It’s not just for us

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On a recent retreat in Canterbury, I much enjoyed the hospitality of the Franciscan brothers who live in the Master’s House with this beautiful garden.

I saw a cross disappearing into water. In baptism we go under the water to signify our dying to sin, to then rise again to new life. The cross signifies the pain and agony of dying as Christ. Perhaps a cross going under the water means the previous pain and agony of being like Christ is itself now dead; washed in the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit.

We die to sin.
We die to pain as we live the life of Christ.
We die to death itself.

We let go of sin.
We let go of life.
We let go of death.

If we hold on, be it to sin, or to life, or to death, we hold on to what is not God because God in Christ transforms all sin, all life, all death, into new life.

In his book God’s Pattern, Bishop David Stancliffe explores how the story of The Road to Emmaus presents a pattern that shapes our entire response to God through worship, ministry and life. “What is important is that in this new creation by water and the spirit, the emphasis is not so much on the outcome so much as the process. ‘Beloved we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2) is the motto for this developing relationship of transformation.” [God’s Pattern, SPCK London 2003, p.158]

How do we make this happen? “We can bring people into conjunction and persuade them to talk to each other but we have to leave the process of transformation to God and let him work in the space that is created. Reconciliation is a gift not the outcome of good management. Yet, as the disciples who lived in Emmaus discovered, when we hold together our concern for what is happening in the world with Christ’s real presence, known in the breaking of bread, powerful things can happen that we could never forsee.” [Stancliffe p.163]

“The model of encounter with God visible in the Emmaus story is of encounter with God who suddenly stands in the way at a narrow point and holds up the need for radical change. ‘You fools’ says the Christ, who walks unrecognised by his companions, ‘and slow of heart to believe’. The relationship with God that we long for is not all about sympathetic listening and encouraging each other with stories on the way. There are moments of decisive challenge too, when we are brought up short. That is what happened to Balaam and his ass (Numbers 22:21-35) when the Angel of God, visible only to the ass, stands in the way and refuses to let Balaam go on without confronting the moment of radical re-orientation which the encounter demands.” [Stancliffe p.164]

Coming out of the Canterbury Cathedral precincts in search of coffee, I saw a young woman out jogging through the narrow streets around the cathedral. What really amazed me was that she was pushing a double buggy, and yes the double buggy had two young children in it. She wasn’t out jogging by herself, she was getting her children trained as well! But if we want others to go with us it takes more effort. The young woman out jogging had to use more energy, probably a lot more energy, in order that her two children could be out jogging too. They were too young to walk let alone jog. Being together when we are different requires us to give more.

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French Protestant Church in Canterbury Cathedral

The French Protestant Church has met in Canterbury Cathedral since the Huguenots arrived in England in the 16th century. They are a Reformed Church descended from Calvin. Yet they have a chapel in an Anglican Cathedral with their own entrance. That’s hospitality.

Bede Griffiths came to this firm conviction that in the Mystical Body of Christ which embraces all redeemed humanity, we do not disappear in the Godhead but we discover a personal relationship of love. Each person is fulfilled and open to the other person; it is an inter-communion of love in which each embraces the other and all are embraced by God. [Quoted in Graeme Watson, The Song of Songs, SPCK London 2014, p.60]

It seems to me that the answer lies in Partnership in the Gospel; believing no-one has all the answer but each has a bit of the answer. Being Church is like having to put together a jigsaw puzzle collectively. Throwing our piece out of play, or shouting and screaming at someone else demonstrates spiritual immaturity. Many Christians haven’t learnt this yet, but we all need to.

“Holy places … may be at the same time beautiful and yet deeply infected by human pride and sin. Religious movements start out with the highest ideals, but too often become battlegrounds of competing aspirations in which anger and frustrations may boil over into intemperate words and behaviour. No-one who has been a member of a church for very long will be unaware of this. It is something that brings shame and necessary penitence for the sin and folly in which we all take a share”. [Watson p.49]

There are several ways of reading the Song of Songs. One is as an allegory for the relationship between God and the city of Jerusalem and the temple. In this approach the blackness or darkness of the female figure may be the sin of the people of God, and yet she is beautiful because Jerusalem is the place where God’s glory dwells. Another reading of the Song is that’s it’s about the mystical love relationship with God into which all members of the Body of Christ are called.

I know a church which loves diversity; that’s a good start but we really only love diversity when we love those who are different or have a different view. Maria Voce, president of the Catholic Focolare movement, said in an interview with Crux: “Pope Francis will succeed (in Christian unity) if he finds Christians who … are willing to lose the privileges they believe they’ve acquired. To put together a unified Church, Christians must be committed to mutual acceptance and listening, as well as willing to be testimonies of reciprocal love as the basis of unity, which is a gift from God.”

Clasping Hands in Three Mills Park
Clasping Hands in Three Mills Park

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Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral