Week of Prayer for Unity Sermon

Ecumenism – Why bother?

Beyond tolerance and compassion, lies Transformation

Why are the churches effective in responding to mental distress?

Compassion for the less fortunate was central to the teaching of Jesus, and Christians are recognised as more likely to be sympathetic to those in difficulties. After all, many people in the secular/ atheist world regard our beliefs as madness. We are effective because in a time of cuts, we are increasingly the first place people turn to for help.
Christian compassion has been shown, food banks, street pastors, soup runs, drop-ins, and so on.

Jesus understood people. He did not just tolerate them, he was not politically correct: he knew the faults of the Samaritan woman at the well, he felt the faith of the woman who touched him in the crowd; he ate with tax gatherers and sinners.
The Holy Spirit transforms lives: examples – e.g. the sick, the dying. But not everyone – not when Jesus did his miracles, and not now.
Most people recover from mental distress, as we recover from a cold or flu, but for some it is an enduring threat to their life, a part of who they are. As in cancer or heart disease, people may be in remission, they also fear a return of severe mental suffering. This can make them very good at living in the present moment, aware of the eternal, as all Christians should be. We are effective when we treat everyone fairly regardless of their strange behaviour.

For most of us the transformation consists of knowing that our sins are forgiven, that Christ is with us, that we can start again; allowing ourselves to be led, and upheld through every hardship.
I have seen people in prison, given time to reflect, allowing Christ to turn their lives around.
(some of course pretend and think they are benefiting by pulling the wool over the eyes of a gullible chaplain, but the only ones who really benefit are those who genuinely repent and trust God.)
In ten years working in a hostel for the homeless, the only addicts whom I saw break their addiction, were those who trusted in a higher power. I saw many go through rehabilitation schemes, get a place of their own and six months later they were back on the street with their addiction. The more times they went through this cycle the more likely they were to die of an accidental overdose or commit suicide – even the relatively stable addicts lost ten to twenty years off their life expectancy.
Millions killed in War worldwide x2 = murdered x2 = suicide.

Why then are there so many churches?

2011 every Sunday a different church – my experience. (Not consumer choice – church is not a product to add to our shopping list.)

Compassion for those suffering the effects of climate change, refugees from war, famine and disease, leads many Christians to join together in organisations like Christian Aid, Cathod, World Council of Churches, and mission programmes, but also to work with other faiths and secular organisations. Working together for the needs of others, we forget our denominational difference.

We are all members of one church. We sing different hymns, to different tunes, have different rituals, different ways of organising ourselves. But Christ is the same for all: he knows our faults, he feels our faith; he enters into our lives and inspires us from within. He does not just tolerate our difference, He uses differences to lead us back to his scriptures, to learn from those who appear to disagree with us most.

Around the world, many Christians are persecuted for their faith, some are killed. We are right to be concerned for them and for Christians in this country who feel persecuted by businesses or the state, when they are forbidden to express their faith openly. We can listen respectfully to people of other faiths, and they will listen to us (I have been involved in Interfaith discussions at local and national level, and my faith is the stronger for this). What we cannot do is pretend that we have not seen the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot remain silent. “Here I stand, I can do no other” said Martin Luther.

What then are the dangers of Ecumenism?

Compassion can encourage us to become a full time welfare service, attempting to fill all the gaps left by government cuts. In many ways we are returning to Victorian levels of poverty. I know clergy and congregations who are run into the ground by the needs of the poor in their areas. Wonderful caring people, but in danger of being exploited by those who are happy to walk by on the other side, who could pay their fair share in taxes towards supporting those who are unable to support themselves.
We must not hide the problems of consumer society, but share our concerns with the public and appeal for a more caring government. I commend the recent study commissioned by Transforming Norwich which shows the massive support in time and money by Christian churches in the city.

It is not enough to work together, to tolerate each other, we need to learn to love each other despite our faults, as Jesus loved us. Just because we have stopped burning each other at the stake does not mean we can ignore our differences. Apathy towards those who believe differently, soon becomes apathy about our own faith. Faith grows fastest when faith is persecuted, and facing up to our differences, in creative conflict, can provide a similar form of stimulation.
In Norwich we have a Theology society, a Science and Faith Group, ecumenical Bible study groups and other opportunities for dialogue.

Forgiveness is the first step towards transformation. We need to seek the forgiveness of other churches for the terrible things our beliefs have done to them in the past. We need to seek the forgiveness of God for our ancient wrongs (Lollards pit in Norwich –generations of people murdered for their faith – Jews down the well, in what is now Chapelfield.) Most important we need to accept that we are forgiven, and allow ourselves to be led into closer understanding of each other.

John Myhill