Christian Unity: A Journey into Otherness

By Muthuraj Swamy

Luke 4:16-30

I Corinthians 1: 10-18

In March 2017, Bishop Graham Kings and I were in Jerusalem for a conference. Bishop Kings was a Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion, based at the Lambeth Palace, and is now a retired Church of England bishop, and a Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. While in Jerusalem, on one day, we both together with a local friend, were travelling from Jerusalem to Nazareth. As we approached Nazareth, a city on a small hill, our local friend pointed us towards the city. As we saw the hill, Bishop Kings said, oh, this is the hill from which some people in Nazareth tried to push Jesus down!

Luke chapter 4: 16-30 is a text I have returned to several times since my student days in theological colleges. Especially Jesus’ reading of the Isaiah text, which is generally known as Nazareth Manifesto, is a key passage in theological studies because of the powerful redemptive message of God it conveys. Nevertheless, rarely I used to reflect on why some people in Nazareth were trying to kill Jesus in Nazareth.

But during the last few years I have returned to reflect on this question quite often, as it offers a number of insights and lessons for our current context – filled with tensions, divisions, conflicts, and violence in our immediate communities and wider societies.

In this text we see that people are joyful when Jesus announces the message of God’s liberation to them. We read, ‘all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth’. Gracious words. Yet in a few verses down they are enraged to kill Jesus. What then happens? What happens between the gracious words they had heard from Jesus and then trying to kill him after a little while?

After reading the passage from the book of Isaiah, Jesus talks about how prophets are not usually honoured in their hometowns. It might have irritated the people, but what really enrages them is something that follows. Jesus then moves to talk about how God had dealt with the Gentiles, clearly communicating that the gracious words they just had heard were not exclusively for the people claiming to be chosen by God, but are open to everyone as per God’s plan. Jesus says:

“the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months and there was a severe famine over all the land. Yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many with a skin disease in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

This enrages those who were around.

The problem was that they saw God’s grace was available only for themselves, and not for others. They saw that God was dealing with them alone, and not with anyone else. They were not willing to see and accept that God was extending God’s grace to others too. A vision and faith lacking to see God on the other side. In other words, a lack of openness to others that shorten the vision and faith one has about God.

This Sunday is the week of prayer for Christian unity, from 18th to 25th January. All over the world numerous efforts are made to overcome divisions and conflicts in our churches and to stay united in witnessing to God revealed in Jesus Christ. However, we continue to face many obstacles in staying together. One of the obstacles is a lack of openness to differences and an unwillingness to journey into otherness, which our Gospel text today highlights.

I often think that the entire story of Christianity, both in the Bible from the book of Genesis, and in its 2000 years history, is a story of journey into otherness. Creation is God allowing a different other to come into life and existence, and God making covenants with them. Incarnation in the New Testament is God coming into the world taking the form of human, a different experience for God. Salvation is not simply redemption from personal sin, but the whole process involves a journey into otherness – from individual to church community, from belonging to the self to belonging to Christ, from narrow mindedness and isolation to seeing God in places where we may not want to see.

During the last three years, my time in Cambridge has been very good and enriching. Coming from another country, the acts of welcoming and friendship and the huge support my family and I have received from friends, colleagues and church communities has been very helpful. Working at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, Cambridge Theological Federation, and at St John the Evangelist church Hills Road, is a great experience for me to learn in a different context to my own. When reflecting on otherness, often I recollect a version of blessing a former curate at St John the Evangelist church, Chris Campbell, often used to use at the end of a worship service: ‘Grace, love and fellowship of God be with you all, with all those who you love, and with those who you find hard to love.’ ‘With those you find hard to love’ are the words that invite us to journey into otherness. To see God’s grace to even those we may not like. It doesn’t matter how close to Jesus we are and how close he is to us, we do not have control on God’s grace freely available to others.

During this week of Christian unity, an invitation to journey into otherness is also about how we work for better unity in our churches. In our Epistle reading we see Paul writing to a divided church in Corinth. He writes to them, ‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.’ He asks them a powerful question: ‘Is Christ divided?’

Today it is not just our wider societies are divided nationally, culturally, ethnically and so on. Our churches too are divided, and this on one hand reflect the divisions in our wider societies, and on the other hand, divisions in our churches also contribute to the conflicts in our societies, directly or indirectly.

In this regard, I would like to say something about what we do at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, which I direct, and how we understand and practice Christian mission as connections and a journey into otherness. One important aspect of Christian mission that is not seldom addressed is how we as Christians need to stay connected among ourselves. Christian mission for centuries has been strictly about reaching the unreached, reaching non-Christians. But to do that effectively, Christians to stay connected and care for each other is important. Reading St Paul carefully shows that his missionary journeys were not strictly about reaching the non-Christians and establishing churches, but also inviting the established churches to stay and connected together – as he does about the church in Corinth – and to care for and support each other. Our annual World Christianity Summer Institute in my Cambridge Centre tries to create a platform for Christians from diverse backgrounds to come together, learn from each other, and stay connected, so that we can witness to the Gospel effectively.

Let me say a prayer, from the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland resource for this year which has come with a title, Be-longing.

You made us, God,

in your own image,

and then became one of us,

proud of those you have made.

Make us proud of being part of that

worldwide family,

and eager to discover and celebrate

your image

in every person, every culture,

every nation

that we are privileged to encounter. Amen.