St Ursula's, May 6 2013
Readings: Acts 16:9-15 - Rev 21: 10, 22-22:5 - John 14:23-29
The Book of Acts is replete with the journeys of the apostles and the coming into being of the first Christian communities. People encountered the new life of faith in the context of such journeys. Each year we make a journey of faith, the journey of Lent and Easter, a journey in the footsteps of Jesus. It is a journey that takes us into the heart of God - love beyond limits; love that transcends suffering and death; love that embraces the universe in all its sorrows and pain; love that seeks the good, the authentic, the beautiful in us, as in all creation; a love that will not let us go: a love whose goal is nothing less than reconciliation. The journey takes us through the drama of Christ's passion, the denouement of crucifixion with its abandonment into death, then on into the triumphant truth of resurrection - that death cannot contain, conceal or cancel this enduring life-affirming love. The love of God for us his creatures, for the universe of God's creation, is truly boundless, truly infinite.
And in being reconciled to that love, we share in it. The fleetingness of our temporal existence is taken up into the grandeur of divine eternity. We can never adequately describe or explain what this means for us individually - the words of Jesus give but muted hints; the Emmaus encounter is enticingly suggestive; St Paul's attempts at articulation more often reveal the difficulty and limits of our linguistic and conceptual apparatus than provide us with clear answers.
But the essential affirmation is clear nevertheless: the sting of death, which is the meaninglessness of existential obliteration and the paucity of life regarded as merely materialist, is assuaged. In being caught up, through faith, into God's Christ-revealing love, our limited lives are set in an eternal transcendent context and meaning; life beyond life, life that infuses our living, life that is lived with divinely conferred purpose. Christians are an Easter people; a people for whom purpose and meaning to their lives is grounded in the unfathomable riches and mysteries of the divine life, that which we know and name as God.
In communicating to the Christians at Corinth, one of the groups established by St Paul on his many journeys, he speaks of the meaning of Easter as the activity of God who, through Christ, reconciles us - we who follow Christ - to God and, importantly, through us offers reconciliation the world: 'All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation' (2 Cor. 5:18). The journey of Easter is the journey whereby God reconciled us to himself through Christ - and has given us the ministry of reconciliation as a direct consequence and continuance. Here we might say the mission of god is none other than the mission of reconciliation.
The way of Easter, God's way, is the way of reconciliation, for at its core is the divine desire that creatures and Creator be reconciled into a right relationship one with another. And in being reconciled to God, this very reconciliation flows outward, one to another. The teachings and example of Christ, which form the core of the gospel, are pointers to what this reconciliation means for daily life: love of God; love of neighbour; love one for another. The well-known parable of the prodigal son- really a parable about the reconciling love of the father for his two sons - gives an insight: love that knows no barriers. Love that transcends the borders of racial, religious, socio-political, familial and gender identities - as Paul so eloquently put it: In Christ 'there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female' - for all are one in Christ. Real differentiation of identities remain, nevertheless all are reconciled and renewed in and through God's redeeming and reconciling love. Differences and identities are not lost or eliminated; rather they are set in balanced and proper relationship one with another.
The mission that is ours is the ministry of reconciliation - of taking this active engaging and redeeming love into the world, for the way of Easter is the way of reconciliation. Perhaps we need to dwell a little more on this motif, as suggested by St Paul. For reconciliation can be a patently powerful process. In interpersonal relationships, of all sorts and situations, the experience of strain and stress leading to breakdown and disjunction does not always or necessarily result in final severance - the renewal found through a process of authentic reconciliation can be exquisitely profound. In cases of deep social disruption, such as in apartheid South Africa, the healing process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an attempt to apply the gospel imperative and ministry of reconciliation to that troubled context.
And just as resurrection does not mean the return to the pre-death state - that would be simply resuscitation - but rather the transcending of finite limitation and going forward into new life; so reconciliation does not mean a mere return to the status quo ante, the simple resumption of how things were. It means rather a move forward into a new mode of being and relating, one which often requires us, as individuals, to be reconciled as much within ourselves to the new situation and context, as it might mean some sense of continuing on in that context.
There are many situations and examples we could draw on to illustrate the theme, or use to explore its relevance. The one I wish to focus on involves a project I am part of on behalf of the World Council of Churches. It was started about a decade ago and it has to do with the work of Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation. The project is called: "Christian self-understanding in the context of religious plurality". It may sound like a bit of abstruse intellectual theologising, but in fact it is a reflective engagement of critical importance, for it is one aspect of the way of Easter, of exercising the ministry of reconciliation. Let me try to illustrate.
After nearly two millennia of prejudice and negation, contributing to the most appalling act of attempted wholesale elimination, the Christian Church came to the realisation that its theological understanding of Jews and Judaism had been flawed. Eventually, albeit only in the latter part of the 20th century, the belief that Jews were eternally accursed as the killers of God was formally renounced by the Roman Catholic Church, as the institutional repository of the Western (so Catholic) tradition. Many of the churches of the reformation had effectively come to this position already. In any case, during the 20th century the hand of dialogical friendship had been extended by the world-wide Church - Catholic and ecumenical.
Jewish-Christian dialogue and allied relationships are now well-established and relatively widespread. But the job is not fully done, for the process of correcting a belief about Jews and Judaism has raised matters of Christian self-understanding. For example, in now regarding Jews as the bearers of a continuing covenant with God - one of the preconditions of reversing the older negative belief - does this not throw into sharp relief the way in which Christians are to understand their mission and identity with respect to Jews and Judaism? The elder brother of the parable of the Prodigal Son has been likened to the position of the Jews - theirs has been a covenant relationship which, rather than regarded as having been superseded by the saving relationship established through belief in Christ (the younger brother 'come home'), is now seen to reflect God's eternal covenant with his 'first' chosen people: the father affirms the position of the elder brother - 'You are always with me, all that is mine is yours'. Do we as Christians still understand ourselves as the bearers of 'good news' to Jews at all, or in the same way as to others?
Similar questions and issues of self-understanding arise from the engagement of Christians in dialogue and relationship with people of other faiths. A generic issue is how we are to understand ourselves as bearers of the Great Commission (Mt 28:19), if, indeed, we take seriously that God is already ahead of us working in and through the world in all its diversity. God is not our sole possession, even if God has given us a unique task of reconciliation. For in being reconciled to God we are challenged to be reconciled to our neighbour, including our neighbour of another faith.
Reconciliation does not mean being in full agreement, nor does it require the disappearance of difference; far from it. Reconciliation means a deep level of acceptance, valuation, and appreciative interconnectedness because of difference. It means I see in the other something of value, something which contributes to my being and life, something that aids me in being authentically myself, even as there may be aspects to the other that I find irksome or not to my taste. (Married couples will well recognise this dimension of being reconciled one to the other; it is part of the give-and-take of a healthy committed relationship). Reconciliation is acceptance and relationship in and of difference, not the imposition of mirror-image sameness. In reconciliation is found true affirmation and reciprocal valuation.
So, when it comes to our self-understanding as Christians, given we exist today in both a global and local context of religious plurality, a first step is simply to recognise that the religious 'other' does not necessarily represent something false or evil or in some sense in opposition to us. And that means not regarding our own Christian identity as automatically superior, right and authentic over against their (supposed) inferiority, falsehood or inadequacy. God may yet be speaking to us through them. They may yet illuminate for us something new and different of the ways of God. We may indeed gain new insight and understanding of ourselves and our own faith and values out of our encounter with other people of faiths.
So, for instance, Hindu acceptance of the diversity of ways of encounter with the divine - allowing for multiplicity, not only of the way God is manifest, but also the relativity of different life-stages and capacities of human individuals, and so their ability to comprehend and engage the divine - might shine a light onto the rich diversity that is similarly the case for Christianity. Hinduism is known for its vast internal diversity. Christianity embraces also a tremendous range of diversity - there are now 350 churches who are members of the World Council of Churches, for example - only this diversity tends to be kept in the shadows by an overarching presumption that, in the end, we all ought to be the same. This is the effect of confusing of unity with uniformity. The former allows, indeed presupposes, the fact of diversity (for the very idea of unity requires more than one; pure oneness is singularity; it takes two or more to exist in unity).
An encounter with Buddhism can highlight deep values of compassion and loving-kindness in common with the best of Christianity, and challenges us to take seriously the idea that whatever is good and true is 'of God' - no matter where it is located. We may not dictate where the fruits of the Spirit are to be found. And yet these same fruits are genuinely of the other: the supposition that God acts incognito through others, and overtly only through us, does a disservice to both the authenticity of divine action and the authenticity of the other whom God has equally created.
And although we may find Islam, of all the major religions, to be a vexing puzzle, yet within the rich diversity of spiritual traditions that have historically flowed within that religion - and which are still there, though often overshadowed by the narrow forces of fundamentalist legalism and extremism - there are profound insights that challenge Christian self-understanding as well as our understanding of Islam. The Sufi who seeks peace with all; the Sheik who finds a social gospel in the Qur'an; the attempts by many Muslims to reach out to Christians in common cause of love of God and love of neighbour; and the challenge ever posed to Christian religious language to ensure our Trinitarian formula does indeed speak of one God and not three deities; and the challenge to the Muslim that the singularity of deity nevertheless allows an internal diversity of being that we speak of as threefold unity, not a collection of three divine beings. (We worship the single Triune God, not a divine committee of three).
In being reconciled, in whatever context - interpersonal, inter-communal or interreligious - we do not seek to be in full agreement, only to be in full mutual appreciation, acceptance and understanding. And all that impacts our self-understanding, for genuine reconciliation requires an adjustment of self-understanding both to accommodate, and to be genuinely in response to, the other. The ministry of reconciliation bequeathed us by the way of Easter is nothing less than enacting God's accepting, redeeming and saving love in all that we do, and with all to whom we relate.
Rev Dr Douglas Pratt