The thing about the modern world is that you have to learn how to live with people who are different from yourself. Different by race, by religion, by sex, by gender, by age, by belief, by culture…. We could go on. We live in a world of difference.
The days are long gone when we and our children and grandchildren would spend our entire lives in the same village or part of town, mixing with people who dressed like us, spoke like us, wanted the same things as us, believed what we believed, thought the same thoughts, wanted the same things, even ate the same food as we ate.
If I think of my own family and that of my wife, we see the modern world in microcosm. We have children who live in France and Australia. We have grandchildren whose first language is not English. We have two grandchildren who are part Jewish and one grandson whose girlfriend is Bangladeshi and Muslim. The firms two of our children work for are international and their next promotion could take them to America or the Far East. They eat curries and pizzas and bamboo shoots and rice… and very rarely fish and chips This is what globalisation means.
So, we have to learn to live with difference. But it doesn’t come easily to us.
The tendency of all human groups is to be suspicious of anyone who looks different, acts different, thinks different, eats different. Our instinct is to avoid, shut out or shun them.
It was like it in the days of Jesus and it has been like it ever since.
If you think back to what we have just heard read for the gospel you can see this human mechanism at work. In the days of Jesus, anyone who didn’t fit in, anyone who was very different, was avoided.
The idea was that a community could only hang together if everyone was the same. Difference, they thought, threatened harmony.
So people with skin diseases – they are called lepers in the bible – or people with various difficult personalities or psychological illnesses were pushed out of the village. They had to exist as best they could on the fringes of society. The man in the gospel just now seems to have made his home the local cemetery.
We don’t know what the objection to him is exactly, but he seems to have fits or seizures from time to time, as if many demons have got hold of him – and he’s had to be restrained sometimes. Perhaps its some form of epilepsy. Whatever it is, he is different and this disturbs people. So they force him to live outside the village.
Jesus wont have it. He doesn’t avoid the man, but makes time for him, speaks to him, and cures him.
If you think about it, there are many incidents like this throughout all the gospels. Jesus forms a relationship with all sorts of people who are different and who, because of their difference, are shunned or shut out.
He makes time and space for so-called fallen women, for small children, for a foreign soldier, for different sorts of Jews – called Samaritans – for Jews who collect taxes for the Romans, for sick people, for poor people…. we could go on and on. The gospel is full of stories about people who are different in one respect or another being made to feel welcome when all their experiences up to the time of meeting Jesus were that they were made unwelcome.
This idea that before God we are all welcome and our differences are not a reason for some being excluded was enshrined by Jesus in this sacrament of Holy Communion.
Think of the symbolism we enact every time we come to this service. The highpoint of the service is when we come to the altar to receive the consecrated bread and wine. In this church the point is made even more dramatically, and theologically, because we kneel together round the altar, as equals. Whatever our differences, we set them aside here. They count for nothing here. Because before God they count for nothing.
So we kneel as equals whether we are rich or poor, male or female, homosexual or heterosexual, fit or frail, wacky or sane – whatever our differences, they don’t count here. What counts is what we have in common, not what divides. And what we have in common is that we are all equally sinners, all equally in need of God’s grace.
That’s the important lesson we learn here and take with us out there.
The human tendency is to react badly to difference. We have seen this tragically and starkly demonstrated this week with the murder of Jo Cox MP by a man who, whatever else was going on in his head, clearly disliked the ways in which she was so different from him.
There may be some deep evolutionary reason for this discomfort even detestation we have for people who are different from us, I don’t know. But if we indulge it, we not only make the lives of some people very miserable, in the end we also make it impossible for any of us to live well – because in some respects we all have our differences and who knows when our difference might make someone else suspicious or angry.
Learning to live with difference is the great challenge of our times. We learn how to do it.
Dr Alan Billings – Priest