A Prayer for Unity

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this Service: John 17.20-end


Richard Rohr in his new book The Universal Christ quotes the Twentieth Century English mystic Caryll Houselander who described in her autobiography how an ordinary underground train journey in London transformed into a vision that changed her life.

I was in an underground train, a crowded train in which all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging – workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them – but because He was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here too, here  in this underground train; not only the world as it was at that moment, not only all the people in all the countries of the world, but all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.

I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere – Christ…[1]

Here we see described a church beyond confines, Christ all and in all. Here is a vision of unity.  It’s not about sameness or uniformity in any way. Its about a unity that comes from Christ himself. I wonder if you yourself have ever had an experience of such unity: where all the separates and divides is taken up into something much bigger and there is a unity not only greater than our differences but rather a unity that celebrates and is enriched by those differences.

There were several moments in the last week that spoke to me most profoundly of such a unity. Last weekend was our annual pilgrimage to Canterbury which began 29 years ago through the inspiration of Cath Shaljean and supported all those years by her husband Roger- and there last weekend both at the beginning and the end like the Alpha and the Omega was Roger Shaljean lovingly watching over his legacy like a much honoured composer who had come back to listen to his symphony played by those who had come after but uniting us with those who have gone before. And the pilgrimage is a rare symphony somehow it weaves together and creates harmonies among people from all walks of life. It is a tough walk, more than 75 miles of it and when you arrive no en-suite just a church hall with one or two toilets and a couple of hand basins for 80 plus. It’s a walk that breaks down all divisions and hierarchies. On a walk like this you are not judged by whether you are housed or homeless, or by your job, or immigration status, or by the quality of your boots- no the miracle that happens is rather an experience of human kindness coming out of hiding, an attentiveness to one another and the wonder of creation all around you. The person with least, suddenly becomes the nimblest and most able, offering to carry another’s back-pack and fetching bowls of hot water to wash others tired feet. And all along the way the churches and church halls we arrive at seem to rediscover their vocation to serve for we are welcomed with such warmth and generosity and cakes of every description, cakes always one of the strengths of the Church of England, and on a pilgrimage once more celebrated because after all the walking we have thrown calorie counts and fears of sugar to the wind. Indeed this year there seemed cakes of even greater diversity, for alongside lemon drizzle, coffee cakes, banana cakes, Victoria sandwiches and chocolate cakes and melting moments -we now have their gluten free equivalents. Who says the Church of England doesn’t adapt to the times? But what I am describing is I think a taste of the kingdom. In my group walking there was a Rwandan, a Botswanan, an Indian, a Bangladeshi, an Afghan, a Ghanaian, a Nepalese, a South African, English, Scottish, Welsh, all ages, genders, all sexualities, Muslims fasting for Ramadan, Christians and those unsure of their faith but still walking side by side and helping each other up the hills and over the styles and overawed by our final arrival at Canterbury Cathedral. And the quality that we take away is the quality of joy, joy discovered in the unity and mutual sharing.

On Wednesday this week the Bishop of London came and we celebrated Baptism Confirmation, and a reception into the Church of England. Again I was struck by the diversity of that group and the gifts and life stories they brought to our church. Reading the personal statements they had written, brought tears to the eyes. “I was baptised in India” one wrote ever since I have longed to grow more in Christ” Another wrote “I had a bad experience of Christianity in the past but my confirmation is the start of a new journey and the time to start is now.” Another writes “ I was blessed that when I was a young child I met Mother Teresa, I grew up knowing many religions Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Christian but when I came to St Martin-in-the-Fields I feel peace, it feels like my home. I realise that Mother Teresa learns to be the person she is from Jesus Christ- to serve all his people, to accept without judgment, to bring healing and balm to the wounds of others.” Another wrote I fled my country in fear of persecution. In London, homeless and unwanted I started to fill the void with alcohol. Useless and unproductive I came to Bread for the World. I gave it a try. I opened my ears to the gospel and allowed my heart to follow His will. I guess it’s when we are really low, then we have time to slow down and understand the word- pure love. Since then I have been a magnet to positive things. I got sober and cleaned up, who knows what would have happened if I had not met Christ? I will forever be indebted to Jesus for he rescued me during the critical age of my life.” Another of the confirmation candidates wrote “This is the lesson that my life has taught me so far. I cannot do it alone. God must be part of everything that I do.” In this simple intimate Baptism and Confirmation it was as though the liturgy was not something external or institutional but part of our lives- it was lived -this gathering, knowing our weaknesses, our need of God, washing away our sins and separateness in the waters of baptism, taking our place with others around an altar where all our different journeys meet. Discovering in Christ both a unity- a love greater and beyond our own human understanding and yet at the same time this uniting love intimate, rooted in the stories of our own lives, here in our own hearts at the centre of all that we are and will be.

This is what the Ascension is about which we celebrated  with such joy on Thursday- and which was broadcast to many others- Christ leaving a particular time and locality not to leave his disciples as orphans but in order to become more available to us all- He will send the Comforter the Holy Spirit – his dwelling place will be within us, in all places and in all times. Next week in this service we will celebrate the coming of that Spirit where suddenly the divisions of language and tribe and race are broken down and each person is able to hear the message of Christ within the context and story of their own lives. In her sermon two weeks ago Sally Hitchiner vividly described when the Gentiles were given their own Pentecost moment and the Christian family realised there was no division between Jew and Gentile but Cornelius could become part of Peter’s family and what was more Peter could enter Cornelius’ home too.

It was the beginning of a new unity of which today’s Gospel speaks. Jesus himself in this prayer from the heart before his death prays that his disciples may all be one. He asks this not only on their behalf but on behalf of those who come after. If the disciples of Christ himself cannot live and model unity how can there be any hope of others learning its meaning. Jesus speaks of the unity between himself and his father – you in me and I in you but also calls for his disciples to be part of that unity. This is not a power hierarchy this is a call to live in Christ and in God for us to become part of the divine circle- part of the Trinity.

I have spoken about unity today and shown you some examples of what that unity might look like. Life giving hope filled examples. But as we all know I am telling you these stories in the context of some of the greatest national division and divisiveness that certainly I have known in my life-time. The centre of our national life together does not seem to be holding, and the divisions even within the same political parties are increasing. And if we are honest it is not simply our nations but a world that though intimately interconnected is increasingly revealing its fragmentation and deep divisions. When each fragment fights for its own self-interest but fails to consider the interest the whole the fragmentation can only continue and get worse. Such division as we well know threatens the future of our whole planet. Nothing greater could be a stake. So Christ’s prayer that we may all be one is more urgent than ever, our lives depend upon it. And neither is this unity a fantasy. Here this Eucharist is a parable of community- and Christ’s broken body the call to become one body -a call to live his risen life. “Behold I am coming soon” we heard in our reading from Revelation… let everyone who hears say “Come” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

[1]The Universal Christ; Richard Rohr; SPCK 2019