Sunday, January 19, 2014

Has Christ Been Divided? Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 19, 2014

From Paul, called by God’s will to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and from Sosthenes our brother.
To God’s church that is in Corinth:
To those who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus, who are called to be God’s people.
Together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—he’s their Lord and ours!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.

1 Corinthians 1:1-17, Common English Bible

They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, Jesus asked them,“What were you arguing about during the journey?” They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.”

Mark 9:33-41, Common English Bible

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began in 1908, when it was proposed by a Franciscan monk and adopted by the Pope. By the 1960s it had its present name, Protestant churches had moved their own week for unity to January, and Roman Catholic and Protestant churches began working together on each year’s theme. This was the golden age of the ecumenical movement, bringing churches together to overcome the historic differences in belief and practice that had separated them. The way churches worship became more similar, we began using the same cycle of readings and church calendar and the colours of the seasons and holy days, great coalitions like the World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches were at the height of their influence. It even looked like the United and Anglican Churches would merge in Canada. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was marked by huge worship services that filled sanctuaries with worshippers from different denominations.

But since then we have pulled back a bit. These great church coalitions are not as influential or well-financed anymore. The Anglican-United talks did not result in an amalgamation, although they did produce the red hymn book. There aren’t any big services this week, at least not in this area. And as our country and the world changes, churches have to put energy into relationships with other faiths as well as other Christian churches.

As with so many things from the boom years of the church, the golden age of ecumenical activity is over. But there is still lots going on. Our United Church is, after all, the product of several denominations coming together, so we have been active ecumenically for a long time. We have no congregations outside Canada and Bermuda, so we have to cooperate with other churches to do anything outside our borders. So we participate in numerous coalitions, worldwide and in Canada. In February I am one of the United Church representatives at a World Communion of Reformed Churches meeting. This body has 229 member denominations in 108 countries. A United Church delegation attended the World Council of Churches assembly in Busan, South Korea, at the end of October. We have lots of partnerships which we hear about in our Minutes for Mission, and I have visited our partners the Moravian and Baptist Churches in Nicaragua. Partnerships and coalitions are how we feed the hungry and seek justice for the poor in this global village.

And there is a lot going on locally. Our Presbyterian neighbours kindly offering us poinsettias for Christmas Eve is just one example. We have proposed worshipping with Wesleyan and Pentecostal churches here in South Stormont on Good Friday. Some of us attend the service for World Day of Prayer each March, organized by local women from several churches. There will be a big worship service with local churches when the International Ploughing Match comes in 2015. When I was chair of Seaway Valley Presbytery we launched a partnership with the United Church of Christ across the border in New York State, and now I’m part of talks between our denominations at the national level.

When a Canadian team wrote this year’s worship service for the Week of Prayer, the theme chosen came from our reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians. Here the Apostle Paul is writing to the new church in the Greek city of Corinth. And near the beginning of his letter, right after he greets them and tells them that he thanks God for them, Paul says that he has heard that they are divided into rival groups and are fighting with each other. Some Corinthians are saying that they belong to Paul, others identify with another preacher, Apollos, and others are loyal to the apostle Peter. And Paul makes a plea for unity, asking, has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in Paul’s name?

And you can imagine the Corinthian believers getting this letter, and reading it out loud to everyone because that is what you did with these letters then, and people hearing Paul’s words and the meaning sinking in and then drooping their heads. No, Paul or Apollos or Peter were not crucified for us. Jesus was. We weren’t baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Peter, but in the name of Jesus.

We can think, we’re not like those Corinthians at all. But even with the cooperation and good will we enjoy with other churches, we can still be suspicious, we can still think that we and our tradition are superior to those “other” churches, we can still believe that we have a monopoly on truth, we can still argue like the original disciples of Jesus about who is greater. We live in a culture that makes it easy, and even expected, for people to generate conflict and attack each other’s beliefs, whether in debates at Tim Hortons or on talk radio or in online comments. We can still feel that we are somehow in competition with the Anglican or Presbyterian or some other congregation, even congregations in our own denomination, for people and money. And the names may have changed, but we can still look to a founding figure like those Corinthians did, even a long-ago one, saying we belong to Calvin or Luther. But Calvin or Luther or Knox or Wesley weren’t crucified for us. Jesus was. We weren’t baptized in their names, but in the name of Jesus.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity can be an opportunity for us to pray and renew our work for unity among Christian churches. But it is also a chance for us to reflect on the need for unity, not just in the worldwide church, but in our own United Church, and in our congregation. Because we can feel suspicious of, and superior to, and in competition with oher denominations, yes, and also other United Church congregations, and even people in our own congregation. Even though our Presbytery has been a model for others across Canada in how congregations have come together in the last few years, I can tell you lots of stories about congregations who don’t trust each other, and congregational boards torn apart by conflicts over what to believe and how to govern.

I just want to point out one thing about what Paul writes to the Corinthians. He wrote in Greek, and he uses a couple of different words that are translated into English as meaning “divided.” When he says to the Corinthians, “don’t be divided into rival groups,” the Greek word is schisma. We have an English word, schism, which refers to a division within a religious denomination that results in a faction breaking away. Schisms within churches produced the many denominations we have now. But the origin of this Greek word schisma is interesting: it did mean division, or groups in conflict with each other, but originally it meant a tear in a garment. When we fail to live up to the prayer of Jesus that we may all be one, and we behave in ways that divide denominations, and congregations, it’s as if we are ripping a beautiful piece of clothing. Jeans with tears in them may be in fashion, but we wouldn’t want to wear a winter coat with a tear in it and the filling coming out, or a shirt with a rip in it. In the same way, the church of Christ shouldn’t be ripped and torn.

Has Christ been divided? Elsewhere, in the letter to the Ephesians, it says that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, unifying us as followers of Jesus. Later in this service we will say together a commitment to this unity, for Paul not only challenges the Corinthians, but us too, to know in our hearts and show in our actions that Christ has not been divided. We will say that together – together in the worldwide church, together in South Stormont, together in the United Church of Canada, together in this congregation – we are called to be saints, together we give thanks for one another, together we are not lacking in any spiritual gift, together we affirm that God is faithful, together we are called into fellowship, together we seek to be in agreement, together we belong to Christ. Has Christ been divided? No – together we go into the world to proclaim his good news.