sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This past week has been the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As our diaries would have it, Scott and I spent Thursday afternoon here at St Margaret’s with a group of students from the University of Glasgow recording four early services for BBC radio Scotland, to be broadcast at the end of February and into March. Several of those students are candidates in training for ministry in the Church of Scotland. So there we were, an ecumenical group, praying and worshiping together (in as much as that is possible when you are being recorded), right in the middle of our week of prayer for unity. What is more, the services we were recording were based around the hymn “Thy hand O God has guided…” with its refrain that proclaims unity: “one church, one faith, one Lord!” And yet, this was not our theme in these services. No: our theme, drawing on the verses of the hymn, was calling. How does God draw us into God’s mission for the world?
Reflecting on that question, we might ponder what God’s mission in and for the world is. There has often been a tendency to associate mission very closely with evangelism, with conversion: the winning and nurturing of new believers. And this remains important: the church exists to share the gospel, to spread it, to draw in new believers, to make new disciples. But the point of making those new disciples is not to grow the church; the point is to witness to God’s presence in the world. And we do that also, as the five marks of mission remind us, not only when we preach and proclaim the gospel and when we teach, baptize and nurture new believers; but also when we respond to human need by loving service; also when we seek to transform unjust structures in society and to bring about peace and reconciliation; also when we strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth.
In today’s gospel, Christ preaches his first sermon as testified by Luke’s gospel. He quotes Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And then he says to the people: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The coming of Christ, the implication is, is about the transformation of the world. We are called not only to believe, but to allow ourselves to be drawn into God’s transformative work.
Last week we were with Jesus at the wedding of Cana. We were wondering at the miracle of turning water into wine, which in John’s gospel marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. John shows us Jesus’s ministry beginning with a feast. Jürgen Moltmann’s explored this theme in his book The Living God and the Fullness of Life (2014). He points to the words of Athanasius, a theologian of the early church: “the risen Christ makes of life a never-ending festival.” But while John’s gospel shows Jesus’s public ministry beginning with a party, Luke’s shows us Jesus’s public ministry beginning with this call to justice, a calling for the transformation of the whole world. This, Jesus tells his hearers, is the stuff of the gospel. This prophetic vision of the transformation of the world is what he has come to fulfil. This is a party, a celebration that is meant for everyone.
Jesus’s hearers are not going to react well to this, but that is a challenge for next week’s preacher. What should matter to us, as we hear this passage read, is the realisation that accepting the gospel into our hearts means becoming drawn into the transformative processes of the world. And this is, in a very profound way, a call to unity. Understanding discipleship as becoming involved in God’s mission to transform the world calls us as Christians to be and to work together, with each other, and also with others who would not identify as Christian. This is the central theme of the materials provided this year for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Drawing on the experiences of the preparatory group in Indonesia, these materials emphasise that Christian unity is not exclusively – not even primarily – about overcoming denomination or confessional difference in a theological sense:
Our prayers for Christian unity are offered within a context of a world where corruption, greed and injustice bring about inequality and division. We ourselves are often complicit in injustice, and yet [we are] called together, to form a united witness for justice, and to be a means of Christ’s healing grace for a fractured world.
Sometimes, this may be a call to the church to repentance at its own complicity – at our own complicity – in unjust structures, as the preparatory group acknowledges:
the Bible does not present faith in the abstract, something only with a spiritual dimension, but one lived in the visceral reality of the world as we find it. And because the world contains injustice the church too can become a place that is embroiled in the very injustice that exists today.
What is important is that Christian unity cannot be separated from the world’s unity; our wholeness cannot be separated from the world’s wholeness:
when we pray for unity, we also pray for a world made whole. When we pray for unity we are acknowledging that unless we end our divisions, the Church is a poor advocate for justice and when we pray for unity we also acknowledge that the injustice in our society also intrudes to our shared Christian life together.
Our response should be to work together for the transformation of the world. But this means recognising that the world is a place that needs transformation. The poet Maggie Smith recognises the challenges:
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
“You could make this place beautiful.” I am not sure that Maggie Smith thinks this is possible, but Jesus does. Jesus tells us we can do this: we can make this world a place where the captives are released, the blind recover their sight, and the oppressed go free.
Each of us has our own part to play in this process of transformation, and it is an important part. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians emphasises that we all have different gifts. His words are often related to the church and ministry within the church, but they are just as much about how we live our lives in the world, seeking to make it whole. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” None of us does all these things, but each of us offers at least one, and all these things are needed, as Paul emphasises: “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
Each of us has a part to play, and none of us can do it all. We need each other. We need each other to work together make this world a better place. But we also need to recognise, as Paul reminds us, that “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” We are all affected by the captivity, the oppression, the silencing or the blinding of others. John Donne emphasised this, writing in 1624 at a time when the world probably felt as unstable as it does now, and in words that seem particularly poignant at present:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were…
This brings us back to Christian unity, and the recognition that not only each individual, but also each confession, each denomination, has its own gifts and insights to contribute to realising God’s mission in the world. Each of us has so much to give. Recognising that, let us pray that we may be true disciples, in the words of Mark Wilcox’s “Uncomfortable blessing”:
May the Spirit bless you
with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths and superficial relationships
so that you will live deep in your heart.
May the Spirit bless you
with anger at injustice and oppression,
the exploitation of people and earth
so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May the Spirit bless you
with tears to shed for those who suffer
so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.
May the Spirit bless you
with foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world
so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done. Amen
 Jürgen Moltmann, Der lebendige Gott und die Fülle des Lebens. Auch ein Beitrag zur gegenwärtigen Atheismusdebatte, Gütersloh 2014, p. 192.