From a homily for the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres, Oxford
Thursday, 15th September, 2016, 9 am
Readings: I Corinthians 12:12-26 & John 10:11-16
Unity: Respecting the Image & Likeness
+ May I speak in the Name of the Divine Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.
Despite long years of listening, reading, trying to make sense, it's only this morning that I've finally realised that Saint Paul, who generally comes over as a dry old stick, actually had a sense of humour. His imagery of a body at war with itself, of ears thinking they could do without eyes, of one part deciding it could take over the whole show, is pure comedy. It's reminiscent of Jesus's image of a man with a plank in his eye, which Eric Sykes turned into a comic silent film. I don't think it's normally considered Biblical commentary, but that's what it is.
This morning I was caught on the hop. I ought to have thought you might be keeping the feast of Unity. At vicar school in Lincoln we did this every Thursday. Very few people there would have called it a "mass of special intention", but that's what it was. So, what I had prepared to say was on readings that weren't read, and by great good fortune, I was rescued - as you may think - by a sheep from "another fold".
At 5.42 or so this morning, on Radio 4's Prayer for the Day, an imam was telling us about Sharia Law. He said at its heart is the idea of contract, and contracts are not to be broken. This means a Muslim person living in a country where Sharia is not the law of the land has a contract with that country to be a loyal citizen, and it means he cannot break that contract, even for the benefit of his fellow Muslims overseas. For a Muslim in Britain to scheme against this country, or to go abroad and plot to bring harm to us there, is to break the contract, to break Sharia.
Well, I certainly didn't know that, and I rather think a great many Muslims don't. I've heard several over the years lament at how poorly their own faith is taught. And it's not possible to hear that without thinking how poorly the Christian faith is taught, even in the ease and comfort of Christian countries. When we don't understand our own faith deeply, with its complexities, the gulf between us grows, even, eventually, to the point of extremist violence. We have seen it in our own country in Northern Ireland, where neither side in The Troubles could claim the name of "Christian".
The heart of this understanding of our living together is respect. Sharia requires Muslims to respect the law of the land in which they find themselves.
Respect is a tricky business. We can say "well, I respect your right to say ...", but do we? And does it serve any purpose to paper over the cracks of our disagreements and pretend they don't exist? That is to deny dialogue, without which there can be no communion, and even dis-communion is better than that. Can we truly respect someone's views when it is simply not possible for their views and ours to be true, or right, at the same time?
Our prayers speak often about "in the unity of the Holy Spirit". That refers most usually to the economy of the Divine Trinity, the three persons and one God who are the heart of our faith, but it also refers to the way in which, through the Holy Spirit, we become part of that Divine economy, and part of one another. It is the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who shakes the image and likeness of God alive in us. And that image and likeness is in all created humanity, whatever bits and pieces of the Body they might happen to be.
There's a little book, accredited to Saint John of Kronstadt (although he didn't write it) called "Counsels on the Christian Priesthood". Doubtless you all have it on your shelves - heaven alone knows where I found my copy! But it's very good. It's partly good because it's little, which commends any book to me. In the chapter on confession he advises the priest that they cannot honestly and rightly take confession unless they see in the penitent a creature with all the dignity of one made in the image and likeness of God.
It is in that dignity that our respect, when all else fails, when our fury, anger, despair, hatred, fear, and loathing, of our fellow human beings, has the better of us, when we cannot respect a thing they say or do or value, must take refuge. The image and likeness of God cannot be unmade. And we cannot but respect it.
If only we dare to search it out and know it, to find the image and likeness in the other, we stand a chance of making the unity of which Jesus speaks. We might even begin to build a kingdom.