This is a sermon preached at Bethnal Green Meeting House (a United Reformed Church) on Sunday 23 January 2005. As well as reflecting on the nature of the Christian hope, the shape of a Christian unity that will really benefit humankind, and the identity of Jesus with and for us as church, I was fortunate to be among real friends. So this piece also contains a strongly personal element.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. They lived in a land of shadows, but now radiance is shining upon them.” (Isaiah 9. 2, cf. Matthew 4. 16, REB)
“The message of the cross makes no sense at all to those who have lost the plot, but to those who are being put together again it is how God’s power looks and feels.” (I Corinthians 1. 18 – contemporary paraphrase)
So here we are at the end of another Week of Prayer for Christian Unity , an annual time of goodwill, good services and good intentions.
Of course it would be churlish not to recognise the importance of such genuine gestures towards greater cooperation among the churches. But, by the same token, it is hard to look around at today’s world and fail to notice its terrifying divisions – not just among nations, but within them; not just between religions, but right at the heart of our own Christian communities.
For example, in Washington DC this week, a mere stone’s throw away from the place where the most powerful man on earth, George W. Bush, was inaugurated as president of the world’s richest nation recently, there still exist communities (black communities, especially) where unemployment, ill-health, poor housing, crime and poverty stalk people on a daily basis.
Within the American churches, therefore, a huge chasm was fixed by this event. While some wealthy Christian leaders sat a few feet away from the president, locked in mutual admiration, pastors from the most deprived parts of the capital crying for justice were locked outside by police cordons. For some there was joy, for others deep despair.
Division among the faithful is not just about ideas: it’s about who counts and who doesn’t. It’s about life and death choices, the question of who and what we follow, and the issue of what really constitutes Good News in a broken world. These are themes central to today’s three biblical readings.
Now I realise that in this congregation you could share with each other many stories of trial, captivity, pain and death. The divisions you have experienced and witnessed are both near at hand and far away, personal and social. There is so much that could keep you away and keep you apart. Yet here you are, gathered together in this place to seek God’s face against all odds.
You may not have it all sorted. “Far from it”, I imagine you’re thinking. You know a lot more than I do about each others’ strengths and weaknesses, longings and fears. But, improbably, you have been given to each other. Prisoners of hope, you might say, to pinch a description from St Paul.
Who would have predicted such an unlikely assembly of colourful characters? What on earth does it mean that you are here together this morning? What will you do with the fact that you are, for a time (and for some longer than others), located in this particular community? What is that God might be making possible for you through this?
Which brings us back to Isaiah. His story is about two small tribes, Zebulun and Naphtali. Not names that roll off the tongue. They were a couple of neglected northern outposts in ancient Israel: places ripped apart by the invasion of a big, pitiless superpower, Assyria, in about 734 BCE.
There was no hope for these people. In fact they had ceased to be a people at all. Even their names had been virtually obliterated from historical memory, a fact that Jesus acknowledges years later when he enters what was, for someone of his pious upbringing, the alien territory around Capernaum. There he, and St Matthew, quite deliberately revert to the traditional (but long lost) territorial names.
I notice that in this place you have also decided to reclaim the original name of your chapel, Bethnal Green Meeting House, with its perhaps forgotten associations with freedom and dissent in the face of state religion and state power. But that’s another story! …Back to Isaiah …
This passage [Isaiah 9. 1-6 would have been a rounder choice for the lectionary] is believed to have formed part of an old hymn of praise sung by those who had been freed from oppression, rather like an early African-American Spiritual. The sea of Galilee (verse 2), the waters of both invasion and deliverance, are the “Deep river [where] my home is, over Jordan.”
There’s also a direct parallel with a famous verse from Psalm 23. “Lo, though I walk through the valley of death, you are with me, Lord.” In Isaiah 9.4 the bar (rod) and staff are weapons of the Assyrians to keep people in line. For the Psalmist, however, they belong to Yahweh and are used for the people’s protection and encouragement. A huge contrast.
Just like here in Bethnal Green, what kept people going in ancient Israel was singing. In our songs we name the coming hope, the light of God in the face of torment, the light of Christ on the midst of confusion and division. Not only do we name it, we feel it in our lungs and it changes us, makes us experience things differently.
Switching senses: to see the light you have, in some sense, to be oriented towards it. And that’s not easy. What you need is a company of people who know what darkness is, but who have also received a hope of glory that can be shared, celebrated, passed on and developed. Even (perhaps especially) when the going is tough. Like here, for example. That is what church, ekklesia, the assembly of the people is all about.
Incidentally, those references to Midian and to rejoicing in the harvest just as people gloat when they divide the plunder of war – they are a kind of in-joke for the two small Israelite tribes. Because as part of their Holy Code, their special dedication to God, they did not fight like the imperialist armies of other nations. They were called to trust in Yahweh, not chariots. And they were specifically forbidden to take booty from enemies.
So what they are saying is something like: “Hey, now that we can eat the fruits of our own harvests, we’re going to celebrate just like those Assyrians did when they gloated over their spoil — us. But this time it’s a meal that everyone can share, not someone else’s meal that’s been stolen from us.”
And so we come to Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel. In chapter 4 John the Baptist has just been arrested for upsetting the authorities with his criticisms of them, and for starting a small opposition movement of people looking for another, very different kind of saviour figure to the emperor-type, the one who turned out to be Jesus.
Knowing what’s going on, that his enemies are close, Jesus withdraws from Nazareth, which was near the government centre, Sepphoris. It wouldn’t have been too difficult for him to find safety in the big religious and political capitals, Decapolis or Jerusalem. Instead he chooses, as a basis for explaining the true nature of his Messiahship, these neglected places on the north west bank of the Sea of Galilee: Zebulun and Naphtali.
This is a bit like choosing to look for the Gospel message in Bethnal Green rather than the Palace of Westminster or Canterbury Cathedral, I guess. Not the expected thing to do, but typical of Jesus — who proceeds to remind people about Capernaum’s hope of deliverance from the belly of empire, to tell them to get themselves sorted out (repent), to announce God’s coming reign of justice and peace, and to bind up people’s wounds and hurts — so that they have no doubt what God’s agenda looks like.
And for his company Jesus calls, who? Not the big shots St Paul talks about as the sources of factional division in Corinth, the well-known personalities (himself, Apollos, Cephas, and so on), the ‘celebrity big brothers’. No, Jesus enlists a bunch of ordinary working people, fishers. They include a man who will betray him at his hour of greatest need (Peter) and a couple of warring brothers (James and John).
These are hardly the kind of people you’d naturally go for if you wanted to turn the world upside down. But God’s like that — absolutely uninterested in status and rank. Jesus tells them to stop worrying about business and to concentrate on people: that’s what the phrase “be fishers of men” means. It reflects God’s dramatically different order of priorities.
So there you have it. Christian unity isn’t about stitching up a cosy deal between ourselves and those who call the shots or reckon that being seen hanging out with equivalent of Assyrian emperors is cool. (Isaiah mentions those people too, later on. They’re the religious leaders who get termed ‘court prophets’; the TV-evangelist types who tell the powers-that-be only what they want to hear about God.)
Instead, getting on to the Good News wavelength is about recognising God’s purposes in the little people and the obscure places. People like us, and places like this, if you don’t mind me saying so.
You may be an odd bunch. You may find each other a bit trying at times. You may be from “all over the shop”, as they say in this part of London: very different cultures, nations, social groups, ages, family orientations and religious backgrounds. But you are here, if we take the Gospel at its word, precisely because God has a purpose in the Jesus-shaped hope that is offered to a world of inequality, racism, invasion, terrorism, tsunamis, sickness and loss.
The Christian hope isn’t about avoiding these things. If Jesus was indeed the person in whom the Word chose to become flesh, then we have no reason to suppose that the path to God’s unity will conveniently bypass places of suffering or even death. But we are promised that God will be with us in all this, and that the resurrection life is not only a promise for the future, but something we can begin to taste here and now.
In his sharp warning to the argumentative, messed up Corinthian church, Paul says: “The message of the cross makes no sense at all to those who have lost the plot, but to those who are being put together again it is how God’s power looks and feels.”
So this is where you find yourselves. A small, vulnerable bunch of people who have this Meeting House in the middle of a community of teaming, exciting diversity; but also want, damage and oppression. You are a people who know what the cross is about, but in that place of darkness and despair you can meet One whose face radiates a great light. So you are invited, in worship, in your everyday lives and in your common life together to walk towards that light.
This, says the Gospel, is exactly who and what you and I are as church — a people who, in our ordinariness, can become something special — but not big-headed — in the purposes of God. People who don’t look for unity without cost, peace at any price, but who seek the kind of unity that only the God of Jesus can give: unity as sisters and brothers, sharers of food (com-panions), not rich and poor, in an out, as the world would have it.
So as you look at the hope (and challenge) of the journey from gloom to glory in Bethnal Green, a place where Christians are perhaps an unexpected minority, the questions you are left with at Epiphany, the unveiling, and in the Week of Prayer for Christian unity, are these: Who are you? Whose are you? And who are you becoming?
Given the choices that exist right here and right now, I don’t know what the next shape of this church, facing these questions, is. But within the economy of God, and with a bit of work and prayer, you can find out, I’m sure. For even though you may feel you walk in a land of shadows, a bit like Isaiah describes, you have been shown a great light. What will you do with it, I wonder?