Acts 16.9-15; John 14.23-29
Any thoughtful European Christian is bound to be asking at this moment in our history ‘How on earth did we get here’? Progressive, liberal, democratic values, which we all took for granted, are under attack from populist identity politics – and worse. The present, as well as the future, looks rather different from what we imagined ten or even twenty years ago – cf Le Grand Débat following the Gilets Jaunesprotests. I don’t want to suggest that a progressive reading of history is some kind of utopia. Progressive politics, and its impact on societies and cultures, has shown us that it is very easy to push faith to the margins. But populism plays to unthinking prejudices, objectifies the vulnerable, and often demonizes minorities. It puts narrow national interests before a generous world-embracing vision of (what St Paul called) one single new humanity.
The progress of European history over the past three decades, with its emphasis on individual choice, and the insistence that religious faith is a private matter, means that we no longer have a commonly shared narrative of beliefs and values shaping politics, education and the media. Even among Christians, there is a tendency to withdraw into our own private world. We pick and choose what to believe, and can become indifferent to the faith shared by the whole Church. When Christianity becomes only a private, personal matter; when we will only associate with those who are like us; when we find ourselves saying that the historic faith and practice of the whole Church is a menu of options, a vital part of the Gospel is lost. Creeds emphasise that belief in the Trinitarian character of God is all-of-a-piece with belief in ‘One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’
The characters who punctuate the story of Acts, especially those who engage with Peter and Paul, are not portrayed as lone rangers doing their own thing, as if their new-found faith in the risen Christ was about individual choice regardless of everyone else. They discern the will of God through the worship of the whole Body. The will of God is made known in visions and dreams that have implications for the whole body of believers. They are an expression of what the community of the Church hopes to become the future.
In Company with Others
Illustrated by Paul’s journey to Philippi. It is shared with Timothy. On arrival, Paul doesn’t set up his own place of worship; but makes contact with the Jewish community who are already in Philippi. The events of Easter lead to new encounters, new friendships, new foundations from which the community of faith flourishes and grows. The first impulse of that first generation of Christians is to build community. Not a community restricted to people ‘like us.’ John V Taylor: mission is not an initiative of the churches; but a willingness to go out and discover where God is already at work in lives and communities.
Echoes of this in John’s Gospel. John takes us back to the night before the crucifixion, as Jesus prays for his closest companions, and faces death in the company of those who will betray him, deny him, and run from the conflict that is about to unfold. We discover that our future is grounded in the God who is known in many different ways, and in many different places. Jesus tells his friends, on the night before he gives himself for the life of the world, that their future is will not be found in their own projects and preoccupations, but in the God he called ‘Father.’ The Advocate, the Spirit, the one who will strengthen and sustain them as they embrace and unknown future – and people they have yet to discover. Gospel offers an image of interdependence and mutuality within God’s three-fold nature. It offers a pattern for our calling to be those who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, so that we being many might become one body.
Mission Begins with Hospitality
Building communities of trust, encouragement and hospitality is crucial to our life as the Church, if we are to witness faithfully to the Gospel and share this world with others – especially when populism and individualism undermines our shared history, our shared humanity, our shared faith. Where there is migration, the Church grows (Grace Davie). Where there is suffering, the Church is strengthened (Tertullian). Where people are isolated, lonely and unloved, the Church offers a space to meet, to explore, to give and receive. Hospitality is where mission begins – a natural consequence of encountering the risen Christ at the heart of our worship.
We need one another. We need the strength that comes from outside ourselves, from people who are as different from us as we are from them; and, ultimately, from God who raised Jesus from the dead, and strengthens and sustains us by his Spirit. At the compelling impulse of his call, we continue on our journey, hopeful of a transformed future for the whole human race, as we discover horizons we’ve never dreamed of: the promised kingdom of God.
Notes of a Sermon preached (bilingually) at the Ecumenical Eucharist at L’Eglise Reformée, Pau, on Sunday 26thMay 2019