United in Disagreement?

A sermon preached by Graham Hamborg on 9 May 2021, Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 10:44-end; John 15:9-17.

Jesus said: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

We’re still in the Easter season – just. That season in which we remember the risen Jesus appearing to his followers in the days following Easter Sunday. Then this coming Thursday is Ascension Day, on which Jesus in that risen form was seen for the last time.

So where is his presence found after that time? On the one hand, seated at the right hand of God the Father, and given all glory and majesty and honour. And there, the write to the Hebrews says, he intercedes for us. But also present by the gift of the Holy Spirit, for which the disciples were told to wait for a short while before the Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost.

And present also in the life of the Christian community, as we share the love that Jesus gave, and which he told us in the New Commandment we must hold for one another – in practice, not just as a nice idea.

“One another” in John = the Christian community particularly. We are, of course, to love all people – the second of the two greatest commandments is that “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But there is a particular bond with our fellow Christians – or should be. And in a whole community of people attempting, however inadequately, to practise love, it should be a mark of our shared life in Christ.

So I want to ask this morning: How easy do we find it, in practice, to love one another? And in particular, how easy do we find it to have love for those with whom we disagree? Because Christians do disagree. We hold different views about many things. And the Church doesn’t always conduct itself well in times of disagreement and controversy.

Let me tell you what for me is the biggest challenge to my Christian faith, the thing that at various times has been the thing that has made me want to give up on it all. Not doubts about God’s existence, although they can be real at times. Not people like Richard Dawkins putting intellectual challenges to faith, he doesn’t trouble me, the Christian faith is perfectly defensible in intellectual terms. Not even the appalling random suffering that is part of this world – that has troubled me at times, but in the end I find, if not answers, at least the presence of God in the cross on which Jesus died.

No, the thing that drives me almost to give up at times is when Christians cannot love one another in the face of disagreement. Disagree we shall, because we are human, and because many matters are less straightforward than we might wish them to be. Disagreement is not a problem. It’s how we handle it, and how we conduct ourselves in the face of it, that matters.

And when our disagreements lead to vitriol heaped on our fellow Christians, whether that be within the local church, or whether it be at national and international level, Christian leaders of influence heaping vitriol on other Christian leaders, then I just despair.

So how has the church in history got on with this? And how do Christians today get on with it?

Let’s start with today’s Acts reading. Apostle Peter is at the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius. And Luke – the writer of Acts – takes two whole chapters, 73 verses, to tell us about it, because it’s such a significant happening. Because despite the risen Jesus having told his followers that they would be witnesses for him in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, so far all the action for Peter has been in Jerusalem. And it’s only with some reluctance, when he is given a direct vision from heaven and is more or less driven there by the Spirit, that he has come to Cornelius and his household.

And as he is speaking to the about the Good News of Jesus, before he’s even finished his talk – Wham, the Spirit falls on them all, Gentiles though they be. And this is important a few chapters further on. Because the first big public dispute in the early church was over whether or not Gentile converts had to obey the Jewish law as well as following Jesus. On the one hand Paul and Barnabas said no, certainly not. But in Jerusalem a whole lot of Jewish Christians said Yes of course they did. So what happens? They hold the first recorded Council of the Church, and there’s a lot of listening takes place.

And in the course of it Peter gets up and says “Look folks, don’t let’s forget how God showed me that the Gentiles are included by faith alone, when the Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius while I was still preaching” – and that helps an amicable and acceptable resolution to be reached. Good attitudes, a good process, and a good outcome. Hallelujah!

Fast forward coming up three centuries, we get a different controversy. And it’s a doctrinal dispute over the person of Christ and the Trinity. A guy called Arius  put forward the view that while Jesus was the first-born of all God’s creation, he did have a beginning. “There was a time when he was not” was his natty slogan. And many bishops and church leaders agreed with him.

On the other side were others who said, No, Jesus was God the Son and the second person of the Trinity, he had always eternally been there as part of the Godhead.

The arguments raged. And I do mean “raged.” While there were some godly and humble advocates on both sides of the argument, the loudest ones were those who raged at their opponents. The standard tactic was to declare them to be “anathema” and to excommunicate them, consign them to hell. One of the most articulate of those who argued for what we now take as the orthodox view was Cyril of Alexandria, who used to declare that one of the delights of heaven that he was looking forward to would be to look down and see all his opponents being roasted in hell. Not very charitable, you may feel – well, I certainly feel that. It all ended with a another Council of the Church, a Nicaea in 325, from which we get the Nicene Creed, declaring that Jesus was God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father. There never was a time when he was not, Arius had been wrong.

But while the end result may have come out alright, the process and the attitudes and the lack of charity in debate were a disgrace.

Fast forward another 1200 years, and we get the Reformation. Martin Luther wanted to reform the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church didn’t want to be reformed. And Luther having let the cat out of the bag about a few things, there followed others more extreme than him. And so the Church was split – and still is – into Protestant and Catholic.

In England, monarchs took part in all this, declaring what would happen in the Church. And if bishops and other Christian leaders disagreed, well, no problem: just burn them at the stake as a warning to others.

By now, perhaps, you’re getting the idea that Christians don’t always disagree well.

Fast forward another 400 years: And we get to us. What about us? What are our debates and disputes and disagreements? And how do we behave in the face of them?

Well some disagreements in my years of parish ministry were about worship styles. Do we like traditional hymns and anthems, hallowed by time and dignified, or do we like more contemporary worship, led by a good band? We are all entitled to our tastes. But how do we love one another when other people’s tastes aren’t ours?

I hear those labels applied: Oh, they’re all happy-clappy. Oh, their services are just so dull and boring. Notice the “they” and the “them”. What’s happened to being one in Christ? – We haven’t always acquitted ourselves well on this one.

I’ve been close to disputes about the ministry of ordained women. This is largely settled now in most parts of the Church – although not all. And on this one how we acquitted ourselves was varied. I have one colleague who was ordained priest with the first batch of women priests in 1994. And when she went along to her first local clergy meeting, the host of it said: “You’re not ordained – might as well ordain a dog” – I put that in the category of not disagreeing well! On the other hand, at national level immense effort was expended to hold different views in unity, and that effort was commendable.

Coming more up to date, I was surprised at my own strength of feeling over Brexit – not a church issue, but one which generates a lot of passion. I’ve no idea what views are held over Brexit by those of us gathered here today. For me, it’s a disaster for lots of reasons, some of them very close to home, since we have two children living in Europe and married to non-British Europeans. And naturally if you hold a different view, I’d love you to come round to my way of thinking. But most of all, if you hold a different view I hope we can nevertheless look one another in the eye and exchange the Peace with one another, shaking hands as soon as Covid allows.

It has been a challenge for me, I’ll admit, to be charitable at times – as I say, I’ve been surprised at my own strength of feeling. But if we take the words of Jesus seriously that a mark of our Christian community is that we love one another, then that has to include those who disagree with us over Brexit.

But surely the biggest hot potato today is human sexuality and understandings of gender. Are same-sex relationships as valid as hetero-sexual relationships? Can two men or two women be married to one another in the same way as two people of the opposite sex? The law of the land says, Yes they can. The formal legislation of the Church say, No they can’t.

Some will feel that if the world has moved on, that doesn’t mean that the Church has to. We should stick to our traditional teachings. Others will feel that actually the world has got this right, and that not for the first time the Church needs to catch up.

Now I’m not going to go there on the issues – that’s another sermon, or better still a process of a different kind, such as the five-week course that Chris referred to in his address at the Annual Meeting. But I will say: Here are a whole set of issues which the Church needs to talk about – and listen about. And needs to talk about and listen about within a framework of love – the love of which Jesus speaks in John 15. How we handle our conversations about this will reveal the measure of how we do or do not abide in the love of Christ.

  1. We shall need to avoid labels: He or she is a “liberal,” so I can ignore them, she or he is a “fundamentalist,” so I can ignore them. That’s not disagreeing well, that’s just using labels to distance and avoid debate, and to demean.

Can we hold the conversations, and be recognised as Christians because we model how to disagree well? Will people know we are Christians by our love – in the face of possibly profound and sincere holding of different views and opinions? It won’t be easy. But then, whoever said the Christian life would be?

And we are given the resources for this. Let me briefly mention two. Firstly, we are given this sacrament of unity in which we share today, this Holy Communion. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul says: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” – words that we use at the Peace.

Our unity is not based on all having to think the same. Our unity is based on meeting round the Lord’s table and sharing bread and wine. And I am sure we have a wide range of views and opinion on many issues among those of us here in worship today – but nevertheless, we share in the one bread, and in so doing count one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Then secondly, we have the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, who fell on the household of Cornelius two thousand years ago, and is still available to us today. Paul writes in Romans 5:5 that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

So in the Eucharistic Prayer we shall pray: “Renew us by your Spirit, inspire us with your love, and unite us in the body of your Son, Jesus Christ” – do listen out for those words.

So to sum up: Jesus said: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

A mark of how we love one another will be how we handle our disagreements. We can allow them to drive us apart. We can try to manoeuvre to get our views setting the tone without proper listening to the concerns of others. Or we can listen patiently, being committed first of all to the loving unity of which Jesus spoke, allowing our Communion and the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in the task.

It is specific and sometimes emotive issues on which we disagree that indicate whether or not we are serious about loving one another as Christ has loved us. It’s my prayer that we are.