18 January 2015

Finding the values of diversity and
unity in the call of the first apostles

A young boy lights a candle outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, where the tributes formed a carpet of flowers after last Sunday’s rally in Paris

Patrick Comerford,

Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Dublin,

Sunday 18 January 2015,

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

10 a.m.:
Morning Prayer,

Readings: I Samuel 3: 1-10, 11-20; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; Revelation 5: 1-10; John 1: 43-51.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I imagine many of us were fascinated by the demonstrations last weekend that saw 1.5 million people pour onto the streets of Paris last Sunday, and perhaps 3.5 million people take to the streets of cities, towns and villages throughout France.

Before I go any further, let me deal with a few basic questions and answers so that there is no misunderstanding of what I am saying this morning.

I believe in free speech, but like any right, the right to free speech has come at a great price over the centuries. It is best defended not by being provocative, but by being responsible.

Free speech does not give anyone the right, for example, to rush into a cinema crowded with children and to start shouting ‘Fire!’ Nor does it give anyone the right to stand outside a synagogue, chanting neonazi slogans.

I do not see the need for blasphemy laws to protect God. If God is so weak that God needs the protection of legislation and politicians, then that is not an almighty or an all-loving God.

But I do believe politicians have a responsibility to legislate against incitement to hatred and to the propagation of racism.

On the other hand, society should not should allow extremists define what is offensive when it comes to religion or politics. As a Christian, I need to listen to critics of my Church and of the record of the Church in the past, and those I disagree with need to listen to why I disagree with them.

In the past, Christians took offence at Biblical criticism, which is now accepted by all theologians. Good manners, patient listening and respect for difference of opinion are far more effective than laws, fines and prison bars.

I have seen and found many of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo to be offensive, puerile and tasteless. But to say they are provocative reminds me of an abusive husband who claims his wife provoked him into beating her. The word provocation implies that in some way the victim is responsible for his or her own suffering.

Nothing ever excuses shooting those we disagree with, no matter how adolescent, or tasteless, or irresponsible they are in expressing their disagreement.

Nothing excuses taking hostages. People in a supermarket or a factory are unquestionably entitled to go shopping or to go to work without giving a second thought to the opinions or imagined hurts of others.

And nothing ever excuses those who use the community’s stand for justice and against violence to promote racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.

But last Sunday’s marches were not about the freedom to be abusive or to propagate hatred. They were not about defending offensive and puerile cartoons. They were about expressing French society’s communal assertion that the values of liberty, equality and fraternity are essential to French society and identity and the cohesiveness of France as a nation.

But this was about more than France, and we saw this in many of the images that were created last Sunday.

Jewish and Muslim leaders shake hands at the start of the march in Paris last Sunday

We saw Europe’s leaders come together to support the French people, linking arm-in-arm at the beginning of the march. We need to remind ourselves that the European project began as a response to the horrors of war and racism and genocide in Europe in the mid-20th century. We cannot ever return to where we were in the past.

We saw people from all walks of life come together, not blaming each other for the violence because of their background or religion. In many parts of Paris, Jews, Christians and Muslims linked arms and affirmed each other.

We saw how the march never descended to racism or Islamophobia. This could have happened so easily, but the organisers specifically excluded the extremists.

Let us not think that this could not have happened: there are marches each week in the streets of German cities demanding the exclusion of Muslims from civic, political and polite society.

Let us not think that the recent violence could not happen here, in Ireland or close to hand in Britain. There are disturbing reports over the past week on the number of small groups of extremists in Ireland and Britain who have travelled to Syria and other parts of the Middle East or North Africa to join the so-called Islamic State and other jihadi groups.

I was aware of the high state of alert in Britain at the moment as I travelled through Birmingham International Airport twice this weekend.

Fear may mobilise us into a sensible state of awareness and alertness. But it must never descend to hatred, bigotry, racism and extremism.

You might ask what any of this has this to do with the Gospel … and more specifically this morning’s Gospel reading?

Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim to be part of the family of Abraham when it comes to faith in one God and to be people of the book, people who believe that this one God is revealed to humanity through prophets and sacred scripture.

There are other smaller, groups who stand within this tradition … the Samaritans, the Mandeans and the Yazidis. They have all suffered in recent years in the Middle East, squeezed between the claims and counter-claims of extreme politics and militant interests.

But it is interesting that when Christ holds up people as good examples of true religion, he chooses Samaritans, not once but three times:

the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 1-42);

the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37);

and the Samaritan who is the only one among ten lepers to return to give thanks and to bow before Christ in humility and worship (Luke 17: 11-19).

The Samaritans held the same religious beliefs as Jews at the time, worshipped the same one God, but were treated as outsiders and unclean – whether they were lepers or women only compounded how they were treated as outsiders.

Yet Christ includes them in his ministry of healing, proclamation and worship.

The Kingdom of God is one where those we want to marginalise, reject or see as outsiders are told that they are not only counted in, but in the inner circle.

The Kingdom of God rejoices in diversity and in difference.

And these values are expressed in a gentle but not too subtle way in this morning’s Gospel reading too (John 1: 43-51).

The back story is that immediately after his baptism by Saint John the Baptist in the River Jordan, Christ begins calling his first disciples. First he calls Andrew and Simon Peter. Andrew is called first, but before responding to the call to follow Christ, he goes back and fetches his brother Simon and brings him to Jesus (John 1: 35-42).

Andrew and Simon are brothers but their names indicate the early differences and divisions in the Church. Andrew’s name is Greek ('Ανδρέας, Andreas), meaning “manly” or “valorous,” while Simon’s name (שמעון‎, Shimon, meaning “hearing”) is so obviously Jewish.

The Gospel reading this morning moves on to the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael, and comes immediately after the story of the call of Andrew and Peter.

And we find the same again with Philip and Nathanael: Philip is a strong Greek name – everyone in the region knew Philip of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great; while Nathanael’s name is a Hebrew compound meaning “the Gift of God.”

So, from the very beginning of the story of the call of the disciples, the diversity and divisions within the Church are represented, even in the names that show they are Jews and Greeks, the Hebrew-speakers and those who are culturally Hellenised.

Later this Philip is the first of the apostles to bring Samaritans into the Church (see Acts 8: 4-13), much to the surprise of the other disciples, who had not yet agreed to bringing the Gospel to people who were not Jews.

Philip goes on to baptise an Ethiopian court official who is an outsider in oh so many ways that I need not go into here (see Acts 8: 26-40). Before the conversion of Saint Paul, Saint Philip, who is called in this morning’s Gospel reading, is the great missionary in the Apostolic Church, bringing the Good News to those who are seen as outsiders in terms of religion and ethnicity.

The mission of the Church is founded not just on respect for diversity, but on loving and embracing diversity. This is not a matter of tolerance – it is a matter or knowing what the Kingdom of God is like, and knowing how that should be reflected in our values here today.

In reacting to false divisions in the early Church, the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28; see Colossians 3: 11).

This is an idea and an ideal that is explicit in the New Testament reading (Revelation 5: 1-10) that is also provided for this morning. That reading tells us that the Church or the saints are “from every tribe and language and nation” and that they, we, are made “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth” (see Revelation 5: 9-10).

The diversity of the Church should reflect the diversity of society and of humanity. The call into the Kingdom of God comes to a diverse group of people in ways first hinted at in the call that came to the first disciples as a diverse group of people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, often – as with Philip and Nathanael – when they were least expecting it.

But they responded to that call faithfully. Andrew went and fetched Simon Peter. Philip found Nathanael (John 1: 45).

If these are challenging weeks across Europe, then this Gospel reading helps us to face these challenges with respect and with love.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The call of Philip and Nathanael … a modern icon


Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in the chapel of Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on 18 January 2015.

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