“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor. 12)
As a child in Whitby I both loved and was terrified of the sea: its immense blue vastness, the swell and surge of a power I knew gave both life and death. One day, on a school trip when I was ten, we went out on one of the Whitby fishing trawlers into that blue swell and surge. As our little trawler was tossed about, I clung onto the side of the boat. Some children ran about merrily, others leaned over, sea-sick, but I clung for dear life as the trawler bobbed up and down like a cork. The captain must have noticed the small, skinny, terrified me – he came over and, putting a hand on my shoulder, said, “Don’t fret, lad: it’s better inside the boat than out!”
That feeling, and that advice, is perhaps the best description of the hopes that founded the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we are keeping this week. The worldwide Church is a mixed place: sometimes cheerful and vibrant, sometimes ill with division, sometimes clinging on for dear life. What the Week of Prayer for Unity reminds us is that, amidst the beautiful and dangerous swell and surge of living together, the boat of the Church remains the best place to be.
This evening we will host Fr. Pat Harnett for our ecumenical service. But this past year has proved a mixed-bag for Anglican ecumenical relations: the seas around the boat of faith seem as turbulent as the children of God within. We have rich relations with many Lutheran Churches and the Old Catholic Church, with shared ministry and full communion. There is a wealth of dialogue and shared belief with both Methodists and Roman Catholics. Yet, within the Anglican Communion, dissension about authority and biblical authority has caused much discord between Anglican brothers and sisters and between churches. So, how do we understand, as Anglicans, the nature of unity and our common calling in Christ?
David mentioned in his sermon last week an old favourite of mine, the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker. Back in the sixteenth-century, in the early days of the Church of England, Hooker argued for a broad comprehensiveness to our Anglican faith, both in matters of worship and belief. As David pointed out, Hooker wanted us to focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us. And the major thing that unites us is Christ. Whatever we feel about worship style, about what should be our central beliefs, we have been called here by God in Christ.
I thought from my earliest days here that, unwittingly, this parish itself is an ecumenical project. We have such a rich variety of backgrounds: Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, age-old Anglicans, and fresh seekers of the faith. We have a vast array of gifts and expectations, about what our mission as a parish is, about what kind of worship we should have. But God has called us here, to the beautifully comprehensive Anglican Church, to this parish. And that calling flows from our union with Christ. St. Paul reminds us in the First Letter to the Corinthians that we “are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Our union with Christ gives us gifts that we must use in God’s service, as part of our calling to worship and serve our Lord.
So what do we do when this calling feels frustrating rather than liberating? We turn again, as a community, to Christ. There, in Christ, we will find comfort and remember our salvation. When Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in today’s Gospel, he shows us ourselves as we cannot yet be: perfectly God’s children. Jesus fulfils the words of Isaiah that God will “proclaim release to the captives.” And we are all captives: to sin, to division, to ourselves. Jesus frees us from all of that so that we can worship Him with joy and follow Him with the passion of freedom. And our worship and service together, whatever the difficulties, make us participate in salvation: we proclaim our freedom with joy, and seek to share it with others in Jesus’ name.
Jesus’ first hearers are pupils, and they immediately recognise, as pupils can, that this reading is unlike any other. It is the voice of the author who wrote and created what he is reading about: Jesus is our freedom. This story invites us to look afresh at what happens when we hear the words of the Gospel read in our own time. At that moment, we proclaim that Jesus is present with us too: “Glory to you, O Lord. . . Praise to you, O Christ.”
So, it’s ok to be afraid, or ill with frustration, or full of joy in this place, this little boat of St. Francis. It is better to be in the boat than outside of it. For here we have Christ, fully present, proclaiming release, recovery, and freedom. Let’s celebrate that presence with full voices as we sing, as we serve. Let’s go out with joy and share God’s peace with the world. Amen.