I take the ‘Church Times’ every week. I suppose I feel a bit obliged to! Anyway, it’s always worth looking at the meditation on the lectionary readings for the following Sunday in case I need to change my sermon in the light of its greater insight! But I don’t read all the letters in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. I don’t read them because I find them largely depressing. The usual arguments between Anglo-Catholics and Liberals and Evangelicals, between traditionalists and modernists, between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists, are rehearsed and re-rehearsed, sometimes with a distinct lack of charity for those in the opposing camp.
Today’s Gospel reading has the last words of Jesus before He goes out to the Garden of Gethsemane, to His arrest and crucifixion. This is a prayer of Jesus for His disciples and for all who come to believe in Him. The prayer shows the trust that Jesus puts in His disciples and in us. He knows the frailty of the disciples and that they hardly know what He is saying, yet he still hands His work on to them with hope and confidence, as he does to us.
Jesus prays for our unity, but it’s not a unity of our making. It’s a unity through our dwelling in God and He in us. It’s a unity that’s about relationships, relationships with each other and relationship with God. It’s a unity of love, that we love each other as Jesus loves us. Unity comes, not through schemes or meetings, and certainly, it seems, not through letters to the editor, but through heart-to-heart relationships.
In our reading from Acts, the apostles are choosing their twelfth member – the one to replace Judas. The behaviour of Judas created a major problem for the earliest Christians. Of all the Gospel writers, Matthew is the kindest to him, having him confess and return the ill-gotten money before hanging himself. For Luke, Judas’ actions were a Divine necessity and he was an unwitting instrument in fulfilling God’s purposes. Whatever we may think about Judas, or even if we would rather not think about him at all, only the most universal interpretation of Jesus’ words, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’, could spare him. But it’s less the fate of Judas, and more the choice of his successor that occupies the attention of the apostles in our reading from Acts, which comes immediately prior to Pentecost. The nucleus of the discipleship community, the twelve, is reconstituted. As the narrative of Acts unfolds, the Early Church prepares for the new reality of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus prays ‘that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ This is what gives us the possibility of being ‘one'; it is the indwelling of God’s love in us and the work of His Holy Spirit. It’s this passage of scripture that inspired the Ecumenical Movement, and, of course, it’s a doctrine to make much of at every level of church life.
I’ll tell you a story. It’s true, by the way. When I first began training for ordination, there was a retired priest who has now died, but who then was still active in my training Benefice and he was a member of an organisation called ’Forward in Faith.’ I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but its members are firmly and implacably opposed to the ordination of women. In the first conversation I had with this retired priest, he informed me of his position in no uncertain manner, and from time to time, we had a bit of a spat on the subject, nothing major, but we were a bit wary of each other.
Anyway and as you will know, soon after I was ordained deacon, my training incumbent, Neil, died after a short illness, so this retired priest and I were left together to look after the Benefice. He was kindness itself to me, rang me every day in the weeks following Neil’s death, just to check that I was okay, and then one Sunday, because of another sudden illness, this retired priest and I found ourselves behind the same altar, giving and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ from each other’s hands. There was no bolt of lightning, but we did both have a bit of a Damascus road experience. He still struggled with the theology behind ordaining women, but he read the Gospel at my first Eucharist, and gave me his blessing. That indwelling of God, the God holding us both, made us one, drew us into the unity of faith, in spite of the fact that we didn’t agree with each other on a particular aspect of doctrine.
The greatest gift of God to us is that we dwell in Him and He in us. We are never without the presence of God, for in Him we live and move and have our being. Indeed, we are more God-possessed than possessing God. This is the glory of the love that we share. We can meet God in others and be Christ-like to others, even if we don’t always agree with them. The unity we have is so much more than just our own personal opinions. It’s God-given, and if we seek to know and recognise Christ in each other, then we can, indeed, be one.