s105^97 Somerton Park Second Sunday of Easter 6/4/97 (Sermon 105^91, 105.88, 105.85 mod)
"The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul" (Acts 4.32)
One of the problems which faces everyone is the problem of determining what is the will of God. I vividly recall debates in Synod concerning the use of new prayer books and the ordination of women. As seems to be the case with everything of this nature, the proponents and those who opposed were quick to assert that God was on their side. Somehow we assume that God is concerned with every little thing we do or don't do; as if God would desert the Anglican Church if she ordained a woman as a priest or upgraded her liturgy! I must admit I find that concept rather unreal.
But the question of determining God's will remains. The answer for me is that the will of God is always to accept the offerings which all people bring. The second sin committed by humanity - a sin of murder - was the result of a perception (how accurate it was we cannot be certain) that God had not accepted the offering that Cain brought. (Genesis 4.5) While the words (which do not necessarily accurately reflect God's thoughts on the matter) do say: "for Cain and his offering he had no regard" the text goes on to quote God as saying: "If you do well, will you not be accepted?" We are not to know what God did - but the Bible tells us that acceptance was offered to Cain.
I find it interesting that the older son Cain is jealous of the younger son Abel and the issue of the sharing of the affection of parents between younger and older is an age old tension. There are also shades of a tension between a diet of cooked meat rather than vegetarian fare, a tension between the more technological over the less, a tension between the wide ranging work of the keeper of animals and the more settled work of the cereal and fruit grower, indeed the whole issue of humanity as herbivore or carnivore lies behind all this.
For me, the most perfect example of the will of God in action is when we come together in Church and at the Altar rail, offering God our homage and receiving the sacrament. In this most sacred moment we experience in the most real way what it is to be like in heaven - accepted with and accepting of our brothers and sisters - equal and united - with our eyes on God and receiving him.
For me then the greatest scandal of the church is the fact that it is divided into denominations which say God accepts our offerings and not your offerings; for this flies in the face of the very will of God, and tears apart any witness of that acceptance to the world. God cannot be a God divided. This has become rather a passion for me, and I find that fact distinctly surprising. This is because like every good Anglican I have been wary of the 'enthusiastic', yet been concerned that my lack of passion and enthusiasm might reflect a lack of faith or be interpreted as so by others. So I am pleased to have found my answer, not that the finding of it makes me any better a person, or that it makes it any easier to live a life of faith.
Recently I have found this critique of relationships between the denominations:
(see ORIGIN on Internet)
* Unique individuality -- religion is entirely private, and no two
people, even within the same tradition, understand it the same way
* Independent pluralism -- religious traditions are entirely independent,
have little in common, and are in direct competition
* Interreligious community -- religions are independent with a few
factors in common, and can loosely relate to one another in a spirit of
* Harmony of religions -- though diverse, religions have much in common,
can identify this common ground, and can work together to pursue mutual
* Unity of Religions -- the various traditions, though different in many
respects, are at core pointing to the same truth, and presenting the
same message. This unity can be experienced through spirituality and
devotion; differences are fundamentally semantic, or involve political
or "outer" issues
* Scientific unity of religions -- experimental view based on
psychological theory, mathematics, and anthropology, developing the
thesis that all "true religions" arise as alternative interpretations
of the same underlying ontology, which can be understood in scientific
and mathematical terms
It is of course a temptation to justify what I'm saying; to batter down the opposition with endless quotes from the Bible or the Fathers of the Church to convince everyone. But there is little point in this, for my task is the same as everyone else's; and that is to try to express my love for God and allowing that God accepts others just as he accepts me.
There wouldn't be much point in expressing love to someone else if they only thought the same thoughts as we did. If they never upset us, or caused us to think and sometimes to reevaluate our lives. So it is my privilege to express my thoughts as to the nature of the world and the will of God; it is also my privilege to listen to those whom God has put around me and learn from them. In fact the very act of listening and learning from those around me is to my way of thinking the easiest and safest way of showing them that you love them.
It is a temptation to look at the time of the first apostles and think that they all got it right whereas we seem to be making a mess of it all. The particular passage from the Acts of the Apostles that we read today gives that impression. It speaks about the disciples holding everything in common, which is used by some to say that the ideal Christian state is a communist one, which I suspect few of us would agree with.
As I say if we restrict our view to this single passsage, and assume that the picture of the apostles getting it all right we would be far from the truth. The early church was rocked with dissension and debate. Straight after our reading from Acts this morning we find in chapter 5 the case of Ananias and Sapphira who pretended to give more that they actually did; and were detected and died. Later in chapter 6 the Hellenists began murmuring against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. In chapter 15 we find St Peter and St Paul had their differences about the practice of Jews and Gentiles eating together, and the practice of circumcision. St Paul had his problems with others too because it is recorded that "a sharp contention" arose between Barnabas and himself which resulted in Barnabas with Mark leaving Paul and Silas to go off to Cyprus. (Acts 15.37)
So our unity, as with the unity that the first apostles enjoyed, is not one that banishes all debate. Indeed it cannot ever be so for Jesus said: "If you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others?" (Matthew 5.47) The very existence of divisions and debate provides an opportunity to mak plain the fact to show that God accepts the offerings that everyone brings. The 'world' which John recalls Jesus as disowning (17.16) therefore can be characterised as people who think that God accepts the offerings only of their 'brethren': those with whom they agree and with whom they have no personality conflicts. The will of God however is always to broaden this; and his grace is given to help us to recognise that God accepts not just our offerings and those of our 'brethren' but also those with whom we disagree.
One of the requirements laid on those who are coming to the communion is specified in the catechism of the church; and that is that a person must be "in charity with all men". It might be impossible to be "in charity with all men" in the sense that we really can't be in charity with terrorists, murderers and rapists for instance. But we can be trying to be accepting of others; we can't be saying to God "Accept my offerings but not their's - forgive my sins but not theirs".
Sadly relationships do break down in real life, and the hurt of these breakdowns is something I would not wish on anyone. I want to say that often there comes a time when there is no point in trying to patch up a relationship long since dead; since the persons concerned might in fact be more hurt if this were to be tried. Jesus has some quite specific directions about offering our gift at the altar: "if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Matt 5:23-24). It does need to be said that Jesus actually means "If you remember that your brother or sister has something legitimate against you". We are not as Christians to spend our lives keeping our brothers and sisters happy, even if that were indeed possible.
God seeks to enable us to make our love as broad as his own; as the hymn says:"For the love of God is broader than the measures of man's mind." When we come to the Holy Communion, we come hoping and praying for just this to happen; and when we come in this manner it is in fact then that the grace of God can help us and transform our lives.
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