St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester, on 16th May 2010
Acts 1:1–11, John 17:20–26
For you, what is to be a ‘good Christian’? Do we need to go to Church every Sunday? Do we need to pray every day, at dawn or dusk, do we need to kneel or to bring hands together, do we need to fast? Do we need to give money at least once a week to some kind of charity or help financially our local church? (I see Dave, our treasurer, smiling…) What do we need to do in order to be a good Christian?
We sometimes feel unworthy, like the disciples, kind of lost in front of the world: what should we do, as Christian, to help making it better, to improve it deeply and on the long term. What should I do, on an individual level, and what should we do, together, on collective level? In other words, what is the mission of the Church? What is the mission of this church, of St Peter's, and what role can I, can you, can each one of us here play for that?
Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension, when Jesus was lifted up to Heaven, 40 days after his resurrection. Just like Moses who had crossed the desert and brought the people at the gate of the promise land, after 40 days, Jesus had done the job, having been the leading figure. Now, the disciples were to take over. But in the absence of Jesus, the disciples were left to themselves. Astounded, stunned, worried. ‘What are we going to do?’, they were asking. ‘Without him, who are we going to be? What our community is going to do in order to follow his message?’
Well I could just say, if you want to have an answer, just re-read the whole Bible, but maybe that would be a bit too long. Today's Bible readings give us a glimpse of Jesus position on the topic. These texts are part of his legacy to the disciples, his last words, before the crucifixion in the case of John 17, or before being lifted up in the case of Acts 1.
As we notice immediately in his words, Jesus does not really speak about the individual, but rather about the collective level, the level of the community. So… what is the mission of the community, what is the mission of Saint Peter's? Three elements can be underlined here. Let's have a look at what Jesus said.
First, in Acts 1, Jesus asks the disciples to be witnesses of the Gospel. The mission of the Christians is clearly defined: be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, i.e. to any place and at any time of History. Be witnesses of Jesus, indeed, but with an original word. Jesus has done the job, now we disciples have to take over with their own words. Here Jesus transmits his mission to the believers, trusting them fully, because without them, without us, nothing can continue.
So, within the world and its suffering, its anxieties and its hopes, how can we be witnesses? How can we be a witness as a community as well as an individual?
There is no right or wrong answer to that question. As we saw in the past two weeks, everyone has to live according to his or her own gift, charisma, to be a witness. But there is still one thing, something general enough for everyone to integrate it personally. Jesus asks us to be witnesses of the Gospel, of the good news of God’s unconditional love and acceptance of everyone. That's quite something, isn't it?
But how can we be witnesses if we are divided? (and that's my second point) How can we be consistent with this Gospel of unconditional love if we keep being separated? Division is the scandal of Christianity: throughout centuries Christians have had great difficulties in being ‘one’, as Jesus is praying for. What on earth are we waiting for? Because unity is the key, unity the answer to the disciples' quest of identity in the absence of Jesus. For if we are ‘one’ within the community of believers, then, Jesus says, we can experience the unity with the Father.
But what is exactly unity? Well first of all, unity doesn't mean uniformity: we don't need to be all exactly the same, as in the dystopian novels 1984 or Brave new World: how terrifying would be a world of clones! And if you remember the Genesis narratives, diversity was part of the creation process, and it was a good thing. So unity definitely does not mean cancelling all differences, but being one with and through our differences.
Does the body not have different limbs and members with different qualities and functions, but still all of them are the same body? Does the tree not have different branches which give different leaves, but which are still part of the same trunk? To represent this concept of ‘unity in diversity’, a term has been coined by ecumenical scholars, using the greek work of Koinonia. Koinonia means not only unity, but also it denotes a deep communion, reciprocal in all its relationships, lived in a sharing and loving community. And Saint Peter's is a great example of Koinonia. Saint Peter’s is indeed a true communion of people from different origins, different denominations, different generations. In a world more and more marked by individualism, Saint Peter's is a prophetic sign, a sign of communion, of sharing, of community, allowing at the same time people to be ‘one’ and at the same time for them to express their right to difference and liberty in self-definition. Saint Peter's is a gift of God for so many people, because of its Koinonia. I would go even further: Saint Peter's is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.
So great. Thanks Saint Peter's. But are we there? Is that it? Can we go home now and say: ‘Wa-hoo, I'm a member of Saint Peter's, I'm a good Christian’ and rest? Of course not. More things can always be done. Unity is never fully reached, it is rather a goal towards which we have to tend as much as possible. Let us not forget the literary genre (I love to use French words when I speak English!) of John 17: Jesus is not trying to be a new David Cameron, stating a political programme. Although of course it is meant also for the disciples (and therefore for us), it is firstly a prayer to the Father, the Creator of all things. A prayer which symbolizes that our actions, our commitments for unity on earth do not only depend on ourselves, but also on God. And it also emphasizes the need to root every action in a life of praying. Prayer is the water which is necessary for the seeds to grow, for the Kingdom of God to become more effective.
If indeed we are witnesses in unity, we may experience the Kingdom of God, which is my third point. I remember last October when we went hiking in the Peak District with Saint Peter's. I had just been here for a month or so, and we started having theological discussions on a very down-to-earth way, which is healthy, sometimes. I remember that girl asking me about the kingdom. “What is the Kingdom of God? I don't really see.’ Well, neither did the disciples. In Acts 1, they're thinking about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, and maybe implicitly of Jesus as a political leader. But it's not.
The Kingdom of God according to Saint Paul ‘is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of justice and peace and joy in the holy spirit’ (Romans 14:17). Speaking in a context of food being a source of division, Saint Paul here puts the finger on the essence of the kingdom: Justice, in which the oppressed are liberated and human beings live in loving relationship with God and with one another; Peace, or Shalom, which is not merely an absence of conflict, but a state of well-being and harmony in which all relationships are rightly ordered between God, humankind and creation; and Joy in a life of beauty and sharing, of thankfulness and wonder, living in the Holy Spirit. I would personally add Food, because I think that the kingdom is about table fellowship, as Jesus showed us when he shared meals, especially with outcasts and sinners. Isn't the Kingdom like a joyous banquet, as we do here once a month?
So is Saint Peter's a foretaste of The Kingdom of God, which is justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit? I strongly think so. But in classical reformed theology, there is for the Kingdom of God a tension between ‘what is already there’, accomplished, and ‘what is not yet’. We find this same tension in Jesus' prayer, a prayer rooted in the past yet turned towards the future. Therefore, even if much has been done so far, giving us a foretaste of the Kingdom, there is still much to be done, many seeds to be sown, to help this Kingdom to be even more fully accomplished, fulfilled.
So, ‘what is the mission of the Church and what role can I play in it?’ The Kingdom of God depends also on you, both collectively and individually. The Body of Christ needs all its limbs, hands, ears, mouths, to be a witness in unity so that the world may believe.
And honestly, is there such a category as a so-called ‘good’ Christian? Being a ‘good’ Christian or not does not really matter, does it? What does matter, however, is the fact that we do as much as we can to participate in the forthcoming of the Kingdom of God, each one at his own rhythm, with his own capacities. What can I do to live the gospel fully in justice, peace, and joy in the holy Spirit, and thus foretaste the Kingdom?
[Taking gloves and seeds]. The mission of the church is actually like being a good gardener (isn't it strange to see a gardener wearing a suit? Anyway…). What we are asked to do is to sow seeds as much as we can. I've said ‘do’, indeed, [take watering can]. but what would the seeds become without water? Prayer is this water needed to make our projects of unity grow. Besides, let us not forget that we don't decide, whether the seeds are going to become a tree or not, we don't decide of the quality of the ground. As our beloved Islandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull has shown us, we are not fully masters of our future. [put down the gloves, seeds and watering can]
But we do have a role to play, and everyone has a personal answer to bring to that question. I'd like to share with you this quote that I've come across recently: ‘Is Christianity a check mark in a box, or is it who you are? Don't just go to church, be the church!’
After Jesus had been lifted up, two men in white robes came to the disciples and said out loud: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? They could have said: ‘Time for action, now. Are you ready?’