30 May 2017 – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

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Rev’d Jonathan Gale

Blaise Pascal writes, “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and scum of the universe.”

The contradictory condition of the way people are together means that while many are selfish, others seem inexplicably altruistic. You know the old joke: “Two friends are walking on the African savannah when they hear the roar of a lion nearby. The first starts thinking of places they can hide. The second puts on his running shoes. “What are you thinking?” says the first man. “You know you can’t possibly outrun a lion.” The second replies, “I don’t need to run faster than a lion. I just need to run faster than you.”

The kind of person who looks for a solution for both people bothered Darwin, who said everyone was selfish and that in the end the unselfish would die out. Our joke illustrates that. The selfish genes remain behind to proliferate.

But some people remain stubbornly unselfish and that not from naiveté.

It has been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And so fittingly this service was designed by members of the German church.

One of the things the Reformation reminded us of was the sinful nature of humankind. Our selfishness was contrasted with God’s grace.

The World Council of Churches website in speaking of the background to this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, says “It quickly became clear that the materials for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity would need to have two accents: on the one hand, there should be a celebration of God’s love and grace, the “justification of humanity through grace alone”, reflecting the main concern of the churches marked by Martin Luther’s Reformation. On the other hand, the materials should also recognize the pain of the subsequent deep divisions which afflicted the Church, openly name the guilt, and offer an opportunity to take steps toward reconciliation.”

The website goes on to say, however, that Ultimately it was Pope Francis’ 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) which provided the theme for this year, when it used the quote: “The Love of Christ Compels Us” or urges us on.

A few weeks ago I listened to a Messianic Jew speaking. He explained Sabbath as being our slowing down long enough for God to catch up with us. It is always good to remind ourselves that God is at work and that it is easy to run ahead of or run from, God if we are not careful.

The Prodigal Son’s father in our Gospel reading – was at work. He was on the lookout: But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

The boy eventually came to himself and sought out his father, but his father was always on the lookout for him, as is God for us.  God always takes the initiative and when we cease our striving we find that 14 … the love of Christ urges us on (2 Corinthians 5:14).

It is the difference between doggedly walking though the waves to the shore on the one hand, and caching a wave to get there on the other. When you’re walking against the backwash you can so easily tire and end up moving off course. When the wave propels and compels you forward, the ride is both easy and joyful.

There are any number of parties at work in the Gospel passage but it is only the father who senses the love of God compelling him. The elder brother is bitter against his sibling and finds that the reconciliation that plays out before him increases his resentment. He is not compelled by the love of God.

The citizens of the distant country have little sympathy with the young man’s plight. None of them sees the need to assist his return to be reconciled with his father. They are not compelled by the love of God.

It is the love of God that has been and is at work in this world for which his Son died. The love of God compelled God to send his Son to a land that had distanced itself from him.  He has reconciled us through the death of his Son, to himself.

The grace of God (that same force that compels us) is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Corinthians 5: 18)

How can we resist this compulsion? The good news is that many don’t. Many proliferate, as it were, the unselfish gene. Many understand that pushing ahead upon a course of our own making leaves God behind or somewhere else.

In response to the reconciling initiative of God, we are compelled to call a halt to our own selfish agendas and, in a Sabbath embrace, join with our sisters and brothers in Christ, both to acknowledge the pain we have caused over the years, and to demonstrate and pray for Christian unity. And this we do willingly and joyfully.