Sunday, 17 January 2021

Following God’s call in
a Church that celebrates
diversity and difference

‘We have found him’ (John 1: 45) … the calling of Philip and Nathanael depicted in a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dromcollogher, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 January 2021,

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany (Epiphany II)

The Parish Eucharist

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

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The call of Philip and Nathanael … a modern icon

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

Later this week, on Wednesday (20 January), I shall be celebrating that I have been in this group of parishes for four years, since 20 January 2017.

This was a call I was least expecting a year before. But God’s call comes to us, to a variety of people, in surprising ways.

This morning’s readings ask us to consider our own call to discipleship, and challenge us to think about who is the Christ who calls us to follow him.

Last week’s Gospel reading recalled the Baptism of Christ. But Baptism is not a passive event. Serious promises of following God’s call were made on our behalf at our Baptism.

We are called to be active members of the Church … not just believing, but showing what we believe in the way we live our lives.

Our Gospel reading (John 1: 43-51) tells the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael, and it comes immediately after the story of the call of Andrew and Peter.

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.

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

It is 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; Nathanael’s name is a Hebrew compound meaning ‘the Gift of God.’

So, at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18 to 25 January 2021), we are reminded that from the very beginning, with the story of the call of the disciples, the diversity and divisions within the Church are represented, even in the names that show that they are Jews and Greeks, the Hebrew-speakers and those who are culturally Hellenised.

In reacting to those 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).

Christ’s call came to the first disciples as a diverse group of people, from diverse 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.

If these are challenging times, then this Gospel reading also offers us some challenges:

How do we recover the vision of the Church as a place of refuge and a celebration of diversity and difference that reflects our hopes for the kingdom of God?

Are we inspired with enough infectious enthusiasm to want to be like Andrew who goes back for Peter, Philip who goes back for Nathanael?

In the Kingdom of God, diversity and difference are not just a matter of tolerance, they are part of the very nature of Christ’s will for the Church.

In the Church, no brother – or sister – should be left behind because of diversity or difference.

How do we move beyond the tolerance of diversity to respect for diversity and then on to the point of rejoicing in diversity as a gift in the Church, so that truly, as 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’?

Sadly, last week’s report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes shows how the Church betrayed all those values – all sections, branches and expressions of the Church.

And if we want to start pointing fingers, then we must first point fingers at ourselves.

The Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin have apologised over the last few days for the involvement of some members of the Church of Ireland in the Bethany Home in Rathgar.
The Bethany Home was founded by an extreme evangelical group, the Irish Church Missions, in 1922. The commission found that Bethany was ‘no exception’ to the high rates of infant mortality seen in all mother and baby homes until the late 1940s. The report found that five women and 262 children associated with Bethany Home had died, with most of these deaths between 1937 and 1947.

In just one sample year, 1943, there was a mortality rate of 65 per cent of children born there, and there was a ‘high incidence of infectious disease’ among children in the home until the 1950s.

The report finds that ‘despite frequent protests to the contrary, those in charge of Bethany sought to indoctrinate residents in their own religious beliefs.’

‘The ethos of Bethany was strongly evangelical,’ the Commission found, with staff and management ‘determined to ‘save’ all the women who entered the home.’

The unstinting campaign of Derek Leinster for justice for the forgotten children of the Bethany home reminds me of Andrew who went back for Peter, of Philip who went back for Nathanael.

The Archbishops’ apology on Friday was on behalf of the Church of Ireland, and we must welcome that.

But they did not name the Irish Church Missions when they said, ‘One of the most prominent groups was associated with the Bethany Home, which operated under a general Protestant ethos while being independently managed.’

The Irish Church Missions, the institution singularly responsible for the Bethany Home, has remained singularly silent since the report was published, unlike, say, the many orders of nuns that have apologised.

The Irish Church Missions was founded in the 19th century with the primary purpose of converting Roman Catholics, who they did not recognise or accept as Christians.

Their attitude to single mothers and to the women they stigmatised as ‘fallen women’ was symptomatic of their distorted and censorious attitude to the women in the Bethany Home.

An obsessive and distorted attitude to the sexuality of people pigeon-holed and marginalised continues in their attitude to sexuality today. For example, key figures involved in Irish Church Missions today have been to the forefront of opposing any compassion or understanding of same-gender couples who seek the blessing of the Church.

It is not as if Irish Church Missions is inactive or has few people on the ground to issue a deeply-needed institutional apology over the past few days. It is busy sowing the seeds of division within the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion.

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

We are all called today, like Andrew and Philip, to go back for Peter and Nathanael, to realise that the Church is not fully the Church until we rejoice in diversity and difference and welcome the marginalised and those who are left behind.

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

A traditional icon of the Twelve Apostles: Philip and Nathanael (Bartholomew) are in the middle row, first and second from the left; Andrew is beside them in the middle of icon as the first-called of the Twelve; Peter is second from the left in the front row, facing the Apostle Paul

John 1: 43-51 (NRSVA):

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46 Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1: 51) … angels ascending and descending, the front door of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: White.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

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. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of glory,
you nourish us with bread from heaven.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit
that through us the light of your glory
may shine in all the world.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 1: 43) … an icon of Saint Philip the Apostle in the chapel of Saint Columba’s House, Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

608, Be still and know that I am God
605, Will you come and follow me

‘Under the fig tree I saw thee’ (John 1: 48) … Christ speaks to Nathanael beneath a fig tree, depicted in a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dromcollogher, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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