Sermon 4 October 2015

“God made them male and female…..and the two shall become one.” Mark 2: 6,7

What can a celibate monk have to say about marriage and divorce? Not much. Or at least not today. However, that central reality of marriage described in today’s Gospel is important to us. For one thing each of us is a result of that male and female joining together. That is one of the most extraordianary processes of creation and the fact it happens so often and happens also in the animal and insect kingdom does not change the wonder of it. That two creatures, male and female, should produce a completely different person who is never a mere copy of the parents is astonishing to parents themselves. In this case one plus one does produce a quite other one.

It is equally mysterious that two quite different people, male and female, with all their differences of personality and history should also become one. Here, of course the oneness is never complete. Some unions fall apart in tragically messy ways. Some hold together but in fractured or incomplete ways which make them unsatisfactory. Even the best of marriages cannot produce that complete unity, because, as Fr Simon reminded us so beautifully last week, final perfection of anything does not belong in this life. The best of us is imperfect and that is good, for a far better state awaits us all, one that we can long for.

Yet the mystery of oneness and the search for unity permeates our whole life, or should do. It is not only in marriage but also in friendship that people grow together. We know that in social life, in local communities, in the work place everything will work better if some kind of unity is looked for. The idea sometimes heard of a man or a woman standing solitary and alone, completely autonomous, needing nothing and wanting nothing from any other, is not about being finally human but finally inhuman. We live by relationship. Even bad relationoships are better for us than none at all.

That must not surprise us Christians for we know that at the heart of all reality is the One whom we call God. Yet that One is not a single, solitary, cold and perfect One, unfeeling, unchangeable and totally isolated from the world. Our one God is a perfect unity of three persons in perfect relationship, perfect love and respect, infinitely intermingled yet never confused, infinitely deep and mysterious yet able to be grasped by anyone with a heart to love.

That is the unity which stands behind the image of marriage, the perfect unity of love which every marriage aspires to be. That is the unity we seek so fitfully and so imperfectly in our human affairs and even in our attempts to live together as nations. That mystery of the Trinity which none of us can really begin to understand, is yet of fundamental importance to everything we do. People speak of the doctrine of the Trinity as a complicated mathematical problem, or an irrelevant philosophical device designed to keep theologians in business and confuse the laity who would be quite happy simply to love. That is nonsense. No one, not even the best theologian really understands the Trinity but the definitions help to preserve the mystery, to make sure we do not collapse this wonderful reality of God into some false image of God that we think we can understand and hold and manipulate; an idol, in fact. Not the true and living God.

That true and living God longs to draw all things, all people, all creation into unity with himself. It is not a unity where all individuality is lost in a kind of nirvana. All that is good and precious and unique about each of us will remain to worship and glorify the God whose unity is infinitely expressed in diversity.

So today, as we rejoice to have three of our German Catholic brethren amongst us, we think of the unity which is symbolised here in this choir: is it not remarkable that two nations who fought such bitter and destructive wars in the past century can forgive each other and find peace, a peace which has been held onto even on the football terraces for nearly 70 years. That is a triumph of what God has worked through so unsatisfactory a body as the European Union. The fact it is unsatisfactory is no argument for its dissolution. God always works with the imperfect but we need to make it more perfect.

More remarkable is the fact that it is no longer remarkable when Catholics and Anglicans who fought, hated, despised and misrepresented each other for 500 years can find the kind of friendship we have found over the past 50 years. Yet, sadly, the church of Christ remains disunited. God hates disunity; God is never in favour of schism. Disunity and schism are a result of sin. As we seek the oneness of all things in God we must continue to seek the unity God desires for us as his church. There is no excuse for not doing so. Yet maybe we need to understand what we are seeking in a different way.

When the modern ecumenical movement got going it was rather assumed that it wouldn’t take long. First the Protestant and Anglican world after the Edinburgh conference in 1910 thought they could bring this part of the church together in a few decades. It was not so. Then in the heady enthusiasms after Vatican 2 it was thought that some careful theological work and a bit of efficient administration could bring together the broken pieces and slot them together rather as one puts together a jigsaw. That too has not happened. Theological problems are much illuminated and some are resolved but our two churches are still apart. History and custom keep us apart just as much as theology. At the current rate of movement 500 years will not be enough to bring these two ships into harbour together. How can this be reconceived?

One model of unity which has operated is that of an army. One imagines different armies coming together, maybe in different regimental colours but marching together, marching in step, maybe changing their uniforms even so that all are spectacularly one. That, frankly appears to be model of unity entertained by the CDF in Rome. It is one that is never likely to be achieved. It is not actually a Christian model but a fascist one. It does not respect the diversity of beauty which is inherent in God’s world

There is another kind of army, an army of lovers, an army of people who love the one “who reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” as our writer to the Hebrews puts it. This is, of course, Jesus. This can be a sentimental way of regarding ecumenism, ignoring the problems and simply following Jesus but that is not unity. It is simply a crowd milling around in the wake of someone it admires. Love demands more than that. Loving Jesus changes us. Following the Lamb with love brings us to love each other, to love our differences, our uniqueness; it calls us to grow into unity just as marriage calls on a man and woman to spend a lifetime growing into unity. Such unity will never be complete because, as Fr Simon reminded us, nothing ever is complete in this world. It will often be untidy, even messy but if we love Jesus, if we allow his love for us to change us, we will become part of a unity that is growing into relationship with the infinite and wonderful unity that is God. Or to put it differently in the words of today’s Gospel “Let the children come to me; do not forbid them”. Pope Francis has seen that God wants all his children to gather round Jesus: the poor, the weak, the dirty, the imperfect. Once they are there one can start to clean them up. First you must get them there. Communion is not a reward for the perfect but a means of growing into God. We gather round Jesus and learn from him how to grow in love for each other. We love God first and let God teach us to love each other. That is the Benedictine way, the Gospel way; let us pray that under Pope Francis it might also be the ecumenical way!

            Nicolas Stebbing CR