Mark 9. 38-41
One of the joys of St Faith’s, is the number of visitors we receive on a daily basis. I have rarely been in the church during the week, when a visitor hasn't shown up from some corner of the world. Interestingly, one of the most frequent questions they ask is ‘What kind of church is this?’
As our weekday welcomers will tell you, it is not always easy to explain what an ‘Anglican’ church is – especially to someone from outside the UK. It’s quite funny to watch people’s faces when you say ‘Well, basically, we’re a catholic church’. When you say that, a light of recognition dawns….most people, anywhere in the world, recognise the word ‘Catholic’. They have an image in their head of certain kinds of robes, certain ceremonies. Everyone has heard of the Pope.
But then…you deliver the ‘killer fact’ and watch their face become all puzzled again…”But we don’t follow the Pope…we have an elected church government”. Confusion reigns! “How can you be catholic, but not follow the Pope?”
To some people, it really matters what kind of church they are in. In fact some people have been taught from an early age that their kind of church is the only true church. I remember, as a child, having very strange feelings about walking into another kind of church.
In my case, in my little Devon village, it was the URC church down the road. It was weird! It didn’t feel like a church. They didn’t have stained glass windows. The pulpit was in the centre of the building. The organ was at the back. There weren’t any memorials on the walls. Where was the font? It was all very distressing. But worst of all, I found myself asking, ‘are these people actually Christians at all?’
Over the years, I have had the blessing and privilege of worshipping in a vast array of churches – all over the world. Some of them have also struggled to see me as a Christian. That won’t surprise those of you who know me well…but actually it had nothing to do with my personality! Rather, some churches in foreign lands have simply never heard of us Anglicans.
Take Romania, for example. I first visited Romania soon after the fall of Communism. The Communists had very effectively squashed all the churches of Romania, between 1945 and 1989. By 1990, when I arrived with a delegation from the YMCA, the only churches left standing after Ceausescu were the Orthodox Churches. Orthodoxy has some practices which you and I would find very strange indeed...
For a start, there is the screen of icons around the altar. They effectively create a ‘holy of holies’ where only the priest may enter to celebrate the sacred mysteries. Communion is given on a long silver spoon, so that the body of Christ cannot be defiled by being touched with human hands. Services are routinely three hours long – with some worshippers coming and going throughout for their favourite bits. As you know, Orthodox worshippers put great store in icons – believing them to be windows to the heavenly realm. They may ask Saints in heaven to pray for them to God – because, after all, they are nearer to God.
But for me, a member of the Church of England, the National Church, THE church (as far as I was concerned) the strangest thing of all was to be treated by my new Romanian friends with a huge amount of suspicion. Many of them wondered whether I could be described as a Christian at all. They guessed that an ‘Anglican’ was another religion all together…perhaps I was like a Muslim, or a Hindu or something. It took some very patient work to listen to each other, and to work out that despite our differences, we were both Christians.
For me, there was a real joy in this encounter. I learned a great deal from my new Orthodox friends. They taught me new ways of seeing faith, and of understanding God.
For example – and it is only one example – I learned a new theological idea, known as ‘deification’ or Theosis. The Orthodox Church teaches, like the Anglican and Catholic churches, that we are made in the image of God. Like us, they believe that human sinfulness has distorted and spoiled that image. Like us, they believe that through Jesus it is possible for that sinfulness to be removed…and for us to be restored to a right relationship with God. But then, Orthodoxy goes one step further.
Orthodox Christians believe that it is possible for us to attain such a state of Union with God, that we can become ‘deified’ – or like gods (with a small ‘g’) ourselves. The Orthodox Saint Athanasius said it most succinctly: “Jesus was made incarnate so that we might become gods” (again with a small ‘g’).
Now that’s a fascinating idea isn’t it? It means that the Christian life is much more than a simple transaction - we sin, Jesus dies, we repent, God forgives us. The notion of ‘Theosis’ invites us on a journey of ever increasing holiness. Theosis offers us the possibility of becoming so much like Jesus, day by day, that we can even obtain the condition of being a kind of god ourselves. Of course, this process doesn’t happen overnight. Orthodox saints are those who after a lifetime of prayer, repentance, self-sacrifice, and daily holiness are considered to have become like Jesus in their soul.
I wonder what you think about that idea? Does it encourage you? Does it make you wonder whether, with God’s help, you too could embark on a process of becoming so much like Jesus that you might even be described as a kind of god? If you are encouraged, or challenged, then that’s the point….that’s the point of exchanging ideas across different churches. That’s the point of ‘ecumenism’. That’s the point of movements like ‘Churches Together’.
As we saw in today’s Gospel reading, the Disciples were rather suspicious of anyone who wasn’t in their camp. They came running to Jesus…”Teacher, Teacher…there’s this fellow over there who is casting out demons in your name! Help! Panic! We tried to stop him….”
But Jesus is much more relaxed about things. “Don’t try to stop him” he said. “For no-one who does a deed of power in my name will soon afterwards be able to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us”.
Jesus, it seems, was an ecumenist. He understood that an infinite God could be revealed in an infinite number of ways. There are many Christians today who get terribly worried about the vast range of churches that there are in the world. To some extent, I share their concern. There are certainly some churches who I think are barely recognisable as Christian – especially any who try to persuade their followers to sign over the deeds of their houses in return for false promises of blessings from above!
But, by and large, the infinite variety of churches on this planet are, themselves, a reflection of the infinite complexity and depth of our God. We can, and should, listen to each other. Each of us has been given something unique and precious. Each of us, if you like, has our own small window into heaven. By sharing our perspectives, and learning from each other, we have the possibility of flooding our churches with the full light of heaven.
Therefore, I welcome the chance to work with other churches in this Town. I welcome the contemporary, modern worship of the Family Church or the Portsdown Community Church at the Beacon. I welcome the radical ecumenism of the URC, a church created out of a vision that it was a church born to die – when all the churches of the world came together as one, United, Re-formed church. I welcome the historic rootedness of the Catholic church, who preserve and hand on the traditions and beliefs of the ages. I welcome the radical social agenda of the Methodists, born among the working classes of England.
And I hope that we Anglicans can add our distinctiveness to the whole too. I hope that with our innate sense of ceremony, our wonderful hymnody and musical traditions, our profoundly rich liturgies, and our inclusive vision of parishes – that we too can offer something to our sisters and brothers of other churches.
He who is not against us is for us.