A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 26 January 2020 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Isaiah 9.1-4; Matthew 4.12-23)
We are in the midst of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And we are also entering what could I suppose be described as the week of European disunity - or at least of the United Kingdom’s disconnection from our European allies. So ‘unity’ seems a rather strange word to characterise this time, marked by an event expressing the most divided and angry political climate I have known in this country.
Active christian faith and church membership are minority sports in the country, and we could easily be seen as gazing at our own collective navel - what does Christian unity matter if our society is bitterly divided? In this instance, that would be unfair. We must practise what we preach; it’s sheer hypocrisy if we exhort others to things we aren’t prepared to take seriously in ourselves. So it is a primary duty on the christian churches that we pray and work to overcome the visibly divided condition of the body of Christ.
In John’s gospel Christ prays that his followers shall be one; echoing the prophet Isaiah, we call Christ the Prince of Peace; and in our worship we offer one another a sign of peace. But let’s not get sentimental about this. The prophet Jeremiah railed against false prophets who preach ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace; and Jesus also said he came not to bring peace, but a sword. The peace of God passes all understanding and it didn’t come easily - for us it comes through the betrayal and death of the one who loves us. What genuinely divides people is not easily put aside; and christians must not accept what is false, nor pretend that something is what it is not.
Where then will our society go, as we spend our new 50p coins announcing ‘friendship with all nations’? As we hear that Jesus went about Galilee, proclaiming good news and curing every disease and sickness among the people, how are we to help make good a society so bitterly divided?
Well, for starters by putting all this in its place. Politics and constitutional arrangements are not all-important; life, including that of a society, includes many right and wrong turns, and whatever any particular outcome may be, those turns never lead to heaven on earth. Our true citizenship is in heaven, and we have a way to go yet.
Second, politics operates by the convenient shorthand that there are straightforward choices, whether those are for particular parties, or for left or right, or for in or out. But little in life is quite like that; outside of computers, not much is binary. At times of ‘them or us’ - the voters, the politicians, the Europeans - these are not them or us. We have to grasp, maybe reluctantly, that they are all ‘us’.
Perhaps our divided Christian community even has something to show to a divided society. I presided earlier this morning at the 8.00 service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, and repeatedly uttered phrases which were assembled in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth; seeking then to find a formula which could help stop devout Christians burning each other at the stake over matters of theology, the committee simply stuck together two previously incompatible sentences. ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ One catholic in its understanding of the eucharist, the second explicitly protestant. Depending on how you see it, a weird, unprincipled compromise; or an acknowledgement that under God, certainty of doctrine and being right may be less important than mutual respect. Through the disorder of politics and religion red in tooth and claw, those flawed people showed the eternal truth that while we don’t have to agree, we do have to love one another.