Conflict in the church

1st after Trinity, 22nd June 2003

Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6: 1-13; Mark 4: 35-41

This story is one of the favourites for children and I suspect for their teachers, because it is so drawable! Even in the few lines of text, a vivid picture is drawn so it takes little if any effort to be able to imagine oneself there in the boat, the storm clouds gathering, pushing out from the shore, the fishermen in control. They know the waters, their treacherous potential, but these are the professionals, the ones who know their seamanship. Perhaps you have been in the region when a storm has blown up. It can be so sudden and so total - howling winds, blackened sky, sand whipped up into stinging whirlwind - in Khartoum, they used to say that sometimes the sand would literally strip the paintwork off a car. And the waves? crashing against anything solid in their pathway, threatening to engulf all?. and then in a thrice it is gone.

This boat rocks and dips, almost overturns, the water drenches all, waves towering over the bow. 12, 13, 14 people, some rooted to the spot hanging on for dear life, others, the seamen in near panic, straining on the oars or at the halyards to retain some kind of control. And a lone figure in the stern, laid out, head on a pillow, dead to the world, as we say. Whatever is going on? In their panic, the fishermen cry out to Jesus, they shake him awake. What on earth he is going to do, if the professionals have lost control, is not clear. 'Quiet, be calm. Do you still have no faith?' Not only the stormy world of the moment, but the hearts and the spirits of the ark are stilled. The fear, the panic, the shouting all becalmed.

This is a powerful and ironic allegory of the world with and without God and of, like it or not, a Christian community with and without God. When God is sleeping - or it seems that it is - we cry and we shout and we shake our fists at one another, we try to drag God in to sort things out - on our side of course. We simply have no faith, no trust. We are, in effect, no further on in our faith journey than were those ship-borne disciples.

The story of Job is one long reflection on just this theme, but with the dramatic difference that, despite all that happens to him and all the advice that is offered to him, Job remains the faithful and submissive servant of the God who, in the passage we have just heard, interrupts the one who has the temerity to try to explain God's ways. 'From the heart of the tempest, the Lord gave Job his answer'. The storm in the Gospel reading is no accident; it is the context in which God's voice may be heard; in varying degrees it comes again at the moment of crucifixion. And of course, God's explanation to Job, reflected both in the story of the calming of the storm and in the crucifixion, is that 'my ways are not your ways, my thoughts not your thoughts', or to use Paul's words, 'the peace of God is beyond all understanding.' To trust in God can only ever be a matter of faith, and it is precisely that faith that for most of us, like the disciples in the boat, is profoundly weak and superficial.

For the early Christian community of Corinth, with whom Paul is in quite strident debate, the matter should be much simpler. As Paul writes, 'Now is the real time of favour, now the day of salvation is here.' The day of salvation is a very specific reference to the period between Christ's coming and his return. The early church truly was expecting the imminent return of the Saviour to gather in the harvest. Given the freshness of the story of Jesus - no more than one generation away - one might expect that the sense of common purpose and expectation might have been enough to hold everything together; but of course, it was by no means straightforward. Questions to do with who was in and who was out, of who had authority, of what exactly was right practise, and perhaps, sharpest of all for most of the new communities, how to handle the violence and oppression that many were experiencing - all these things were being struggled with. In other words, the lives of the early Christians, fresh in the faith or not, were as stormy as the Sea of Galilee on that evening, and as stormy as much of what we experience today - strange really that many of the questions and problems we face today are, in essence little different from what the early church struggled with. Human beings, eh!

The thing that marks Paul out though in his appeal to those (in this case the Corinthian church with whom, as I say, he was having a titanic struggle) is that he is always calling them out to a vision greater than the immediacy of their context. Just a verse before, he reminds them 'So we are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were urging you through us, and in the name of Christ we appeal to you to be reconciled to God.' In other words, we are sent not just as messengers of Christ - an ambassador is much more than that. In his or her person, an ambassador is the living personification of the one - the government, the head of state, the nation - who sends. So as the ambassador for Christ he explains, even cajoles the Corinthians to grasp the vision of a greater way - 'in everything we prove ourselves authentic servants of God' - how? By living at least some sort of inadequate reflection of the life of Jesus - by resolute perseverance, taken for imposters, yet we are genuine, unknown and yet acknowledged, dying and yet alive, scourged but not executed, in pain yet always full of joy, poor and yet making many people rich, having nothing yet owning everything. Get out from behind your defences and live as if you are in the day of salvation. This is the time. And later he writes, 'The weapons with which we do battle are not those of human nature, but they have the power, in God's cause, to demolish fortresses.' But he goes on 'Once you have given your complete obedience, we are prepared to punish any disobedience. Look at the evidence of your eyes. Anybody who is convinced that he belongs to Christ should go on to reflect that we belong to Christ no less than he does.'

The world in which we live is in turmoil. No less is the church in turmoil. The debate in which we are embroiled is a profoundly difficult one. There is deep division, little agreement. Many are asking who has the authority to move us forward. Who is going to take responsibility. There can only be one answer. We have to take responsibility. Jesus is asleep in the boat. We can rage and shout. We can shake him as hard as we like with our prayers but it is, in the end, we who have got to get on with it. But we have got to do it with that greater vision informing our debate. 'Anybody who is convinced that he belongs to Christ should go on to reflect that we belong to Christ no less than he does.' This confrontation that is threatening to damage structurally our Anglican Communion, even to push it towards disintegration, should stop. It is ungodly. There is lack of wisdom, lack of generosity, lack of humility, lack of vision on both sides. We, as Anglicans, have gained considerable respect over the past decades for the way that we are willing to face up to issues and problems, and to have open and public debate; but this is different. The level of threat and counter-threat, the judgmentalism, the adopting of divine-like powers as provinces 'break communion' with others - communion is the gift of God. How dare we take away what is God-given.

So let us pray that the peace of God that passes all understanding may keep the hearts and the minds of all our brothers and sisters in Christ in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ. And let us pray for a little silence in which we may open our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts to the new creation that by God's grace we are enabled to be as true ambassadors of Christ.

Andrew Deuchar


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St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 12th July 2003