Homily of Archbishop Michael Jackson on Christian Unity

19 Jan 2012

Service to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Dublin, 18 January 2012

Sermon preached by the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Michael Jackson

Lesson: 1 Corinthians 15:51-58

1 Corinthians 15:52b … For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise imperishable, and we shall be changed.

I imagine that with Christmas still ringing in our ears, we are much more familiar with this Pauline phrase from 1 Corinthians in the version of George Frederick Handel:

The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.

Not only has Messiah come to Dublin but it now seems that, in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2012, the whole ecumenical world has come to Dublin, to Fishamble Street, to be shown once again through the joyful noise of St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, and through the association with Handel’s Messiah, that all Christian people are called to live the life of resurrection – here and now, in their time, in their place and in their generation:

For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise imperishable, and we shall be changed. 

I want, however, to take you across the road to St Werburg’s Church, in nearby Werburg Street, no more than a couple of hundred metres from Fishamble Street itself – both of them standing in the graceful penumbra of Christ Church Cathedral – and, on arrival, to step inside. There we will find a memorial copper plaque on an interior wall of the church which says it all. It does so with the economy of language and the precision of content which only a Classical language can give. SALPISEI is what it says and, as you will recognize, voiced in the Greek language with the confidence of translucent simplicity, we have before us the same inescapable sentiment ‘in little space,’ as the Christmas Carol describes God Incarnate: THE TRUMPET SHALL SOUND. We need only this one word to give the full sound of resurrection life and the hope which fuels and accompanies such life in the present and for the future.

As children of God’s adoption, we are called and invited not to some undisclosed future Treasure Island but to something and to somewhere and to somebody real and tangible, here and now – risen life flourishing already in the squalor and the exuberance of human existence. Resurrection, as this particular Week of Prayer for Christian Unity tells us, has an impact right now. If Holy Scripture and human experience combined teach us anything, they teach us that there is no alterative body of Christ, there is no parallel and better church than what we see before our eyes and to which we and others belong. There is no ideal church which might suit us better, no preferred body of people whom we can wheel out like some Pantomime Horse from behind the stage curtains to give the audience a lift and a laugh. St Augustine of Hippo was very clear about this. Repeatedly, his picture of the church is the image of Noah’s Ark: buffeted on the high seas; packed to the point of claustrophobia with an array of God’s creatures we cannot avoid or sidestep, because there is no room to go or to be anywhere else, forced simply to get on with it together because the alternative is even worse.

How far from such intensity of spiritual need, such human experience and such realistic accommodation has the luxury of denominational identity brought us! We urgently need to take stock of where we have let ourselves drift. We need to turn around, to face one another and to commit to the solidarity of what is common to us all within the ever-present love of God. Such love as this is all too frequently clouded over and crowded out by our wilful differences. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity stubbornly and annually culminates, as un-finished business, in the Conversion of St Paul – with all of his depth of erudition in The Law, all of his personal unwillingness to listen to the testimony of others who were different from him, all of his single-minded waywardness and tunnel vision and all of his unacknowledged need to stop petrifying The Tradition which he had carefully constructed and which he kept polishing with equal detail and obsession. TheDamascus Roadoffered him a light which he could not sidestep. That light is the effulgence and the effervescence of Christ Risen. God lovingly considered him worthy of conversion, in the face of all his difficulties.

Exuberantly joyful and beautifully eternal, the life of resurrection constantly re-engages us with our neighbours whom we many not know and whom we may well not like – and they may not like us very much either. Resurrection is about something quite different. It is not a luxury item which is ours take up or to throw down. It is a divine work in progress. It is an obedience which enfolds and embraces us and, despite cheap consumerist wisdom, we have less choice than we think. Hence we carry deep within ourselves – whatever our denomination, whatever our religiosity – the need constantly in this Week of Weeks to be re-connected with the sameSt Pauland with the same Conversion which will be thehigh pointof this Annual Week of Prayer for living unity of intention, of purpose and of action.

Conversion is widely seen today as a word of repression, of limitation of options and of withdrawal of freedom. I suspect that this has, in part, come about because we have let ourselves off the hook by accepting uncritically – or, if you prefer, swallowing whole – the rhetoric of the clash of civilizations, whatever form it takes. Whether it be the observed trench warfare between progressives and conservatives within Christian denominations, whether it be the real threat to human and personal freedoms posed by militant Islam and the Christian response in international arenas of war from which the West is now slithering away, we have bought the idea that conversion is the preserve of fundamentalism – and, whatever else you might call us, we do not want to be called fundamentalists! But this is not what conversion is. Con-version itself means a turning with, a stopping in our tracks and a wheeling round towards a respectful belonging which makes and maintains accommodation with others. Conversion is not to be a sullen concession of what matters most but a gracious giving of what is doubled in value and honour in the handing over. Conversion in this sense enriches and enhances who we are by bringing the perspective and the dynamic of the other person into our very being. At the heart of conversion lies a vulnerability which gives focus and force to witness, to proclamation, to Gospel as the voice of resurrection.

This is a difficult and unpalatable message for a modern generation, now coping none too well with the free-fall of post-post-modernity and the rubble of economic collapse, year after year after year for the foreseeable future. We have accustomed ourselves to the absence of commitment which over-advertised consumer choice has brought – until now – for a few, but for a few who set the pace of dis-satisfaction for the many. Somehow, to have to home in on a particular and a specific commitment spoils the fun, takes away the capacity to exercise our Statutory Consumer Rights, return the thing with which we are now bored along with the receipt and get our money back. Then we are off to buy something completely different and we start all over again. But even this image is like a Fun Fair carousel without a generator. It no longer rotates and glistens – and we all know it. The surprise is that we thought the lights would continue to shine even after the bulbs had blown. We were fooling only ourselves and it suited both the bankers and the politicians of the day – Gross Domestic Product, win-win situations, you must speculate in order to accumulate, all of the old clichés of greed and expenditure took us out of the nurture of belonging to one another into the narcissism of belonging only to the reflected image of ourselves. We now see fairground clowns with no audience left in the Big Tent; only the landlord growling ever more vociferously for last month’s and this month’s rent all at the same time.

It is into this situation that St Paul and George Frederick Handel cry: Hallelujah! and with very good reason. The sentiment is clear even if the language is convoluted. Conversion, like resurrection, is not first and foremost about us; it is about God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (This, sadly, is where post-modernism and the Free Market Economy joined forces – we thought that it was all about us and would continue to be all about us. But it isn’t and it wasn’t.) The clear message of 1 Corinthians is that death as we know it is not the end of creation’s relationship with the Creator, but the beginning of the new beginning. The change which will be brought about in us will be through the victory of Jesus Christ over death itself as the last great enemy of continuity of identity and of love of God and neighbour. It is to this change and this victory that we are converted, that we are turned together and it is for this conversion that the world longs if the gift of God’s glorious redemption in to be poured in forgiveness, in generosity, in healing and in selfless beauty.

Whether we care to admit it or not, a divided Christian witness convinces fewer and fewer people less and less of the time. Older people find that exclusivity does not square with their experience of long life. Younger people find equally that exclusivity does not square with their experience of loyalty and friendship. Exclusivity has largely become the collector’s item of the spiritually middle aged – and this is deeply worrying. Each denomination sets up its own version of The Law and has to deal with that swingeing broadside from the Paul who has experienced resurrection: The sting of death is sin, but the power of sin is the law. Resurrection shows us that with the paralysis of sin, death lost its power to sting. And so the powerlessness of death has come to light and life in its reversal through the resurrection. The circle of repression and imprisonment is broken. Christ’s victory brings the invitation to every Christian to be turned to Christ and to our neighbours. Conversion and resurrection flow in and out of one another. This is the initiative which people of ecumenical principle and practice must seize.

To me the next decade of ecumenical relations looks something like this, and it will be no surprise to Archbishop Martin, my gracious and good friend, to hear me say these things. First, there needs to be a common voice of humility on the part of all churches inIreland, a voice which gives priority to service over leadership. The same Risen Christ is the Son of man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Secondly, there needs to be a structured and collaborative engagement of the same churches with the abundant capacity of lay people every bit as much as clergy. I suspect that lay people are tired of hearing this and, indeed, of hearing themselves referred to as: lay people. The church is of God. The ministry is of Christ. We are less different from one another than history has made us. The change in culture is urgent if it is not already almost too late. Thirdly, young people, although often unreadable by older people, are the lifeblood of the present. They have a commitment to justice and fair-mindedness, to friendship and to versatility at which we ought all to marvel. So often, all we can say about them is: Why are they not in church? We need to trust to the presence of the Risen Christ in them and among them, generating the good and selfless things which they do.

Fourthly, in a time of impacted recession, the renewed recognition that the poor always are at the heart of the Gospel, not as the grateful recipients of second-hand generosity but as the dispensers of grace and the hosts of God’s gifts to humanity at large, has to be reasserted and re-enacted. We are going nowhere without one another. Fifthly, ecumenism of itself is not enough. ChristianChurchestogether need to engage in the common cause of humanity with those of World Faiths other than their own and, in that gloriously gentle phrase, with those whose faith is known only to themselves and to God. We need to cease pushing ourselves, invading the space of others. We need to accept the integrity of intention of others and leave the specifics to God and their consciences. Sixthly, we need to be joyful, to rejoice, to let the trumpets sound and, like St Pauland Handel, to sing: Hallelujah!

1 Corinthians 15.57: But thanks be to God! He has given us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.