Jesus said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”

June 11, 2017

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Preached by Revd Dr Terry Biddington FRSA, Dean of Chapel at Winchester University, using Corinthians 13.11-end and Matthew 28.16-end at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 11th June, Trinity Sunday.

A couple of years back on a very cold early April evening I found myself sitting on the floor of a mosque in a small satellite township 40 minutes south of Stockholm.  Let’s call it Fishtown.  I say mosque but it was in fact two adjacent flats converted to provide prayer space for the asylum seekers and refugees who were being housed in the town while they learned enough Swedish to find more permanent homes and jobs.

I had been invited to visit by the local Lutheran pastor as part of my field work for an academic project into shared religious space.  The recently built local church was ecumenical: a building, shared between Lutherans and Catholics who had laid aside historic doctrinal differences to work together for a common witness. Needless to say the project hadn’t been entirely uncontroversial and some members of both churches had decided to worship elsewhere. But at the heart of their joint vision was a desire to unite beyond religious difference so as to better serve humanity.

After the evening prayer in the mosque was over I was invited to join the imam and mosque committee to eat and talk.

Traditional Swedish seed cake and a dish of meat, which the imam held out to me across the table.

‘Mouse,’ he said. ‘Mouse meat. Recently shot by my son. It’s very Swedish!’ I think I tried to look interested.

Then a few whispered words in his ear and: ‘In fact,’ he announced ‘it’s actually moose meat, so even more Swedish!’

The Muslim community in the town are well advanced on a project to build a mosque

to accommodate people from across the several different branches of Islam who now live in that part of the country.

And that’s as big a challenge for them as it was for the local Lutherans and Catholics.

Only –here’s the thing- the plan is to build the mosque adjacent to the church. And attached to it by a shared social space.

There is a sense of real excitement and anticipation in the community and amongst the Christian and Muslim leaders of the area. Though, as with the church project, not everyone thinks it’s possible.  The vision is to try to transcend the obvious religious differences and contradictions of the two faiths. To reach out and to work together with the real sense of everyone being a guest in what will be called ‘God’s House’; a real sense of everyone being equal in partaking of God’s inclusive and boundless hospitality and blessing.  And to show the world, thereby, a different way and a different model of religious collaboration.  But just imagine please – a building where, on one side of the corridor, the people believe Jesus died and rose again.  And where, one the other side, other people believe Jesus didn’t die at all!

No wonder then that academic theologians like me often call these types of spaces “impossible spaces.”

And yet, in the UK, most NHS hospitals and all international airports now have them. And they are spreading fast.

Spaces where people of different faiths worship alongside each other. (Though not interacting religiously.)

Spaces where there is no ‘ordinary time of clocks’.

Where one woman’s Pentecost may be another woman’s Ramadan.

Where one man’s day of solemn repentance may be another’s day of jubilation.

Where different understandings of God, different languages and different gestures all overlap in a curious kind of way.

And Jesus said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

But of course, living in a global village as we all do these days

And where news flies around the world in seconds

And where experience of religious and cultural difference is becoming much more common place

than it ever was in the past!

For the whole world is now a shared religious space!

And, indeed, oftentimes, the whole world also seems like an impossible space….

Yet the reality is that this planet of ours is the only space we have: and we’re going to have to learn to share it.

Learn to overcome our fear of difference and move on, to dwell beyond difference, in more creative space.

And in a more creative way.  Like my friends in Fishtown are endeavouring to do.

And some of us are very comfortable with this – and some of us are not. But what are we to do? What is the alternative?

Until last December I lived in Manchester.  In the very neighbourhood that saw most of the police activity after the appalling atrocity at the MEN arena.  On TV I saw the street I had lived on, the local mosque and supermarket; the flats that were raided, just around the corner.  And I saw on the screen the faces of our former neighbours.  Muslim, Hindu and Christian; atheist and agnostic; City and United; good, generous, hardworking, decent people.  From earlier terrorist incidents I had come to know their fears and hopes; the efforts they go to to work for the common good.  And I know how, if you only had the media view of the city of Manchester, you might not be aware of the excellent interfaith work that is being done there by Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, alike. Where a vision for shared social action is changing the way that difference is seen. Where people are moving beyond mere tolerance into ever deeper relationships of trust, cooperation and celebration.

 And Jesus said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Today, in this place where we gather, it is Trinity Sunday. A day when we cannot avoid being reminded of the theological essence of our faith. When we readily assent to its intellectual shape, perhaps? Or when we rub uneasily against its apparent formulaic inflexibility, perhaps? And when, in any case, we are challenged to think more deeply about our faith.

Christianity, like Islam, is a missionary faith and I have spent most of my years of ministry working alongside Muslims as friends, colleagues and neighbours. Learning from them and sharing with them.

I have learned that Muslims and Christians alike know what it means to be servants of the most high God we all proclaim.

We will disagree fundamentally about some important things – but that doesn’t mean we can’t listen to each other and work together, in the name of the most high God, to make a positive difference in the world.

To suffer and weep together when things go appallingly wrong and yet to continue strive for a future beyond the discourses of fear, terror and death to go deeper into the mystery of God to find that seemingly impossible space where the hand of God offers healing to all where all can sit and eat together and where all the nations come to praise God’s holy name.