Sermon preached in Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church, on 22nd January 2011, Service of Prayer for Christian Unity
Last week my wife and I spent part of our holiday at the Crieff Hydro, having left our children at home with my mother-in-law. Now when I say Crieff Hydro, many of you might think: “Oh, that is very nice; posh even.” But if I told you we were there for the Annual Conference of the Scottish Church Theology Society, you will probably not be tempted to envy us all that much.
I enjoyed it very much, given that theology is my bread and butter, but what struck me more than the lectures themselves was how difficult we find it sometimes to relate to one another when we disagree theologically.
The bigger the theological gap, the more difficult it is to relate to the other. The same is true of course of political or social disagreements, but for some reason, religious divides seem to be deeper, which rather sad.
For instance, I find it challenging to spend quality time with someone with whom I have little in common theologically. I can’t help but feel a bit awkward to even be in the presence of someone who is on the other side of the divide. I think there is always that tendency in me to check if a person agrees with me on a number of issues before I can have any kind of meaningful relationship with them. Sometimes I am tempted to hide
my own views, or be as vague as possible in order to not damage a possible relationship. But where is this coming from?
Well, I think we live in an increasingly fragmented society, where people are artificially divided into camps: the whites, and the coloured; the natives, and the foreigners; the old, and the young; the conservatives, and the liberals; the Christians, and the Muslims; the Roman Catholics, and the Protestants. People seem to be mysteriously conditioned to focus on these divisions and draw their individual identity from the group they seem to belong to.
But life has a funny way of making non-sense of all that. Life is not that way. Is it? Life is not black and white. Life is not either/or. The reality is that we live happily together in the same village without necessarily belonging to the same ethnic or religious group. If a neighbour knocks on your door and asks to borrow some sugar, nobody will ever think to ask if they’re Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, and then base their decision on the answer. That would be silly and strange. It would feel unnatural.
We may be tempted to think that what is most important in life is to have the right beliefs and thus belong to the right camp. But that is rarely seen or perceived by the others around us. What people see and experience in us is how we relate to one another. A person may have
a very hefty set of beliefs, but if they fail the relationship test, it’s all bit useless.
Funny enough, in the first centuries of the Early Church, pagans were drawn to the Church not because of the eloquent preaching and uplifting music, but by the way Christians treated each other. It wasn’t the theology that attracted them, but the way Christians lived together. Tertullian, the second century Church Father wrote:
“Look,” they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).
That is exactly what Jesus said in the Gospel according to John: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Jesus does not say here that we should love one another if we agree on all points theological, political or social. We are asked to love one another. Period.
We may be tempted to assume that they all could love each other back then because they agreed with each other theologically in the New Testament, but that was
not the case at all. There is an amazing degree of theological diversity even in the New Testament canon. They often disagreed with each other. And yet, they were brothers and sisters, sharing everything together, caring for one another’s needs.
From the Gospel passage we read today it is very clear that relationships should always precede worship. One cannot bring their gift at the altar before they had reconciled with their brother. It is so clear from the preaching of Christ that the way we treat each other, the way to relate to each other is more important than what we believe and how we worship.
The ultimate test of faith is in the love we show towards others especially when we disagree with one another. It is easy to love someone who agrees with me. It takes faith and spiritual maturity and discipline to love someone who doesn’t.
This is I believe the challenge of the Christian Church in the twenty first century. It is not an easy task. Unity in diversity is a difficult goal. It is so much easier to give into fragmentation and name calling rather than seeking common ground and spending our religious energy
towards reconciliation and working together for the Kingdom of God.
And yet this is what we must do if we want to call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ. This very service is at least one of the signs that we are taking this calling seriously and that the Holy Spirit has been leading us for awhile now to come together in unity, as we share in the ministry to this village and beyond.
Let the unity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit be our inspiration in the working together for the coming of the Kingdom on earth. To God be praise and honour forever, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen!