religious traditions, to borrow a computer analogy the Spirit of God is if you like the software interface between God and Creation.  It’s the Spirit that keeps us ticking, the Spirit that gives us the capacity to feel and create and love.  It’s the whisper of intuition, the awareness of being connected with one another and with the whole of creation – when we attend to the voice of the Spirit just beneath the surface of our lives then we know the reality Jesus is talking about when he says, ‘I will abide in you and you in me’.

All of which means the Holy Spirit of God is the spirit of relationship, Jesus lives from the heart of his relationship with the One he calls his Father and invites us into that – the two-way flow of love that expands to become an every-which way flow.  As St Paul understands very well - even though writing 20 or so years before either Luke or John it seems he hasn’t heard their stories about tongues of fire or divine CPR – as he puts it the Holy Spirit of God is nothing other than the encounter with the risen Christ of faith that joins us into the depths of Jesus’ own relationship with God.

We know the Holy Spirit of God is present in our lives because if we attend carefully to the voice of our own heart, and if we attend carefully to what connects us to the people and to the world around us, we experience it for ourselves.  Atheism is simply the attempt to live on the outside of life, the attempt to avoid the depth dimension of human experience.  Be in love.  Pay attention to the ebb and flow of your own life which is the movement of the Spirit in you.

But one thing the Spirit is not, despite Luke’s pyrotechnic description, is flashy.  One thing the Spirit doesn’t do is give us super-powers or ensure that everything’s going to work out OK  The need for a supernatural insurance policy is very powerful, in some Churches despite all the lessons of human history you’ll still hear preachers assuring you that if you have enough faith, if you really, really believe God will reward you with wealth and success, you’ll never get sick, that carpark you really, really need right now will appear as if by magic if you just believe strongly enough.  Deep down though, I think we all realise that isn’t true.  The Spirit of God doesn’t give us the ability to leap tall buildings, and it doesn’t give magical protection.  The people who died in Cyclone Nargis last week, and the tens of thousands who are struggling there a week later for the bare basics, bear witness to the fact that God with us and God for us is no guarantee against human suffering. 

Because the power of the Holy Spirit is relational power, the power to be vulnerable, the power to share and to enter creatively into the heart of God’s people just as in Jesus, God shows God’s commitment to entering into the reality of human life and sharing both our joys and our suffering with us.  That’s the central paradox of our faith – that in the crucified and dying Jesus we see the priorities and the character of God laid bare – God’s commitment to us through thick and thin.  That’s what the disturbing words of the baptism liturgy mean, the water of baptism that represents for us both the power of creation and the deep waters of Jesus’ own death.

When Mr Bean comes to church, bored to desperation as he is, he never does quite manage to drift off to sleep.  Someone keeps nudging him awake.  For us, it’s Pentecost.  The annual elbow in the ribs that says, ‘are you awake?  The Spirit of God is here!  On the inside of you, on the outside of you, what are you going to do about it?  Wake up to acts of love and compassion, to solidarity with those who suffer - wake up to give an account of the faith that gives you life!  Wake up to the sheer joy of being God’s daughter, God’s son!  Wake up to the beauty and delight of God’s creation!’

Actually, you’d better wake up.  You’re on fire!


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Easter 7A

I remember when I was in primary school, when the teacher used to go out of the room, he give us the sternest possible look and tell us to work quietly – he’d know if we didn’t.  Of course as soon as the door was closed it was mayhem.  Arguments would break out within seconds, the air would be full of flying objects, pigtails pulled, drawing pins placed on the seat of the fat boy in front.  I wonder if he ever realised ...?

So today – on which we take part as a Church in the Week of prayer for Christian unity - Jesus our schoolteacher is telling us he has to go out of the room for a few minutes and prays as though he knows all too well what we’re going to get up to when he does – Jesus prays for our protection and that we may be one, even as he and his Father are one.  If I don’t go away, he told us a chapter earlier, you won’t be able to receive the gift I want to give you – the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Makes sense – if we didn’t get the experience of Mr Brown leaving the room when we were in grade six we might not eventually have come to realise the value of an internal sense of discipline.  Psychologists tell us something similar about the need for children as they grow up to internalise the voice of parental authority as the voice of conscience.  Mr Brown and Jesus both need to leave the room so we can start to get for ourselves the value of what they’ve been showing us all along

Of course with the teacher gone from the room, Luke tells us, the disciples do their best – praying, sharing their possessions and resources, caring for those of their number who are most vulnerable. 

Yet, despite the cosy picture of this earliest Christian community, we know they are already fragmented.  In the very next verse of John, we hear ‘not one has been lost, well, except the one who was destined to be lost’.  In Acts, two verses on from our reading, the disciples choose Matthias to take the place of Judas whose just rewards are described in over-graphic detail.

Eleven is not a round number, it’s a ‘minus one’ number, a number that makes you keep thinking of the one that’s missing.  Apparently musicians rehearsing a part often get special CDs they call ‘minus one’ recordings so they can practice their parts against what they are going to hear from everyone else.  But just imagine being in the orchestra that performs Mozart’s Adagio for Strings minus the violin.  I have the feeling this is what we might call the primordial wound in the Church, the incompleteness we started with that in so many ways we’ve struggled to make up for ever since.  Perhaps it doesn’t even matter why Judas acted as Judas did, was it simply a personal failing, lust for money, jealousy – or a conflict of loyalties, did Judas really believe that salvation for Israel lay down a different path than the one Jesus seemed to be taking?  The question I’m more interested in posing today, is, what happens to us as a church when one drops out, as Peter euphemistically puts it in our reading from Acts, ‘to go to his own place’?

I’m not talking about what we do when someone stops coming to church because they don’t like the preacher, or the coffee isn’t up to standard, although that too might be revealing.  Do we, as a church, experience ourselves as diminished by the absence of one who simply opts out because she or he couldn’t agree or connect with us?  But there are other empty seats in the pews, or up in the sanctuary, that leave even bigger holes, because they involve betrayal, violence or loss of faith.  About the biggest and most damaging experience of this, in our own as well as other denominations, involves clergy or church workers who commit sexual abuse against children and vulnerable adults.  A less dramatic example happens when clergy or church workers simply burn out through lack of support, and disappear.  We find ourselves playing a ‘minus one’ tune – our unity is diminished and we all share in the failure of trust when men and women find no other option than to leave to ‘go to their own place’.  And yet the crucifixion shows us God’s commitment to remaining in relationship with us no matter what – despite or even because of the reality of human sinfulness - how might we begin to practice that commitment amongst ourselves?

We all know the idyllic picture Luke paints for us in this first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles can’t last.  Today the disciples gather in Jerusalem to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, that work of God in us that draws forth our gifts and creativity, that draws forth from us the capacity to love, the capacity for joyful recognition that in the end all there really is, is God.  They wait for the gift they can only receive on the other side of resurrection and ascension, the internalisation of God’s Holy Spirit that they experience as the presence of the risen, ascended Christ in their own lives – and that happens in the very next chapter – we celebrate that gift next week – but we also know that fragmentation and dispute, conflict and separation are just around the corner.  What are we supposed to make of the liturgical snuffing out of Annanias and Sapphira, who decide not to put all the proceeds of their property deal in the collection plate?  We still see bullying practices like these in parts of the Church today, unfortunately.  What makes the lofty ideal of unity and communal living turn into abusive attempts to coerce and control? 

And we know that all heaven’s going to break loose just up ahead, in chapter eleven, when the infant church splits in two over the question of how Gentiles can be accepted as followers of the Way of Jesus.  Are they going to have to be circumcised and obey all the Jewish food laws, or can they shortcut all that by being baptised and experiencing the Spirit of Jesus with all the ritual observance of Judaism?  By all accounts, based both on what we have in Acts and what St Paul write himself in the letter to the Galatian Church, it was a nasty, divisive argument – between lovers of God and followers of Jesus who passionately, devoutly, held opposite points of view.  Because it’s possible, isn’t it, for us to come to opposing but deeply held beliefs about what being a faithful Christian is all about – even after much prayer, reflection and conversation – as right now our own Church finds itself on the eve of consecrating its first female bishop.  It’s been a long and at times hurtful battle to come to the point where women are able to exercise their gifts of ministry at all levels of the Church, and for all who, like me, believe that this is a long-overdue recognition that God’s Holy Spirit works equally in men and women there are others who find themselves unable to accept this.  And yet – I want to suggest that real unity depends on something more fundamental than agreement - as Bishop David McCall reports in this month’s Messenger, at the most recent Bishops’ Conference those on both sides of the argument acknowledged the depth of their differences but committed themselves no matter what to staying in creative and loving relationship with one another.

In our reading from John’s Gospel this morning Jesus prays that his disciples may be one as he and his Father are one – but then the Gospel writer has Jesus add this somewhat troubling disclaimer – ‘mind you, I’m not asking on behalf of the world, only on behalf of the disciples’.  Because the community of Christians that gave us John’s Gospel and the Letters of John, saw itself as very much threatened by the world they lived in – they decided unity was for internal consumption, the love that 1 John speaks about so eloquently is for insiders, not for outsiders – this is a community that, to borrow a phrase from B Grade Westerns, has decided to circle the wagons against the outside world, and so in their writings Jesus too is made to say both more and less about love than he does in the other three Gospels.  It’s just as much a live issue for us in the Church of the 21st century, isn’t it? A Church that struggles to stay in communication with the world around it.  Do we decide that the conversation of love and transformative forgiveness just an internal dialogue, or is it something that is supposed to connect us with the world we live in?  Well, you know what I think about that – the Way of Jesus is like the pebble thrown in the pond that makes wider and wider circles until it covers the whole surface.  We ourselves only get transformed by Jesus practice of love and forgiveness to the extent that we’re prepared to live as a transforming community, making wider and wider circles in the world around us.

I think it’s really appropriate that in the Week of Christian Unity Cheyne and Cheyne are joining God’s family in baptism.  They are committing themselves to working out who they are in relationship not just with Jesus but with God’s Church, and we who welcome them into the Church are called to think about what exactly it is we are welcoming them into.  What do we think Christian unity really is?  As we welcome them today, why don’t we invite them to help us work it out?