17 May 2015
Holy Communion – St. Mary’s Hadlow
Readings Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 , John 17: 6-19
May I speak in the name of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Christian life we are very used to praying to Jesus or praying in the name of Jesus. And we are also quite used to praying the prayer that Jesus taught us, that bold prayer in which we approach the creator of all things as Our Father. In each case our usual perspective on prayer is that it is directed from us and towards heaven.
But the reading we heard from the Gospel this morning presents us with a slightly different perspective: Rather than the church praying to Jesus we see Jesus praying for the church. It is worth emphasising this point – the Jesus to whom we pray is, here, praying for us. Jesus, who is God the Son, is praying to God the Father to protect his disciples from the evil that is in the world and to keep them united:
“that they may be one as we are one”
It is worth remembering that this prayer comes after the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The group of 12 disciples had already been diminished and divided by the sin of Judas and even prior to that great betrayal there had been tensions amongst the disciples as to who should sit at his right and left hand when Jesus came into his kingdom.
The disciples weren’t perfect or perfectly united amongst themselves and so Jesus prayed for them, knowing that he would shortly be leaving them behind. And it was Jesus’ prayer that his disciples, and thence the Church, enjoy the same unity amongst themselves as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit enjoy amongst themselves. As they are three persons of the same essence so it is Jesus’ will that his followers should, yes, be separate persons but sharing one substance, one essence, one purpose.
Hold that thought for a moment.
About 7 or 8 years ago I spent three days in a monastery in West Sussex called the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.
The Community of the Servants of the Will of God are an Anglican contemplative order who spend a great deal of time in prayer and silence. It was an amazing experience to spend time in a place and with people so utterly devoted to the life of prayer and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone wanting to seek God in quietness. Although you should probably be warned that whilst the interior and spiritual life is rich and fulfilling the exterior stuff such as accommodation and food are slightly on the frugal side. Whatever you do, don’t go there in Lent, unless you are really determined to lose some weight.
Some Christians I know are not in the least convinced that monks and nuns have any role to play in the Church of England, especially contemplative orders who do not do any useful work in the community such as teaching or working in parishes.
In relation to doing practical work my view is that we should be very wary of reducing the value of everything to a merely utilitarian level. Some things are beautiful and worthy because that is how God has made them and called them, not because of the value that can be squeezed out of them.
And in relation to a life devoted to prayer, my view is that if you believe in the power of prayer, which I do, then we should all be grateful that there are people whose entire lives are dedicated to prayer and that they are praying for us literally night and day. I think of the monasteries and convents around this country like power stations of prayer, all tapped into the national grid of prayer and helping to keep our lights on whether we know it or not.
The particular calling or gift or charism of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God is that of restoring unity between all Christian churches. And by that they mean full sacramental unity between all churches. That means that all churches should be able to recognise all other churches as being fully Christian and that we should be able to fully share communion with one another as different but complementary parts of the body of Christ. Every day they pray not only for the Archbishop of Canterbury but also for the Pope, the Orthodox Patriarchs and the leaders of all the Evangelical Churches and, of course, their prayer echoes the prayer of Jesus:
“…that they may be one as we are one.”
So, how have we lived up to Jesus’ desire for our unity?
Well, as you know, there was a church on this site in the year 975 and, at that time, the priest celebrating mass here would have been doing so not only under the auspices of the English bishops and Archbishops but under the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. But, in addition, the Bishop of Rome was also in communion with the Eastern Orthodox bishops of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria and so forth. So our forebears in Hadlow who took communion here a thousand years ago would have been in communion with Christians across the known world.
However things started going downhill a bit after that. In 1053, less than 100 years after the church was built here, the Great Schism between Catholics and Orthodox divided the church between East and West. In the 1500s Protestants across Europe divided from the Catholics, the Church of England separated itself from the Bishop of Rome. And much of the subsequent history of Protestantism itself is one of myriads of churches and denominations branching off from each other. Any idea how many separate denominations there now are?
According to the The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the year 1900 there were 1,600 denominations. By the year 2000 this had risen to 34,000 denominations and in 2012, there were 43,000.
Jesus wanted his church to be one and yet we have constantly ignored that prayer. 43,000 denominations. Now of course not all of these will be out of communion with all of the others, and not all of them will be banging the drum of being the One True Faith set in a Sea of Heretics, but 43,000.
“…that they may be one as we are one”
What is the cause of all this factionalism and division – this disunity which constantly wounds the body of Christ which is the church?
Surely, ultimately, it is the most invidious and dangerous of sins – that of pride. Thinking always that we know better than the other person or the other church and that rather than walking together in mutual humility, which surely is the way of Christ, we would rather walk apart thinking that we know best and being too proud to admit that the other may also be right.
In the context of the sin of Judas and the sin of schism within the church it is also interesting to reflect that the English word Devil comes from the Greek word Diabolos which means ‘the one who brings division’ or simply ‘the divider’.
The devil brought division between man and God in the garden of Eden and he brought division in the kingdom of heaven itself so, in many ways, it is not surprising that he continues to bring division in the church.
But all is not lost, we always have a choice and the prayer of Jesus will not be in vain – if diabolic pride brings division then the Holy Spirit brings unity. As we approach Pentecost we pray to receive that same unifying and holy blessing. But we need to put away our pride in order that the Holy Spirit can fill us with the love of God and enable us to recognise Christ not only in one another but in all our brothers and sisters in Christ in other churches .
And finally, remember this. Last Thursday we celebrated the Ascension, when Jesus returned to sit at the right hand of his Father and our Father, and I believe that there he continues to intercede for us – that the Jesus who prayed for his church whilst on earth continues to pray for his church whilst in heaven.
So the question for us always is this: to whom do we choose to listen? The voice of pride and division which causes nothing but further wounds in the body of Christ or to the prayer of Jesus and the actions of the Holy Spirit, that we should be one, as God is one?
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.