Over the years, I have very much enjoyed the creative writing of Philip Pullman, author of many different styles of writing including the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. However, his determined antipathy to religion, and to Christianity in particular, grieves me. In a discussion at an Oxford Literary Festival event, he based this on a view that religions always seek to control people, and that for centuries Christianity has been responsible for some of the most violent and abusive acts and wars against others. When we look at what has been done in the name of the Church, whether by political powers, the bitter battling of denominations, or the actions of some church bodies in the lives of women and children, I can appreciate Pullman’s point of view.
I suspect that he would regard the gospel passage for this week, Luke 12: 49-56, as confirmation of his perception – in particular verses 51-52, “Do you thing that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” Where, in this passage, do we find Christ the Prince of Peace, Lord of love and hope?
I think we find it in recognising that this passage is NOT a call to aggression against one another, or an assumption that we somehow have the right to judge others on matters of faith. Instead, it is in recognising that in receiving the baptism of fire that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in seeking to grow our integrity in Christ, we will find ourselves at odds with the assumptions and expectations of the world, discovering that living honestly and humbly for Christ is a rough ride. Indeed, throughout Luke’s gospel, the message of the pledge of God’s love and hope of his Kingdom is repeatedly set alongside the pain and rejection Christ’s followers will experience in being disciples, and in communicating the Gospel.
The recent Lambeth Conference, bringing together Anglican bishops from around the world, and including representatives of other Christian denominations, began with concern for an atmosphere of discord based on the different experiences and divergent established understandings of certain fundamentals of our Christian faith, and an expectation of troubled debate. Yet, through bringing those differences together into a space of shared willingness to discuss, the opportunity was created for greater mutual appreciation and understanding, if not always agreement. In his closing speech, Archbishop Justin Welby warned against clinging only to what we presume or are familiar with:
“Our assumptions, our possessions, become a comfort blanket which ultimately smothers us. For they forbid us to engage with each other and with Christ. We make our worlds and our ambitions smaller because it feels safer, and they come to define and to constrain us. So the institutions, the power, the status, positions that we hold onto out of fear – personal fear for ourselves, fear for the future of the Church – end up fulfilling our fear.”
It is only through being willing to come together and to take the risk of discussion and being challenged that we create the opportunity to dig deep and to learn more about God and God’s Word and our own faith. Archbishop Welby closed with the prayer and promise that as we grow in love as God’s people, fear shrinks and space grows in our hearts and lives for the presence and rule of God’s Kingdom:
“As you, as I, go home, do not fear. Take heart, take courage – because it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you his Kingdom.”