In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus at the synagogue in his own town. Handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, he reads a passage that’s all about God’s justice, God’s promise of justice, God’s promise that someone would come to deal justly with the people in their need. And then he hands the scroll back and sits down, which is what a Jewish rabbi would do when he intended to teach or preach. That’s why every eye in the synagogue was upon him. And Jesus announces his ministry by telling them that God’s great call to justice was fulfilled in him. Justice is central to the life and ministry of Jesus, and justice is central to the ministry he entrusts to us.
So here we are praying for unity; how does justice relate to our prayer this week? Here’s a sentence from the Letter of James - chapter 2 and verse 17: “Faith, if it does not lead to action, is by itself a lifeless thing.” Both the readings we’ve heard tonight present our faith as it’s supposed to be, not an abstract playing with ideas, but something that has to be lived out in the real world as we find it: a world that’s so often crying out for the justice Deuteronomy and Isaiah and Jesus proclaim.
Injustice leads to fractured societies, broken relationships and vows, situations of abuse and exploitation. Sadly churches aren’t immune from this; divisions in the society around us can intrude into church life too, and churches can be tempted to take sides rather than being open to all who need healing and refuge. And, especially when we’re finding it a struggle just to keep going, stuff that divides us as Christians gets overlooked, gets excused, gets dumped, perhaps, into the “too difficult” box.
But only in unity can we be a force to change and transform the world’s injustice; only when we welcome and value each other will we offer a sure welcome to the stranger who comes to our doors. Here are some words from the great Swiss theologian of the last century, Karl Barth: 'We have no right at all to explain the multiplicity of the churches. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and that of others, we have to recognise it as a fact, and understand it as an impossible thing which has intruded itself, as a guilt which we must take upon ourselves . . . We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce to its reality.'
Those are big and tough words, but true. Not to be united is sinful. And the divisions between denominations are not unalterable facts of life. I’m glad of the differences between us, how boring to be all the same - but I hate it when they become divisions. I’m glad when we try to outdo one another in doing good (I’m sure Paul said something along those lines), but I hate it when we just become competitive in a self-centred way. When I was in Telford, there were two chapels, both of them Methodist as it happens, that watched each other like hawks. Whatever one had, the other had to have better. You could throw a stone from one to the other, and it wouldn’t altogether surprise me if there were people who did. It was clear to us in the ecumenical team that either they had to unite and learn to love each other, or they would both close. And sadly, they both closed. Ultimately, for all their show of faith, what they had was built on sand.
Here are some telling words from Desmond Tutu: “Instead of separation and division, all distinctions make for a rich diversity to be celebrated for the sake of the unity that underlies them. We are different so that we can know our need of one another.”
We are different so that we can know our need of one another. Desmond Tutu was very aware that a divided church would always be too weak to struggle against the sin of apartheid in his beloved South Africa. Unity isn’t just a nice idea, it’s essential to our mission, our service, our action, our presentation of Christ.
That’s the point of this year’s theme: that praying for unity must be purposeful. We’re not doing it just out of a sense of duty or to feel a bit better; unity among Christians is something we need if the Gospel is to be heard and the world made whole. Only as we end our divisions and learn to value and approve and applaud one another within our company of pilgrims, only then can the Church become the advocate for justice and freedom and peace that our Lord is calling us to be. There’s much to be done, and it’s only in unity and fellowship that we can hope to counter the injustices around us. Ultimately, in our own strength we will fail; only in Christ will we win through.
Let me end with the closing verses of chapter 1 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “No place is left for any human pride in the presence of God. By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation. Therefore, in the words of scripture, “If anyone must boast, let him boast of the Lord.”