St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles – St Luke's story of the early Church growth from Jerusalem to Rome – makes a number of points.
Firstly, God is in charge of the Church and is not hampered by our limited vision. The Apostle Philip is one of those who flees Jerusalem after the stoning to death of Stephen. As with the death of Jesus, what is apparently a disaster ends up being a time of grace. One of the Jewish apostles ends up preaching about Jesus to the heretical Samaritans. Those who were portrayed as outsiders are so welcoming to Philip who comes among them as a refugee, an outsider. Philip had fled Jerusalem because he was persecuted by his own. And now he finds himself welcomed by unclean Samaritans. God works in strange ways, beyond our control.
It is interesting that the Vatican Council's document on the Church (Lumen Gentium) begins with the Church as Mystery. That does not just mean that people should be confused about how the Church works. The document places the Church in the context of the mystery of God's desire to heal the world through divine love and forgiveness. Thus, Jesus is quoted only twice as using the word Church. But he does use many images – I am the Vine and you are the Branches, you are the salt of the earth, light of the world, the Shepherd and the Sheep. And the early Church writers are clear that the Church is not primarily an organisation but, in a mysterious way, the Body of Christ, the People of God, living stones building up the Temple where God dwells. The Church is not our organisation through which we do our best to serve God. The Church is the mystery where God gathers people in the service of his divine mission to bring healing and mercy to a hurting world.
In this strange time, we have the opportunity to reflect, not on how we restructure our ministries but how God is remaking his mission. It is not about where we think we will have energy to go, but where the Lord is throwing us – Philip like – into new situations of grace that we would never imagine or choose. Jesus promises us, not a situation that we have to manage but an Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will accompany us, not leave us orphans when we discern divine promptings. God's grand design always finds ways of bursting into our puny plans.
Secondly, this mission to the Samaritans reconciles people who saw themselves as trapped in opposing positions. This island has been beset by a dangerous mixture of politics and religious identity that contributed to much conflict down through the last five centuries. There is a need for specific reconciliation about what happened before and during our conflict. And I know that there are many great people across the Churches who seek, not to use the language of 'draw a line under the past and move on' but a Biblical language of seeing victims as those who, Jesus-like, have borne the sins of us all. Or learning from the Exodus about seeing what God was teaching us through the pain of the last 50 years, as we wandered in a desert of our own making. When we can learn to tell an honest shared language about God's workings in the past, we can face a shared future together. Perceived victory and defeat are all that can come from an ongoing war by historical political narrative. Reconciliation needs a new language, not merely recycled old hang-ups. Philip would teach us that.
Thirdly, while Philip preaches to the Samaritans, there is still a necessary link with Jerusalem and the community of the Apostles. There has always been a tension between worthy individual initiatives and holding the centre ground. A healthy, Spirit-led church can live with that often-uncomfortable tension. A healthy Church will seek to maintain the Truth in teaching – but always be open to discovering what lies beyond out human desire to control. Jesus talks in today's Gospel passage about the unity of the Father, himself and the Spirit of truth. That is not a unity of domination and lost identity, but of loving harmony.
That speaks to me about a model of leadership in Church that seeks the Truth for Christ's Church. Unity and discernment, truth and synodality were not opponents in the early Church. In those early decades, the budding community of Jesus' followers were dragged through Samaria into the Greek and Roman pagan worlds. They had many questions to answer about what they taught and how they should structure a Church built on the twelve foundation stones of the new People of God. But they trusted that God was leading the whole Church in all its diversity and not just prioritising Lone Rangers. Diversity and unity are possible in a missionary, Spirit-led Church. Fragmentation does not bear witness to the Trinity or to the Truth. The Truth is always bigger than my truth or your truth. The Way is always different from my way or your way. The Life is to be found in Jesus and not just in those things for which I have a passion or a hang-up. Our focus is not on our egos but on the one who says, I am.
Thus, I hope that we have all had more time to savour the stages of our Lenten and Easter journey with Jesus. I hope that many people will have had the chance to be better prepared to - as St Peter says in our second reading - always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. We are being moved out of a reasonably comfortable and sometimes hostile Jerusalem where we thought we had better stay, into new areas of mission, new Samarias. But we move, however reluctantly, with the experience of Philip, Peter and John. We move with the promise of Jesus in our hearts that the Spirit of Truth will accompany us, even when we mess up. And we trust in God's love about which we can speak with courtesy, respect and a clear conscience.
Sure, what else would we need?
+ Donal McKeown