(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
A short reflection on the life of St Paul VI.
There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were all called into one and the same hope. (Eph. 4:4)
Over the last Sundays we have been reading the Letter to the Ephesians which speaks to us about God’s desire to restore and gather up all things in Christ. It is in the context of this divine plan that we are able to discover our true identity as adopted sons of the Father, who sees each believer in that ‘one new single New Man’ (Eph. 2:15) the Lord Jesus creates within himself. In other words, Ephesians tells us that we are one with Christ, and, because of this, we are worthy of the same incredible love the Father lavishes on his only-begotten Son.
Today St Paul continues on the theme of oneness by articulating how our sense of unity in the Lord Jesus should influence the way we relate to other Christians. Oneness with Christ and oneness with other believers are indissolubly linked due to the simple fact that we are all members of the same body. This is a recurring concept in Paul’s letters. To the Galatians he writes, ‘there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28); to the Corinthians he says, ‘we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free’ (1Cor. 12:13)… and, when talking about Holy Communion, he also adds, ‘The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? [Therefore] Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1Cor. 10:16-17).
Oneness in Jesus destroys all barriers among believers and unites us together into the ‘one single New Man’, the one body of Christ. In this sense, oneness means that, as Christians, we all belong to one another, regardless of our quarrels, schisms, and theological differences. If we understand this, then, a deep sense of wonder should pervade the way we look at each-other as Christians – and particularly so when we look across denominational divides. Yes, we are different. Yes, oftentimes we can agree on very little. Yet, in the words ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. 4:5) we are one. So it should not come to us as a surprise (or a historical fluke) that each Sunday we still say in the Creed, ‘We believe in one… Church’. We do not say, “We believe in a church that sometimes gets things horribly wrong”; we do not say, “We believe in the Church of England”; and we do not say, “We believe in a church founded by Henry VIII or Elizabeth I”. To say ‘We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’ is an act of faith in as much as we believe that the body of Christ transcends denominations; it is an act of hope as we look forward to a time when the full and visible unity of the Church will be restored; and it is an act of humility in as much as we affirm that, as Christians, we all of equal value as members of the same body.
‘There is one Body, one Spirit’, says Paul. Then, how are we to act in response to this belief that we are all one in the Lord Jesus? How are we to express oneness in the face of so many centuries of Christian divisions?
Paul’ advice to us may seem a little vague but it is rather practical. He says, ‘bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience’ (Eph. 4:2). This means that we should accept and welcome other Christians through love – but not just any type of love; “charitably”, meaning through perfect love. Easier said than done, I admit that, especially when we live in a society where people are often expected to assert individuality and independence over, against, and even at the expense of others. But my guess is that Paul is also aware of this difficulty al well. By saying ‘bear with one another’, keep the peace, and ‘preserve the unity of the Spirit’ (Eph. 4:3) the apostle starts from the bare minimum. Paul encourages us to at least be aware of the Christ’s presence in the other when we meet with other believers and to acknowledge this presence through actions and attitudes inspire by love.
The bottom line is quite simple. The Father loves us in seeing Jesus in us, so we too must love others by endeavouring to see Christ in them.
Inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several feet high above the place where Peter himself has laid buried for almost two thousand years, there is a large inscription made with black lettering on a gold background;
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 16:18-19).
Michelangelo positioned these two verses of Matthew’s gospel at the base of the dome as a golden circlet, a crown above the tomb of the Apostle, and as a reminder of level of responsibility and trust Our Lord places on the whole of his Church; ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19).
Now, as we read this passage, we could look at its importance in shaping the Church around the ministry of St Peter. But [as a good Anglican] I would like to focus on something slightly broader in meaning; God’s willingness – in fact, his desire – for human cooperation in his work of creation and redemption. The desire of God for human participation comes up as a recurring theme throughout the history of salvation. For example, when God chose his people in the Old Testament he relied on Abraham and made a covenant, a pact, with him; when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord form the land of Egypt God entrusted Moses to lead them out of slavery; when the House of Israel needed the leadership of a faithful steward God entrusted Eliakim (from our first reading) and relied on his decisions. In the New Testament when God sent his Son into the world he relied on the cooperation of the Virgin Mary and he entrusted Jesus to the care of St Joseph; when Our Lord wanted to spread the gospel he relied on his apostles and disciples, and finally, as we see today, when Jesus wanted to build his Church he relied on St Peter, the Rock to be quite literally the foundation stone. And when we focus our attention on examples such as these a clear pattern emerges. In every situation, from the beginning of Salvation history until now, the Lord relies on his people – meaning each one of us as well – to further his work. Much as he did with his first disciples, the Lord Jesus calls us to specific tasks that only we can do, he blesses us with every possible grace to help us in our work, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in all our doings.
But let me put this in another way. On Thursday was the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew. The prayer for that day said,
O Lord, …grant that… your Church
may become the sacrament of salvation for all the nations.
A sacrament is essentially the way in which the grace of God reaches people through the means of ordinary objects and actions consecrated to his service (like bread, wine, touching, and washing). So, when we pray to become the sacrament of salvation, we pray that the Lord may reach other people with his grace through us; through our ordinariness, through our humanity which has been consecrated to his service by baptism.
So here is the beauty of our Christin faith. We are not just infinitely loved by God; we are also infinitely needed by him. ‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005)
There may have been only one St Peter and only one ministry to which the Lord has entrusted the keys of his kingdom, but this does not change the fact that each one of us is entrusted with continuing and furthering Jesus’ saving work in the world. So if you don’t take anything away from this service, at least take this; God invites you to work with him, God entrusts you with his redeeming work, God relies on you to bring salvation to others.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth said,
“Of all women you are the most blessed
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42)
In ancient times the month May was dedicated to springtime celebrations of nature, agriculture, and in many ways of motherhood… to this day several countries around the world keep Mother’s Day in May. Many different cultures, from the Romans to the Celts, associated May with fertility and with life as well. And with the advent of Christianity, the Church claimed these celebrations (Christened them, in a sense) in honour of the Virgin Mary. Out went the yearly May queens and the goddesses of the pagans, and Mary became the new queen of this month, as one old hymn sung,
O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
But how did we get here? Mary is certainly not a goddess – we venerate her, but we do not worship her; she is our sister in our humanity, and her physical motherhood generated only one child. Then, so to speak, what is the fuss about? The Virgin Mary is the Mother of God, her only child is the Lord Jesus, and as such she is Mother of the One who has come into the world so that we ‘may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). Through her we have the Saviour; through her we encounter Jesus who is our life, and this is why today, this month, every day we celebrate her and we seek her prayers, remembering what the gospel says of her, “all generations will call her blessed” (Cf. Luke 1:48).
But amidst our celebrations we ought to remember that sadly too many Christians still see Mary as the reason for unhappy divisions, as “the thing” that separates believers one from the other. But Mary is not a thing, and most definitely she is not some kind of theological wedge driven in to separate brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather, as the Mother of the Lord Jesus she is also the Mother of all Christians – of all believers of every denomination. And what quarrelling siblings would truly think their own loving mother, a mother who bids them to make peace, as the reason behind their estrangement?
Let us meditate on the today’s gospel, and particularly on the words of St Elizabeth, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Mary cannot a cause of division; rather, as we are able to find unity in the blessed fruit of her womb as Christians, so we could find unity in Mary’s own very self too… if only we were humble enough to admit that we have used her as an excuse to mask our self-serving divisions.
But let me give you an example of the unity we already find in Mary. Earlier this month five bishops from the Church of England took part in the centenary celebrations of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to a group of children near Fatima, in Portugal. The very presence of a number of our bishops at such an event would have been truly unimaginable hundred years ago, when Anglicans and Roman Catholics were bitterly divided, but such is the powerful influence and intercession of the Virgin Mary.
So, as we mark our May Devotions today, as we prepare for our procession and our singing in honour of the Blessed Virgin, let us ask Mary to pray for the Church, for the unity of all her children, and that everyone may experience life to its full in Jesus, the blessed fruit of her womb. Amen.