Easter 7: Connection and belonging
7th Sunday of Easter
Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green
Based on readings: Ezekiel 36.24-28, Acts 16.16-34, John 17.20-26
“May they be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me.”
Today’s Gospel reads strangely. It’s a prayer. But it’s written in very formal language. It’s almost like a philosophical treatise in its phrasing. As such it seems quite unemotional, withdrawn. Despite the fact that Jesus is praying that his disciples be one; that they love one another like he has loved them. The translation doesn’t necessarily convey that this is a heart-felt speech, made on the eve of execution, that his vision be carried on and his friends look after each other.
Unless you have completely withdrawn from society; having heard the same news stories every day for the last three years and with the optimistic billing of the England cricket team, you may have decided you cannot bear the inevitable disappointment, and cut yourself off from the world; but not completely. After all you’ve still made it to church. So if you haven’t gone Crusoe, or retired to senility in the attic; you will be a member of certain groups.
At street level it might be a playgroup, a lunch club, or a poker night; a dysfunctional family; but you might still work or have ties to your old company. You might belong to a club on Pall Mall, or a book club, or the Society of Charles King and Martyr. You might, and perhaps contrary to your actions on your last trip to the polling booth, belong to a political party; or formerly belong to a political party; or be a patron or trustee of some charity or foundation. Your balloon is likely attached by several such strings. We are social animals. We belong. And belonging tells us who we are.
But belonging seems less fashionable today, loyalty less a la mode. Institutions are in decline and in constant suspicion of abuse, corruption and being out of touch. Perhaps the French President will not go to the D-Day commemorations on Juno Beach. How very French I hear you say. And even to say you’re English suggests colonial paternalism. Thus Elton John’s recent tweet: ‘I am a European — not a stupid, imperialist English idiot’. To be a “woman”, I’ve always said, is to participate in an outdated, binary, oppressive normativity.
And we could easily imagine Jesus walking into the Conservative party HQ right now and declaring: “Father, I wish that they might be one, even as we are one,” Or bringing together Jeremy Corbyn and Alastair Campbell and praying, “May the love with which you have loved me be in them, and I in them.” It seems more likely that he might offer some other just counsel like: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The desire to belong, to have a social mooring is as strong as ever, but in a culture, addicted to the heady cult of individualism, and a political situation which has abandoned collaboration, where is it that we come together?
I talked some weeks back about the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and his book I and Thou. I’d like to bring it up again because it very neatly encapsulates two very different ways we inhabit the world, and the difference between worldly relationships and what Jesus calls us to.
So there are two sorts of relationship. I-it relationships: where we treat others as objects; an instrumental view of the world. And I-thou relationships: where we treat others as a relationship in which we’re involved; where I’m less sure where I finish and you begin.
So if you walk into a room and you’re thinking, what can I get out of this, how can these people help me, which people do I need to avoid, what is the most I can get from this. That is the I-it relationship. A room full of bumper-cars.
If you walk into a room and you’re asking yourself, how can I connect with these people, how can we understand each other better, how can we grow together, how might we together benefit the world, then we’re somewhere closer to I-thou.
Now even the most generous minded person cannot be fully engaged all the time. The queues in Tried and True are long enough. And actually having a little professional distance from your dentist is usually a good idea. But to merely treat people as objects would lead to a very lonely and very cold life. But this is not just about dealing with other people.
So perhaps you run. A few years ago I had the delight of a 5 week running course in the Yorkshire hills. Every day was a somewhat uncomfortable test with every conceivable pressure to keep up. For the most part it was mind over matter. My body was an object. Fill it with fuel, give it ice baths, exert my will over it. But every runner will know — and there were moments in those 5 weeks — when mind and body are in harmony, and running is suddenly a joy. It’s actually thrilling and you feel the endorphins rushing about in your brain like performing dolphins. mind, body, spirit, the world all in sync. That feeling of connection within yourself is I think like a religious experience.
Or if you’ve ever moved from that stilted experience of a first-date, where the boundaries of where each of you end are so clearly miles apart that you wonder how you will ever find anything to say to this person, to that seductive rapport where you could talk all night and you’re finishing each other sentences; that intoxicating infatuation is like a religious experience.
And even if it’s more measured there are those moments where you realise there is a matching curvature between your long term partner and yourself, where your faces fit together, such that to lose that person would be to lose yourself. It has become inconceivable that you would be truly separate objects again.
Or perhaps out on a mountain top, or in a summer rainstorm, in the absolute calm of an ocean or lake; or watching the dawn send a matrix of light through the dense canopy, you have felt within the animality, the createdness of your being an absolute connection and rootedness in this planet.
Or perhaps it’s just watching your first nature documentary after the birth of a child, seeing the polar bear with her cub and realising with uncontrollable sobbing that this is your battle. You are the polar bear. That connection has the nature of a religious experience.
Or finally in church, it may be the collective act of singing, perhaps in today’s gradual remembering the Dunkirk scene in Atonement; perhaps singing in school or college, or through 40 years of vicars coming and going, or in speaking words a realisation of their weight, spoken over 2000 years, 160 years in this building where prayer has been valid. Perhaps it is simply in a quiet moment, a breaking down of the barriers we place around our souls to find that connection with God, with the person in the next pew, the birdsong, the Putney foxes asleep in the garden. That connection is the basis of all religious experience. That is the opening of the soul to the Thou of the world. This is what Ezekiel spoke of: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you;”
The basis of almost all horror movies is to isolate each member of the group and pick them off one by one. Christianity is founded in reconciliation and this prayer that God’s people might be one, as God is one in unity, and that as one they might love each other. Britain, as a country, and as part of Europe has not looked so fractious and isolated in a long time. As Christians it is our vocation to be points of connection, and through prayer and action find ways of making our connection with nature, our neighbours and our God deeper and more numerous. It is that point of connection that fuels our charity and our impact upon world. It is that depth of connection that is the source of a living faith.
We have for too long treated the world as an ‘it’, treated women, people of different lifestyles, foreigners, the poor as an it. Sometimes even with a general will to do good to them. To follow Christ is to realise that the animal one pew over, the taciturn man serving coffee, the stranger whose eye you would not meet walking here, the chorus of birds that woke you up, the bright garden outside all have that spark of the divine. All can be reached by thoughtfulness; all are a touching point to eternity. And in feeling that connection, to widen our hearts. In finding the Thou all around us, to love them. Amen.