‘The cross comes when you try to change things.’ Alan Webster was always clear about that. He himself, together with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, was particularly at the centre of the storm over the service to mark the end of the Falklands conflict, earning the ire of Margaret Thatcher for seeking to make it an occasion of penitence and remembering of the dead of all sides not one of national political rejoicing. Such leaders have no room even for compromise and those who stand up for justice typically suffer one way or another. However Alan’s point was always also about more humble activity: including the simple courage which can often required to query the tone of a conversation or a taken-for-granted act; and the challenge so many people have simply to to be themselves in a world, and sadly too often churches, which regards their existence at best as disordered or deviant, and at worst as a threat to others, and life as we know it. Even in our so-called western civilisation, we know how hard it is be an asylum-seeker, or a person of a different race, sexuality, gender, ability or religion (especially if that religion is Islam). In many parts of the world, that reality also literally brings persecution, violence and death. So to try to change such things brings the cross.
Today’s Gospel is a particularly good text therefore for the Church, not least for Anglicans. For, historically, change has not been top of our agenda. There is much truth in the old joke: ‘how many Anglicans does it take to change a lighbulb? The answer: one, plus nine to harp on about how good the old one was.’ Actually, Anglicans, like many Christians, do change pretty well, when we take courage to do so. After all, we have had 2000 years of managing astonishing changes in life, technology, philosophy and wider human understanding. Most of us, for example, engage positively with biblical exploration, with developments in reason and science, with moral and legal change, with people of different faith and none, and with the affirmation of diversity. Yet we if we don’t always do change kicking and screaming, we often do so with reluctance and a resistant reserve. Part of our western Christian problem is that we still think we are important, with the legacy of historic power still clinging to our attitudes, even when the reality is very different. We are also generally comfortable people - at least Anglicans in western countries. We are often perhaps overly kindly of heart in a limited way. For, as a body, we are slow to act unless we are pushed or particularly challenged. So, unlike those who are at the bottom of the heap or discriminated against, we have a tendency to be like Peter, not fully grasping what Jesus asks. We need to engage with the 'ecclesial kenosis' of which Sarah Bachelard spoke yesterday.
This week’s Gospel text follows on directly from last week’s and is intimately connected to it. Peter has made a marvelous confession of faith and Jesus not only commends him for it but calls him ‘the rock’ on which he will build the church, the new community, giving him ‘the keys of the kingdom’. Yet the next moment, he is telling Peter ‘Get behind me, Satan!’: for the model disciple, has so misunderstood what acknowledging and serving God really means. Peter wants nothing of the talk of suffering and the cross. For he doesn’t want the change Jesus seeks and the cost it brings. Yet change, and the cross, are at the heart of what Christ’s communion means.
What does communion mean to you? I don’t mean the outward liturgy, and its associated doctrines, we share. I mean what is signified by it, promised and anticipated? What does living in communion mean? To understand its implications we need to go beyond Peter and our immediate human self concerns. That great prophet of ecological spiritual consciousness, Thomas Berry, put it well:
‘The universe (he repeatedly said) is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects. If we don’t learn that, nothing is going to work.’
In other words, the deepest communion we share is not with our fellow denominational worshippers; nor with families and friends; nor with our race, class, sex, gender or nation; nor even with the whole human race. As Scott Stevens encouraged us yesterday, we need to deepen our awareness of 'the commons', and the common good. For our deepest communion is in the communion of being itself, of which the whole of Creation is a living sacrament.
‘The universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects. If we don’t learn that, nothing is going to work.’ That is at the heart of Abundant Justice isn’t it? It is not primarily by specific acts, arguments, and activities, that Abundant Justice is nurtured. We most assuredly need those. At the nub of all is the story we tell: the story we hold, and which holds us. Is this a story of mere order or dynamic change? Is it a story of security, or of the cross? Is it a communion of comfort or of ever-deepening connection?
As Thomas Berry observed, we are in trouble today because we are in between unifying stories of existence. The old stories were of a fallen but settled and bounded Creation; of a distant monarchical God in his heaven and others who knew their respective places; and, in the West, of ever advancing progress and economic growth. They helped sustain us for a long time, even at the cost of silence and oppression in many quarters. Some still cling to such stories, sometimes wistfully, sometimes with increasing violence as they fail. For faced with the holes in the old stories, and the failure of alternatives like communism, people can become desperate. That is surely part of why today’s populist narratives (like those Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, and One Nation) are popular: not that they really satisfy, but they do provide a unifying story and scapegoats in the face of uncertainty. That is why some Islamist narratives are also so vigorous and difficult to erase. For old failing stories can only ultimately be replaced by new stories which connect on every level: intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. This is part of what Noel Preston was encouraging us into yesterday in our handling of the complexity of our world.
So how far have we come with a new story, or new stories? A single conference was never likely to give us the full answer. It is however a step along the way. For, in seeking justice and caring for Creation, we are called into change: a change of attitudes as well as of actions. Such a change involves the cross: leaving behind what we have been for what may be; not clinging to false comfort but responding more fully to God’s call to the true communion of Creation. For, in the new stories which are painfully but wonderfully emerging, we are gradually affirming that the great communion of being is actually a communion of becoming. It is sad when Christians cling to passing stories, whether these be ones fashioned by limited religious presumptions or secular myths of economics and identity. Surely we can learn from the battles of Galileo and slavery, among others? God in Creation shows us a love which struggles as well as sustains; which brings changes as well as confirms; and which nurtures an ever more wondrous harmony out of increasing expressive diversity. So may we never be afraid of the cross, for it comes when we change and grow more fully into communion with all that is. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Sunday 3 September 2017