Welcome… to this Christian Aid day of consultation with sponsoring churches and with ecumenical leaders. This is a day for all of us, in the midst of a complex and demanding world, to step into a space together, to remind ourselves of why we do what do and to strengthen the covenant between us. 

I am one of the 8 WCC Presidents – the one from Europe - and also Chair of a new Theology Advisory Group for Christian Aid. 

I want to draw us, as we begin, into a moment of reflection on faith that we share. John Chrysostom was Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century – from a time before the divisions among Christians that are represented here today. He is best remembered now for his liturgy, but he should also be known for his powerful advocacy for the poor - he died of hunger in exile because he spoke out against the power of the Empire of his time. While we tend to divide ourselves into social justice activists or prayerful litrugists, pastors or prophets … John Chrysostom lived and died as someone who held things together in his one, hungry, body. He was good at showing us how to hold together what should not be separated.

Not many sermons stay in the memory for hundreds of years, but one of his sermons – Homily 50 – is often remembered as speaking about two altars; the altar of the church’s worship and the altar of theworld in need – and the need to serve at both. His words challenge us with a directness that many preachers today would shy from. He said…

‘Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not …honour him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: "You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me." …

Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table…

Do not adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.’

John Chrysostom could see how wrong it was for the church to divide those who do faith and order from those who do peace and justice or life and work. His hearers took up his message and used his words as they broke bread at the heart of the litrugy, but also heard his words that everyone should have bread to eat in the world. And wise people have said that his words mean that there is really only one altar – that you cannot separate them. Christ is present with us in bread and wine and in the world with all its many demands. 

I remember, in my growing up in the United Reformed Church, that we always had two collections at a Communion service. The first one was the ususal one for the life of the church, and the second one – made close to the moment when we shared communion – was for charity… sometimes for Christian Aid. Calvin believed that we should never forget the needs of the world when sharing the Lord’s Supper – and indeed the sharing of bread at communion should always remind us of the needs of the world. So there were two collections – two altars – but the same Christ the focus of each.

The vocation of the ecumenical movement is always  to resist the kind of separations that we seem, inevitably, to fall into. We seem to find it hard to ‘connect’ the things that belong together. We have learned to settle for division, for separation, for compartmentalism – when the fulness of life that Christ promises us demands unity, communion, connection, and coming together. Those who preside at the church altar or table  need to make it the place from which the whole world is remade. Those who are busy remaking the world need to stand in the place where we Holy, holy, holy and know that the whole world is sacred. 

The world we are living in now is very different from the post-war world in which Christian Aid was forged and into which many of us here were born. In that time there was a felt need to make sure that we understood the importance of unity. The United Nations was born. The World Council of Churches was established. People talked about the things that everyone should treasure in common; universal human rights, the common good, peace. There was a longing to build, to join, to unify, to celebrate the ways in which we are the same as human beings, each with the same dignity and grace… one humankind. This imperative inspired a generation of endeavour to end the kinds of assumed differences that could lead to war, that could justify the imperial oppression of some people by others or that could divide men and women from one another. The watchwords were unity, equality, justice and peace. 

We live now in a time when those watchwords seem to some, schooled in a different age, more like abstractions - in a time when people fear that unity is just a kind of oppressive sameness and when inequality, far from being reduced, is growing and even encouraged in the name of ‘growth’. There is no clear consensus about what justice amounts to or whose understanding of what is justice might prevail. And peace has not come to a world now more volatile and fragmented than ever. In our times, people are more likely to cheer for diversity and difference than unity, for a spectrum of colours than for one equal light.  

But, unless we practise today the arts of communion, we shall risk the danger of difference becoming division, separation or oppression again – all things that can be exploited by the kind of populism and nationalism that has replaced that international consensus.  We need the voice that reminds us of the things that are the same about all human beings, that diversity is not the opposite of unity but its raw material. The ecumenical movement can join in celebrating the real dignity of difference, but it must never forget the sacredness of unity, of things held in common, of the connections that make the best of us. 

And of course, our vision of unity in the Church does not actually derive from that post-war consensus – though in some ways it helped to create it. It does not come from an enlightenment European vision, or from any sort of political model that tries to enforce a kind of uniformity. It comes from Christ himself, who in his own being, held together humanity and divinity. It comes from the Christ who is present at the communion table and in the places where people suffer. It comes from Christ who draws us into union with him, so that we can find unity with each other. 

Christian Aid stands for dignity, equality and justice, because we have learned of those things from the Bible and the traditions we inhabit. But we might tell them a little differently from some other NGOs. We are more likely to speak of the sacredness of every human being, in whose faces we see the very image of God – a true dignity. We are more likely to remember that Jesus said that the poor are blessed, upturning the ususal idea that riches were a sign of God’s blessing – not an abstract equality so much as a dynamic reversal of inequality. We are more likely to speak of God’s mercy and grace, God’s overflowing generosity, God’s attention to the widow and the orphan – not simply a justice that gives everyone their due, but that surprises us with a new vision of the world. Our faith gives us a different language, a particular mother tongue, with which to speak of dignity, equality, justice, peace and unity… to give them a texture of our own. 

We have to admit and confess that we are not, yet, united around the altar of bread and wine. It is more than tragic that we cannot yet share communion in that way. We can, however, be in communion at that second altar, the altar of the world’s need. That’s why we are here, to bear witness to our common commitment to ending poverty, to understanding better how the world works – how its power is made and shared, and to speaking out prophetically for a better world, more shaped by the Gospel. Around this table we are one. As we call one another to unity at the first altar, let us celebrate our unity at the second – until the day when there is only altar, one table, and all are welcome.