Succentor - The Revd Rachel Young
Acts 8.26-end; 1 John 4.7-end; John 15.1-8
I wonder whether you find living with other people easy or hard work?
Our first experiences of living with other people are whatever we are born into; and very often these experiences form us for the rest of our lives.
Some of us will have been born into some sort of Christian environment – our parents, guardians or relatives may have been professing Christians; or we may have been brought up in a Christian institution of some kind.
As adults some of us may have chosen to join a Christian community – as, in fact, all of us have done who have joined a church congregation.
Of course, not all of our experiences in these environments will necessarily have been good ones.
What do we do with the sheer challenge of living with others who we find difficult, or who we fundamentally disagree with, or with whom we simply cannot get on?
It’s a question that the church has been living with since its early days.
The first letter of John was written by an elder to a late first-century congregation experiencing internal disputes and rivalries, of which the presenting issue concerned the proper understanding of Jesus Christ.
All three of our readings this morning give us an insight into understanding who Jesus is:
- Philip explained to the Ethiopian official that Jesus was the one foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, the suffering servant, the sheep led to the slaughter;
- John the Evangelist has Jesus telling his disciples that he is the true vine, in which all are to abide; without abiding in him, our lives are fruitless.
- And in the first letter of John the elder we are reminded that Jesus shows us the love of God, and deals with our sins; he is the Saviour of the world.
In the community this letter was written to, there had been a struggle between two church leaders, Gaius and Diotrephes, and one group had left.
Imagine how the group that was left behind felt…
It was struggling with how to interpret what had happened, how to understand their identity as the church of Christ.
How could they be the church if they were divided, in disagreement, and not in fellowship with one another?
John urges them to remain with the orthodox teachings they have received about Jesus – that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to reveal God to humanity so that they may live through him.
There were social implications of confessing this belief in Jesus:
The outworking of knowing the love of God meant showing love to others – praying for and correcting each other, and caring for each other in practical terms.
The letter aims to strengthen the community’s own identity by encouraging it to look to the source of that identity in the love of God, so that further division might be prevented.
However, that’s as far is it goes.
There is no advice here in addressing how to relate to those who had left them.
And the temptation must have been to be only inward-looking, orthodox, so as to strengthen the group’s identity and ensure survival.
The temptation to self-preservation can work on three levels:
- In our own personal lives;
- Amongst the communities in which we live;
- And throughout the world.
In our own lives, in our western culture of individualism, we may prefer to choose our own comfort and happiness over anyone else’s, and it’s easy to do;
In the communities in which we live, there are signs that – where people have a choice - they prefer to live amongst others who are like them;
And in our world over the last few years there has been a notable rise in nationalism; some countries have erected visible or invisible barriers around their borders to keep out those who are not like them.
Any group of people can become so involved with each other and their group identity that they are like a circle of people holding hands, facing each other. Nobody else can get in.
But for Christians, this is not an option.
Jesus said love your enemies and love each other.
We have to be people who, although we are a group, stand with our backs towards each other, looking outwards, our hands open to greet those coming towards us – whether we agree with them or not.
It is well known that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has a long connection with the ministry of reconciliation in the Church and in the world.
He coined the phrase “good disagreement” between those in the Church who hold differing views, a phrase that has come under some criticism for not being well defined.
In 2015, he wrote the foreword of a book called “Good Disagreement: Grace and Truth in a Divided Church" which does go some way towards offering definitions and interpretations of that concept, from a number of various viewpoints.
The Archbishop says
“It becomes increasingly apparent as we journey through these essays that no “one-size-fits-all” definition of “good disagreement” will suffice…At the same time, there are some common themes which unite many of these accounts of what it means to follow Christ faithfully in a divided Church. I was struck again and again by the importance of truly encountering, in their full humanity, those with whom we disagree. Whether each side has much or little in common with one another, whether the outcome is unanimity or separation, it seems the only way to imitate Christ in our conflicts is to invest trust, love and time in the people from whom we are currently divided.”
So it seems that, rather than retreat into a group of people who are like ourselves, in order to love our fellow Christians with whom we disagree, we need to invest our energies in encountering and relating to them.
We can be enabled by God to do this, as we recognize our own reconciliation with God which is brought about by God’s love for us, through Jesus Christ, and seek to turn outwards towards others.
Last Friday, I watched the TV news reports about North and South Korea; watching as their two leaders approached each other and shook hands, smiling, before standing in turn on each other’s soil.
International events such as this give us relief and hope.
The same can be true for our own personal lives and in the communities in which we live.
We can be those who turn towards others with the hand of friendship and hope.
May God help us to know that we are reconciled with him, so that we can go and do the same.