O Christ the stranger,
you meet us when we are not ready for you;
you stand or sit with those we would avoid;
you knock on the door we are hesitant to open;
you say the word we are reluctant to hear.
Come where we keep you at arms length
And take the hand that needs to know it is you.
Today we remember those who are homeless. Giles Fraser wrote in the Guardian on Friday about the emergency accommodation offered by the churches in his area, each church taking one night to provide food and shelter for those who would otherwise be on the streets (something which Stop Gap offers in Sheffield when the temperature drops below freezing). Giles Fraser writes:
“I take the candles off the altar and place them on a row of trestle tables. The priest in me thinks of the meal as an authentic form of Eucharist. Round this table there are no divisions between the guests and the congregation….This where the church feels to me most like what a church ought to be”.
Following the vote in Synod in November I think we need reminding what church “ought to be”.
This year’s Lent groups will be exploring some of the dilemmas faced by the Christian community in Corinth. I would encourage you to sign up to one of these groups. By meeting in small groups we can get another dimension of what it means to be church and as we explore the correspondence between Paul and this emerging church it may help us towards a clearer vision of what it means to be a healthy Christian community today.
Looking at some of the conflicts faced by the early Churches reminds us that there has never been a time when they all agreed. There have always been different Christian communities wrestling with different issues, trying to follow Christ’s Way in their own context.
We read of disputes between the disciples even when Jesus was alive, and these conflicts continued as questions of authority emerged: for example, did Peter or Paul have greater insights into Jesus’ teachings and intentions for the church? And what of Mary Magdalene? She was one of Jesus’ closest companions, entrusted with the revelation of the Resurrection, and yet she is not named as one of the Apostles, and her Gospel was nearly lost.
When we discuss significant change within the Church, passions often flair – whether it’s about removing pews or ordaining women as Bishops. We attach such importance to the myth of ‘how it’s always been done’.…. and yet the story of God’s people is one of being constantly uprooted.
When Jesus came to show us the way he didn’t leave us a set of rules – it was more like a way to navigate through chaos. His execution must have left the disciples devastated. (It puts the vote in Synod last November into perspective). His followers must have thought they’d lost everything. But whatever we understand by Resurrection, those shattered human beings found such hope and energy that they were able to share the good news of Christ’s transforming power around the world.
Last week we remembered the conversion of Paul. We are still in the business of conversion, and we have to reclaim this language. Conversion is not oppression; it does not mean imposing our beliefs upon others; Conversion is about letting God’s liberating love change us, and those around us, so that the Christian community is a place where Kingdom values of justice mercy love and grace thrive.
Shortly after the vote in Synod Tom Wright reflected,
“All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews – only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual and from male – only leadership to male and female together”.
In this new world order people are no longer defined by circumcision, social status or gender.
We have to keep returning to the central motif of the Christian faith: death and resurrection. On this Homelessness Sunday I see the image of a tree, uprooted in a violent storm. We’ve all seen strong trees which have fallen. Sometimes there are sufficient roots below the ground to allow the tree to grow, but it grows differently, new branches replacing those which have broken off – still rooted in the same soil, still reaching towards the same light, but different now.
Surely that must have been what the disciples faced after Jesus died. Jesus had died but they could reach down into the same wisdom that fed him and spread their branches in the same light that inspired him. This is the inspiration that we need in the Church now – not despair at what has fallen but hope in what will come to pass. Sometimes we need to be uprooted for new life to emerge.
Just for a moment I want to take us back to the debates leading to the vote to ordain women as priests, back in 1992. The only way to get the measure through Synod at that time was to create the “two integrities” – a Church in which those who do not believe that women are priests can ring-fence their parishes; Resolution A allowed for parishes to become ones where a woman cannot preside or offer absolution; Resolution B allowed parishes to refuse to have a woman as the incumbent or priest in charge. A further resolution was passed in a later Act of Synod whereby parishes, which did not accept the authority of their Diocesan Bishop (because he would ordain women) could ask for alternative Episcopal oversight (known as resolution C).
This is not a model of a healthy Church. It was necessary twenty years ago, but significant change takes time and compromise is an essential part of the process. We also need to recognise when the time has come for decisive action. I don’t know over what time scale the Early Church was struggling with the issue of circumcision. Paul writes about it in the fifties and some years later Luke records in Acts the meeting of the Council of Jerusalem, where a decision had been made. We are not told how many people returned to their Jewish roots as a result, but the Church did not collapse.
What happened at Synod last November was that a tree was uprooted .This was the tree symbolising the idea that we could still operate out of two integrities. There must be space for difference to thrive in the Church, but we must be rooted and grounded in trust. The tree fell down because something was broken: that was the image of God which is both male and female.
This not a debate about equality, it’s a debate about Revelation. All sides have argued that men and women are equal, but we then go on to qualify that by saying, “Men were created for certain roles, women for others”. It’s time for the Church to move past ‘playground theology’. Clearly men and women are not the same, but then nor are all men or all women. Ordaining women has changed the nature of the priesthood, that’s a fact. The work of the next twenty years is to build up trust again so that men and women can thrive in ministry and in discipleship – together, but not the same – equal, and different.
There were no winners after the Synod vote in November. The whole Church was uprooted, but that’s nothing new. Maybe it’s a good thing – it’s got us asking questions and looking for solutions. The question of the role of women has been around since the beginning. In first century Palestine women had fewer rights than slaves so it’s almost impossible for us to see how making women visible was such a radical political statement….it was revolutionary just to record the accounts of Jesus preventing the execution of a woman caught in adultery, speaking to a lone Samaritan woman who then led her village to Christ, and being challenged by a Gentile woman to change his mind about the scope of his ministry.
What is important for us to remember is that the kind of transformation that the Early Churches experienced meant they didn’t choose between Peter and Paul – they both exercised authority within the Church. There is clear evidence of the leadership of women in the Early Church, although it did not take long for it to be conveniently forgotten. For some of you this morning, our using the Gospel of Mary will have been a step too far. It’s not part of the authorised canon, but it was written at the same time as much of our New Testament. It clearly shows Mary Magdalene not just as a witness to the Resurrection but as a leader of the Apostles. The fragments of text which survive wrestle with issues of truth and authority; in it Peter is reported as asking “did Jesus then speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her?” And Levi replies “If the Saviour made her worthy who are you to reject her?”
The revelation of the risen Christ to Mary teaches that “Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other”.
“The Good came to humanity in order to establish its true nature and set it up firmly within its proper root”.
When everything we call secure is uprooted,
When everything we believe to be true is questioned,
We find out what’s most important.
Is it to hold tight to our position,
Or to remember that we are rooted and grounded in the love of God, deeper than all that threatens to divide us…..
This is the God who calls us to let go of our security and move into the Light ……