Sermon - Epiphany 3 (Ordinary 3) Year A - | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |
Let there be no divisions among you
[On ecumenical unity see also sermons for the week of prayer for Christian unity: One in the Spirit, Unity in Christ, and That they all may be one. This sermon from the epistle for today relates more to pastoral concerns within a congregation and their affects on its mission.]
It seems such an obvious thing. It is only to be expected that the apostle would say: Let there be no divisions among you.
When, just before he died, Jesus prayed for his disciples and those like us who would believe in him through their teaching the one thing he asked was that they all might be one [John 17]. It is the true Lord's prayer, the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples, and of fundamental importance because general Christian unity is essential to understanding the nature and mission of the church; but today I would like to draw some slightly different conclusions for us from the situation in Corinth with which Paul was concerned. There are some important things about our life that I want to share with you now and over the coming weeks, because I believe we must move forward in a new way and that there needs to be changes much bigger than most of us have yet thought about. I will not be giving as much of the detailed Biblical background as I often do, although you can be sure that I have studied the texts very carefully in preparation. You will hear more of the conclusions today than how I got there.
Why unity is important
We should take note first, however, that our concern with Christian unity is more than a practical concern to be effective as a force in the world, although it is necessary for such practical reasons also. The leaders of any organisation know that: it is one of the tasks of leadership to hold people together, to share with them a common vision, to reconcile differences, to discipline disruptive elements and to encourage people in a common sense of identity so that they know who they are and where they are heading. They must share a common sense of purpose and a commitment to acting together for that purpose. Paul was not different from other leaders when he urged that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Even Jesus himself, in a completely different situation from that of his last great prayer, spoke directly of the common human experience of disaster coming from divisions:
The practicalities are important. Division does lead to defeat. And it is true the church today still suffers enormously from its divisions, national, cultural and denominational, especially when it is called to oppose the powers of darkness. It is clear from our experience in Australia in recent years that the churches have been most effective in bringing questions of social justice into public debate in ways that challenge presently powerful influences when they are expressing common Christian concerns. Unity is strength and disunity is death. Yet we have a more important reason for unity: it is at the heart of the gospel that we should seek unity. Even if it were not of any immediate practical advantage, we could not be true to Christ if we were not committed to show in our lives together in the fellowship that hope for unity of all things that was the purpose of his coming into the world.
We cannot truthfully witness to the reconciliation of people with God through the work of Christ unless we are also reconciled to one another. It is at the centre of what we believe, no greater damage can be done to our mission than to fail in love and concern for one another within the fellowship of believers. The Romans and other pagan observers of the early Christians remarked "How these Christians love one another!" It was said that they endangered their own lives by the loving support they gave to the sick and dying among them when the common practice was to abhor and avoid the diseased and dying. On the other hand it is generally true, even today, that in any place where there has been strife and division the church is in poor health. When I was working as pastor to ministers in a region, in contact with 85 congregations I often puzzled over why some were growing and prosperous, with new people joining from the local community, while others were in decline with practically no new members, and I discovered when I learned of some of the local history that wherever there had been serious strife or division in the local church, even if it was as much as 50 years earlier, the congregation had declined and still had great difficulty in recruiting new members. It was not just that it was ineffective because people did not co-operate very well, but more, it seemed to me, because it had been giving the wrong message to the community. It was a problem with their witness to the gospel.
So we need to avoid divisions, not only because like any organisation the church needs to be united in a common purpose to be effective, but because, even more importantly, our message is about unity in the human family, about how we can all become children of God and therefore brothers and sisters. As John put it in his first letter:
He sums it up in a way that recalls the words of Jesus himself:
The world knows that as surely as we do. As John continues:
Now why am I telling you this. You can say don't we all know this already. And, anyway, we don't have divisions and strife here in this congregation. OK, that may be so, although I am not sure that it was always so, or that the lessons of the past have been learned; and if it was necessary for Paul and John to restate the fundamentals from time to time, it may well be advisable for us too to be reminded. And I have another reason for emphasising this message which happens to be in the epistle set for today.
Where is the energy?
Do you think it is at all possible that in some places there is an absence of conflict because everything is too quiet? If there is no energy or commitment -- if no one really cares what happens -- if there is no passion -- if nobody is trying to change things -- if there is no competition of ideas and no challenge, why should there be conflict? Ask yourself, where is the energy and the commitment. Do people care passionately about the gospel or what they think it means, or are they laid back or tired, or are they inhibited. In many cases there is a temporary show of energy for a particular celebration as for example in the Centenary of the Congregation. Such special efforts typically look to the past, rather than to the future. They were most successful when focussed on recapturing the internal social life of the congregation of earlier times for its life today.
[Local pastoral challenge, 1996:- There has been little evidence of long term forward looking commitment as a result of the special effort we have made. For example, attendance at worship is very irregular, and that seems to be regarded as normal -- almost any other activity seems to take precedence over worship. At the same time the level of giving is poor, the average amount given per person in neighbouring parishes is much higher -- about 40 per cent higher per giving unit higher than it is here. Why is that? Attendance and giving are signs of commitment. To move beyond mere maintenance, beyond just keeping it going, requires commitment, and in the long run if all you want is to keep it going it will fail. People like the idea of there being a church in the local community, and they like to maintain family traditions. A surprising number of local people are prepared to make a minimal contribution of time and money to keep it going. Even people who almost never come to worship will do things like arrange the flowers or help with the cleaning. They want the church as part of the community, but it makes me very sad. I would much prefer that they did less and received some spiritual benefit from taking part in the inner life of a Christian fellowship; and I must say that I have been greatly encouraged in the last six months or so by the early signs of growth in that inner life, especially in prayer; but we really do have a very long way to go.
If people are inhibited from commitment because of some past conflict, we should recognize that, talk about it and deal with the problem. Some may have left and still be around in the community. If so, reconciliation should be sought with them. You cannot leave it to the minister. As in most things I probably don't even know about it, and even if I did the initiative would probably need to be taken by ordinary members for it to be accepted.]
Mission planning and commitment
If it is more a matter of lack of vision, then let us talk about our future together, share our hope and our faith, and encourage one another. The Elders of this congregation are planning a time of sharing together in small groups as we develop a mission plan for the parish. I and others will have more to say about this in the near future, and some of what I have said today will need to be repeated -- for the benefit of those who are away at this time and because it is important. Above all there will be a need to renew our personal commitments to God in Christ and opportunities, such as the Covenant Service, will be provided for that; and we should be encouraged because there are people here whose faith has been renewed in significant ways and there are new members amongst us and others who have returned who have not been around for some years. It must also be acknowledged that a greater number have had looked in and not come back. Things presently are hopeful, but still in the balance, as far as the future of this congregation is concerned. It is possible to move forward with a new sense of purpose and commitment.
What should you expect if that does happen? If there is energy, passion and hope there will be people with ideas who want to do things and who are sufficiently committed to see things through, so that they keep up the effort to obtain a result: then there will be different ideas about what is important and where we should be going. Conflict will be very much more likely when people care. If there is excitement and people are moving around, they tend to get in each others way. Then unity of purpose and action become important, co-ordination and leadership are necessary. Then it is no longer good enough to say we will let it happen if some one will volunteer to do it. If people want to move in different directions, as some clearly do, then we will have to work out how many of these different things we can manage and how what we agree on they can be done together so that enthusiasm is not discouraged.
For example, if some prefer to concentrate in personal evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth, and others on questions of social justice, education and service in the community, we need to see how each of these can contribute to our mission and to openly support what we agree upon. You will see these different emphases in the reports the young adults are bringing from the various outreach projects in which they have been engaged during the summer holidays. There are other different ideas coming from older members as well, and it will a great shame to dampen enthusiasm or to hold back because we do not all have the same ideas. Working together on a forward plan should help us support each other in a common enterprise. It is not good enough simply to be permissive and say I wont stand in your way. You need to be in there with them and say, "What can I do to help?"
The need to acknowledge differences
Unacknowledged differences and lack of appreciation of what people can contribute to each other can be terribly debilitating. So if things do start to move we will need to be committed to maintaining unity and be prepared to work on the differences without trying to squeeze everyone into the same mould. If conflict is not dealt with some members will become discouraged and fall back, reducing their commitments. That is understandable. Most people don't like conflict and it is difficult to move people who are entrenched in positions of influence, so there might seem to be little point in trying; but if you feel that way remember it is your church too, that you have a right and a responsibility to work for the good of the whole.
Then there are people, in any congregation who instead of trying the tackle the problems where they are, look around for other Christians like themselves -- for a cosy like minded group who will reinforce their own way of thinking. That looking around for what suits you is easily encouraged in these days of individual consumer attitudes, and there are plenty of religious entrepreneurs ready to offer whatever there is a market for -- there is nothing new about that. It happened in New Testament times too and Paul had to warn people against those who would tickle their ears. Sectarianism is a great danger and a terrible offense against Christ. People who differ should stay together and struggle with their differences to seek the truth together in love. That struggling together must be done in a way which meets the needs of people for spiritual growth. It is not sufficient to expect people out of duty to stay together regardless, but there is a responsibility both to make your needs known and to recognize the needs of others.
One contributing factor in the tendency of members sometimes, either to hold back or to go shopping around, is some disagreement with what is happening in the wider church. We live in a complex society and many differences in the world we live in are reflected in the churches. The Uniting Church is not very different from the other large churches in this, there are enormous differences represented within it. We live in a much more complex society than many of us grew up with, and the churches are more complex and varied. As in the other churches, in our church there are sometimes people, even official leaders, who will say things that others very strongly disagree with. There can then be a tendency then to say, "If there are people like that in this church I don't want to be part of it"; but holding back or looking elsewhere will not solve those problems. The problems and the divisions will still be there in the body of Christ. And it is important to see that they are still there in the one universal Christian fellowship, even if you have distanced yourself from them. Apathy and sectarianism only make them worse. Furthermore, there are people operating in many places including our local community who seek to profit in their own causes by spreading rumours and making people dissatisfied with their own churches. The vultures gather wherever it appears that a church is in trouble.
[Specific comment re local concerns about wider Uniting Church divisions:- But this is not to say that you should put up with whatever is going on. The truth is important and some of the current differences cannot continue. I have carefully refrained from introducing into the local church the controversies in which I have struggled quite intensely in the Synod and the National Assembly, but if you have concerns I wish you would tell me. You might find I agree with you, or if I do not then it will be important that we know about the differences, or you might find that things you have been told or you have read in the newspaper or heard on the radio are not true. In any case I am in a position to do something about it. So let us share the things that worry people. Encourage others to share their concerns. Besides talking with me you can share also with our parish lay representatives to Presbytery - Ask them to take up any wider church concerns that you have. And do not be discouraged. When you see the church on a larger scale it is obvious too that while there may be cause for concern, there are many exciting things happening in the Uniting Church and much of it is very good. Whatever problems there are do not justify either fearful apathy or a cosy sectarian escape.]
The reason why Paul wrote as he did to the people at Corinth was that they were in conflict over many things. Some of them had been put to him in a series of questions [see 1 Cor. 7:1] which he answered in the following chapters, and we might look at them another time. [You can read about some of the background in Acts 18.] The differences were quite intense -- he spoke later of having made them a "painful visit" [2 Cor. 2:1] -- but one thing Paul would never allow was that they remained comfortable with their divisions or formed separate fellowships. They had to stay together and overcome their problems. Theirs were not so very different from the problems we face: he discussed marriage and sexual morality, the influence of pagan religions, their communal life, especially how they worshipped and central beliefs like the resurrection of Christ. They are all common enough concerns today, and easy causes of division. Christians cannot live together in unity and cannot witness to the gospel without tackling such questions. Holding back or running away will not solve the problems. Paul and the Corinthians in those early days had similar problems to ours, but they were able to confront them because they had enough energy and commitment to do so -- commitment or faith in Christ and the energy of the Holy Spirit to which they were open.
If then we are to see a new commitment here and in the church at large, we should expect some conflict. Where there is life, there is movement, and in the excitement of living it cannot all be co-ordinated. At the same time if it is indeed the Spirit of God by which we are given new life then he will guide us in the way of peace and unity. Let us not be afraid to be stirred up. Let is happen, and then to tackle the consequent differences:
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