How can Christian identity be a force for good not ill?

Pixabay: free use

A homily given at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

If you’re of the same vintage as me, you’ll be able to complete this famous cue-line from children’s TV. It has to be done loudly!

“It’s Friday, it’s five to five . . . It’s Crackerjack!”

Yes Crackerjack is coming back next year, no doubt with its famous Double or Drop game, in which the contestants are given a prize for every right answer, and a cabbage for every wrong one – but have to hold the lot, without dropping any, or lose the lot instead.

It’s just like life really: prizes, cabbages, and the fear that it will all collapse in the end. In fact, it’s not a fear, it’s an inevitability: every person passes away, every political arrangement comes to an end; and in every generation it’s a massive balancing act to try and keep the show on the road. I’ll say nothing about Brexit.

But we are so obsessed with success and progress at both a personal and social level that it’s almost unacceptable, certainly embarrassing, to point out the fact of failure. We live in a winners-take-all world. We educate our young to believe that somehow they will all be winners, can all be anything they want. It’s a fib of course; a well-intentioned one, designed to encourage and affirm, and raise standards too. But a fib that can do real damage when reality dawns and you find that your place on the bell-curve of attainment, or health, or beauty, or riches, or fame is on the down-side not the up.

Which is perhaps why despite the massive intelligence stored up in a place like this, there can also be massive insecurity, anxiety and mental illness.

And why too that the Christian faith has offered significant comfort to millions of people over the years, offering as it does another sort of affirmation, not because we choose to believe in it, but because we discover that we are believed in, beloved; that our very existence has come about because we are loved.  How good is that?

As St John wrote, “This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” It’s turning the tables on our obsessive quest for our own identity, and revealing the roots from which our being and identity can naturally, organically grow. And John’s whole gospel can be seen as an extended meditation by Jesus’ youngest apostolic follower – perhaps no older than a first year student in this college – that he was beloved.

Back to cabbages. In a commercialised, throwaway world we are like shrink-wrapped ones who suddenly wake-up and desperately start looking for a source of identity and life beyond the label and price on their head. In Christ and through Christ, we discover instead that we are living plants in God’s garden, beloved children in God’s family. We know where we’ve come from.

Where do we come from? That was the first of the questions Gauguin famously wrote on the actual canvas of his painting of the same name: D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous.

And the discovery of who we are in Christ, our given identity in him, leads naturally to Gaugin’s second question: who are we? The answer lies in the “we”. Even if our roots are held deeply in the love of God, we live our lives in a human society in which identity is discovered in our relationships, plural, with one another as well as the divine. 

To go back to St John, the image that struck him most forcefully for this was that of the Vine. Not just any vine, but the great golden one over the Temple door in Jerusalem that Jesus must have been passing with his disciples as they walked to Gethsemane, and by which he said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” 

The point was that the Vine was one of Judaism’s great symbols for itself as the people of God, and Jesus is opening up a new way of belonging to that people – through rootedness in Him.

But the “you” is always plural. He is reminding us that even as we are beloved so also the rest of humanity is beloved. There are many branches on the Vine. And if all are going to grow and bear fruit, all will have to allow themselves to be pruned, not only for their own health, but to give the other branches their place in the sun too.

The whole point of our first reading tonight was St Peter’s daring and difficult discovery that even the people who he wouldn’t hitherto even have sat down to eat with, were family. It’s a tough lesson, because while Jesus is realistic that not everyone will accept the offer of love and belonging that he is making, he is clear that all are welcome, in all their diversity, and with all their difficulties. 

As climate change brings not just bottles but vines to Oxford, there will be no grand cru fizz grown here unless each vine, even each bunch of grapes, is pruned. And we are such a vine. We are invited to discover an identity in our community together, to give ourselves to the common good. Not as a thoughtful addition to our quest for achievement, but as a necessary precondition for it. We remain individuals. Each of us sits our own exam. But we discover that life is better and even perhaps results are better when we are a loving, learning, growing community together.

Results are better. We’re into the territory of Gauguin’s third question, Where are we going? Or in terms of John’s Vine, what fruit will we bear? It’s another aspect of our identity. We seem to be hard-wired for creativity, accomplishment, discovery, enterprise. And yet we are soft-wired to keep the fruit it of it primarily for ourselves – the dark side of the so-called selfish gene, or more accurately the natural consequence of natural selection of those most fitted to their environment – when applied individualistically. 

What the Christian faith offers is a gamble. If God had DNA, at the heart of its expression would be self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Whether in creating, or coming as Christ, or the work of the Spirit, we see the same thing: God just gives it, and gives himself away. He gambles in a way on us. Will we get it? Will we accept the challenge and let that self-giving DNA express itself in us too, and find that as Jesus put it, that it is those who lose their lives who find them. 

The bunch of grapes gives itself away to become wine. The wax of the candle gives itself away to become light. They are only metaphors of course, but powerful ones, that invite us also to consider whether to live in order to bear fruit for others. That’s the result that matters.

It is this deliberate choice for the good of others that is the key that unlocks the chains of self-interest that can otherwise make even Christian faith and Christian identity a force for bad not good. It is the deliberate choice that Sungwon is making tonight. Pray for him, and pray for one another, that we might make the same choice too.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.