Sermon given at St Mary’s Parish Church, Whitchurch – Sunday 26th January 2014 (Ocatve of Prayer For Christian Unity)

May I speak and may we listen, in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no division among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

St Paul – ever the optimist, appealing to the Church in Corinth to stay united, to not be divided by small things, to get on with the task at hand.

So early on in the Christian faith are signs of division and dis-unity. Signs which if we recall our Gospel reading (appeared much earlier) when Jesus’s disciples are arguing over who is the greatest, and Jesus says very firmly that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”.

Tough words for a group of people to hear –

Tough words for those disciples desperate for position and authority.

Tough words, perhaps for the Church of God on earth who so often treats God’s power as though it were it’s own self-created, self gained thing.

For Paul, the Church in Corinth was seen as having potential, it wasn’t to be left to self-destruct and divide itself into tiny pockets of Christianity…Paul knew Corinth well, after all he had spent eighteen months there (which in his whirlwind ministry is quite a lot of time).

So you see, Paul knew the potential and the enormous opportunities for the Gospel in that place that many others couldn’t yet realize. He mentions the people there by name, and had clearly grown fond of this place. So what Paul says to them is more than just a bashing over the head saying “get yourself together for God’s sake” but a deep desire for the people he had high hopes for to not let themselves get in the way of the task ahead.

And remember. Paul is not. At all. Afraid of a bit of Christian infighting – particularly when he believes that the truth is at stake…you can read Galatians 2:11-14 to see Paul really naming names when he sees that his mission to preach to the Gentiles is under threat.

But here, in Corinth, he is clear that the gospel isn’t just being undermined but it is actually being fundamentally misunderstood –

Why?

One reason. That the Christian community is divided.

They are lost.

They are consumed by their own preoccupations and led astray away from God’s purposes by the forces of evil whose chief and sole purpose is to see children of God fail.

Paul is not saying that loyalty to one missionary is bad – but your chief loyalty must be to Christ.

He’s not saying you can’t have your favourite leaders – but the leader who’s every word you must obey is Christ’s.

He’s not saying that competitive instinct is bad, but to define our own value by denying someone else’s is not of Christ.

The early Church needed to remember that whatever else matters – the most important thing to remember is that it was Christ, and Christ alone…not Paul, or Apollos or Cephas, but Christ whose death brought you salvation!

It was Christ who in your baptism brought you into the family of the Church.

It was Christ who through his life, death and resurrection, inspired the hearts of Paul and Cephas and Apollos to bring the good news to you.

And it is Christ who brings you together, despite all your differences as the Community of Jesus Christ on earth.

And the more you fight over who has the “best” version of the gospel, you are turning your backs on the crucified God.

Brothers and Sisters, that’s what Paul had to say to the Church in Corinth – I wonder what Paul might say to us, if he entered the doors of St Mary’s this evening and stood here before us?

Given Paul’s track record – we can be sure that whatever he might have to say to us –

We certainly won’t like it, and we certainly won’t find it comfortable listening.

One thing we can know is that Paul would be mad, and furious that so much of Christ’s work goes undone –

So little of the Gospel message reaches people’s ears not for any good reason,

but because we are so determined to define ourselves by our differences.

Our titles, Our ways of leading worship, Our buildings, Our traditions, Our interpretations of scripture – that we don’t get on with the one thing we can all agree on – that Jesus Christ is Lord. That he lived, was crucified and rose again.

Read the passage from Corinthians again and we could quite easily read it as:

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Rome, or I belong to Methodism, or I belong to Anglicanism, or I belong to the Free Churches”. Has Christ been divided? Was Wesley crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of the Holy Father?”

I believe that we empty the cross of its power when our denominationalism prevents our working together.

We empty the cross of its power when the world sees a church divided against itself.

We empty the cross of its power when we refuse to let people fulfill their callings because of their gender or sexuality.

We empty the cross of its power when we refuse to bear witness to the larger Christ and the larger heart of God.

Because ultimately we cannot represent the unity of Christ or help others to understand what Christ can offer in all its fullness until we have done all we can to resolve the divisions amongst ourselves.

It is God’s will that the Church be one in Christ Jesus.

Friends, beyond these walls there is a broken world – a world where divisions are costing people their lives – a world where words like ‘community’ ‘together’ ‘unity’ are becoming dirty words.

And that world is watching the Church in this age – watching and listening to every single one of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.

And know this – they are not only watching, but they are watching and deciding whether the God we proclaim to be alive, a God we say is for us all is truly alive at all.

So my challenge to you is this –

Pray for the Church, pray the whole Church not just the places you worship, but for the Church of God.

And whatever it is that you can do – to help Christian unity become stronger – do it, and know that God has called us all to that task.

And when it gets difficult, or seems impossible, or doesn’t seem worth doing just remember the words of Christ when he prayed for his disciples: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe.”

And to close – in the words of Charles Wesley:

‘He bids us build each other up;

And, gathered into one,

To our high calling’s glorious hope

We hand in hand go on.

And if our fellowship below

In Jesus be so sweet,

What heights of rapture shall we know

When round his throne we meet!’.

Lord help us to build each other up – to hand in hand go on – till our fellowship below is nearer to God’s eternal and perfect kingdom.

Amen.

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