Our annual Ecumenical service to mark the week of Prayer for Christian Unity took place this week at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The homily was delivered by Venerable Archdeacon Ricky Rountree. The resources were prepared by the different
Christian Churches in Malta where our parish had it’s 2019 pilgrimage. The history of Christianity in this small country reaches back to the time of the apostles. According to tradition, St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles reached there in 60AD. Thanks to
all who prepared the service, those who took part and the great number of parishioners who joined with Rev. Martin, Rev. John and Fr. Gerry in our common worship.
Ecumenical Service – Kingscourt 2020
Trust & Hospitality
There are a great list of key words in tonight’s service and if we were to take all of them we could be here for a while. They include: Reconciliation, Enlightenment, Hope, Trust, Strength, Hospitality, Conversion and Generosity.
I want us to concentrate on two of them, because I believe they are key to any advance in Christian witness and any advance in unity among Christians and indeed unity generally. Trust and Hospitality are at the heart of effective Christian witness and unity.
I have spent nearly 44 years of my life as a priest in the Church of Ireland, 42 of them in active fulltime ministry and the last nearly 2 as a retired priest (that is a priest who can now choose what he wants to do and has permission to say ‘no’ to what he does not want to do). My experience of working closely with people in a caring situation taught me that you could only be successful in your care if the other person really trusted you, where you did not let them down, you turned up when you said, you did not forget their needs, where you were always approachable and would answer the phone or always phone back if they missed you or left a message. Thankfully, in those 42 years I never forgot to turn up for a service or missed an appointment that was important (not because I had a good memory, but I did keep a very strict appointment diary). Trust is not a given, no one is trusted just because of the position they hold, or because they are associated with a particular organisation or group. Trust is earned by demonstrating a consistent response, by not letting someone down, by turning up when you promise, by learning to listen, really listen, by being open and warm, non-judgemental and by being patient.
It is also earned, as in the case of St Paul on that stricken ship about to founder on the rocks off the island of Malta, by calmly showing his personal trust in God even in the midst of great danger. The frightened sailors and particularly the centurion in charge could see in Paul a confidence in faith which not only gave courage and a serenity to Paul, but also gave them courage and they placed a trust in God through Paul which not only prevented them from killing Paul and the other prisoners, but also allowed them to take a lead from Paul which saved all their lives even though they lost all their material possessions.
On 10th February many Christians in Malta celebrate the Feast of the Shipwreck of St Paul, marking and giving thanks for the arrival of Christian faith on these islands. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles used for the feast is the text chosen for this year’s Week of Prayer. And the theme chosen is “They showed us unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2)
The story begins with Paul being taken to Rome as a prisoner (Acts 27: 1). Paul is in chains, but even in what turns out to be a perilous journey, the mission of God continues through him. This narrative is a classic drama of humanity confronted by the terrifying power of the elements. The passengers on the boat are at the mercy of the forces of the seas beneath them and the powerful tempest that rages about them. These forces take them into unknown territory, where they are lost and without hope.
The 276 people on board the ship are divided into distinct groups. The centurion and his soldiers have power and authority but are dependent on the skill and experience of the sailors. Although all are afraid and vulnerable, the prisoners in chains are the most vulnerable of all. Their lives are expendable; they are at risk of summary execution (27: 42). As the story unfolds, under pressure and in fear for their lives, we see distrust and suspicion widening the divisions between the different groups.
Remarkably, however, Paul stands out as a centre of peace in the turmoil. He knows that his life is not governed by forces indifferent to his fate, but rather is held in the hands of the God to whom he belongs and whom he worships (see 27: 23). Because of this faith, he is confident that he will stand before the emperor in Rome, and in the strength of this faith he can stand before his fellow travellers and give thanks to God. All are encouraged. Following Paul’s example, they share bread together, united in a new hope and trusting in his words.
This illustrates a major theme in the passage: divine providence. It had been the centurion’s decision to set sail in bad weather, and throughout the storm the sailors made decisions about how to handle the ship. But in the end their own plans are thwarted, and only by staying together and allowing the ship to be wrecked do they come to be saved through divine providence. The ship and its entire valuable cargo will be lost, but all lives will be saved, “for none of you will lose a hair from your heads” (27: 34; see Lk 21:18). In our search for Christian unity, surrendering ourselves to divine providence will demand letting go of many things to which we are deeply attached. What matters to God is the salvation of all people.
This diverse and conflicted group of people runs aground “on some island” (27:26). Having been thrown together in the same boat, they arrive at the same destination, where their human unity is disclosed in the hospitality they receive from the islanders. As they gather round the fire, surrounded by a people who neither know nor understand them, differences of power and status fall away. The 276 are no longer at the mercy of indifferent forces, but embraced by God’s loving providence made present through a people who show them “unusual kindness” (28:2). Cold and wet, they can warm and dry themselves by the fire. Hungry, they are given food. They are sheltered until it is safe for them to continue their journey.
Today many people are facing the same terrors on the same seas. The very same places named in the reading (27:1, 28:1) also feature in the stories of modern-day migrants. In other parts of the world many others are making equally dangerous journeys by land and sea to escape natural disasters, warfare and poverty. Their lives, too, are at the mercy of immense and coldly indifferent forces – not only natural, but political, economic and human. This human indifference takes various forms: the indifference of those who sell places on unseaworthy vessels to desperate people; the indifference of the decision not to send out rescue boats; and the indifference of turning migrant ships away. This names only a few instances. As Christians together facing these crises of migration this story challenges us: do we collude with the cold forces of indifference, or do we show “unusual kindness” and become witnesses of God’s loving providence to all people?
Hospitality is a much needed virtue in our search for Christian unity. It is a practice that calls us to a greater generosity to those in need. The people who showed unusual kindness to Paul and his companions did not yet know Christ, and yet it is through their unusual kindness that a divided people were drawn closer together. Our own Christian unity will be discovered not only through showing hospitality to one another, important though this is, but also through loving encounters with those who do not share our language, culture or faith.
So, can we build on the trust which exists between our different faith communities in this area, by doing more things together, showing a common witness for Christ and together showing true hospitality to those who are new to us, from different backgrounds and different cultures. Trust and hospitality go together, one builds on the other and strengthens the other. It is only when people recognise those qualities in us that they begin to ask questions about what makes us tick, what is the faith that sustains us and opens the doors for others to explore that faith with us and builds up our common witness for Jesus Christ, the Lord of the whole church, the church universal.
At least once a year, Christians are reminded of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that “they may be one so that the world may believe” (see John 17.21). Hearts are touched and Christians come together to pray for their unity. Congregations and parishes all over the world exchange preachers or arrange special ecumenical celebrations and prayer services. The event that touches off this special experience is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is good that we are here, but let this prayer and caring activity not just be for one day or one week in the year. Let us discover how it can affect all our activity and Christian witness as people of God and followers of Christ.