St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Church, Manchester on 27th September 2009
You shall know the truth, says Jesus in John’s Gospel, and the truth shall make you free. Speaking at Canterbury Christ Church University, Rowan Williams characterised researchers, lecturers, and students by paraphrasing Jesus’ words: “You shall know the truth and it shall make you odd.”
It might be a bit late for most of us at St Peter’s, I’m afraid. But being odd is somehow part of the terrain of the Christian at university — in fact, of the religious person at Uni. We ask questions that others might not ask. We have traditions, a history to consult and consider. We have a shape to the year that gives contours to our lives. We may eat certain foods and not others, pray at certain times. And as “odd” people university is not always a comfortable place to be. At times it feels lonely and even terrifying. At best it often feels isolated; at worst like being under attack.
Well, at least people of faith have been there before. John in the gospel story we just heard was certainly someone who felt under attack. He sees someone exorcising in Jesus’ name — someone who is not a follower of Jesus, someone who is presumably of a different faith — and feels compelled to draw the line. John’s language is telling: One who is not with “us” was exorcising demons in your name, he tells Jesus — not “not with you,” but: not with “us.” John is concerned about “us,” perhaps defensive about his position and power. Just a few verses earlier in the same chapter the disciples failed at the same kind of healing this outsider was succeeding in. How humiliating! How dare he!
Jesus’ answer to John is remarkable. Whoever is not against us is for us, Jesus says. How many of us think of Jesus’ words in the exact opposite way: whoever is not for us is against us. But no; whoever is not against is for us. As if to say, you will find allies even amongst those who don’t follow me. Remain as open to my presence as you can, in people of other faiths, in people stepping on our turf. Don’t seek to limit the possibilities of my presence in the world; my power isn’t limited by you. It is greater; it is open to all. In fact, by seeking to be gatekeepers of my power you do disservice to me. Whoever is not against us is for us. Mark 9:40 would make my top ten verses list.
At St Peter’s we believe that Christian faith, and other faiths, can be, and should be, at the centre of university life. This is not always a popular, or easy, position to be in. But if Christian faith is to inspire the search for truth undertaken in many ways at university, it must be in this same spirit of Jesus. Far from narrowing our minds or restricting our reason, as so many people think religion does, religion actually opens us to a wider range of possibility and wider set of questions to ask. “Whoever is not against is for us” means that we are to be open to multiple paths to the truth that is Jesus Christ. The healing ministry of Jesus does not have to be done “our” way. It may even be done by people at the margins of Christian faith. This is part of our ecumenical vision, and it is part of our commitment to huge diversity of research and teaching carried out here. Different fields of research, different questions of the truth, can exist alongside each other, as in fact they do. Jesus is okay with that. Whoever is not against us is for us.
In other words, don’t be afraid. Those who threaten our position may turn out to be doing the work of Christ, may turn out to be allies, even siblings. I’m reminded of the joke about the woman working at home when a report came on the radio about a car driving the wrong way down the M6. She was concerned for her husband’s safety because she knew he was commuting home along that stretch of the motorway, and so she calls him up. “Honey, there’s not just one person going the wrong way, there’s hundreds of them.” When we feel most isolated, most under attack, it is always possible it’s us in the wrong. Maybe Jesus will be ringing us on the mobile to say it is us, his self-assured followers, who are going the wrong way on the motorway of God’s mission in the world, not everyone else.
This attitude of humility, of awe before God’s work in the world, is what Christian faith contributes to the university. To be Christian in a university is not just carrying around a list of beliefs in our wallets, defending an embattled way of life, or standing up for a right or wrong action (though it may include these actions, as well). To be Christian at a university is more about searching for the truth than about protecting it. And it is more about the way we get on board God’s work in the world than about drawing lines between insiders and outsiders. The name of Jesus is central, but Jesus cares more about our healing action than the right confession. We are called to be open to God at work in the world, even though, like John, we will always seek to restrict Jesus in our journey with him.
Which is why it’s remarkable that Jesus does, in the end, include us. He has harsh words for John, but he doesn’t correct John’s “us.” Whoever is not against us is for us, Jesus says, not whoever is not against me is for me. Despite John’s selfishness, despite the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus, God is committed to “us,” to sharing responsibility with us, and to working through and with those who have faith. With Jesus it is always we and always us, and the responsibility is ours to be open to his work. Despite all the ways we fail, still Jesus invites us to be changed from those who get in the way to those who are on the way. Through all our struggles to follow, Jesus is walking with us, even bridging to God on our behalf the consequences of our fear through his death on a cross.
So heal, take action, and imagine how others might be healing and acting in Jesus name in partnership with us, even those on the fringes. God is alive here at university — with us, and beyond us.