Sermon Jan 26 St Ambrose
Our reading from 1 Corinthians gives us a snapshot of the early church. Instead of everyone working together for the one goal, they are quarrelling and claiming that one group is better than another. Why are they different? After all, they have heard the same message, and surely the church is not yet old enough for the cracks of divisions to show?
The people are claiming difference by who it was that baptised them. It’s not what you know, but who you know, was maybe their motto. They are claiming a certain pedigree in the church because of who had been there in the beginning of their Christian journey.
Have you seen this in your time?
We used to live in Tawa, Wellington, which in the 1970s had been the hotbed of the charismatic renewal in New Zealand. People were still part of the congregation who had been there in those exciting and heady times. And the church still had that sort of flavour. I have heard some of our brothers and sisters from those days comparing notes about who had led them to the Lord, who had mentored them, just as the Corinthians were doing. They were giving their church pedigree by pointing out their connection to the famous, the influential person who had brought them into the faith.
It’s who you know, not what you know.
But is this really a reason to boast in the church? Paul certainly didn’t think so. He was glad he had baptised only a few people, so no one could claim the glory of having been one of his lot.
Well, what do we know as Christians? We know that God loves us, and made us all in God’s own image. We know that God sent Jesus to atone for our sins. We know that God loves everyone else too, so we need to love them just as God first loved us.
We say these things each week in the Creed, and it’s worth thinking about a bit. Parts of the liturgy that are said regularly can get a bit automatic, so that we don’t really think about what we are saying. So today, after the sermon, try and be really present when we say the Creed. Notice if there’s a line that stops you, that has you thinking. That might be God speaking to you about that particular issue.
Let’s go back to the early church in Corinth.
Paul had heard about the quarrels, and they grieved him. A divided church can have very little impact on the community around it. Back in first-century Corinth, there were many competing religious ideas – Corinth was in Greece, so you have the gods of mount Olympus – Zeus and Hera, Poseidon and the others. They were famous for fighting, though, so maybe the idea of unity in a context of religion was unfamiliar territory.
This is where the Christian church was different. This is where Paul was urging them to be united in the same mind, and purpose. There was a purpose for the early church – not like the old religions, where observance was the main activity, but there was the purpose of spreading the Gospel. Can you imagine being the one tiny congregation in a whole area of pagan religion, and you knew you had the real deal, the truth about God, and God’s love for everyone? It would be scary to be different, but it was such a treasure to have this good news, that everyone needed to share it, to help it spread throughout the whole world.
Unity in the church is so important. There has often been division between church denominations, church members, those who want to restore the cathedral and those who want a new purpose built one, those who believe that marriage can be blessed regardless of who the couple is, those who believe marriage is between one man and one woman only — do these ideas sound familiar? Yes, you are nodding. These are just a few of the issues that have dogged the Anglican church in NZ, and in Christchurch in particular, in the last few years.
What happens then there is disagreement?
The media rub their hands with glee, and write another story about these silly Christians who can’t agree and are really very petty, and haven’t they got anything better to do, like, for example, feeding the poor, and campaigning for social justice?
The world is very quick to see division and exploit it. They are quick to point out our failings as church, and take the moral high ground themselves.
But there is truth in what the media says here, painful though it is.
Just as Paul urged the Corinthians, we too are urged to be in unity with one another, to agree and to work together. That way we can bring the kingdom of God closer to everyday on earth. Can you imagine what it would look like here in Aotearoa New Zealand, if all the churches pulled together over issues of social justice, treatment of he poor, political issues in the public forum? We have lost our credibility and our public voice by being seen to be divided over anything really.
There is a problem though. We are all human beings. Well, most of us. No, just kidding. Human beings are quick to find their differences, their points of variation where they can see themselves as better than another. And when people see someone else as Other, it gets easier to disregard the other’s humanity. That’s unfortunately why people get discriminated against and maltreated. That’s the result of the sin that entered the world a long time ago, and it’s a part of the human condition.
Well, what can we do? Although we are sinners, we are saved by grace. By the blood of Jesus. We need Jesus’ help, in the form of the Holy Spirit, to fight against the flesh, the human nature of disagreement and one-upmanship, so that we can pull together for the sake of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Earlier on I said, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. In the early church at Corinth people were claiming to know the person who had brought them to Christ, and claim reflected glory from them. Then I said that it was more important that they knew what they knew than who they knew.
But I’m going to turn that around know and point it back to Who you know. It’s not the theology and the ideas of the religion that give us our DNA to be workers for God’s kingdom. It’s who we know. We know our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.