Who are we? We are you? This simple question, familiar to fans of the pop group ‘The Who’ from the 1970s, with their song ‘Who are you', and those of us over a certain age, begs another fundamental question. Is it ‘who am I’ or ‘who are we’? We are persons in community and so there is no ‘I’ without ‘we’. That has its foundation in God, in how we understand God as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Trinity, our doctrine of God, is foundational for any understanding of who we are, of who I am.
This question about who we are has been raised in the last few weeks rather dramatically and tragically. And the week of prayer for Christian Unity asks it too. Answers have abounded. We have seen placards bearing the statement ‘Je suis Charlie’, ‘I am Charlie’. It is an expression of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists in Paris. It has echoes of John Donne’s famous poem,
“No man is an island entire of itself…
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”
We are united at a basic level of humanity and ‘I’, ‘me’, only exists because there is ‘we’, humanity. We are brothers and sisters.
Outside St John’s Church in Cathedral Square we have a poster which proclaims that “we are ‘N’”. Underneath this is the Arabic letter ‘N’ and it stands for ‘Jesus, the Nazarene’. This is a symbol that has been daubed on the doors and houses and churches of Christians in Syria and other places marking them out, identifying them for persecution by extremist groups. There was encouragement over the summer and autumn to stand alongside our persecuted brothers and sisters by displaying this poster and it’s statement ‘we are N’. The Archbishop of Canterbury has this as his profile picture on Facebook and Twitter. I have it added to mine as a badge. We are ‘N’ because we share the name of Jesus, and it is to him that our primary allegiance is due, above all others. Christian Unity week reminds us that this is what unites us. We share the name of Jesus, we share allegiance to him above all others, and it is a week to remember our unity in Christ, in Jesus the Nazarene, the name above all other names, at whose mention every knee is to bow in adoration, rather than to focus on our differences.
The Jesus we are identifying with is our crucified Lord and on the cross he shares our fallen humanity and shares in our suffering. He takes it into himself. So when people are persecuted, as in France, but more numerously in Nigeria under Boko Haram, in Syria and in so many other places which have not been given any where near the same publicity as the European atrocities, when these terrible things take place, Christ suffers too because we see him in the faces of those who suffer. Whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to him; whatever is done to the least of these, is done to him. We are ‘N’ reminds us that Christ suffered, suffers with us and with the persecuted. They share in his sufferings and are blessed by this. The blessing comes because God doesn’t abandon them but identifies with them, holds them, redeems them.
Our readings this morning talked about God calling us to follow him. Samuel heard the call as a young boy in the Temple (1 Samuel 3:3-19). The story gives us Samuel hearing God in the night and not understanding what was going on. Just before where we picked it up, the Old Testament writer tells us that the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread. The old priest guardian, Eli, to whom Samuel goes, eventually catches on and realizes that God is speaking to the boy. The message is not pleasant for Eli. His sons don’t do what they should do and Eli is blamed for not guiding them. The consequences will be terrible. And here we are taken back to the ‘I’ and ‘we’ discussion with which I began. Samuel does not receive a private message but one for the community, for Eli and his sons. This message was not pleasant and could be taken as being offensive. It would have been easy for Samuel to avoid saying the hard things that Eli needed to hear. But Eli realizes that Samuel must speak and he must hear.
When we speak, when speech is freely allowed, as it should be, there is also a responsibility to be aware of the consequences of what we say. Free speech exists in the context of the ‘I’ and the ‘we’. No one exists as an island, but we belong together so whatever we say is for a common purpose. It is communication after all, so there is a message to be heard, even if it is muddled and mixed up – the muddle is part of the message, and speaker and hearer need to realize that they share this connection in the exchange. When the ‘I’ tries to exist and express in a vacuum, things become distorted and disconnected. That disconnect leads to tension and conflict, which has at its root a lack of humility and grace to be shaped as disciples of a higher purpose. At least Eli recognized this. This was colourfully expressed by PopeFrancis this week when he said that if you say a curse word against his mother you can expect a punch. There are consequences, there will be a reaction, our free speech is in a context and it should be used for a purpose that is wholesome and uplifting, not destructive, though of course challenge is acceptable, is to be expected, just as Samuel challenged Eli.
This is taken on by St Paul in the Epistle reading (1Corinthians 6:13-20), where he reminds us that what we do is for a moral purpose. Again the passage begins just before where we began to read. All things may be lawful but not all things are beneficial. Our bodies are to glorify God; the freedom that we have is for the purposes of God. There are consequences and therefore there are boundaries because we want what we do to be blessing, to be wholesome and to build us as children of God.
The Gospel reading gave us the call of Jesus’ followers (John1:35-42). Andrew finds his brother Simon Peter and tells him about Jesus. That call comes to all of us to follow Jesus. All of us are ‘N’, named after the Nazarene and therefore all of us have to ask what following him means. For the Gospel writer it means finding others and encouraging them to follow too.
So this past week has asked us who we are, who you are. The question was posed by crowds identifying with those who were murdered and affirming the importance of free speech. Freedom is set in a context, not a vacuum, and that context is our common humanity, derived from God. We are persons in community, as God is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our primary allegiance is to Jesus the Nazarene and the call to follow him. ‘Je suis Jesu’; ‘We are N’. That is the source of our unity for this week of prayer. After all it comes from his prayer on the night before he died that we would all be one as he and the Father are one.
Sermon preached at St Peter & All Souls Roman Catholic Church, Peterborough for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Sunday 18th January 2015