Sunday 7th July 2019
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
Galatians 6.1-6
Luke 10.1-10; 10.16-20

I am always relieved when I hear a preacher telling me that just because Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had to give to the poor he did not mean that we should all do the same. We all have our different ways of being Disciples. And if you look around at the world then that makes good sense. If we all sold everything we had and gave to the poor there would be no capital accumulation to generate employment and the number of the poor would rise and those able to help them would fall. And so an affirmation of diversity in Discipleship is a very good thing.

But if we look at our passage from Galatians we will see that there are some very clear standards within it. First, Paul says that if anyone is detected in a transgression we should restore them gently. Secondly, he says that we should get on with our own form of Discipleship and not spend our time criticising the way other people get on with it; and, thirdly, we should bear the burdens of one another. What a wonderful world that would be!

Never in my lifetime have these three principles in Galatians been more central to the condition of society in general and the Church in particular. We are all told, in the face of obvious division in the Labour Party, that it is a broad church; we are told, in spite of deep division in the Conservative Party, that it is a broad church; but, let us not smirk because we are told that we ourselves, here in this church, are in a Broad Church and yet, in spite of repeated public commitments to diversity, we are deeply and often bitterly divided. Instead of bearing each other's burdens we are heaping burdens on each other by using theology as an offensive weapon, with harsh words as ammunition. As The General Synod meets this weekend there will be more combat than, using the literal meaning of Synod, walking side by side.

Why is this? In the secular world the answer is relatively simple: politics is about power and in a democracy power is about defining an advantage for the voters you want even though nobody believes for a moment that they will get much of what they are promised. It is a grim game where we expect our politicians to lie to us but to give us some marginal advantage for our support.

The problem for the Church of England is that it has picked up too many secular bad habits where there is a zero sum game, where, in discussing legislation, there are votes and a winner-takes-all conclusion or, conversely, a fudge that satisfies nobody. When I was on the General Synod for five years I was shocked at its theological shallowness and failure to imagine otherness, to understand the position of those with whom we disagreed. It was as bad as any of my experiences in political parties where internecine warfare is notorious.

If we look at the people Jesus sent out, if the list of Apostles is anything to go by, they were a diverse bunch: fishermen, a reformed tax collector and at least one terrorist. They were later to generate some rivalry over the pecking order in the Kingdom of Heaven but their central focus, although often blurred, was on Jesus. So here we are back with the lesson of the rich young man; we do not all have to do our Discipleship in precisely the same way but, more importantly, we should encourage and not attack those who do it differently. This, however, needs a good deal of steadiness and self-control because those of us who lack self-confidence often try to strengthen ourselves by seeing weakness in others, it's the mental equivalent of bullying. Indeed, the stronger we are, the less need we have to be aggressive; but we will only gain that strength, as Paul notes in this lovely, dense little passage, with the support of God's Spirit.

And so, in every aspect of our discipleship, in community building, in political activism, in our church life, we need to sort out what is really important and then be clear whether the importance is personal or public. Too much public controversy arises over the promotion of personal interest and personal preference, of what makes us comfortable and keeps us comfortable, as if we had been baptised in order to be comfortable! If we take self-interest out of the equation we will find that there is much less to argue about but, conversely, there will be more which remains that causes us difficulty; that's Christianity for you. There's much in contemporary church life that makes me wonder why I bother but ultimately I bother because I was baptised to bother, to put this Christian community, here and now, above my personal ecclesiological and theological comfort. And that is what we are all called upon to do, whether this means tolerating theological positions we find difficult or whether it means accepting liturgical amendment in order to accommodate newcomers. To stay as we are, as we would prefer, is to protect our own comfort and thereby to dilute our discipleship.

There is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, no such thing as "Cheap Discipleship" and although we are not likely to be asked to give up our lives, as he did, for our beliefs, if we cannot die for Jesus we should at least live for him and that means discomfort and sacrifice, tolerance and mutual support. And so, when we are faced with diversity we should pause before reacting and our default should be cheerful acceptance and constructive dialogue. The elephant in the General Synod room is the disagreement about gay people in general and gay clergy in particular, a debate damaged by ignorance of the science, exaggerated claims for the Scripture and almost complete failure to see more than one point of view. We should learn from this and behave in precisely the opposite manner, being diligent in our study of relevant science, being respectful and careful with Scripture and exercising our social imagination. But, above all, we return to Saint Paul: we should be forgiving, respectful and supportive of others and modest in our bearing, then we shall return to Jesus, as his Disciples did, with joy.