Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 23 January, 2011
This sermon almost didn’t happen. Fishing for my sunglasses en route to Suffield, hit some ice, and suddenly I learned how all those other folks went off the road and into the ditch. Thanks be to God, car’s ok, I’m ok, and an awesome tow truck driver was on the scene in minutes. I think he liked the fact that he got a minister to church on time. MP+
Proper 3, Lectionary Year A
Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1,5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Text: 1 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Cor 1:10)
My focus today is our lesson from First Corinthians, and my subject is unity and division. Those of you who are Canadians will know all about divisions. It’s practically in our national DNA to obsess about the things that divide us – language, region, and of course, hockey. We could have a vigorous debate today about whether the Sens or the Habs or the Canucks were the best team, and you could all find a temporary unity in pitying those of us who are Leafs fans. Those sorts of divisions are mostly harmless and good fun, part of human nature. Quite normal, really. But wouldn’t it be odd if one group of Sens fans turned to another group and said “You aren’t real Sens fans, we are”. Or odder still if second NHL team formed calling itself the Ottawa Senators, saying that they were the true Senators and not the original Senators. That would be odd indeed, but isn’t that what happens so often in religion?
If you ever go to Galt, in south west Ontario, and you find yourself in the old part of town, by the banks of the Grand River, you’ll notice two magnificent Victorian stone churches. One is Knox’s Galt Presbyterian Church, off South Square, which has a six storey steeple that can be seen for many miles. Across the square by the river, several stone’s throws away, stands another old stone church, called Central Presbyterian Church. You might ask yourself, why did a small Ontario town need two huge Presinbyterian churches as attractive as they might be? The answer has to do with a series of controversies and divisions in the Presbyterian church in the 1800s. But not to pick on Presbyterians, mind you. If you drove east from Galt along the 401 and came to Hoskin Avenue in downtown Toronto, you would find yourself looking at two Anglican seminaries across the street from one another. Why, you might ask yourself why Victorian Toronto felt it needed two Anglican seminaries. A facetious answer would be that there wasn’t money to build a third. A more serious answer would be that there seems to be something in our DNA, some part of our as yet unredeemed human nature, that leads us to division rather than to unity.
Last Sunday we looked at the opening of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian church, and we talked about the idea of how Paul stressed that they had been called by Christ to be saints or holy ones. But as we continue with First Corinthians today, we hear in the very next lines that this church is a long way from its calling. Paul has learned from members of this congregation, “Chloe’s people”, that they Corinthian church are divided and quarrelling. The source of their division appears to be that people have formed groups attaching themselves to those who baptized them, and so little quasi-denominations have started to form. Some Corinthians are Paul Christians, others are Cephas (Peter) Christians, Appollos Christians, and some are Christ Christians. Paul has no patience or time for these groups, even for those who identify themselves with him. He thanks God that he only baptized a few of the Corinthians (1:14-15) to make the point that baptism has nothing to do with the minister who baptized them, and everything to do with the name of the One, Christ, in whom they were baptized. It is in that name that Paul appeals to these divided Christians: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose (1 Cor 1:10).
The question I want to ask today is why is unity so important to Paul, and perhaps a more important question, why is (or perhaps just is) unity important to you? Perhaps the question depends in part on what we define “unity” to be. In Paul’s day, as the first generations of Christians were coalescing into what we call the church, there were divisions between followers of Jesus who were from Jewish backgrounds, and who were to some extent were still Jewish in many ways, and those who were from Gentiles. Some of the debates we hear in Acts and in Paul’s other letters are about whether Jewish customs should be binding on Gentile believers. There would also be divisions in geography, in language, in social status (from slave to Roman citizen), wealth, and gender. While these divisions were real and could not be wished away, repeatedly in his letters we see Paul saying that they pale in comparison to the new identity that they have been given as followers of Jesus Christ. A central theme of Paul’s theology is that Christ died for everyone, without discrimination, to make what is in effect a new human race, the race that God intended at creation. Anyone who looks backwards and who wants to identify themselves according to the old identities is in Paul’s view refusing the gift of the new identity Christ has given them. When Paul says ironically in our lesson “Has Christ been divided?” (1:13), the answer implied is “No, he hasn’t been divided, and neither should you be?”.
So what about you? How important is Christian unity to you? I’m very much aware that the people who come to this chapel come from a variety of backgrounds and have been formed by various traditions, including Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostal. Two thousand years after Paul, we take it as a given that the Christian identity is complex, like a large tree with any branches. Christian history is a history of argument and division, like the now-forgotten divisions which led to the two Presbyterian churches in Galt. Truth be told, most of us are probably grateful that different churches, traditions, and ways of being Christian exist. I recall a conversation here after coffee last week where we discussed our various experiences visiting churches of other denominations over the years. Some of those experiences were comfortable, and some were so far out of our comfort zone that we couldn’t worship because it was so alien and uncomfortable to us. Culture, tradition and even personality (such as Meyers Briggs types) have a greater say in what churches we attend than we probably care to admit, but going back to Paul, if he were here today he would say that our purpose as Christians is to worship the God who created and saved us, and if our divisions impair our worship, then we have a problem.
You will have noticed that thanks to Nicole and Sheldon our music today is live and in the informal genre of praise hymns. Any pastor that even though the bible tells us to offer hymns of praise to God, nothing can divide a congregation quite like music can. I heard a story this week about a church (Soul Survivor in Watford, England) where music had created a toxic environment. They did a lot of live praise music, but people in the congregation had their favourite bands and musicians, and wouldn’t come on Sundays when their favourites weren’t playing. The pastor, no doubt thinking of Paul and the Corinthians, decided that if music was dividing the church, then the music would stop until they got over their divisions. That experience led one member, Matt Redmon, to write a song, “The Heart of Worship”, that has become a classic in the new church music movement. The chrus of the song goes like this:
I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
And it’s all about You,
It’s all about You, Jesus
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it
When it’s all about You,
It’s all about You, Jesus
This is also the message of Paul to the Corinthians and to us, that when we become too fond of what’s comfortable, what’s normal, then we start to put our divisions ahead of God, when really it should be “all about You, Jesus”.
Today in our chapel we’ve done something a little unusual. We’ve been a little more informal, we’ve heard and sung some different music. I hope it was a blessing to you. Next week is an Anglican Eucharist, which is more the norm for this place. Where we go in the future depends on the talents we have and where the Spirit takes us. The Canadian Forces Chaplaincy has given its protestant chapels the green light to experiment more and be more open to different kinds of worship. Wherever it is we go here at Christ the King, and wherever you go in the rest of the churchgoing lives, may it be true to the gift of new identity that Christ has given you, and may it be all about You, Jesus. Amen.