My sermon preached on the 24th March 2019 at the Berlinerdom
It is a honour to be here in Berlin and to bring greetings from our Diocese of London.
London is both an ancient city, established by the Romans, and a thriving, modern capital with a prominent place on the world stage. Like Berlin it is a world facing city which is multi-cultural and multi faith, it is both cosmopolitan and suburban, economically successful and confident. It is a city of energy and diversity – London is open to all.
But it is also a city of inequality and deprivation. The Capital is home to more multi-millionaires than any other city in the world, but it is also home to some of the most economically deprived citizens in the UK.
And this year, we find ourselves in turbulent times. The ongoing discussions around Brexit mean that many of us are living with a profound feeling of uncertainty. Deep divisions in our society have been exposed, and now we are faced with an ongoing political process which risks deepening them still further.
There have been few others in our lifetime which have been more polarising, or unsettling. But, of course, division is not new. Historically, we have found ourselves to have unbearable, seemingly irreconcilable, differences before, and no doubt we will again. These divisions have their route in questions of meaning, belonging and identity.
Our challenge in this time is not to pretend that we are all alike. We clearly are not. But to recognise, and hopefully learn in some small way to overcome, our intrinsic nature which pushes away others and tries to carve out territory only for ourselves and realise that we have more in common than divides us.
Scripture tells us that right from the beginning, when two brothers – Cain and Abel – come to blows, we have been pushing away the people closest to us.
The story of Cain and Abel gives us no-one else to blame. There was no peer pressure, no-one else to impress, no money or land to claim.
Simply, one person was jealous of the other. He thought he was being overlooked by God. ‘What about me?’ might have been his thought, as envy ate him up, and he killed his brother. Scripture tells us that, from the very outset, this has been our struggle.
But we as Christians are called to follow God’s example, as dearly loved children to walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
We Christians, alongside other people of faith and of goodwill, live in and serve the whole community – where there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; no British or German or European for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) We are here to serve our communities and to bless them. To carry hope and peace, and to demonstrate the love of God to everyone. Servants and neighbours to those around us.
When Jesus was asked a question about the path to eternal life his exhortation was first to love God utterly and completely, and then to Love your neighbour as oursleves.
Today in London or Berlin our neighbour could be anyone. That may literally be the case. We cannot guarantee that the person living next door will have been born in the same country as us, speak the same language or share the same faith. The mobility of the global population of both rich and poor is re shaping our counties and refiguring our neighbourhoods everywhere. Our neighbours can be any one and the growth in technology means that our neighbours could be anywhere.
There was a time when it was possible to live in communities where virtually everyone was based together and shared the same faith and values. We now live with difference. This can be a great strength and multi-cultural societies can be enriching but it does challenge our shared values.
The question who is our neighbour is not just about the action of the neighbour but also about our understanding of God, the identity of the neighbour, it is about who can be trusted, who can be befriended and who do I need to love.
It is so much easier to view ourselves as the Good Samaritan the one doing good being moved with compassion. But Jesus was putting his audience in the role of the person in the ditch.
To love our neighbour as ourselves not only demands us to be compassionate but it requires us to recognize that others – including our enemies can be bringers of compassion to us – in being compassionate we need to see mutuality so that both parties find value.
If we only see ourselves in the role of the Good Samaritan we in some sense see ourselves as part of an exclusive set of like people, people who “do good” to others. But if we understand our own vulnerability and need to receive compassion and this it opens the possibility of relationships based on equality and mutuality.
Followers of Jesus Christ believe that every human being is created in the image of God and we are not made in isolation.
As my colleague the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, has said recently, in responding to the tragedy of the fire at Grenfell Tower in London:
“The Christian view of social relations tells us that my neighbour is not so much a threat, or a limitation, but a gift. If my own individuality is constituted by my relationships, not my own inner elusive personality or choices, then without my neighbour I cannot become my full self.”
We belong together in a creation which should be cherished and not simply used and consumed. This is the starting point for the Church’s engagement with society, the nation and the world.
To build community in our cities, across our cities and the world does not just happen because we want it to. It takes a willingness on our part to embrace difference to realise that we have as much to gain and to give. The man in our gospel reading coming to follow Jesus was warned that here would be no prestige or perks waiting for him. Rather, he would have to give up his place of honour among the religious establishment. He’d be expected to endure sacrifice and hardship. To follow Christ is to love our neighbour even those who are different to us and we need to recognise that will require effort and cost.
We live in uncertain times and despite apparently political difference we have more in common than divides us. We must not put our hand to the plough and look back at what could have been but forward to the kingdom of God where all are one in Christ Jesus.