Address given at Service for Christian Unity at Underhill Baptist Church, Barnet on 18th January 2018
Thank you for the opportunity to preach this evening as we pray ‘that all may be one’ and ‘that all may be free’. Our persistent prayer and patient, sometimes difficult, fraternal dialogue together as Christians since the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, means that we can say to one another in the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘you are no longer strangers’ (cf. Eph 2:19). As Pope Francis said to a meeting of Catholics and Methodists last October on the occasion of fifty years of dialogue: ‘Yes, we are no longer strangers, either in our hearts or in our belonging to the Lord, thanks to the one Baptism that has made us true brothers and sisters. We are, and we feel ourselves to be, “members of the household of God”.’ The dignity in which we share because of our baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit means that indeed we are the adopted children of God. St Paul describes the pilgrimage which each one of us is called to make individually and as a member of the Church, ‘The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided that we share his suffering, so as to share his glory’ (Rom 8:16-17). At the heart of the pilgrimage there will always be the Paschal mystery, the Cross which leads in three days to the glory of the Resurrection, and the promise of eternal life. Together as pilgrims we journey towards that day when we will share in the glory of the Lord. As Charles Wesley wrote in his great hymn, Love Divine, all loves excelling, ‘Changed from glory into glory, till in heav’n we take our place, till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.’
Last October, the International Methodist Roman Catholic Commission celebrated fifty years of dialogue in Rome with Pope Francis and Bishop Abrahams, General Secretary of the World Methodist Council. The Pope cited the founder of Methodism: ‘John Wesley sought to help his neighbours live a holy life. . . When we see others living a holy life, when we recognise the workings of the Holy Spirit in other Christian confessions, we cannot fail to rejoice.’ We bear witness into our society together as children of God called to live a holy life and to shine out like bright lights illuminating those places where there is darkness and people live in the shadow of death.
This year our prayer for Christian unity invites us to pray that ‘all may be free’. We look around and are deeply aware of the effects of sin in our world – the exploitation of women and men in unjust situations and the abuse of human rights, the effects of violence which lead to desperate attempts to escape and flee from conflict in many countries, the tragedy of human trafficking and modern day slavery, and the terrible sight of the bodies of those who have drowned in the Mediterranean between North Africa and Sicily. Recently a naval chaplain told me that he had never expected to have to conduct services for so many strangers of whom he did not know the name. Yet in giving that victim the dignity of a religious service, his or her dignity was recognised and respected. Closer to home we know how addiction to pornography, often facilitated by phones and modern social media, to drugs and to lifestyles which deny the dignity of the person and their body, destroy people and their lives. St Paul writes, ‘If you live in that day, you are doomed to die’ and calls us to conversion and put to death the wrongful and destructive habits originating in the body (Rom 8:13).
We see around us the way in which the ‘whole creation, until this time has been groaning in labour pains… even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free’ (Rom 8: 23). Our hope is that the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness and raises our prayers, often humble and inadequate, to the Father so that his will and good for us may be done. In the prayer of the Holy Spirit, we discover freedom which leads to life.
Faith leads to action, above all when it takes concrete form in love, particularly of the poor and the marginalized. We proclaim liberty and seek to help people find their freedom by our work for justice and towards peace. When we respect the dignity of the human person, whether by gazing into the eyes of the stranger on the street or the prisoner, and help the oppressed and bent-over woman to stand upright, we do the Lord’s work. As a call to life in communion with God, the call to holiness is necessarily a call to communion with others too. When, as Christian together, we join in assisting and comforting the weak and the vulnerable – those who in the midst of our societies feel distant, foreign and alienated – we are responding to the Lord’s summons.
To quote again the Pope’s address to the International Methodist Roman Catholic Commission, ‘As we look to the future, beyond the past fifty years, one thing is certain: we cannot grow in holiness without growing in communion. This is the journey that awaits us… We cannot speak of prayer and charity unless together we pray and work for reconciliation and full communion… We need, then, to remain together, like the disciples awaiting the Spirit, and as brothers and sisters on a shared journey.’
May God bless you on this journey and may the Holy Spirit inspire us each day as a step on the pilgrimage towards holiness and communion.