Celebrating Difference

Sunday 18th May 2014
Year A, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Acts 7:55-60
John 14:1-14

Even when I am alone I can't bear the prospect of drinking beer straight from a bottle but, on the other hand, I really like taking the flesh of a dover sole off the bone with my fingers, something I would not dream of doing in a restaurant, although my grandfather once remarked that the aristocracy and the working classes ate with their hands, while the middle class insisted on cutlery. We all have public mores to observe but, equally, we all have different ways of celebrating the private, taking off a tie, kicking off our shoes, watching junk TV or eating junk food, so I am immensely relieved to hear Jesus say that "in my father's house there are many dwelling-places" which leads me to suppose that after a long but no doubt stimulating harp recital, I will, if I get there, be able to abandon public etiquette and, so to speak, let my hair down.

Of course, at a literal level, I'm talking nonsense but what is important is that during our time here we are trying to build the Kingdom of God on Earth; in other words, we are putting ourselves through training in order to occupy the dwelling place prepared for us and so we should try to be on earth what God would have us be in heaven; and the metaphor of the private and the public is strikingly important in that preparation because although we have the commonality  of being created in God's image and although as Christians we have the commonality of Baptism, our theology and our biology tell us that each of us is unique.

It is easy to laugh at the poor North Koreans having to adopt the hair style of their illustrious leader, Kim Jong-Un but are we any better? Hardly a day goes by without a call from some old buffer for this or that person or group to conform to recognised standards. We are plagued by sergeant majors, busy-bodies, inspectors, standard setters, peers and pundits all calling for this or that norm and the only sad irony of this, of course, is that although we resent it for others, it does not stop us doing unto others what we would not have done unto us. It's got so bad that if we do find somebody who is slightly eccentric, we feel that we don't have to take their views or their example seriously. But, much worse, we are steadily falling into a state of social conformity and competition, self-censorship and a narrowing of intellectual and emotional range. Who would have thought that as higher education expands beyond the wildest dreams of our grandparents, our capacity for rational discussion would fatally implode. Yes, we have more and more fascinating academic disciplines, near miraculous digital technology and an almost limitless access to information, but our means of mediating these to each other seem to be dangerously impoverished.

You can see what happens when social pressure narrows discourse in the case of Stephen. Jewish self-understanding had become so legalistically narrow that there were no means of imagining anything different and because the governors of conformity became ever more powerful, they naturally resorted to power when challenged. Stephen, a great apologist, wound up the elders so badly that they simply lost it and stoned him to death. We have seen so much of this in the last 100 years that you would think that we would have learned the lesson by now' but I fear that we think that this kind of tyranny could not happen to us. Yet it is happening, right now, right here.

I realise that on the Sunday before European and local elections I am treading on dangerous ground; but you and I are used to that, so I will go on. Let me start by taking UKIP's manifesto at face value: it says that its arguments for banning EU immigration to the UK are purely economic, not racist; selfish, perhaps, but not racist. So if somebody is going to vote for UKIP - and as it's the second strongest political party in West Sussex somebody must be voting for it - then that person must be clear precisely what he or she is voting for. The idea that we can use our ballot for candidates as a means of "Giving politicians a bloody nose" is a piece of intellectual casuistry. Voting for UKIP is voting for UKIP.

Now I happen to think that UKIP is racist but, as I've said, let's give it the benefit of the doubt. The point is that its power is based on an abhorrence of the different and, therefore, its commitment to uniformity; and that is why I warn against the way that uniformity first imposes itself in a general way and then imposes itself on us so that we either suffer or conform and become participants in the imposition of the conformity.

So we're back with the many dwelling places. I'm not sure what the sublime architect has in mind for my dwelling place but I hope it isn't in a luxury block where everybody looks the same and likes the same things; it really would be boring only watching football with Liverpool supporters, dining with people who only drink claret or talking to people who only read Dickens, even though these are three of my preferences. Most of the great people who taught me at Cambridge and Harvard weren't English or American; many of the doctors who tried to save my sight were foreigners; Hardly any of us can trace our ancestry 100 years without finding a foreigner in it.

The main point is that opposing creeping, power driven uniformity takes guts and Stephen had guts. He told it as he saw it to people who were so set in their ways that they had stopped looking. He was the first Christian martyr and we are walking in his footsteps. To celebrate Christ is not only to be cheerfully hospitable and to love people we don't like, it is to celebrate difference because of the commonality that we share of being made in God's image.

Karl Barth said that when we hold the Bible in one hand we should hold a newspaper in the other; but in this age of venal and lying journalism, perhaps we should update the aphorism. When we vote, we must start by speaking truth unto ourselves before we attempt to speak truth unto power.