We have far more in common than that which divides us

I’ve never been one for posting the text of sermons on my blog (although I’ve been considering it for a while – if only to generate content!), but a sermon I preached yesterday has been requested by a few people, so I felt this would be a good thing to share more widely…

Luke 9:51-62 – We have far more in common than that which divides us

Christ Church Highbury, June 26th 2016

I read this passage on Monday, as I began to prepare for this morning, trying to work out what angle I might preach upon. It took me a while, in fact, it wasn’t until Wednesday when I felt God speak very clearly. It was my turn to lead assembly at St John’s, our primary school, and the topic for this week was ‘the Bible and refugees’. I’d spent some time wondering how to cover it in under 10 minutes, for children aged 4-11 – it was a tough call, but ultimately I focused upon the really clear message from God and Jesus that all strangers should be welcomed and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.

I left school after assembly and went straight to Trafalgar Square for the memorial to MP Jo Cox on what would have been her 42nd birthday. It was a beautiful outpouring of love and unity in the face of such a terrible tragedy. I, along with most of the others present, let tears run down our cheeks as her husband spoke movingly about his loss; listened to her son’s classmates singing about justice and heard Malala speak of the importance of unity.

The juxtaposition of these two events brought home to me the relevance this week of the first half of this passage, where Jesus and his disciples faced opposition from Samaria. As the week has worn on, particularly with the results of the referendum, they have increased in importance!

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Verses 52-55 reads:

“And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” 

To put this into context, as the story of the Good Samaritan so clearly shows us, the Samaritans and the Jews were deeply opposed. This opposition dates back to the division of Israel into two kingdoms – Israel in the north, whose capital was Samaria; and Judah in the south. Both nations were invaded and their inhabitants enslaved. When the former inhabitants of the south were permitted to return and to rebuild Jerusalem, the northern kingdom opposed this repatriation and tried to undermine the nation’s rebuilding. This was approximately 500 years before Christ’s birth, so by the time of the encounter we’ve just heard, the divisions were long entrenched and deeply bitter.

The Samaritans weren’t too different from the Jews – they came from the same ancestral roots and shared scriptures. One commentary writer has suggested that the reason why the Gospels & Acts feature so many encounters with Samaritans is because it’s: “not the person from the radically different culture on the other side of the world that is hardest to love, but the nearby neighbour whose skin colour, language, rituals, values, ancestry, history, and customs are different from one’s own.”

The very first verse of today’s passage states that Jesus has resolutely set out towards Jerusalem. On the one hand, this is an indication that a new phase of his ministry has begun as he heads towards the city at the heart of the authority that will oppose him and ultimately sentence him to death. But it is also another red flag for the Samaritans, owing to their belief that the temple should be in Samaria, not Jerusalem.

Jesus knew that travelling to Jerusalem would bring him into conflict before he even reached the city – that he would not be received well by some of the towns and villages through which he and his disciples passed through. But he did it anyway, echoing the words of Isaiah 50:7 “Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.”

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Jesus behaved with grace and humility in the face of opposition. He did the right thing – sending messengers ahead to the Samaritan village instead of going directly there. Jesus wasn’t looking to deliberately offend the Samaritans – to rub his faith and ethnicity in their faces – he was simply heading towards the most convenient point on his journey to spend the night. But his civility was not returned.

His disciples are angered by the reception they received. They understood who Jesus was and held him in high honour and were therefore understandably upset that others did not see this. They also clearly understood the power Christ had as God’s son – asking Jesus whether he wanted them to call down fire from heaven to destroy them!

But Jesus? Jesus stood firm and said no, rebuking the disciples for their careless words. Jesus’ actions embodied his message: that the Son of God had come to save all, not to destroy. And that therefore he went peacefully to another village.

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I expect that, had Jesus been one of the MPs present in the House of Commons when Jo Cox gave her maiden speech he would have cheered loudly, as her message so embodies what he might have said to the disciples regarding the Samaritans.

These words, which were not given the attention they deserved a year ago, are now something which – particularly after Friday – we should all be holding onto: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Jews and Samaritans were divided by 500 years of history and a disagreement regarding the geographical centre of their faith. Our society has faced divisions again and again: immigrant versus ‘British’; rich versus poor; north versus south; London versus everywhere else; England versus Northern Ireland, Scotland & Wales; Remain versus In. And now we have percentages too: 48 versus 52.

As I look out at you all this morning, I have a fair idea that most of you will be hurting, grieving and confused at what has happened in our nation over the last few days. After all, this borough had one of the highest remain votes in the country. But that doesn’t mean that all of us in this room share the same views either.

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To use a very clichéd response that I’ve seen tweeted by various Christians on Twitter – there is one thing that does remain: love.

It may be a cliché, but it’s true. And it was love that turned Jesus’ towards Jerusalem, and onto another village when the Samaritans rejected him. It was love that made him rebuke the disciples for suggesting destruction.

Jesus’ love was and is sacrificial. He set his sights upon Jerusalem, knowing the fate that awaited him there – just earlier in this same chapter of Luke he had predicted his own death. Sacrifice is also what he asked of his followers – as the second half of this morning’s passage lays out. We shouldn’t be surprised by that, we all have experience of making sacrifices out of our love for others. It might be the sleepless nights after a child is born; moving house for the sake of a job; taking a less well paid role because of your passion for it…the list is endless.

It was love that I felt most of all as I attended Wednesday’s memorial. I didn’t know Jo Cox personally, although I’d heard a little about her through friends involved in politics and humanitarian work. As I stood amongst the 10,000  strong crowd, I was struck by the way in which love motivated them. I’ve found myself saying to a few people that I felt desperately sad about her murder not just because of the waste of life and the impact it will have upon her children, but because she was ‘one of my people’. By which I mean that her life and work were motivated by love and a passion for justice. It’s no coincidence that in that crowd on Wednesday I kept bumping into friends – friends from my days working in Christian mission and development charities; friends from the world of NGOs; politically active friends and fellow clergy. People do not work or get involved in those worlds without having a deep love for others and a passion to bring about justice, no matter what sacrifices are involved.

It’s also no coincidence that the vicar of a church in Jo Cox’s constituency said at a vigil immediately after her murder that she was a ‘modern day good Samaritan’. Jo, like so many others working in politics, relief work and war zones saw divisions but didn’t let it get in the way of showing love where it was so desperately needed.

The Jews and the Samaritans were not radically different and nor are our differences. The differences of language, nation of birth, voting preference are small things compared to what we have in common. We are all children of God, made in his image, loved by him and blessed with a love to share with all. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, in Christ there is no slave or free, Greek or Jew, man or woman – we are all one.

Before I finish with a prayer, I want to share some of the words that Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, spoke on Wednesday: “My sister would want her murder to mobilise people to get on with things, to try and make a positive difference in whatever way we can, to come together and unite against hate and division and fight instead for inclusion, love and unity.”

The message on Wednesday was ‘to love like Jo’. Jo loved in the way that Jesus calls us to. Without barriers, without prejudice and without inciting hatred. And that is what our world desperately needs right now.

Prayer of reconciliation:

“Guide our nation in the coming days through the inspiration of your Spirit, that understanding may put an end to discord and all bitterness.

“Give us grace to rebuild bonds of trust that together we may work for the dignity and flourishing of all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

jo-cox-memorial

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