It’s been quite a week for the people of the United Kingdom. After months of debate, thousands of words spoken, written, tweeted and texted, on Thursday the day of the referendum on UK membership of the European Union finally arrived. The media worldwide has since reported the unexpected result that the majority of the British people wish to leave the EU.
Obviously in any choice of this nature there will be those who are disappointed by the outcome. In this case that is a huge number: 16.1 million, around 48% of those who voted. It would be wrong to just look at the figures from the UK, because the decision that has been made has caused distress across much of Europe. A major nation leaving the 28 country organisation cannot be without repercussions for the other nations. Change is unsettling at the best of times; few of us can class the current world situation as the best of times.
On many occasions in the last few months, prayers on Epiphany Island have been directed to God about the referendum. As a community we care about issues that affect fellow members, even if they live half a world away. On the evening of the voting itself, those of us gathered spent time asking for God’s wisdom on the matter. I believe that God has the issue in hand and that he can bring good from the outcome.
Probably what matters now is how we move forward as individuals, communities and nations which are divided. In our readings today I think we can find a lot of wisdom on how we should conduct ourselves, not just after a referendum in the UK, but in all our interactions with our fellow human beings.
Jesus was heading to Jerusalem from Galilee. The quickest way was through Samaria but the Samaritans routinely refused hospitality to Jews travelling through their country. There was enmity between the two peoples. We therefore shouldn’t be too surprised that when Jesus’ disciples went ahead to try to find lodgings for the night, they were refused by the Samaritans they asked.
James and John had a bright idea to deal with the opposition. They were prepared to call down holy fire to incinerate the Samaritans who had refused them. Obliterating those who act as obstacles to what we want has been the method of choice for centuries between nations, communities and individuals.
I imagine it saddened Jesus to be rejected in this way. No doubt he could have healed many in that village and taught about the kingdom of God. He could have done a lot of good, but the people didn’t want him. Rather than complaining about that village, Jesus rebuked his own disciples. They were out of step with Jesus’ way of doing things. In the same way that he had advised his disciples to act when he sent them out in pairs, Jesus just moved on to the next place.
As Christians, we are not called to control what our neighbour, friend or colleague thinks or does. We are not given permission to damage those who don’t agree with us. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus condemned those who even call someone else names, never mind getting angry with them. Instead we are to get alongside others in their grief and joy, to have empathy for them. Far from harming those who are against us in any way, we are to pray for them.
St Paul has much the same attitude as Jesus. Like Jesus, he suffered rejection, opposition, physical attack and being misunderstood. Neither Jesus nor St Paul instruct us in godly living without having experienced the unpleasant side of life themselves.
St Paul emphasises the freedom we have in Christ. We have been set free from our sins, from our old way of life and from the law. However, freedom has a purpose and that is love, not self-indulgence. Like Jesus, Paul quotes from Leviticus: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
In order to make himself clear, Paul lists the sorts of behaviour which are not consistent with living in a loving way, in step with the Spirit. Several of those ways of behaving come so easily to us when we find we have been rejected, abandoned, hurt, lied about, and so on. Some people may indeed decide to drown their sorrows in drunkenness. Even those who never touch a drop of alcohol can find that life’s disappointments lead them to feelings of enmity, anger and dissent, to quarrelling and strife. It’s hard to feel any closeness or kinship with someone who has hurt us. Yet that is what Jesus and Paul instruct us to do. The instruction about loving our neighbour does not come with conditions. It’s not: ‘love your neighbour if they think like you, act like you, make choices you like, appreciate you, are grateful for what you do for them, always listen to your advice, etc etc’. It’s love your neighbour regardless of the way the neighbour behaves.
There have been some harsh words said as a result of the UK referendum outcome. Some have been said by people who voted on either side. Others have been said by representatives of other members of the European Union. One thing that sticks out for me in contrast is a simple statement made by a member of AoSL who lives in an EU country: ‘The British are still our neighbours.’
That statement could, of course, simply be referring to geography. The referendum has not moved the British Isles physically. We are still in the same place on the globe. However, I’m sure it meant more than that. It was not a statement of geographical fact, but a statement of love towards the British people. Whether the result of the vote was to that person’s liking or not, there was an acknowledgement of unconditional love, of a continuation of relationship.
Only by letting the things in Paul’s first list be crucified with Christ can we avoid shutting ourselves out of the kingdom of God. Like the Galatians, we need to allow space for the fruit of the Spirit to grow in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Treaties, agreements, contracts and laws do a great deal to maintain peace between people and nations but ultimately the only thing that will totally work is the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in each of us.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor