January 23, 2011

… be in agreement

Passage: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10

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

This cartoon is of a picture of a church that has been torn in half by a tornado; in the caption one church member says to the other—“I suppose that solves the problem of which side the piano goes on.” If only church squabbles were so easily solved.

It really was a bold project that Paul and his mission team undertook to begin with; establishing a church at Corinth that reflected the diversity of that city.  Corinth stood at the crossroads of the trade routes between east and west; it was a place where the peoples of the world met akin to the way immigration has shaped the population of Toronto and it surrounding communities.  According to our Town’s website “Markham is one of Canada’s most culturally diverse communities.”

The church at Corinth had been established on Paul’s second missionary journey; it was while Paul was at Ephesus on his third missionary journey that he heard about the problems at Corinth.  It was typical that these churches met in the home of a church member; a delegation came from Chloe’s household with distressing news of the mess the church was in—divisions had formed and quarrels erupted that were tearing the church apart.  I invite you to reflect with me on Paul’s admonition ‘that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you”.

1. I grew up in a Baptist church that was part of a denomination called the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches; “Fellowship Baptist” for short.  On learning of my church history a United Church colleague once commented that the title “Fellowship Baptist” was an oxymoron.  He was correct; I recall that we often defined ourselves more by those we did not have fellowship with than by those we did.  We also noted that the moniker “The United Church of Canada” had its share of challenges in being true to the character envisioned by its name.

Still, the United Church was in many respects a bold project.  In 1925 the Methodist Church of Canada, about seventy percent of the Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Union joined forces and formed The United Church of Canada; uniting Christians was a driving idea motivating the visionaries who formed our denomination.  (The red hymnal we use was a joint-publication by the Anglican and United Churches during discussions of a potential union.)  The United Church has lots of challenges; still, that forming vision of uniting Christians is consistent with the gospel.

2. Clearly the divided church has not helped with the proclamation of gospel; the love of God proclaimed in Jesus Christ seems only words when spoken by Christians in the heat of battle with one another.  In the year 1054 what is sometimes called the Great Schism formally divided medieval Christianity into Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches, which later became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, respectively.

The western church was further divided in a movement whose beginning is marked on  October 31, 1517; we call it the Protestant Reformation—and Protestants have been dividing themselves into sub-groups (denominations) ever since.  October 31, 1517 was the day Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  I think it instructive to note that Luther was seeking to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact he was an inheritor of reform work that had been going on in the Catholic Church for 100 years before him and that continued after him.

As a teenager I admired the minister of my church; his intellect and learning taught me that Christians certainly did not park their brains at the door.  However, there was a strong anti-Catholic streak in his preaching.  In my seminary training (first time around) Catholic thinkers and writers were rarely read and when read treated with suspicion; they didn’t really believe the gospel—or so it was said; things Catholic were dismissed because they were Catholic.

I am a bit of a continuing student and have had the opportunity to study with some wonderful Catholic teachers. I had the privilege of studying New Testament in summer courses with a Dominican named Henry Wansbrough whose knowledge of the New Testament is massive and love for Jesus palpable as he lectured.  I am not saying there are no real differences between Protestant and Catholic in theology—I am saying there is much to be learned from one another.

The three denominations that formed The United Church of Canada were all Protestant in confession and history.  Someone once said that the difference between Catholic and Protestant is the difference, respectively speaking, between a theological emphasis on St. Peter and on St. Paul.  There is some truth to this reflection; on the one hand is the Catholic emphasis on Peter as leader of the first disciples and the early church—on the other hand is the Protestant emphasis on Paul’s declaration of justification by faith.

This week is the time set aside annually as the week of prayer for Christian Unity; it was first proposed in 1908.  It is instructive for us that the dates chosen were January 18 to 25; January 18 is day the church marks the confession of St. Peter the Apostle (you are the Christ) and January 25 is the day the church marks the conversion of St. Paul the Apostle.  It seems to me that a good response to Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to “be in agreement” is to pray for Christian Unity.

3.  So what does Paul mean when he says “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions”?  Is he advocating cookie-cutter Christians?  Is he implying that we should be indifferent to doctrine or opinion and subvert everything to the goal of unity—that is to have unity for unity’s sake?  In other of Paul’s letters it is clear that Paul thought that false teachers and their teaching were to be rejected; it the same letter to the Corinthians he said that not every Christian is the same but each has their own unique compilation of gifts given by God to contribute to the church.

The words translated “be in agreement” here literally mean “to say the same thing”.  This is understood in the larger context of Paul’s preaching—“I decided to know nothing among you expect Jesus Christ, and him crucified”.  He is talking about their witness—there are to say the same thing about Christ; united in their witness of Him.

Paul is not preaching unity for the sake of unity. In many churches today the essence of the gospel is said to be “radical inclusiveness”; such inclusiveness has the effect of making all differences disappear or at least be ignored; there is a resulting indifference towards doctrine.(all except the doctrine of radical inclusiveness)—even the centrality if Christ is seen as divisive and counter to inclusiveness (i.e. if you Christians would tone down the Jesus is Lord rhetoric we could get along better). I would acknowledge that the gospel is radically inclusive in this respect: that all are sinners in need of a saviour.  Whenever the gospel is reduced to some essence it is no longer the gospel preached by the Apostles—Jesus Christ is himself the gospel.

In our gospel lesson we read of Jesus calling those first disciples to himself; it shows us that to be united to Christ is at the same time to be united to one another. Jesus Christ always renders one with each other all whom he renders one with himself. According to Scripture, all who are converted to the Master are added to his body. No one can be bound -- or can claim to be bound -- to Jesus and yet be unrelated to the Church.

We should further note that Scripture never suggests that Christians must strive to render themselves one. Paul appeals for agreement “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.  Christians are never urged to bring unity to the body of Christ. Their unity, rather, is given them in Christ, by Christ. They are henceforth to attest it, magnify it, live it, and take care not to contradict it. But they are never told they are to fashion it. Jesus Christ is himself the truth and reality of the individual who clings to him and also of his people collectively, his body. The unity of Christ's people is given and guaranteed by the fact that Jesus Christ himself isn't fragmented.

There is a vast difference between unity for unity’s sake and being united by Christ.

4.  The Methodists in Canada were by far the largest of the church bodies that formed the United Church of Canada; Central United was a Methodist Church before the 1925 union.  John Wesley was the founder of Methodism and the spirit of his axiom that Methodists “think and let think” permeated Methodism; it is a principle that I suggest promotes the softening sharp lines of division is Christianity.  In his day some local Anglican clergy organized unsavoury characters to disrupt his open air preaching—shouting and throwing things at him.  Christian unity was an important subject to Wesley that gave rise to his sermon Catholic Spirit.

In that sermon he carefully makes a distinction between essentials of the faith and opinions—he includes worship practises as opinion.  He didn’t think that opinions were of no consequence but that we ought be able to allow one another latitude as we endeavour to be faithful to Christ and live out our worship life.  The person with a catholic spirit or universal love Wesley said while retaining convictions “loves as friends, as brethren in the lord, ... all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ”.  In a world of divided Christianity Wesley points us in a helpful direction—to be people who bless and promote the faith of believers wherever we find them.  It seems to me that if we are to live peaceably with our neighbours of other religion it is fostered in first living peaceably with those whom we share faith in Christ.

5. Whenever you have two people together you are bound to have conflicting views on some things—so it is in any congregation of Christ’s church of any size.  The question about how a congregation manages that reality—whose views take precedence, so to speak—is at times a delicate matter.   Mechanisms are put in place so that at least the quieter voices are heard.

The objective Paul sets before the Corinthian church to be in agreement makes the church gathers a pleasant environment; makes going to church attractive.  I suggest to you that the starting point for unity makes a great difference.   Some describe the task in terms of conflict resolution or reduction; a conflict free environment is a worthy goal but if this is the driving force for unity other things get sacrificed in the process.

The gospel teaches us that all who Jesus joins to himself he joins to one another; this is our starting point.  That we are united together by Jesus calls me to live in such a way as not to contradict his union.  It is the bond of love in Jesus that empowers unity.

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