Readings: Genesis 28.10-17, Revelation 12.7-12, John 1.47-51
The passages from Genesis and Revelation about angels remind us that the two dimensional material we see around us is not all there is.
The reality is that it is God’s world and we as human beings are part of this reality. Despite what rationalists and atheists may say, there is a transcendent dimension to our human existence.
There is more. As Christians we know this, which is why our tradition honours the sanctity of human life.
As human beings we are inherently interwoven with God.
There is nothing in which God is not.
Jacob knew this reality. He lived his life with a great trust in the Lord.
The ladder with angels ascending and descending gives us an idea of the communication between the here and now – and the dimension we know as heaven.
God communicates with us.
That communication is real. We know it in that profound sense of humility that we experience in prayer or in the Eucharist, or when we are deeply moved in moments of love, pain, birth, death, loss or wonder.
And we can experience it in encounter with our fellow human beings. Often in the most unexpected ways and places.
All these are places where the veil between heaven and earth is thin.
So like Jacob, we need to be attentive to God‘s communication. Because God needs us to be his hands and feet on Earth.
And like Nathanael taking that moment of quiet under the fig tree, we need to take time to be attentive to how God is calling us.
Jesus says to Nathanael “I saw you”.
Jesus sees us first, before we start walking towards him.
The people whom Jesus calls are ordinary people—but he will use them to change the world. This is something I didn’t really understand – until eight years ago when it happened to me.
If I may, I’ll share my story with you.
I had grown up in a church household, somewhat in the spotlight, as my father David Sheppard, before entering the Church, had been an England Test cricketer. And as Anglican bishop in Liverpool he became famous for his partnership with his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Derek Worlock.
But I was a bit of a rebel during that time and drifted away from the church.
After a pretty bad education, and struggling to find my feet, I’d had no proper career.
Then after meeting my husband in my late twenties, unexpectedly I found myself drawn towards Catholicism.
I had a conversion experience. After careful discernment I was received into the Catholic Church. Nothing to do with any kind of church politics – I was called, that’s all.
My parents eventually understood and we remained close.
All my assumptions were turned upside down and I felt as if I was to start all over again.
I began my own journey with Christ.
Over the next 20 years or so I was fortunate to have a good marriage, and found fulfilment as a mother of two wonderful sons.
After my parents died I took on the responsibility of their legacy.
But I had a lingering sense that I’d failed to live up to my calling – my vocational responsibility.
I sensed there was more.
And about eight years ago, out of the blue, I felt a prompting of the Spirit.
I didn’t understand what was going on at first.
I asked God to make it clear to me.
I guess I was kind of under the fig tree at that point.
Like Jesus saw Nathanael, Jesus saw me.
I prayed ‘Lord, what are you trying to tell me?’
I was being drawn to look more closely at the partnership of my father and Archbishop Worlock. But this wasn’t my interest and my first instinct was, no, surely I’m not equipped to do that…
But I found myself fascinated by their partnership – and I was prompted to ask what made it so successful? What could be learned for now?
I asked God to make it clear to me what I should do.
And I remembered my father saying ‘who are your allies?’
So I asked for help. And I asked for more help. Over that year people gathered around me, and we formed a steering group, and people started following us.
We called our work Together for the Common Good.
We began to look at the partnership between Sheppard and Worlock:
- They disagreed on churchmanship – my father was an evangelical Anglican and Worlock a Catholic.
- But despite that they resolved to work together for the good of the city – at a time of social unrest, division and political instability.
- They became known for putting people and community first. For bringing people together across divides.
- Their body language said it all. Standing side by side with communities, it was clear they were acting for and with people and not in their own institutional self-interest.
- They encouraged working class leadership.
- They helped to build up local institutions and forge links between them.
- They encouraged business to play its part in the regeneration of the region.
- They saw themselves as brothers in Christ.
- They brought complementary gifts.
- They listened to what God was doing and joined in.Their partnership lasted twenty years.
And as we looked more closely we saw the reasons why it was ground-breaking.This was a model of an outward-facing church playing its part in civic life, rehumanising, building relationships, honouring the sanctity of human life.They earned public affection which still exists today.
We think this inspiration is now not only for church leaders, but the whole people of the church. But like them, our view is that the community is only complete if all can participate.
Like them, we know that God made us as social beings and we thrive in relationship.
We need this kind of church more than ever, not least in our own time of division and upheaval. But this is a new time and it warrants new responses. We are not naïve enough to inherit their
We have seen decades of individualism infecting our life together. It has been driving us apart.
The new cleavages we see are no longer along the lines of left and right, but on values divides.
destabilised our civilisation.
The political upheaval we see now has been a long time coming.
We are in an interregnum where the the old is dying and the new is yet to be born. The turmoil has some way yet to play out.
Over time our culture has become so resistant to the transcendent that we have lost faith in each other, we have become so reliant on the administrative state, dependent on products and services that we have lost the language of mutual obligation and responsibility.
And so trust is breaking down. None of our political parties have the full answer. Our local institutions have been weakened, threatening our social fabric.
But there is something we can do. It will not all be solved by the political class. The antidote must be bottom up as well as top down.
People across the churches are well-placed – in parishes, neighbourhoods and workplaces – to play their part to help build back the bonds of social trust.
To be a relational people.
The work of Together for the Common Good involves calling them to fulfil their vocational responsibilities – according to their unique gifts and abilities – by putting Common Good principles into practice, and by working with others of different opinions, classes and backgrounds in shared purpose.
We create online and offline resources, including a one-day Common Good workshop for lay people – and a programme for schools. We also provide advice, hold public debates from time to time, and our newsletter cross-pollinates news of Common Good activity across the different church traditions.
We are volunteer-driven so although we are a tiny charity we punch above our weight.
We call churches to make their distinctive contribution too, fulfilling their vocational responsibility, rooted in place and by being better stitched-in to community and civic life. And in doing so to be a rehumanising influence.
And to strengthen civil society we encourage relationships and partnerships between local institutions – what I mean by that are businesses, churches, synagogues, charities, associations, schools, care homes, professional associations, sports clubs and so on.
Especially in partnerships where no money changes hands. The moral economy is a way to buid trust, as well as to challenge the dominance of the market and commodification.
The Common Good is the shared life of a society in which everyone can flourish – as we act together in different ways that all contribute towards that goal, enabled by social conditions that mean every single person can participate.
We create these conditions and pursue that goal by working together across our differences, each of us taking responsibility according to our calling and ability.
The Common Good is not a utopian ideal. It cannot be imposed. It is generated by people working together.
It is not the same thing as tolerance. Or community cohesion. These are a kind of government- speak.
Common Good in a Christian sense is about encounter between people. It is about the sacred nature of human beings.
As Rowan Williams says
“when we meet another human person we are standing on sacred ground.”
That includes not only the people we love. But also people we may not like.
It includes people on both sides of the Brexit argument (there are honourable positions on both sides).
It includes people sleeping rough on the streets. That’s why I’m here this weekend.
Ian, your Rector, has been using our Common Good Builder process to tackle a complex homelessness issue here in Bournemouth.
We define the Common Good in a particular way:
The process is designed to help people work together to tackle a complex local problem in which
there are many players.
Using the Common Good Builder, a number of civic and church partners have come together here in Bourneouth, and it is already bearing fruit.
Planning for new initiatives and collaborations are underway which will enable people currently caught up in homelessness to find a way back to a fulfilling life.
The challenge Jesus gives us is that the poor must be at the heart of the Church.
And so our Common Good Builder process is distinctively different.
People usually ignored are at the heart of the process and the results are better for it.
That’s because encounter with people who are poor or vulnerable is a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. The whole body benefits when the most vulnerable are included.
What we mean by the Common Good is a shared life. Not a segregated life. In terms of addressing homelessness this could be:
- Where people in crisis are not ‘clients’ or ‘service users’. But who are also asked to take responsibility and play their part where they are able. Who are seen as unique human beings with a story, and who are loved by God.
- Where not only complex needs are met but also boundaries are strong. And where companionship also happens.
- Where people who are struggling are not just recipients, given a sandwich on the street. But where they can sit, share a meal with parish volunteers, and re-learn lost social skills.The Church at its best can offer a sense of family no matter what. A sense of belonging.
And at its best it is a place where the veil is thin. Where people find an encounter with the spiritual.We are to live in communion with God and with each other.
This really is a radically different, counter-cultural way of looking at the world.
It is an antidote to individualism: a challenge to its manifestations on both the left and the right. Our contribution is distinctive. We must keep it that way.
And we must not be naïve.*
Our Common Good Builder process is values-led, not values-free: it centres around the Christian
principles of the dignity of the human person and relationships.
We know there’s more.
The people Jesus calls are ordinary people – and he will use them to change the world.
Going back to that passage in Revelation where St Michael and his angels are fighting the dragon. There are malign forces at work in the world. They are bent on driving us apart.
And there is a good reason why those forces are referred to as the great deceiver – because they often come well-disguised – masquerading as the good guys, claiming virtue.
We could easily get swept along. Especially in this time of great confusion. There is a risk of mission drift. We can be duped by false promises that sound good, that sound fair, that sound logical.
All is not what it seems.
So we must be clear about our centre of gravity. That we are rooted firmly in Christ and not swayed by the persuasive language of the dominant culture.
There is a great temptation to be tribal. There is a temptation to segregate ourselves from others who are different.
These are things we really have to refuse.
As human beings with a transcendent nature we are inherently interwoven with God. And so through him we are inherently connected with each other, with our fellow citizens. We must resist the forces that drive us apart because it is against our nature.
When I walked towards Jesus I had absolutely no idea where it would lead. I wasn’t equipped to do what I have done, and I’m still not. But he sends people who help and join in.
God often chooses ordinary people.
Christ as Mediator calls us into communion with the angels ascending and descending Jacob’s Ladder. Into the mystery of the covenant between heaven and Earth.
And in this way things in heaven and things on Earth are reconciled and gathered together.
He is calling us to be a relational people, to build the Common Good and together to accomplish extraordinary things.
Jenny Sinclair is founder director of Together for the Common Good, a charity working to strengthen the bonds of social trust. T4CG calls and resources people to fulfil their vocational responsibility by putting Common Good principles into practice. Partnering with people across the churches, T4CG offers resources, training and events to reimagine a culture that overcomes division and puts people, communities and relationships first.
Find out more at http://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/
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