I was horrified, though sadly not surprised, to discover that some Catholics in Britain will actually complain if a black man becomes their Parish Priest! Nowadays, with the shortage of young English men prepared to take on the challenge of being a priest, we are very blessed that in places like Nigeria, young men are being trained to be missionary priests, and then come to England to serve in parishes which otherwise might not have a priest at all. We have two priests of this kind in Oxford, two devout men serving God and his people, and yet some complain!
Of course, this is not new. 150 years ago English Catholics were complaining about the Irish, swamping their churches; and then they had to cope with Irish priests! Almost a 1000 years ago, Anglo-Saxons had to put up with those Normans who took over all the best jobs in the Church. Only one Anglo-Saxon Bishop remained, Wulstan of Worcester, whose day we celebrated last week. The rest were replaced by foreigners!
St Luke, when he wrote his story of Jesus, the Gospel today, (Luke 1:1-4.4:14-21) actually addressed it to someone who was, for many in the Church, yet another foreigner, one of those hated Romans. We even heard his name today. He writes “I have decided to write an ordered account for you Theophilus, so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is.” But those early Christians had already become part of a very mixed community of believers, and had discovered that following Jesus was meant to drive away all racial and ethnic barriers. It was always a difficult thing to do, and as the Church became settled in various countries, it became even harder, as old prejudices against foreigners re-emerged.
One of the reasons this is so important is because the Church is meant to be a sign of what the whole world should be like – one family from all the nations of the world worshipping one God together. At its best, of course, this is what the Catholic Church is. It is one of the reasons why those who remained Catholic in England in the 16thC wanted to remain loyal to the Pope in Rome rather than the King in England. For the new Church of England was a national rather than an international Church.
This is where our 2nd Reading is so important (1 Cor 12:12-30) as St Paul gives us this image of the Church as a body with many different parts, all of which must work together to make the body whole. And note that he stresses the importance of parts of the body that some might have thought less worthy. He knew how easily some Christians had begun to look down on others who were poor or foreign, and he would not allow such thoughts to go unchecked.
However, Paul goes further, because he wants us to realise that this is something to celebrate. He presents it as the glory of our common Baptism. He writes, “In the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens.” So the Church is a community where differences are actually celebrated not just tolerated. This is a teaching that should bring tears of joy to our eyes, as it did to those who heard the words that Ezra read out to them from our 1st Reading. (Neh 8:2-10) They shouted out “Amen Amen” which means “Yes Yes, It is true.” That’s why we say it at the end of every prayer. “Amen we say, yes it is true”. God does love us and care for us. God calls us to be one family, and what a family, a family of love and goodness and mercy, whoever we are and wherever we come from. Yes that should bring tears to our eyes!
And so we come to those great words that Jesus reads out today in our Gospel, (Luke 4:14-21) where he sums up his mission in the words of Isaiah. And here too it is a mission that is meant to bring joy and mercy rather than oppression to all men and women, whatever their background or condition in life. So it is “Good news for the poor.. liberty to captives…. new sight… to the blind… freedom … for the downtrodden.” It is “The Lord’s year of favour!”
That is our calling too, isn’t it? To proclaim to the world the glory of our multi-coloured humanity. To rejoice in our diversity. So we enjoy the fact that even in deepest Oxfordshire we are not just English, but Irish and Polish, Indian and African, with a dash of Italian of course, and of American both north and south. All here to worship God and proclaim his love to a world that needs it so much. Amen! May it truly be so!