Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Battle for Unity

 Text: John 17.20-end

The 6th of June, D-Day, is fast approaching.  This year, we will mark the 80th anniversary of that epic embarkation of the allies to liberate Europe from the scourge of Naziism. Anyone who has been anywhere near Southsea Common in the last weeks will have some idea of the preparations that are in hand.  We will commemorate with gratitude the lives of the 22,442 men of the British Armed services – and the many more allies - who gave their lives for the freedom of our French neighbours, and to push back the tide of fascism.

The 6th of June, by co-incidence also happens to mark another significant anniversary, which is rather less well known – namely that of the Young Men’s Christian Association - the YMCA - founded 180 years ago, on the 6th of June, in London, by one George Williams and his friends.  The reason I mention this is because the motto of the YMCA is one of the verses we’ve heard today, specifically, John 17.21 – ‘that they may all be one’.

I have an affection for that great institution because I served as a YMCA staff member for about 20 years in the 80s and 90s.  The YMCA played an important part in the War effort too.  They provided YMCA Canteens, in which soldiers could take a break from the front line, and write letters home.  It was sometimes said that they served up ‘tea and comfort’ to the troops, and they were much loved for that.

There’s a lovely story I remember hearing about a YMCA Canteen which was set up in Portsmouth, near the Guildhall, during the second world war, in the run up to D-Day.  The story gives us an insight into the distinctly British mentality of so many people during that whole conflict.  The story goes that during the bombing of Portsmouth, an excited young man ran into the YMCA Canteen shouting “The Guildhall’s on fire, the Guildhall’s on fire!”.  The YMCA lady serving tea behind the counter looked up, and replied, “so it is dear.  Would you like some sugar in your tea?”.

As a non-denominational Christian organisation, the YMCA has striven throughout its history to be a place where true unity of spirit between people of all faiths and none can be found – just as Jesus prayed in his monologue of John’s gospel.  And that same unity of spirit was also the inspiration behind the allied advance on D-Day.  British, American, Canadian and other forces all combined.  Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, all combined.  Fighters, logistics experts, scientists, weather-men, politicians, and, yes, YMCA tea makers, all combined in one great unified push to beat back the great evil of fascism.

On the surface, Jesus’ prayer is apparently a prayer about his followers.  He is laying out his heart before the Father, and praying for unity between all believers.  But he longs for that Unity, not least because he knows that through such Unity, other people might see the unifying love of the Father at work.  Unity is ultimately the Divine vision for the whole world.  The church is called to be an exemplar of what such unity could look like.  We are challenged, by Jesus, to build a unified church, so that the world might see what a unified world could be.

I have no doubt that Jesus must weep when he sees the fractured nature of today’s world, and, yes, the fractured nature of his church.  We human beings, it seems, are simply not capable of being one...we are just too tied to our own ambitions, or our own limited understand of the mystery of God, or to our own greed or self-protectiveness to be able to truly embrace that one-ness.  And yet Jesus offers all humanity, including the church, a radical new vision.  It’s a vision in which every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.   We call Jesus ‘Lord’ because of the historical pattern of a medieval Lord who sets the laws for his subjects to follow.  We can therefore choose to follow the law of division, enmity and hatred, or we can follow the Lord of love.  When we say ‘Jesus is Lord, we mean of course, that Jesus’ radical, loving, serving way of life is the way we choose to follow. 

The hard reality is that we seem to be entering a dark period of world history. The Prime Minister said as much this week, when he said that the next five years would be among the most difficult we’ve seen in a long time.  And, as if to prove him right, the rest of the week has seen increased aggression in Palestine, the attempted murder of the Slovakian Prime Minister, a new law to ban political dissent in Georgia, and a fresh wave of Russian aggression in Ukraine.  One commentator said recently that we are entering a period that looks very much like the inter-war years, of the 1930s – and we all know where that ends up.  Around the world we are adopting the kind of megaphone politics, which use ‘fear of the other’ and protectionism of the state, to achieve division, rather than unity between nations.  We shout at each other, across our political, religious and societal battlelines; we forget how to listen to each other. Into such a divisive environment, Jesus calls the church to show what it means to disagree agreeably, to maintain unity, despite our differences, to show love in the face of opposition and even hatred.

Yesterday, I witnessed the inauguration of a new Council, here in the borough of Havant.  After two decades of control by one political party, a new alliance of three parties was placed in power by the will of the electorate.  The sometimes stark policy differences between those three political parties have been put aside for the sake of Unity, and for the opportunity to effect positive change. Only time will tell whether this new coalition, led by the Labour Party’s Phil Munday, will be able to use that unity to drive forward public reforms, and work for the public good.  My prayer is certainly ‘that they may all be one’, for the sake of all the people of the borough.

So, in the coming days, as we hope for new unity in local politics, as we remember the unity of the Allies against Facism, and as some of us, at least, remember with thanks the work of the YMCA, perhaps we will take a moment to remember Jesus’ prayer of oneness. Perhaps we will take a moment to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task of working for the unity of all humanity.  Amen.

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