Nagpur Sermon for CNI 40th Anniversary Celebration Service
I feel very privileged to be part of this wonderful service, and am also very happy to be representing the Anglican Communion. We recognise the Church of North India as a true successor to the Anglican Church in India, as other churches also recognize in CNI the inheritance of their missionary endeavours.
In St John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a very simple account of what unity means for his followers. There is one flock because the sheep all recognise one voice – the voice of the Good Shepherd. So if there is not one flock, we must assume that the sheep are not listening to the same voice – that they are in part listening, as Jesus says earlier in the same passage, to the voices of strangers. When the Church of God begins to come together, it is a sign that we have stopped listening to strangers and have begun to turn to the one we most deeply recognise as the one who alone can bring us in to the presence of the true God, where there is real nourishment to be found.
So who are the ‘strangers’ we are tempted to listen to? To answer this, we need to look at some of the history of our Christian communities across the world. Sometimes we have very obviously listened to our own cultures; we have identified ourselves less with the priorities of the Kingdom of God and more with the needs and aspirations of this or that nation – or indeed, empire. Sometimes we have listened to the past; we have wanted above all to defend what we have received, in every detail. We have identified ourselves with our ancestors in faith. Sometimes we have listened to our own unconverted hearts and used the church of God for our own ends, welcoming people like us and rejecting those who make us uncomfortable.
And when any of those things happen, the Church begins to fall apart. The wounds in the Body get wider and deeper, and we find ourselves giving great energy to justifying our decision not to be together. As we stop listening to one another, we stop listening to Christ. And whether this happens in the name of nationality or tradition or pride of achievement or purity of teaching, the effect is the same tragedy.
It would be good if we could simply turn ourselves around and begin to do better. But the New Testament seems always to suggest that we cannot do this without the voice of the Good Shepherd – and indeed the active love of the Good Shepherd – somehow breaking in to our small world. Just as the Church in its very essence is the community of people who are unexpectedly called, so when the Church moves further towards unity, it is because a call has been heard – a surprising call, perhaps coming from a place we never expected. In the dark days of the 1930’s in Europe, different Protestant churches in Germany came together in the Confessing Church to resist the tyranny of Hitler. Through the terrible challenge of this tyranny, the voice of the Good Shepherd summoned his people to be faithful not only to him but to each other.
Less dramatically but very importantly, when the Church here in India woke up to the fact that divisions in the Christian community were in the eyes of many a major argument against the credibility of the Christian faith itself, it was the voice of Christ that the Church heard, a voice that for a moment sounded more clearly than the voices of human tradition in this or that denomination. All these voices that were so familiar and easy to listen to for so many suddenly appeared as foreign to the real life of the Body of Christ.
So today we are giving thanks not for a great triumph in church politics, not even for clever negotiations or the writing of a brilliant constitution. We are giving thanks for the Word of God, the voice that never stops speaking, gently and persistently, whether or not we want to hear it (as God says to the prophet Ezekiel); and we are giving thanks that this Word made itself heard in the lives of our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, and took root in a new kind of Church community that was determined first and foremost to be itself in God’s presence, not to be defined and controlled by what had been inherited – except that it was always ready to be defined and controlled by the Word expressed in Scripture and the Creeds, trusting that there was so much resourcefulness and strength in Scripture and Creeds that they would survive the dissolving of some inherited forms and bring new things to life.
And what, then do we learn from all this for the next stage of our journey with God in this Christian family? There should rightly be much gratitude for 40 years of common life as the Church of North India. But it is not enough to be grateful for this history. If that were all, we should be in danger of setting up another human community that was in reality less than the Church is really called to be. Even the legacy of a United Church can become ‘the voice of a stranger’ if we treat this church as just another human body that has achieved great things in its past. We must learn to identify some of the dangers of once again defining ourselves by our own heritage and by what makes us comfortable: resting on our achievements rather than asking where we can hear the voice of the Shepherd today. And that voice may come to us, as it has in other times, through crisis and through pressure; yet it is still the voice of the one who cares for us, who gives us everything that is his so that we may live.
There are two things we might think about especially. In Germany seventy five years ago, Christians began to come together because they faced together the violent hostility of those the Bible calls ‘enemies to peace’. Those Christians recognised in each other a real integrity, a shared strength in refusing to be intimidated, and a shared willingness to be faithful to the name of Jesus even in the face of terrible threats. The Church in this country is familiar with the violence of misguided opponents who have been told many false things about how Christians behave and what Christians want. In the face of this pressure, Christians come to see more clearly in each other, beyond all local and traditional divisions, a real faithfulness to Jesus and a real capacity for endurance and forgiveness, not giving way to dreams of revenge. Mysteriously, through the fearful experience of persecution, the voice of the Shepherd speaks, calling believers together to find their nourishment in fellowship and mutual support, in faithfulness to each other.
Three days ago in Kolkota I had the privilege of meeting with a small group of people from Orissa who spoke directly to me about their experiences over the last two years; their stories were heartbreaking, but they were also a deeply moving witness to the profound faithfulness of the Gospel – and this is one of the gifts that the church in India has given to the whole country.
And then there is that other kind of voice that comes to us through the experience of the poor and marginalised. When they call out to us, once again, the Shepherd speaks. The call of the poor is so urgent that we are compelled to work together and pray together more deeply. If there are things that we can best do together, what a nonsensical response it would be to say, ‘No, we must wait until we are agreed about all our practices and our doctrines.’ When we respond together to the needs of the poor and excluded, we find ourselves drawn closer to each other; we have recognised the one voice of the true Shepherd.
There are many places in the Christian world where we can see this working itself out. Such a move towards unity in suffering and unity in service may lead to stronger and closer institutional relations or it may not; but what it does is to restore a depth of mutual love and prayer, and a shared hope for fuller communion. I shall mention just one example from Africa that brings together both of the points I have touched on. In the long and terrible years of civil war in Sudan, the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in Southern Sudan shared the experience of violence and oppression and also shared in the essential work of caring for their people in circumstances of great poverty and instability, hunger, disease and disruption. When I visited Sudan a few years ago, it was clear that, whatever the official boundaries between the churches in the South, there was deep affection and trust and a regular habit of co-operation. Through the chaotic clamour of the war, the one voice of the Shepherd had called and held these communities as one.
Suffering and service; the experience of being a minority, being marginal, sometimes literally being under daily threat; and the experience of an imperative to serve the most vulnerable at all costs. These are the dimensions of Christian experience that seem most powerfully to summon us to renewed efforts to deepen our unity. This is not, as a cynic might say, a matter of people huddling together when things get difficult. It is a discovery of the essentials of divine love and of the kind of love we must live out in return. When we face dreadful challenges, persecution or hostility or mockery, and when we find ourselves in the middle of chaotic human suffering, we should not just grieve and we certainly should not panic: it is here that we may hear the Shepherd’s voice.
And as we hear it, we have a sense not simply of a project that will make the world we live in more human and more just – though that is a great hope to begin with. No, we are taken further and deeper, into the picture that Paul gives us in Ephesians: as we grow together in love, the whole purpose of God in creation is uncovered, the hidden meaning of all things. The growing together of Christians is the tip of the great underground structure of the universe, in which God seeks to bring all created things together in Christ, so that the harmony of the universe will reflect the eternal glory.
That must be our final horizon – not the unity of the churches alone, but the unity and reconciliation of all human beings in justice and love; not the unity of human beings alone, but the harmony of all things, free from selfish exploitation and domination, humanity at peace with creation and creation at peace with itself, as the prophets of Israel hoped and prayed. And all this rooted and grounded in the unity of creation with its creator, through the one mediator Jesus Christ, in whom the life of God the creator and the life of creation are held together in one. It is because he is the one in whom all things hold together that through his voice we are summoned to unity. He is the Word in whom all things were made; and he is the Word who calls us together in the Body of Christ. When we hear the Word and let it dwell in us, we are one; and our unity with one another and with all that is created allows God’s glory to shine forth so that all the world may see and learn to trust this God, Father, Son and Spirit, unity in diversity, everlasting and perfect mutual love.