Sermon – Epiphany 2, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Preached in the Chapel of the University of Glasgow

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Dove.

Coming to read the gospel story here in a University Chapel today has reminded me of an incident which occurred when I was a student.

Sadly, I never studied here in Glasgow. However I had a good time of it in St Andrews on the East Coast. There, the Divinity Faculty was located in a small and very beautiful quadrangle. In the centre was a tree and set by the college buildings an ancient dovecote. With real live doves which were fed each day at the same time.

On the day I have in mind, I was in a lecture. Now, I know that these days lectures must have changed. I guess nowadays a lecture is an extravaganza of moving pictures and internet web chats and multimedia this, that and the other. However in those days of distant glory, it was just someone who was thought to be wise talking away to a bunch of people whose wisdom was expected to grow day by day.

Anyway, the professor was holding forth about some crucial matter of doctrine. Perhaps it was about the difference between the cherubim and seraphim. Something important anyway.

It was a summer day. The voice of the professor carried on. The cherubim snoozed in one corner. The seraphim dozed in another. And suddenly there was a noise.

{tap, tap, tap}

Eyes lifted. Concentration, such as we had, was lost.

The Professor began again.

Again the sound.

{tap, tap, tap}

Gradually, one by one everyone except the Professor realised that it was coming from outside. From a windowsill.

{tap, tap, tap}

It was one of the college doves.

“What is that noise?” came the voice from the wise one at the front.

From the back of the room came the inevitable answer “It’s the Holy Spirit. Trying to get in.”

You see, people remember things to do with doves. They are somehow symbolic. When we see them we think of peace, beauty and significance. Never more so than this incident in John’s gospel, with John the Baptizer.

At the time this gospel text was being compiled – the significance of the moment was captured in the image that John conjures up – I saw a dove descend upon him.

The importance of the moment still matters.

In my tradition we are in the season of Epiphany. It means discovery. It means learning to look out for God. It means being shown that which is holy in the ordinary. Discovering God amongst us.

That is why this passage gets read at this time of year. For John is revealing the adult Jesus. A few weeks ago we learnt of the showing of the child to shepherd and king alike. Now we are asked to face a truth rather more profound. John saw God in Jesus Christ and revealed him to his disciples.

The question we are asked to ponder at this time of year is this: “When have we seen him?”

The claim of the Christian church through the ages has always been the same – that God can still be known.

John found God in the presence of his cousin. Where do you find that which matters most to you? Do you find it in the mystical, in the beautiful, in the musical, in the lovely or in someone you like or even love. John found God in his cousin.

A dove was the marker for John. What is the sign for you that you are close to God, close to the divine, close to what matters most to you? When do you have a sense of the holy, of heaven breaking into the mundane, of God appearing in the ordinary, of the tap, tap tap of the Spirit trying to get in?

And that applies to us collectively as well as individually. Never be fooled by anyone who tries to characterise the promises of God as merely personal. God is for all of us. God comes for all of us. God meets us in community just as much as meeting with us alone.

The week in which we meet for worship is a significant one. This is the week of prayer for Christian Unity. It is an honour to be preaching in a place which is owned in some way by everyone in the university. A place of faith that is some kind of an offering to everyone. It is worth pondering for just a moment in this week (it is the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer, as it happens) to take stock of what the Spirit seems to have been saying to the churches over that time.

We have gone through times of great hope and great despair over the ecumenical movement. At some times people have seemed to think that the churches must come together in some kind of organic union and be one. It has not happened and seems less likely now than any period over that time. I do not think it will happen.

Yet it is not as though the Holy Spirit has taught us nothing in that time. For the Spirit, the Holy Dove is that aspect of God which draws people together. For all the bitter problems of sectarianism in this and other cities, there are God’s people now in all places who believe that we are all equally loved by God. That seems unsurprising to say in public now, but it was unthinkable at one time. The Holy Spirit has been tap, tap tapping away. It would once have been a common presumption for Christian people that anyone who did not believe their own particular brand of the faith was on the fast track to hell-fire. We have grown up a bit, most of us, and realised that was a lie.

The Spirit has been at work. Tapping away at the presumptions that we once held about one another.

But what now? I don’t believe that uniting the churches is going to happen, so what now, what is the Spirit saying to the churches now?

In my own tradition, something is still tap, tap, tapping away at us, asking us whether we are prepared to accept that people are loved by God, even if we do not agree with them. How much difference can we live with?

I live daily with the controversies of who is acceptable to my church. Are men and women to be treated alike? Are straight people and gay people equally loved by God or not? For me, that question takes me right back to the riverbank of the Jordan. The followers of Jesus somehow took over the symbolism of what the Baptist was doing. So baptism came to be the symbol recognised in common by almost all the churches.

Are men and women to be treated alike in the church?

Are straight people and gay people equally loved by God?

Are Protestant and Catholic, Episcopalian or Reformed Christians equally loved by John.

We know we are each equally loved not only because of the baptism that many churches now proclaim they hold in common. No, we are equally loved by virtue of being born.

That is my answer. But not everyone accepts that yet. And I find myself wondering whether the Spirit is calling us to learn about our Diversity next. Do we need a week of prayer for Christian Diversity as much as we need a week of prayer for Christian unity? Or perhaps more pertinently a week of prayer for Religious Diversity.

I believe the challenge of faith in our days, is not only to recognise God in Jesus Christ but to recognise God in each other. The bickering, bad temper of religious argument only begins to melt into peace when we glimpse that fact – that God is in those with whom I disagree.

John said that the coming of the Spirit on Jesus was like a dove descending.

Let me leave you with the challenge of Epiphany. The challenge is, to go on looking for God until you find God.

My particular challenge to you today is to look into the eyes of those whom you meet – actually meet this week. Friend or stranger, protestant, catholic, man, woman, straight, gay, Christian or non-Christian, Westerner or non-Westerner, younger or older, Cherubim or Seraphim if you can find them, and ask whether you see someone who is loved or unloved by God.

When I look into the eyes of those I meet, the faith that I have found in Jesus Christ that I have learned from the Bible rises in me. I see only those who are loved by God. Like a dove, I see the Spirit come down on every head. For everything that lives is holy.

If you haven’t found God yet.

Keep on looking.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit.



  1. “distant glory”? A patriotic American song by Pam Martin and Brian Terrell? Shurely not….

  2. Fiona says

    Thank you, this is beautiful. =)

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