On 22 January we joined with Christians in the Northern Hemisphere for worship on the theme of Christian Unity. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were 2 Corinthians 5:14-20, Psalm 18:26-32, Luke 15:11-32.
This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the Northern Hemisphere. Each year, a country is chosen to create the resources for this week, resources which are used all over the world. Just the very fact that churches use resources created in a different culture and by many different denominations speaks of a will to move closer to unity between Christians.
This year it was the turn of Germany to create the resources. It is an apt choice as this year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s sending to his bishop his 95 theses about the problems he saw with the Roman Catholic church selling indulgences. This event was a key one in the Reformation of the Western Church. The Reformation led to changes so great that the Church split into Protestant and Catholic divisions. Since that time it has continued to split over matters of doctrine, styles of worship and other issues. The Anglican Church, of which we are part, is one result of the Reformation.
The Germans faced a problem: how can you celebrate something that caused division between churches when you are looking at the issue of Christian unity? Eventually after much discussion, and I’m sure with the help of the Holy Spirit, the German churches decided on a ‘Christusfest’ – a Celebration of Christ – as a way of commemoration which all the German churches could join in. Christ and his reconciling work are central to the Christian faith and something everyone could agree on. As a result, the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Reconciliation – The love of Christ compels us” which is taken from the key reading for the week, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20. I suppose it’s fitting that the theme was prompted by Pope Francis who had used this quote in his 2013 document ‘The Joy of the Gospel’.
In this short passage from Paul’s letter we see how gracious and forgiving God is. Jesus died for everyone, whether he agreed with their lifestyle or beliefs or not. He was God’s means of reconciling the whole world to himself. This is an absolutely free gift which totally disregards any distance any of us has allowed to form between us and God. God makes each of us brand new, a totally transformed person. In response to that gift, but not in order to earn the gift, we take on the responsibility of passing on the message of reconciliation to others. It’s no easy task; it’s a definite sacrifice to set aside disagreements and grievances. Instead of looking at others with our own attitudes, we need to take on Christ’s attitude towards others, to see them with his eyes and his loving heart for all. As Paul says at the very end of this short passage, the first stage in this journey is for each of us to be reconciled to God before we can become ambassadors of Christ.
In Second Life we have a wonderful opportunity to live out our calling to see people differently. We meet people from all over the world. We can’t see their offline selves but we see how they choose to represent themselves in this virtual world. I know some sims have rules about furries, tinies and so on, but here on Epiphany Island we seek to welcome and accept everyone who chooses to travel with us for a time. We have the opportunity to listen to people’s hearts, rather than to judge by externals.
This morning in my offline church we sang the hymn ‘O thou who at thy Eucharist didst pray’. In the second verse it has the lines:
‘Draw us the nearer, each to each we plead,
By drawing all to thee, O Prince of Peace.’
Here you can see that the way to growing closeness is by focusing on Jesus.
Similarly, the German churches chose to make their commemoration of Luther’s actions focus on Christ, rather than on issues that would divide Christians.
Here on Epiphany Island, we do our best to follow our vision, one statement of which is: ‘encourages Christians from different countries and theological persuasions to work together to the glory of God.’ We know that those who meet here disagree on all manner of issues, but we try to keep our focus on what is central and important.
If we concentrate on whether people believe the right things, act in the right way, or show they match our group is any particular way, we are creating what has been called a ‘bounded set’. It’s a group with a wall round it. It divides those who are ‘in’ from those who are ‘out’, those who ‘belong’ from those who are rejected. On the other hand, we can create a ‘centred set’. Anyone who is travelling towards the same central point, however far along the journey they are, can belong. There is no wall, just a direction of travel to decide who belongs to a group. Each person is free to choose whether they will travel towards that central point.
Jesus operated in this second way. Anyone who wanted to tag along with him was welcome to do so. Even those who wanted to do away with Jesus were still welcome to converse with him. In this he was like the father in the gospel story of the prodigal son. The younger son was free to leave when he wanted to but, crucially, as there was no wall to scale, no barrier to belonging, he was free to return and belong again.
We are called to be ambassadors for Christ, welcoming others on behalf of God. We won’t always feel like doing so. We will find other people irritating at times. We may be hurt by others and we may hurt others in our turn. But, as the theme for the week reminds us:
The love of Christ compels us.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor