The world is divided. It's divided by countries, and in many other different ways: culture, language, religion, race. Even churches are divided. Someone else has said, "Most of us who have been around churches for any amount of time know that Christians can get on one another's nerves.” True? The evil one has done a highly successful job down through the centuries of stirring up conflict among Christians. It is one of his chief devices against the gospel.
The church is full of disunity: look at all the different kinds of churches in Melton. Even us Anglicans don’t agree on what is important: some like candles and seasonal colours, and a familiar book to hold; others don’t want any of those things.
Even here at Christ Church we have 4 different congregations (if we include the Congolese), 4 different styles of worship, and maybe 4 different ideas about the best way to live the Christian life. What is needed for us to be one family in Christ? That is part of the agenda for the coming year. When does separateness amount to disunity, and when is it just a reflection of the great variety that exists under heaven? Maybe a question that needs exploring.
We are in the season of Epiphany, which means the season of showing or revealing. This began with the revealing of the infant Jesus to the wise men. Coming from the East, the lands beyond Israel, the wise men are representatives of the world beyond Judaism, the world of ourselves and of all peoples today. The child they came to worship would grow up in the sight and pleasure of God his Father. As a part of his teaching he would pray that all of his followers might be one. One of his closest followers would write that Christians would be known by their love for one another.
Unity is shown us in the Trinity. What is that unity like? We can never know fully what God is like in this age. We must wait for the age to come to see the face of God. But the scriptures give us glimmers. If anything, God is joyful and loving in God’s diversity. What the Father and the Son and the Spirit have in common is the divine life of love. And this is the showing of the Epiphany season: we have been and are being included in that divine life.
Last week in our gospel reading we heard how the 1st disciples asked Jesus where he lived, and then they followed Jesus home. They became included in Jesus' home life - and in his family that he was creating.
This week I’ve been listening to Paul: he helps us to answer the question, what does this family of Jesus look like?
Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. It was one of the churches he had founded, and he wrote to encourage them and strengthen their faith. By the time he wrote his letter the church in Corinth was probably not much bigger than all of the congregations put together that meet here at Christ Church.
Paul begins by giving thanks for all that has preceded their coming to faith and what gives them a foundation for it. He wrote:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus … 1 Corinthians 1.1
He reminds them of the spiritual reality: it was God who had given them the grace to be who they are as a church. God the Father, through Jesus, had given them all the blessings of the spiritual life.
But there were some serious matters that needed to be brought into the light. Paul challenges them where they were falling short of what they had been given. You have it all, he wrote, yet you are not living it out in one very important respect. They were quarrelling about who had baptised them. They had been tempted into the darkness of disunity.
In all my years of ministry I have never heard arguments among parishioners over who got baptised by whom. I have heard talk about where or how a person was baptised, suggesting that the where or how might be of some importance. And sometimes people remember by whom, but never as a point of disagreement.
Paul tells it straight: there should be no divisions among them. Not just over baptism. There should be no divisions, full stop. Christ, he says, is not divided. They should not be divided, if they are to live out what had been given to them, the epiphany, the revealing, they had received.
Why does Paul get so pointedly direct with them? Because, given the nature of human failings, repentance must come before unity: hence Paul's strong language.
In this week of prayer for Christian unity, we remember the church’s many divisions. 500 years ago, on the 31st of October in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his complaints about the Catholic Church on a church door in his home country of Germany. He is recognised as having lit the fire that would become known as the Reformation. It would convince Henry VIII of the ability to make himself head of his own church for the convenience of his divorce. And it would lead eventually to many other separations and divisions among Christians, at the great cost of many martyrs.
As a part of prayer for Christian unity, Anglican archbishops have called for repentance for the Reformation, for causing the breakup of the church. Pope Francis has said we must ask for forgiveness for our divisions.
This call by the pope and archbishops brought to my mind what the apostle Peter wrote:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. 1 Peter 5.6
When we bring our failings in sorrow before him, he lifts us up.
Disunity, says Genesis, began in the Garden of Eden. Adam blamed Eve for pinching the apple off the forbidden tree, and Eve blamed the snake - it was the first domestic argument. [Just imagine Adam and Eve’s conversation in bed later that night.] Jesus came to bring reconciliation of all things.
Diversity on the one hand, disunity on the other - maybe it is a long, continuous stream between the two of them. Maybe God has left us to work out where we are or where want to be in that stream between diversity and disunity. One thing we know for certain: God does not give up on us. Moving towards unity begins with confession and deep sorrow for our disunity. It then proceeds from our common source of forgiveness and acceptance in Christ, through our common baptism, into his new life.
Paul ends this section of his letter with a reminder about what is really important. He writes:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1.18
This is what we are unified around, this is what is at our centre, what continually draws us into the unity of the divine life. We will always find ourselves coming back to the cross, and the life and love it contains. It is the powerful magnet of our unity. It must be the magnet of our discussions and planning during the coming year.