Sermons

Is there an app for that?

Ephesians 2:11-22

The last time I watched a soccer match it was West Germany versus the USSR, so I’d be lying if I told you that I followed the World Cup. Indeed, having grown up in Rugby, and attended Rugby School, I really should say that I don’t accept the heretical breakaway version football that uses a round ball and no hands.

Apart from the football, of course, what would put me off going to Russia is the language, or rather my lack of understanding it. I managed to get by in France with a little bit of dog French remembered from school, and I managed to just about get by in Italy combining that dog French with some very rusty Latin from a long time ago, but Russian doesn’t even use the same letters. It might as well be Chinese. Or Greek. Or Japanese.

I was reading that this World Cup was described as the “Google Translate World Cup,” because the translation technology brought people together like nothing else. Google Translate is an app on smartphones, which translates anything from one language to another. Across Russia fans and journalists were using translation apps for everything: asking for directions, chatting with taxi drivers, getting slightly nerve-racking haircuts, checking into hotels, making friends, even flirting. The app’s camera function — which can scan and translate text — allowed visiting fans to decode menus, decipher signs, and read the names of subway stations, even if the Cyrillic alphabet remains a mystery to them.

“It really helps,” said Rodrigo Ferreira, a Brazilian fan from Salvador who had been in Russia, with his brother Arthur, for almost two weeks. “It’s good for everything. We try to speak in English, too, but it’s been useful in bars, in restaurants, for meeting women”. Google expected a surge in people using the app, but traffic has been twice as heavy as usual for this time of year. It didn’t matter if you were rooting for Croatia or France, Germany or Sweden. It didn’t matter because everyone needed Google Translate. The app turned out to bring people together as much as the sport did.

I do think there might some value in suggesting President Trump considers using Google Translate. Sorry, I mis-spoke there. I don’t think there’s any point whatsoever in suggesting Trump uses Google Translate, since it can only translate recognised languages. Only the other day, trump was giving a press conference about apprenticeships, and while he was delivering it, he realised that the words apprentice and apprenticeship were connected. It’s the intellectual cutting edge of leadership, folks. If only, though, there was an etiquette app, which would remind Trump not to be late for the Queen, and not to walk in front of her.

Well, it’s easy to score a cheap laugh from Trump, especially as the only alternative is crying, but the point he seems to be a centre of division and discord. Senator John McCain, from the same party of Trump, called Trump’s joint news conference with Putin “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Will Hurd, a Texas Republican and former undercover CIA officer, said, “I’ve seen the Russian intelligence manipulate many people many people in my career, and I never would have thought the US President would be one of them.”

It’s not just Trump who can divide people. There are countless ways to sort people into categories. I sometimes think that we’re more divided than any other time in recent memory. Some people look British, and some don’t – or so people assume. Too many are too quick to assume who is an immigrant and who is a Muslim, and that either of those might not be a good thing.

It is worth noting that we have always been divided. There are plenty of villages on the east coast who don’t talk to each because one didn’t want the other that the Vikings were coming. The Normans harried the north of England, which was made the divisions of the Industrial Revolution look simple. Where I grew up in the Midlands, which villages looked to which other villages had a great deal to do with who was on which side in the English civil wars. And now we’re vehemently divided into Remainers who won’t take no for an answer, and Brexiteers who won’t take yes for an answer.

If only there were a similar app to bring people together around other topics. Citizen versus non-citizen. Christian versus Muslim versus Jew. White versus black. Men versus women. Straight versus gay. Our divisions are deep, and we need an app to bring us together…or a Redeemer.

The thing is, God’s love for us is so great that it lies within every human being, however much they might try to hide it, or not to acknowledge it. Every human life begins with God’s love for all of us. Where we see differences, God’s grace can be a force for unity. We can either resist that movement, or become part of it. It’s always tempting to resist, after all why should we join with someone who’s not as skilled, or as smart, or as special as we are? And yet God offers this starting word that all of our human-created divisions don’t matter. In God’s love, all of us share the same place.

In the reading from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that the change that Jesus brings to our lives makes us all a part of God’s love. Whatever we were, all of our cherished labels, Paul says, are now erased. Jews and Gentiles have been made equal in God’s sight, by God’s work through Jesus. The change in us, through Jesus, is so great that all of our former divisions become meaningless.

Paul is talking about unity, not uniformity. One group does not fall under the power of the more dominant group. God in Christ has made one humanity. Bridging this huge gap, which defined everything about daily life in Paul’s world, is not something that human beings have to work on. God has already done it, Paul says. If this were our job, I’m sure that we’d grow weary, or give up, but this is God’s work.

What is our job, though, is to live with this transformation. To live in the kind of spiritual community that reflects this unity. Our transformation is a gift from God, and we’re challenged to pay it forward with lives full of welcome for other people, reflecting the welcome we have received. We are no longer strangers to one another, but people who share a family.

What a challenge! How can we live with division? Do we despair and give up? Or do we seek out the common ground we do have? When Paul is writing to the Ephesians, he’s already assuming that they have some common ground. As citizens of a divided nation, might we seek the same kind of shared purpose? Surely God can bring us together? Surely we should be proud of our country for having many different beliefs? Are we not challenged to reconnect with each other? Should we not be striving to improve relationships with each other? Could we, dare we, learn again to listen?

Am I not challenged to take enough of an interest in soccer, to make common ground with the people who follow it? Not to agree with them, but to understand our shared place in humanity. Am I not challenged to make more effort to understand people who speak different languages to me? Not to agree with them, but to understand our shared place in humanity. Am I not challenged to make an effort to understand those who support Trump? Not to agree with them, but to understand our shared place in humanity. Am I not challenged to look beyond the labels that I have created, and look into the eyes of the person behind my labels?

Sorting people into categories and treating them accordingly is very simple. Finding the unity we have with one another takes energy. Fortunately, Jesus has gone ahead of us to do the work of creating unity between us and people on the other side of any divide we can imagine. Now our calling is to live with that unity, to bring it to light, to honour it in our shared life. There’s no app for that, but we have the power of Jesus on our side.