Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction, Epiphany 2 Sunday 17 January 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Barry Orford
The second lesson this evening was from the letter of St Paul to the Ephesians. Or was it? I say that because I imagine that scholars are still debating whether Ephesians was actually written by St Paul, or whether it was written by someone who lived at the same time as St Paul, thought in the same way as St Paul, and called himself Paul.
Well, I mustn’t be flippant, because there are genuine questions about the origin of Ephesians; but they don’t matter this evening, so let’s call the writer Paul and look at what he says.
Although our reading was quite densely packed, there’s one thing which stands out clearly, and that is that it’s about what the Christian Church should be like – and not just in a high-flying, speculative way, but in everyday, practical terms.
One problem we have when we read St Paul talking about the Church is reminding ourselves that he’s not speaking about a building set apart for worship, with an altar and chairs or pews, perhaps even a tower and a steeple. He’s dealing primarily with a community of people, people who meet together to worship the God who has revealed Himself in Christ. They might be meeting in the equivalent of someone’s living room at home. That was the situation of the early Christians.
In the Letter to the Ephesians, though, there’s a bit of a shift. There, we see the picture emerging of the Church as not simply a local gathering, but as a society preparing to carry the Good News of Jesus throughout the world. Nonetheless, it’s still a body of people bound together by baptism, a body which has Christ as its head. It’s this togetherness of the Christian community which Ephesians emphasises. Christians are not meant to be individuals, each pursuing their private lives with God. Christian life is meant to be a shared task, where we must support each other.
At this point you may be thinking, “Yes, it’s all very well describing the Church like that; but have you actually encountered it? If you want to see a good bout of in-fighting, go to a Church meeting.”
It’s because of this truth – and it was as true of the first Christians as it is today – that Paul makes a vital point. “Remember,” he says, “You’re not just a group of people brought together by a shared interest. You’ve actually been brought together by the Holy Spirit. So in Church matters it can never properly be a question of what you as individuals want or don’t want. It must be about seeing where the Holy Spirit is leading you, and following that.”
Our passage from Ephesians strikes home with particular force after a week when we’ve been seeing disagreement and the prospect of major division in the Anglican Communion. It’s not been an edifying sight, and the result of all the discussion has not been a happy one, because despite the positive-sounding rhetoric in the Statement made by the bishops at the end of their meeting, it’s clear that it’s likely to mark only a pause in hostilities. Worse still is the means by which this position has been achieved. The isolating of the Episcopal Church in the United States for several years was predictable. But is the humiliation and betrayal of faithful homosexual Christians an acceptable price for achieving an illusion of harmony in the Anglican Communion?
I don’t want to pursue this in detail, but two things require notice. The first is that there is a spirit at work in the Anglican Communion which reflects the spirit at work in the wider world – a spirit which is after conquest, wanting to separate true believers (so-called) from false, and making sure that the supposedly false believers are forced out. This spirit operates on the international level and on the local Church level as well. The other point is to ask how far this is compatible with what Paul writes in Ephesians. Let’s hear it again:
“I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
The Spirit there is the Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ, not the spirit of domination and self-seeking. That’s not to say that the Church should speak with a bland voice saying “we all agree about everything.” That’s not likely, as you may have noticed. Part of Christian maturity – and Paul stresses the importance of that maturity – is to recognize that different points of view can sometimes be invigorating and creative for our community. In this respect the Church is like a building which stands solid because of tension. Buildings survive because of the tensions between different parts of their fabric. So in the Church, a spurious unity is no unity. The only unity which counts is achieved by the Spirit of Christ working in us together. It is that awareness – and only that awareness – which can prevent individuals or groups trying to enforce their wishes upon everyone else, whatever the damage to the greater body.
This poses a question which needs to be asked and answered by every member of the Church. “Am I, in the Church, a force for harmony or for division?” Here, it does come down to a matter of individuals, as Paul writes in Ephesians. He says that every member of the Church has some gift, some quality, to bring to the Christian body to strengthen it and build it up. That way everyone is enriched. The divisive person weakens the entire Body.
I’ve been speaking against the background of events in Canterbury last week, but I could as well have spoken against the background of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which begins tomorrow. How many Christians in this country notice that it’s happening? And even among those who do, there often is another spirit at work, one which says, “Why bother with this? The whole notion of Christian Unity is dead after the divisions which have grown up between denominations in the past thirty years.” And it’s easy to point to events on all sides which have frozen any desire for greater Christian unity.
It’s often been said that the primary work of the devil is to cause dissension and division between members of the Church. That way the impact of the Gospel is weakened, energies are dissipated, and the real enemies of Christian faith in society and the world are not confronted and challenged, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has hinted.
However, another work of the devil is to breed in us a spirit of despondency – what used to be called the sin of Despair. And it is a sin, because this despondency in Christians is actually saying that things are so bad that even God can do nothing about them. Saying that is to ally ourselves with atheism.
How different all this is from the Letter to the Ephesians. There, Paul calls us to “the work of ministry … building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The task laid upon us is to “grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”
Once again, the call is to be not half-hearted and easily discouraged Christians, but fully committed ones, dedicated in whatever way we can be to serving Christ in His Church and praying to discover what Christ wants for His Church.
That phrase about building up the Body of Christ in love goes to the heart of the matter. It doesn’t mean some flabby, sentimental, mushy thing, but the kind of love which is tough enough to accept our fellow Christians so long as we are all working together humbly for the strengthening of Christ’s Body, the Church, and for the proclaiming of the Good News – a news which is good because it tells of the presence of God with us and in all of us. Punishing faithful Christians because they are who they are and love those they love cannot be Good News.
I once saw part of a sermon delivered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in America. He quoted the words of Jesus in St John’s Gospel, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) It was a reference to the Crucifixion, of course, and a reminder that trying to bring the love of God to others may lead you to great suffering. But the point of it, as the Archbishop said, was that this is the sacrificial love of the God who wants to call all people to himself – not just selected and approved ones, but all. And, smiling broadly, Archbishop Desmond began a list of those whom God is calling – he referred to “men and women; black and white; gay and straight; intelligent – not so intelligent; beautiful – not so beautiful.” By this time the congregation was laughing with him, and he ended by repeating the words “I will draw ALL people to myself.” And that final “ALL” was a shout.
It’s the calling of all Christians to serve that message, and to do so by working together, whatever the difficulties. To be both truthful and loving is not easy, but that is the example which our Lord Jesus Christ sets before us. That Good News is greater than any one of us. Are we committed to living that Gospel together, not for our own ends but for the good of all God’s people?