“Unless these people stay with the ship, you will not be saved.”
The readings before us here are those chosen for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2020. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a global initiative, 112 years in the running now, which focuses on the promotion of prayer and work for the reconciliation of the historic divisions between Christian churches — and there have been a lot of them, haven’t there?
Every year, the liturgy and resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are created by Christians of a different geographic region of the Church. This year, it was the island nation of Malta. Malta is an interesting place in lots of ways, one being because it features in the New Testament itself. We hear about it in the final two chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, as the place where a perilous ship ran aground after a violent storm.
It’s quite a gripping narrative to follow, with all kinds of twists and turns, and a varied cast of characters. It might have made for a good movie in its day. We have a boat travelling the Mediterranean on route to Rome, with a captain and some crew. It’s a prisoner transport ship, so we also have some prisoners. One of these is a traveling preacher and church builder from the Province of Judea who we know as St. Paul, who is going stand trial before Caesar for preaching Christ. And, because there are prisoners, we have some Roman soldiers who are the guards.
And as all these are sailing along together, a great storm comes up — a nor’easter, with sheets of rain, and big waves. The ship is tossed back and forth, and things are thrown overboard to try and stay afloat. And, as is so often the case, the fear and uncertainty set these different groups of people on the ship against one another. They argue amongst themselves about who to blame; the sailors try to sneak away into the lifeboats on their own; the soldiers want to kill the prisoners to save themselves. But then Paul has vision from God: they will survive this, but only if they are saved together.
I want to suggest that, if we do a bit of Holy-Spirit-inspired squinting at it, we can see in this biblical narrative an allegorical image of what can easily happen to us as people in communities facing threats — both as Church communities, and as a global human community. So, let me unpack this.
We clearly live in stormy and uncertain times. In the wider world news, the headlines are evidence of this; they’re about things like economic instability, increasing wealth disparity, environmental crisis, natural disasters, food scarcity, water shortage, growing racism, political tensions, religious violence and on it goes.
These are also uncertain times for the Church, in this part of the world at least. The Church of the age of Christendom — where Christianity was the established religion of state and people belonged to it by default — is on the decline. There will likely be many good things that come from this seismic shift for the Church in terms of its holiness and prophetic voice, but also many challenges. If you read the some of the recent statistics out there, for example, or follow religion news sources, you’ll have seen the projection that the last Anglican in Canada will turn out the lights of the last Anglican church in the year 2040. Related worries about closing buildings, how to continue to pay clergy and Diocesan or national staff, a sense of loss of voice and relevance in society, and so on, are the cause of no shortage of anxiety within Church circles.
And hearing about both these kinds of news all the time can tempt us to respond by going into panic mode, choosing to focus on our own survival at the expense of others, and trying to go our own ways in what we think are a limited number of lifeboats. But this is precisely the opposite of what we need to do in times like these. “Unless these people stay with the ship, you will not be saved.”
The Gospel passage in Mark 16 is also about salvation. It is a version of what is called the ‘Great Commission’. “Go into all the world; proclaim the good news to all creation,” Jesus says to his first disciples.
In another Gospel account, John’s Gospel, chapter 17 — that familiar Charter Statement about Christian unity — Jesus speaks about this a bit more and makes an explicit connection between the fruitfulness of this mission of sharing the good news of God’s love and forgiveness on the one hand, with the unity that may or may not exist between the people who are proclaiming it on the other hand. To paraphrase, Jesus says: ‘I pray that they [his followers, all the way down to us] may be one… so that the world will know that you [God] have sent me… and so that they will know that you love them’. In other words, Jesus is saying if the people who claim they follow the way of Jesus constantly fight, and compete, and divide from each other, it will actually make the Gospel message about love and forgiveness un-believable.
This should be a sobering thought for us as the disciples of today; and it is why seeking Christian unity is not an optional hobby for some, or only the work of those who have jobs with the word ecumenical in the title, but rather an imperative for all followers of Jesus. The kind of confession and prayer which we are invited to take part in over this global Week of Prayer is a first step in taking the scandal of division seriously. And if that catches your ear, I encourage you to find out where the local ecumenical prayer services for the Week of Prayer are taking place between January 18 and 25.
But the importance of seeking unity doesn’t stop there. We are called to learn lessons about unity-in-diversity in the Church setting as a kind of school for taking those lessons out into the world more broadly. And just like that boat on the Mediterranean was full of all different kinds of people, our human family is very diverse; it is linguistically diverse, culturally diverse, politically diverse, and indeed spiritually diverse. And this isn’t an accident; the Scriptures tell us this was diversity was part of God’s design.
In practice, however, it doesn’t always go very smoothly does it? Social polarization is a phenomenon which sees groups and communities of people push beyond the usual differences and disagreements that are a normal part of life together with others into an entrenched opposition where communication, cooperation, and the possibility of common ground, seems to completely disappear. Many commentators have suggested that the levels of this kind of polarizing rhetoric and identity wars are at the highest they’ve been in quite a long time. And even worse than that, there are actual forces at work in our world which seem to actively seek to strengthen and enhance these lines of division for their own profit and political and ideological gains.
Jesus modelled for us a different way. Throughout the pages of the Gospels, Jesus meets with and talks to many different surprising kinds of people — ethnic and political and religious enemies of his day — who the forces of his time and place and culture told him he ought to avoid, or certainly that he had nothing to good to gain or learn from them. Yet Jesus was not afraid to learn from Persian and Syrian and Samaritan and Greek and Roman people and their cultural understandings and expressions of spirituality and faith, or even to draw on practices and ideas from these others as examples to teach things to his own followers. Read the Gospels on this — you’ll see it all over.
That same Paul from the boat often did the same in his own ministry, looking for common ground in the literature and art and philosophy and religious thought of the different people groups he was encountering, and finding new ways to communicate with people which weren’t supposed to be possible and certainly were not encouraged. It may have even been part of what got him arrested — stirring up the Roman cultural status quo.
And so today why should it be any different for us who are baptized into this same way?
Of course it is the central claim of the Christian faith that the person and work of Jesus was unique; that in Christ’s person and life, we are given the fullness of who God is and what God desires; and that Jesus came to bring something needed by all people, not just some. We affirm these things in our worship, and are clearly called on to proclaim it in the Gospel reading from Mark. We believe we have good news to share; we do have good news to share!
Yet there’s a further nuance here, which I think is also very important to add to the above. Because witnessing to that truth does not mean that we must presume that there are not other workings of God beyond our imagination, other movements of the same wind of the Holy Spirit of God blowing where it will, other expressions of wisdom and truth from God which form the rich fabric of human seeking of God in every people, place, and time.
And so when we find ourselves in contact with people who look and act and believe differently than we do, we should not be fearful or suspicious. Instead, imagine if we took this as an opportunity for growth and gift — a chance to show hospitality and “unusual kindness” — like the people of on the Island on Malta did to the strangers that showed up on their shoreline those many centuries ago.
If we do this, our conversations with others will never be one-way monologues, as if only ‘we’ have something meaningful to say. (That way of speaking people can be very dangerous, and almost always leads to abuses). Instead, they can always be dialogues — literally two words — expecting that we always have something to receive from the other just as much (and perhaps sometimes even more) than we want to give. You could even say that while our deepest need is met in our reconciliation with God, we also need each other for our souls to be fully healed. “Unless all these people stay with the ship, you will not be saved.”
And indeed — to make this very tangible — in the face of many of the threats to our common home in this time, we cannot afford for it to be any other way. The challenges we face in the world — poverty, political tensions, violence, war, the environmental crisis, etc. — are too big to face in our separate enclaves. The challenges the Western Church faces — loss of members, declining financial and physical resources, adjusting to being a more marginal voice within our culture, and learning again to do discipleship and mission in a way that learns lessons and avoids the pitfalls of our colonial past — these are too important to try and work out in denominational isolation.
And so I say if it takes some wind and some water to convince us anew of the scandal of Christian division and the importance of coming together as followers of Jesus, then let it rain, and let the wind blow. And if storms are what cause us to come to realize our human interconnectedness, and our need for one another, and they open to us new pathways of friendship and dialogue and partnership, then let those storms come.
It was in the midst of being shipwrecked and stranded on an unknown and uncertain island that God taught Paul an important lesson in microcosm. This unlikely and diverse crew, who nevertheless find themselves in the same boat, face the storm together, grab hold of each other, and onto whatever planks and ropes and oars they can find, and they make it to the shore together. I think this conveys that same lesson in macro for us.
Like Paul, may God give us the vision, today, and in the days ahead, to truly believe this, as well as the careful discernment to know what it means for how we live our lives together as People of Peace in uncertain times, no matter what storms come our way. Amen.