Sunday 29 June 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Apostles

I wonder if any of you here have been following the World Cup competition which has been taking place over the last few weeks, and which has now entered the knock out stages, unfortunately without England’s participation. I visited Bluewater Shopping Centre yesterday, and the Adidas store were inviting people to choose whether Brazil or Chile would win the match which took place last night as part of a competition to win some vouchers for their new store. I entered the competition and hoped that Chile would win. Of course I really wanted England to win, or at least progress further than they did. But for the sake of winning a few vouchers I was now a Chile supporter.
 Last night I was shouting encouragement at the television screen and jumping up and down each time it seemed Chile might score. And I was entirely disappointed when after all of the opportunities were past, Brazil scored one more goal in the penalty shoot-out and their opponents were knocked out of the competition. It was the Chilean team I was supporting so enthusiastically, even though just that morning I had no interest in their performance at all.

What had happened to change my feelings towards the Chilean team? I think that what took place was a natural and universal human response to being associated, even very loosely, with a particular group of people or cause. A certain prejudice develops towards others, and slowly our own side becomes more important than anything else as we come to belong to one party rather than another.

We can see the same thing with supporters of political parties. If we look at some situation entirely neutrally we may see that it is very complicated and difficult to solve. This is surely the case with many of the political controversies of our time. But if we belong to one party or another, if we have a clear sense of identity with one of those parties, then we find it very hard to accept any criticism of our side, and blame the others for everything that has ever gone wrong. I sometimes experience this when I talk about politics with my own father. If we are not careful then we rapidly end up taking more and more extreme positions just to defend ‘our side’ in the argument.

The Church has never been immune from this human trait. In 1 Corinthians 3, St Paul has to rebuke the Corinthian church because in its zeal for the Christian faith it was developing a party spirit.
One says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos,"

This is an easy temptation to fall prey to. The history of the Church is littered with groups who have become known by the names of those whose personalities and teachings became an excuse for party spirit, even against the purpose and will of the one whose name is taken. In the past groups of people have been labelled as Nestorians, Eutychians, Pelagians, Apollinarians, and Arians. Indeed it would take up the whole of our liturgy just to name the groups of people who are labelled with the name of some person from the past. Those I have named were all heretics, but their names have also been used to categorise others who do not necessarily share their opinions at all. It just seems that we are most comfortable when we have given someone a label – you are of this person or that person, I am of my own father or teacher.

In our more recent past in the British Isles we have continued this practice of setting up parties against each other. So there have been Wesleyan Methodists, and Calvinistic Methodists, the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, and Primitive Methodists. The Brethren movement, established with the grand aim of uniting believers in Christ rapidly spilt up into Open Brethen and Exclusive Brethren, and this Exclusive Brethrenism then split into followers of Raven, Taylor, Grant, Stuart, Kelly, Lowe, Glanton and others.

We celebrate today the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. It would seem that this feast originated in Rome in the earliest times. Certainly in the second or third centuries after Christ some of the relics of these two Apostles, both associated with Rome in their Apostolic ministries, came to be deposited together in a Christian cemetery on the Via Appia, where a basilica was raised over their shrine by the Emperor Constantine, the first of his monumental Christian buildings in Rome. It seems very likely that this early shrine was created with a definite desire to prevent the party feeling which had been criticised at Corinth from being able to develop in Rome.

If the two Apostles were venerated together at the same shrine, and if they were celebrated on the same Feast Day, then it would not be possible to divide their theology and spiritual emphases and create parties who could say ‘I am of Paul’ or ‘I am of Peter’. In time this feast day spread throughout much of the Church and it is now celebrated in Cairo and Constantinople as well as in Rome.
St Paul himself had words for those who wanted to compare him, favourably or unfavourably, with Apollos. He says in the same passage in 1 Corinthians 3,

Where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere 
men?  4 For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not carnal?  5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one?  6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.  7 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.  8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.  9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, you are God's building.  10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it.  11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

These are wise words, and they can be applied to us in our daily lives, as much as to the great controversies of history. For we are liable, as I suggested in my introduction about football teams, and as we considered by naming just a very few of the groups which have been formed almost unwittingly in Church History, we are liable very easily to fall into a party spirit.

Perhaps this is seen in how we might view those who do not belong formally to the Orthodox Churches. Do we say to them ‘I am Orthodox’ with a party spirit. It is quite possible. And it suggests that we are taking pride in our membership of a group rather than in our experience of the life of Christ in His Church. For as soon as we say ‘I am Orthodox’ in such a way, we demand of the other that he says ‘I am Anglican’, or ‘I am Baptist’. We have immediately created division because we are saying that the other does not belong with us or to us.

Even within Orthodoxy it can be seen in those who might say ‘I am a follower of Matta el Meskeen’, while another might say ‘I am a follower of Pope Shenouda’, or ‘I am a follower of Metropolitan Kallistos’, or ‘I am a follower of ….’ well take you pick of almost any hierarch. While some even will say ‘I am a follower of the Tradition’, with the implication that those who disagree with them are not.

It is spiritually damaging for us to allow these attitudes to have any room in our hearts, and they may be there without us being fully conscious of them.

We root them out by not allowing ourselves to use names and words in ways that include ourselves and those whom we agree with while excluding those that we disagree with, or have problems with. We root them out by finding our identity in Christ Himself and not in our membership of a community.  There are a great many people who are Orthodox without living the way of life that Orthodoxy demands and seeks to bear witness to. There are those to whom Christ will say ‘I never knew you’, even though they outwardly appeared to belong to the right group.

We must be careful that such a judgement does not fall upon our own heads. St Paul helps us understand how we exclude party spirit when he says in the same letter to the Corinthians,
I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

When we only look to Christ as the source of our identity, and life and service, then everything else fits into place. Everyone else whom we deal with who loves Christ is recognised as a fellow-worker, seeking to serve our common master according to his understanding. Therefore if we meet someone who is outside the bounds of our Orthodox communion we are filled with joy at fellowshipping with a fellow-servant, even if we also pray that they might be given some of the blessing we believe that we receive in the Orthodox Church of our common master, even if some of their faith is in error, or naïve, or contrary to the Fathers.

We find that which we have in common in Christ and meet each other in that space.
This does not preclude the discussion of our faith, bearing witness to what we have found in Orthodoxy, or criticism of teachings which we understand to be in error, but it does not allow us to assume a personal superiority over others. Perhaps we are Orthodox, but do we live as Orthodox? Perhaps these others whom we meet, who love Christ, serve Him better and more devotedly. We cannot easily say ‘I am Orthodox’, if we mean, I am better, I am safe, I am saved.

It is our identification with Christ which saves us, just as it saves all those who love Him and serve Him, according to His own will. If we identify ourselves as Orthodox, or as followers of particular people, then it might make us feel a little more superior, but since I am not living according to the spiritual measure of either Matta el Meskeen, or Pope Shenouda, indeed since I am not the equal of either Wesley or Whitfield, or St Francis, or Newman, or any of the well-known Christian figures of our British Isles I should not claim to belong to them as if their spirituality was my own by association.

Rather I should seek to be no more than a humble servant of the Lord who saved us while we had no merit and were deserving of nothing but condemnation. And I should rejoice in all those other fellow servants who recognise the same truth and seek to live in the same way according to their understanding. This is essentially the meaning of this feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. It is the way in which the fathers of the Roman Church sought to teach their own people not to choose between men, but to receive all, finding unity in Christ. I believe that in the British Orthodox Church we try to live like that, and all are welcome to worship here among us as fellow servants of Christ, whatever their backgrounds. This does not mean that we accept all teachings as true. We do not. It does not mean that we are not careful in what we believe and practice. We are. But we welcome those who are seeking to follow Christ, despite confusion and misunderstanding, despite error and deception, as those who have something in common with us, however attenuated.

May we be able to find our identity in Christ, and may we recognise the same identity in all others who love Christ however difficult that sometimes seems to be. We are God’s fellow workers. May this be our experience as we drive any prideful party spirit from our hearts. To the greater glory of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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