Homily for the Three Cathedrals Service

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“Jesus went on his way …journeying to Jerusalem.” Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is the backbone, the spinal cord of the Gospel of Luke. He turns his face towards Jerusalem. He goes there consciously and deliberately, knowing he must fulfil his destiny there. He goes, we learn from the Gospel of John, to be lifted up and gazed upon. He goes there “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (Jn 11:52). Jerusalem means “the vision of peace”.

During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, aren’t we aligning ourselves with this journeying of Jesus to Jerusalem? Aren’t we setting an inner compass towards a vision of peace: when the children of God are no longer scattered abroad but gathered into one?

The ecumenical impetus – many and various efforts in the Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic churches and communities towards the unity for which Christ prayed – this broad endeavour – marked the Christianity of the 20th c and, please God, still marks us today. It has inspired much theological rethinking, created institutions, become a vocation for many, (provided jobs, to be honest), led to practical initiatives, forged friendships. It has changed attitudes and relationships. It has upset some and inspired many.

We are aligning ourselves with all this too. It’s good to remember that it was in Scotland, at the Missionary Conference of Edinburgh of 1910, that the present Ecumenical Movement can be said to have begun. Other initiatives followed: Faith and Order, the Appeal to all Christian people of the Lambeth Conference of 1920, the conferences on Life and Work from 1925 onwards, the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948, and the Roman Catholic engagement sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. So many names one could mention, so many tales of struggle and suffering and pioneering courage. It’s not just Commissions and Documents or smiles over cups of tea. It went deep. Before the Catholic Church had shown any official enthusiasm for the cause, the desire for unity lodged in the heart – to give an example – of a young Sardinian woman in the 1930s: Gabriella Sagheddu. She would die of tuberculosis at the age of 25, but as a Cistercian nun had already offered her whole self and life and final illness for the full union of all Christians. There are surely similar, equally lesser-known figures – far from professional ecumenists – in other denominations. Don’t these “little ones” most authenticate the whole venture? Aren’t they the signs of the Holy Spirit at work? Gabriella died during the week when the Gospel reading was from John ch. 10, including the words, “So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). After her death, it was discovered how her copy of the New Testament was thumbed to yellowness at John ch. 17: “May they all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21).

“Jesus went on his way, journeying to Jerusalem”. And we follow him and his more recent disciples too: towards the gathered unity, the common table. Where are we on the way?

Christ, we know, enjoys the eternal youth of his risen life. His Church, however, experiences the vicissitudes of time. May I offer an image? Perhaps our ecumenism now, compared to that of say 50 years ago, has become middle-aged. That is not necessarily criticism. There are positives as well as drawbacks to being middle-aged. There is a new realism as well as a certain jading, wearying. I think the heady times of the 1960s and 1970s have been replaced by something more sober and measured, less illusory, more real. The story of Christian unity isn’t a mere soundbite, as it were. It’s not a short, snappy, happy business. It’s not a human project that liberal-minded enthusiasm can carry to a rosy term. It’s not a single flowing narrative. There are alternative readings, counter-currents, log-jams. We have become newly aware of the need for time and patience. “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” Here precisely can arise the weariness. Elan fades, the greenness goes brown, the river turns sluggish. It sometimes seems to require special effort simply to maintain what we have achieved.

Many factors are at play here, I think. We have all become preoccupied with interior problems, doctrinal and practical, ethical and financial. We’re short of people and burdened with buildings; there’s Health and Safety, Safeguarding, Data Protection. Or again, social concerns seem more real and pressing, and engagement in them more promising. There is the rise of Pentecostal churches who often do not feel the need for ecumenical contact. With Islam’s heightened presence, inter-faith dialogue seems more needed, more stimulating perhaps. Ecumenism is no longer the “most watched” item, as it were, on the website; it has slipped in the ratings of ecclesiastical interest. More subtle can be a certain churchy assimilation of the celebration of diversity. We’re on friendly terms now, aren’t we? Isn’t that enough? After all, isn’t our variety, our distinctiveness to be hailed? Isn’t this from the Spirit too? Doesn’t it offer a breadth of possible Christianities that will actually draw more people to us? After all, doctrine doesn’t really matter, does it? We used to say that our lack of unity is a scandalous missionary liability, but mightn’t it be an asset? Maybe this is as good as it gets… And so the pace slackens, in good middle-aged fashion. Complacency sets in. Or a passion for short-cuts, for ‘cut-the-theory’, ‘go-for-praxis’. This cathedral is marked, physically, architecturally, by the divides of the 16th and 17th cc, by passionate debates about, for example, what the Eucharist is or isn’t. Tragic, surely. Calm discussion and recognition of difference is certainly preferable. But – forgive me – I also prefer by far that ancient passionate care to the attitude, What’s the fuss all about? I have a question: have we reneged in fact on the vision: “that blessed day when full unity in faith can be attained and we can celebrate together in peace the Holy Eucharist of the Lord”? “Full visible unity among all the baptized” (UUS 77). Something of spirit, heart and mind, but given flesh in the corporate and creedal and liturgical as well.

Has Jerusalem been lost in the mist? And is that why the disciples’ feet are dragging?

How, then, move forward? How retain the realism, but not lose our youth, our hope? How collate the enthusiasm of youth, the realism of the middle-aged and the wisdom of the old?

Well, we can, to quote Pope Francis, “see what we can do concretely rather than grow discouraged by what we cannot do”. The job in hand. Local action. We are already ecumenically the dialogue partner of the City Council. We have proven capable of doing things at Christmas and Easter. We have revived this Three Cathedral Festival. We have other irons in the fire. We must keep in step with our own churches, but we can be practical here and now.

At the same time, let’s raise our gaze. Let’s remember the grace of our common Trinitarian baptism. We have all been plunged into the same strange divine sea. We are all lit by the face of the same God and Father, all made members of the same Body, all overshadowed by the same Spirit. Just as the goodness of existence and life is prior to all sin and waywardness, so it is with the primacy of God’s election of us to faith and baptism. This is already unity.

Then a further realization has dawned. There is another achieved unity. It is at the level of holiness, sometimes of martyrdom too. As John Paul II said in 1995 our currently imperfect communion is already perfect “in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who are far away” (UUS 84). Echoing this Pope Francis said in June last year in Geneva: “the ecumenical journey is preceded and accompanied by an ecumenism already realized, an ecumenism of blood”. So, every saint, from every Church or ecclesial Community, is necessarily now an ecumenist, a force for unity. Yes, the Bride of the Lamb is already one and safe in the arms of her glorified Bridegroom So, our youth can be renewed.

My late parish priest once said that since the age of 40 he had thought of death every day. This is one of the graces of middle age and beyond. It happened, I found, after the passing of both my parents. And it wasn’t just death but what, in the Christian view, lies beyond. My parish priest himself collapsed and died after celebrating the Vigil of the Resurrection on Easter night. Today’s other reading has precisely this eschatological focus: ‘“Come, I will show you the wife of the Lamb”. And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great high mountain – i.e. a place of contemplation, where we can begin to see things as God sees them – and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel.” Jesus in the Gospel speaks of people who “come from east and west, and from north and south, [to] sit at the table of the kingdom of God”. This is Jerusalem too. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus, with their falling plaintive phrase, ‘we had hoped…’, unexpectedly discover the risen One and return to Jerusalem, their youth renewed.

If we begin from the end, from the communion of saints, from the unity of the saints in the unity of the Trinity, from the heavenly Jerusalem, from eternity then time needn’t dishearten us, nor any of the vagaries of history. We can rejoice in every genuine download, as it were, from the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us. We can be glad at every outpost, every moment, of ultimate reconciliation we stumble upon. We realise that our current unfinished business is provisional and temporary; already bracketed by the given unity of our baptism and the coming unity at the table of God’s kingdom on which all the compass points converge. Meanwhile, we do what we can: keen, realistic and occasionally wise.

Prayer too is already unity. Prayer, to quote Pope Francis one last time, is the “oxygen” of ecumenical endeavour. Let’s inhale it this evening. Prayer is the symptom of hope.

Full Christian unity is, as the theologians say, “already and not yet”. It is the Kingdom of God both present and to come. Above all, it seems to me, it is eschatological. It is secure in the Trinity, secure in the saints, secure, a Catholic would want to say, in Mary, the perfect disciple. It is waiting for us. And therefore, enthusiastically and soberly, we can go on working towards it. Again and again, the tapestry unravels, but we can weave on.

Let us follow Jesus to Jerusalem.

 St Machar’s Cathedral, 20 January 2019
Revelation 21:7-14, 22-27 – Luke 13:22-30