St Margaret’s Church, Binsey, Eucharist on Sunday 26th January 2020 [Epiphany 3]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Isaiah 9: 1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-12, 16-18; 1 Corinthians1:10-18; Matthew 4:12 -23.

It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul? [1 Corinthians 1:11-13].

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour, in Bethlehem about a month ago ;  then we have rejoiced with the Magi who came from Iran that his coming among us was intended by God, not simply for his own people, but for the entire world. And now, on this 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, where are we?  I hope I am right that every person in this congregation is sufficiently ‘churched’ to know that the story continues to embrace a teaching ministry of a couple of years, and then the mood darkens as a career full of promise, was cut short by arrest, passion, and horrific death.  And then, somehow, we have that the victory of his Resurrection, a culminating gift which we have done nothing to deserve.

At least our readings today, still in Epiphanytide, asks us to rejoice, as indeed we should, but as last week’s collect reminds us, we are beholden on God ‘to transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of his grace’.

We indeed hold the truth in clay vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7), and we all find it all too easy to make distinction between what we personally believe and the nuanced differences of others, and this goes right back to the very foundation of our faith. In mid-1st-century Corinth, some people regarded Paul as the fount of wisdom; other’s preferred Peter and still others Apollos….and yet others Christ, as a sort of 4th option. Thereby Jesus Christ was simply demoted to be one of a kind, rather than the single source of spiritual enlightenment.

 It is incumbent on all of us to be aware of Church history, how differences in doctrine came very quickly to divide Christians from one another despite Paul’s warning. We might note the violent dissentions between  Donatists and Catholics, Catholics and Arians, Catholics and Monophysite. Later there came schisms between Orthodox and Catholic, and in more modern times sanguinary wars and persecutions as at the time of the Reformation Catholicism was pitted against  the Protestant sects; indeed various groups of protestants fought each other, and even today there are bitter differences between sections of our Anglican communion which has attempted to be both Catholic and Reformed. Such differences can be satirised as did Jonathan Swift in the 17th century equating differences between Catholics and Anglicans to whether one consumed ed an egg  from the narrow or the broad end’ or Laurence Sterne in the 18th century whose broad sympathies in his unruly and occasionally salacious novel, were tolerant and, through his mouthpiece, Uncle Toby saw love as indivisible. The problem is that for much of Christian history differences in belief have led to persecution and horrific bloodshed, torture and burnings which replicated the suffering of Our Lord himself.

And of course members of other faiths were not spared, including,  specifically the Jews, because they were the most available victims, singled out for abuse, accused of murdering Christ, blaspheming the Eucharist and even killing Christian children to make matzo wafers. Jews were confined in ghettos, subject to expulsions and pogroms including the massacre of the entire Jewish community in Clifford’s tower, York in 1190, and ultimately they were the principal victims of the great crime of the Shoa in which six million men, women and children were gassed, shot, or starved, a horror which was perpetrated by the government of a supposedly long Christian nation. So many lives and careers cut short, so much evil here beyond our comprehension, and demanding rigorous and honest confrontation of what it means to be a human being. It has been commemorated this weekend on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

None of us, thankfully, has gone very far along that path of treating those whose beliefs, practices and appearance differ from us as so much  ‘other’ that we treat them as though their lives meant nothing, but even in Britain, especially in Britain we might remember that Bristol and Liverpool were built up in the 18th century on the proceeds of enslaved negroes; so much wealth was created through the horrors of the slave trade. It is all too easy not to think about the shortcomings of our own history, again treating other people as of no account. Moreover, there has been a rise in incidents of Islamophobia, antisemitism, racial abuse, misogyny, and sexual stereotyping in this country and throughout the world that should alarm us very greatly.

Personally. I believe we need to consider the way we treat other animals in the same light. We extol Jesus as the lamb of God, and he is sometimes seen in art like this as in van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece; we delight in little gambolling lambs in spring until in the autumn these same sheep are reduced to mere commodity. We perform the same separation between us and ‘other’ with cows, pigs and chickens too. Only by treating them as ‘other’ can we do what we do to them. Unlike pet dogs and cats these ‘creatures of the same God’ are not welcomed in to our family hearths; if they were, and if we truly understood them would we not behave differently? It is the same with the whole world of nature, the animals and the environment, as much theirs as it is ours, which we disregard, forgetting the holiness of all creation. There are certainly very big questions here, but I will at least attempt to lower the temperature by returning to simple human society both religious and secular in our own communities.    

I am assuming here that the congregation I am addressing is  liberal Broad Church to liberal Anglo-Catholic. We find liturgical practices and decorum aid our sense of the holy; our liturgy is couched in dignified language; our priests are clad in traditional vestments, and we sing hymns and make our responses with restraint. We do not wave our arms about or fall into weeping fits or indulge too much in extemporary prayer in this church. But how do we in our heart of hearts  regard others who may do just those things and are equally Christian? How do we welcome others who proclaim they are protestants or indeed Roman Catholics? How indeed do we regard Jews and Muslims, equally children of God? And what about all the other differences between us? In the abstract maybe we can simply dismiss difference as a simple matter of taste, just as we might prefer one colour scheme to another. It becomes more complicated where there are differences in attitude, for example in the debate over sexuality, or the ordination of women in which profound beliefs are involved, albeit in neither case beliefs that actually go back to Jesus, and which would have amazed this Galilean Jew.

But, seriously,  I think it is important to examine  Paul’s point here beyond the strictly religious sphere. If we are truly Christians, we are commanded  by Christ  to celebrate our joy through love of each other as he loves us (John 13:34-35). In Britain we have been going through fractious and divisive political times. Such an experience is not unique; it has been rather worse it would seem in the USA over the same period of time, and political tensions have boiled over in country after country.  The differences are certainly real and profound and there is no dodging of the issues involved, but what is important is that we do not allow such differences to sour our personal relationships with each other. We have a model of decency in our country in which members of parliament or city councils or other organisations in which views are divided can put such differences aside   and come together in the pub. This little  village  of Binsey has a wonderful symbol of unity, a signpost pointing one way ‘to the Perch’ and the other ‘To the Church’. Whatever else I am sure about, I am certain that Jesus would have found pleasure in both the church [or rather , in his case, doubtless the local synagogue] and in the public house and all the people he found in either place or walking the lanes outside.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.