by Revd John Davies
United Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Davis Hall West Camel, 24 January 2016
J.John clip – ‘How To Explain What You Do, When You’re A Pastor’
‘People often say to me, ‘J.John, what do you do?’
It’s difficult to know what to say. Because if I say to you that I’m a Reverend, which I am, that conjures up certain images in people’s minds as to what I might be. I like to be a bit creative in telling people what I do.
I sat next to this lady on an aeroplane at Heathrow airport and I said, ‘Hello’, and she said, ‘Hello’. Then I said to her, ‘Where are you going?’ and she said, ‘I’m going to Singapore’. And she said to me, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to Australia’.
I said, ‘What do you do?’ and she told me; then she said to me, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘Well….’
‘… I work for a global enterprise.’
She said, ‘Do you?’
I said, ‘Yes I do.’ I said, ‘We’ve got outlets in nearly every country of the world.’
She said, ‘Have you?’
I said, ‘Yes we have.’ I said, ‘We’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters,’ I said, ‘We do marriage work, we’ve got orphanages, we’ve got feeding programmes, educational programmes.’ I said, ‘We do all sorts of justice and reconciliation things’. I said, ‘Basically, we look after people from birth to death, and we deal in the area of behavioural alteration.’
She went, ‘Wow!’ And it was so loud, her ‘Wow!’, loads of people turned round and looked at us.
She said, ‘What’s it called?’
I said, ‘It’s called the church … have you not heard of it?’
And that’s it, really, isn’t it – if we are a follower of Jesus then we are part of a global enterprise. But not only is it global, it’s intergalactic, because it includes everyone that’s gone before us.’
Why do we followers of Jesus do the things we do? I like to think it’s because we have let the words of his teachings and the example of his ways filter into our hearts and minds and out through our lives. Today’s gospel reading reminds us of the power of his teaching to deeply affect and alter us.
Jesus begins what has become known as the Sermon on the Mount in a fascinating way. He uses the term blessed to address the question of identity, the question of who we want to be. In Jesus’s day, to say ‘Blessed are these people’ was to say ‘Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.’ It’s the opposite of saying ‘Woe to those people’ or ‘Cursed are those people’, which meant ‘Take note: you definitely don’t want to be like those people or counted among their number.’
If we’re honest, we find his words surprising, because we normally play by those rules of the game which say:
- Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
- Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
- Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
- Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
- Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you‘ll always be popular.
But Jesus defines success and well-being in a profoundly different way. He says that the ‘blessed’ – the kinds of people we should seek to be identified with – include:
- The poor and those in solidarity with them.
- Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss.
- The non-violent and gentle.
- Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
- The merciful and compassionate.
- Those characterised by openness, sincerity and unadulterated motives.
- Those who work for peace and reconciliation.
- Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.
- Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quieten down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened and harmed.
In one succinct statement, Jesus turns our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down. He advocates an identity characterised by solidarity, sensitivity and non-violence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion and manifest integrity and honesty. He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives or politicians, but brave and determined activists for pre-emptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.
Jesus makes our choice clear from the start. If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.
It is in recognising this that followers of Jesus have over the centuries given their lives to work in hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters, in orphanages, schools and feeding programmes, in all sorts of justice and reconciliation work, setting up foodbanks and credit unions and debt advice centres and rural food cooperatives – often to their own cost.
Jesus promises we will pay a price for making the choice to be his disciples. But he also promises we will discover many priceless rewards. If we seek the kind of unconventional blessedness he proposes, we will experience the true aliveness of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction of seeing God’s restorative justice come more fully, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence, the honour of association with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity he invites us to seek.
That identity will give us a very important role in the world. As creative non-conformists, we will be people who make a difference, activists for aliveness, catalysts for change. Like salt that brings out the best flavours in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society. Also like salt, we will have a preservative function – opposing corruption and decay. Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us. Simply by being who we are – living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our ‘saltiness’ or try to hide our light. 
Now today is the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s an occasion which invites us to consider our identity as the church, to celebrate our strengths, to repent of our corporate wrongdoings, and to commit ourselves to overcoming our divisions and reshaping our ways to meet the challenges of this generation where over half the population now describe themselves as ‘non-religious’ but a high proportion still nevertheless believe in God and express an interest in spirituality. 
But note that Jesus doesn’t talk about the church. His concern is not to establish a religious institution which runs welfare organisations. To borrow from what J. John said in the video, Jesus ‘deal[s] in the area of behavioural alteration’. He wants us to lay down our desire to follow in the pattern of the world and to desire instead to be alongside the poor, the peacemakers, those who exercise ‘soft power’, those who seek God’s justice regardless of the cost. And those who respond to this challenge today – as throughout human history – come from inside and outside the church.
You don’t have to sign up for membership, or pass doctrinal tests or look or act or eat a certain way to be part of Jesus’s movement. You just have to embrace Jesus’ teaching and his life as the means through which you can become more fully human. If you walk the way he describes in the Beatitudes, then, knowingly or not, you walk with him.
Jesus’ concern for we his followers today surely embraces the urgent need to achieve Church Unity – but it goes way beyond that, into the need for us to give ourselves to others – of whatever denomination or theological inclination, of whatever faith or culture – in the adventure of living together in God’s kingdom, working together towards helping God’s restorative justice thrive.
You may have similar stories to tell: I would certainly say that my keenest experiences of ecumenical and interfaith working have come not whilst sitting on dusty committees devoted to such themes, but as a member of active Justice and Peace groups, or whilst campaigning with people of other faiths and denominations on poverty issues, or whilst moving boxes, painting walls, cleaning floors, of buildings set aside as community centres, and whilst so doing listening and learning about the different outlook on life of the people alongside me, that had drawn us to the same place and the same work. Unity is often easily achieved by working together for the good of others. Or as George MacLeod, the founder of the ecumenical Iona Community, used to say, ‘Only a demanding common task can build community.’ 
As denominational churches shrink in number in the Western world we increasingly unite. But we should resist the very worldly temptation to think that unity means huddling together with like-minded people, defining ourselves as being ‘not like them’ outside. This, of course, is not a prescription for unity at all, but a recipe for hostility.
As the denominational churches continue to shrink the demanding common task for all who want to walk the way of Jesus is to reframe our thinking about who we are and what we are for, in this world, to be prepared to radically reshape our institutions and to rub shoulders in partnership with people we’d never previously imagined were also walking the way of Jesus.
This is about conservative Christians seeing ‘that of God’ in liberals, and vice versa. This is about Christians who put doctrine first, seeing ‘that of God’ in those who put compassion first; and vice-versa. This is about liturgical Christians seeing ‘that of God’ in informal worship, and spontaneous Christians seeing ‘that of God’ in contemplative practices. This is about adult Christians listening – really listening – to children and the young to learn how to nurture what is ‘that of God’ in them. This is about cultural Christians seeing ‘that of God’ in Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans, Jews – and opening up – conversations, coffee shops, credit unions – with these others who also positively identify themselves with the values of Jesus’s Beatitudes, and seek to act together for the common good.
The Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi often expressed his love of Jesus Christ and his desire that Indian culture should welcome what Christ had to offer. In a famous exchange the missionary E. Stanley Jones said to Ghandi, ‘I am very anxious to see Christianity naturalized in India, so that it shall no longer be a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift and redemption. What would you suggest we do to make that possible?’
Gandhi replied, ‘I would suggest, first of all, that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, begin to live more like Jesus Christ.’ Rather than taking offence at Gandhi’s statement, Jones reflected on it and later commented, ‘He needn’t have said anything more – that was quite enough. l knew that looking through his eyes were the three hundred millions of India, and speaking through his voice were the … millions of the East saying to me, … ‘If you will come to us in the spirit of your Master, we cannot resist you.’’ 
In 1965 Pope Paul VI made a statement as vital today as it was back then:
The Church, therefore, exhorts her children, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them. 
So – in these times the words of the Sermon on the Mount challenge us again, to prepare ourselves to walk alongside others who may be quite unlike us; the Jesus of the Beatitudes invites us to rejoice in the common task we share with these fellow-travellers, to love and serve others, to be salt and light in the world, taking our inspiration from him.
Notes J. John, How To Explain What You Do, When You’re A Pastor, YouTube,Trinity Broadcasting Network interview, 13 Nov 2014 (slice).  Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation, Chapter 27: A New Identity, p.157-161, altered.  Hattie Williams, ’No religion’ is the new norm, survey of White British finds, Church Times, 22 January 2016.  Quoted by Kathy Galloway in Neil Paynter, ed, This is the Day: Readings & Meditations from the Iona Community.  As quoted by Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World, p.252-253. Ghandi’s suggestions also included, ‘practice your religion without toning it down’, put your emphasis on love, for love is the centre and soul of Christianity’, and ‘study the non-Christian religions … sympathetically … so that you may have a more sympathetic approach to the people’.  Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate (Latin: In our Time), The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council, promulgated on October 28, 1965, paragraph 2, quoted by Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World, p.217