Homily of Bishop Noel Treanor for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, St Patrick's Church of Ireland, Newry
I Christ, once met, opens mind and heart
The Emmaus story is a perennial. Two disciples walk in the presence of the Risen Jesus, yet “they were kept from recognising him” (Lk 24.16). They even discussed his life and work with him and the impression it had made on them. And still his identity somehow escaped them. Once they recognised him, they went back to Jerusalem, with a sense of mission, with a burning need to tell the Eleven that they had met and recognised the Risen Christ. Recognition transformed them : it awakened them to the expansive and warming capacity of encounter with Christ – “were our heart s not burning within us while he talked with us on the road “ (Lk. 24. ) – it drove them to action and fuelled them to proclaim the reality of the Risen Lord.
Once again during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013, Christians gather in Churches and groups to humbly and prayerfully remember and celebrate the fact that, as we read in these lines from the letter to the Galatians : “ There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3.28). Life in Christ transforms. Life in Christ dissolves blinkers, gives insight to see through and beyond layers of identity to the heart of things. As Christians we know we are brothers and sisters in Christ, despite the differences that have emerged between our traditions over centuries and notwithstanding the burden and suffering of these differences. We know too, or, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we ought to know, that the witness of meeting with the Risen Lord together in prayer, worship and service, consolidates our common faith and inspires many fellow Christians.
As we reflect on this text and about its import for us and society, I address my comments to myself and each of us without exception or gradation of application in our quality as Christian citizens who make up the living tissue of society and the DNA of our societal tomorrow.
II. Our present strife-ridden context
But as we gather in this year 2013 we are acutely aware of clash lines that run between peoples of different faiths and different Christian confessions. We are think of Christians in Africa and Asia who are persecuted : the reflections and material s from the Churches of India for this Church Unity Week evoke that tragic reality. We think particularly of the strife, violence and disruption caused by the protests over the flag issue here in our own society.
We may and should, as Christians, seek to understand the root causes of such strife and the disenchantment that it expresses. As Christians, and in the name of the Christians of Northern Ireland, it is still our abiding gospel responsibility to help find a way to scale away the prejudices of centuries. For these are prejudices that, tragically, our Churches have partly formed. Guided by the Risen Lord, the source and centre-point of our Christian identity, it is our responsibility in our time to promote Emmaus-type scaling-away of perceptions and prejudices so that the Christian community here, in its diverse unity of Churches and congregations, may address vestiges of religious prejudice and sectarianism. Sectarianism is of course a deep rooted and many-sided problem in our society. It is our local social virus of disrespect of the Other, of the Stranger, of the person who is different from me.
The Gospel of Christ, shared by all Christians, is the ultimate antidote to this age-old disease that is crippling our society once again. As Christians living on this corner of a small island in an ever more precarious world, be we cleric or lay, politician, community leader, entrepreneurs, journalist or social commentator, we need urgently to waken up to the resources of our common Christian heritage – shared by well over 83% of our fellow citizens at a conservative estimate on the basis of the recent census figures – to lead us out of the blind alleyways of fear-driven politics, divisive protests and self and mutually destructive violence. The week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a week when we all, in street, pub, club, back-room, public service, Church and temple, need to awaken to the urgency of the gospel call to each one of us to shape a future of respect and care for all without exception, no matter what our past. We need to do this before it is too late. And we need to impress on our politicians and our media that the gospel of Christ, the key elements of Christian anthropology, provide one essential antidote to vestiges of sectarianism and the threat of the equally blind option for violence as a political means. We and they need to awaken from the contemporary somnolence of our forgetfulness of the God of the crucified and Risen Christ to the ever discomforting challenges of the gospel to both the attitudinal and social dimensions of human consciousness and life.
III. Our Christian responsibility to foster a politics of transcendence
As Christians, who constitute a critical mass in our society, we hold in trust from one Christian generation to the next a gospel imperative to undo in our lives and in society what is contrary to the gospel of Christ. The question is : how are we to do this?
Evidently the witness of ecumenism in its many forms is vital. So too is the forging of a gospel based and inspired discourse about society that promotes what some have called a politics of transcendence. Christian citizens, who listen to the pages of Scripture and allow the Word of God to question mind and heart, have a clear sense of what is right and just. In the light of the gospel and with the input of human reason we, and our political representatives, can identify and agree ultimate ends for our society. With Christian courage we can pursue these objectives. We can replace the politics of fear with a politics of transcendence that builds a society that promotes the interests of all. For the greater part, we have the institutions to serve those ends in place. But more is needed !
Our society is long since gasping for a qualitative surge forward to the determination of relationships, to the international projection of our public image, to societal structures, to structures of economy and politics courageously orientated towards the shaping of a new future, where all are respected equally, enjoy equal rights and the weak are fostered and developed – in short, to a pursuit of the anthropology set out in the lines we have heard from the letter to the Galatians (Gal. 3.26-28)
Christian citizens have the critical mass to articulate this gospel-inspired expectation. Christians together have the grace-assisted capacity to build a public opinion that makes such courageous and transformative politics of transcendence possible.
Christians together have the capacity to challenge our political leaders and parties to move towards shaping a politics of transcendence for this society and to support those who lead our society at this critical time more courageously and prophetically in the ways of truth and justice.
IV Praying from and for our streets in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013
As we approach the end of this week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let it be our prayer that as Christians and Churches we may witness to the power of the Gospel to open – in Emmaus-like ways of encounter with the living Christ – eyes, minds and hearts, to challenge prejudice, to proclaim Christian love, respect and charity so that in Northern Ireland fear is replaced by love and hope, prejudice by intelligence, destruction by growth, and darkness by light.