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The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

A week ago yesterday was the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter. Yesterday was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The eight days bracketed by these are the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. During this Week many Christian Churches (even if not their local, parochial expressions) are expected to engage in earnest prayer, confessing their part in the sin of division and schism, and praying for the help of God in removing the obstacles which divide Christian from Christian. That said, very little about this Canadian Council of Churches (as part of the World Council of Churches) week of praying seems to have entered the awareness of local Anglican this past week.

For various reasons, which I won’t trouble you with, in preparation for preaching today, I remembered some Weeks-of-Prayer-for-Christian-Unity-Past. For about five years, I was the Rector of the Anglican member church of the Meadowvale West Church Centre (in North-West Mississauga, a cooperative of three churches, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian). Actually, Meadowvale West Church Centre had started out as a cooperative of 4 member churches, but I was there as the 4th Rector of the Anglican partner, by which time the United Church component (ironically) had come to the conclusion that this much unity inhibited their ability to grow, and gone off to their own building a few hundred metres away!

When I arrived there it was the custom at Meadowvale West Church Centre to have only one joint Service for all three churches on the morning of the Sunday that fell within that Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – we called it Unity Sunday. But, this was by no means simple to execute. The three clergy of the member churches would get together late in the old year and early in the New Year for several lengthy planning sessions, and devise a liturgy that was carefully designed to avoid all controversial issues for all our members. No one could possibly have their smallest of theological toes stepped on by anything we did! Nothing could be done that had been done in previous recent years! And nothing that even remotely resembled a sacrament was allowed, as our three churches had somewhat different understandings of what those meant!!! The trouble with all those constraint was that we ended up with “liturgy and theology lite,” a sort of spiritual Chinese food; shortly after you were spiritually hungry again!

For my last years there, we were more daring! We took turns hosting the “Unity Service” and we did so doing what the host church would normally do on Sunday morning. And so we all attended a Lutheran Choral Holy Communion one year, a Presbyterian Lord’s Supper another, and an Anglican anglo-catholic High Mass, smoke, bells, the whole lot, the third year. Each year, two-thirds of those attending left feeling that they had learned something about how their neighbours worshipped, strange as that worship might be – to them. We, the clergy, had thought that doing this was risky; after all, our people each had very different ideas of the proper way to worship on Sunday morning. But, in the end, the experiment worked, everyone learned, everyone came to appreciate the others more, and we all thought the whole thing was quite wonderful!

Wonderful, yes; but also tragic that we thought it worthy of note!

Think about it! Why should members, (and indeed clergy!) of three mainline groups of Christians think it was wonderful to get together to do what, after all, Christ commanded us to do; do this in remembrance of him; celebrate Holy Communion? The three churches involved confess the same creeds, and each holds that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” If we believed that, why did we think it remarkable to eat and drink at each others’ Communion tables?

Division in the Church is nothing new; it was definitely not created at the European Reformation. Schism is older even than the division between the Eastern and Western Churches, now more than a thousand years old. It is older even than the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., the first Church council to dare define supposedly “universal” doctrine without participation by the universal (at the time) Church; doctrine which, of course, was not acceptable to all Christians, especially those not there! Division in the Church can be found as early as New Testament times. The New Testament Church was not some kind of model church, to which we can look for an example and toward which we can aspire. The New Testament Church also had its problems with division, and almost from the very beginning.

It is 54 or 55 years after the birth of Christ, 20 to 25 years after the Resurrection and the first Pentecost. St. Paul is in Ephesus, near the end of his missionary activity there. Directly to the West across the Aegean Sea is the large and wealthy port city of Corinth. Paul had been there four or five years earlier. In a mission of about eighteen months, assisted by Priscilla and Aquila, two young Christians from Rome, he had founded a Christian community. Then these three had sailed to Ephesus, to continue the work of evangelism in Asia Minor.

Distressing news arrives with merchants working for a business woman named Chloe. She was one of those in Corinth converted by Paul, and her business contacts in Ephesus keep her in touch with the Apostle. It seems, after Paul had left Corinth, two further missionaries of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had come there to preach.

One of them was Peter, Cephas in Greek, who stopped in Corinth on his way to Rome. As leader of the original disciples, and a close friend of Jesus, he was undoubtedly attractive to the Corinthian Christians. However, his influence was greatest on Jewish Christians there, who wanted to keep Jewish traditions within the new faith, who constantly opposed and attacked Paul, who considered himself the Apostle to the Gentiles, preaching a new faith independent of, or beyond Jewish law. The third missionary to come to Corinth was Apollos. He was born in Alexandria, was converted to Christianity there, and then travelled to Ephesus to meet Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila. From Ephesus he went to Corinth, with the approval of Paul, and preached the Gospel there.

It was not that these others had come to Corinth that upsets Paul. Peter and Apollos were faithful followers of Christ, who preached nothing but the Gospel. But after they all had left, the Church in Corinth separated into factions. Some were proud that they had been converted by Paul, the first evangelist in Corinth. “I belong to Paul,” was their cry. Others took as their slogan, “I belong to Apollos.” Others yet, proud of their conversion by Peter, the leader of the disciples and the only one to have known Jesus personally, claimed, “I belong to Cephas.” And yet another faction, perhaps feeling a spiritual superiority which marked them as the most arrogant of the whole lot, said – in effect – a plague on all your houses, “I belong to Christ.”

All this troubles Paul. This spirit of competition among factions, all grouped behind their spiritual guru, profoundly believing in their superiority, corrupts the life and witness of the Church, and threatens its unity. After all, Christ is not divided. And so Paul implores: “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.” For Paul, the unity of the Church is of the utmost and most urgent importance.

So it should be to us. We are not so different from the Corinthians. Did not our Lord Jesus Christ pray to the Father at the Last Supper, “I ask not only on behalf of these [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Therein lies the sin of dissension, disunity, and schism. By being divided, we fail to witness to the unity of God and Christ, and the world does not believe. What good does it do to proclaim with our mouths, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all;” and with our squabbling and divisions show we are lying? A divided church fails to completely witness to the truth of the Gospel, that in Christ all are brothers and sisters, and hence the world does not believe that Christ came for all.

And yet our many denominations shout: “We belong to Canterbury!” “We belong to Rome!” “We belong to Geneva!” “We belong to Wittenberg!” Or worse, “We belong to Christ; we, and only we, are the one, true Church, (and of course we are better than the rest of you)!” And it is not only division of the Church into denominations that is the sin of schism. Even within denominations, and even within some local parishes or congregations, there is divisiveness; perhaps the greatest hindrance to the seeker after truth. Any serious inquirer who spends any amount of time searching within the churches of any denomination quickly discovers that these Christians proclaim “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” mostly with their mouths, and much less convincingly with their actions. Division into special interest groups, divided on the language of liturgy, battling about styles of worship, going to the wall about hymns, splitting hairs over fine points of theology, and yes, arguing about sex(!); all following their own leaders and interests, and worse, each claiming spiritual superiority over others; all this destroys the unity to be found in Christ. Such destructive disunity is the greatest obstacle to evangelism. We are not one, as the Father and the Son are one, and because of our disunity, the world does not believe.

The Church is charged by Christ to proclaim the uniting, healing Gospel to a divided and hurting world. So long as we are divided ourselves, that proclamation is impaired, and the world will not believe. I’ve said it over and over again in other contexts, I am not advocating for some kind of super-church, in which all agree on everything, all engage in the same mission to our world during the week, and all do exactly the same thing on a Sunday morning! That’s not unity, that’s a machine! But with what mighty impact the Gospel of reconciliation would strike the evils which bedevil humanity, if all members of the Christian Church could find the grace to welcome each other to eat and drink at their version of the Lord’s table, and sing songs of praise to God together – and it doesn’t have to be in unison or to the same tune!. What mighty acts could we not accomplish if we mended the scandalous tears we have made in the seamless robe of the Gospel with our divisions and schism? How much more convincing to searchers would we be if in every denomination, parish, and congregation the proclamation of “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” could be seen, felt, experienced; and not just heard?

We are the Corinthians, individually and as churches. Paul exhorts us. It is to us Paul writes, “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.”

Copyright ©2020 by Gerry Mueller