January 22, 2017 sermon
Singing the Unity of the Gospel
Last week, we began a journey with the ancient church in Corinth for a few weeks. As I mentioned, Corinth was a commercial hub—a prosperous, thriving, bustling manufacturing and trade centre between east and west. The church reflected the culture of the city.
Paul had established a church, and then left for another city to do the same. A couple of years later, Paul heard some disturbing reports, and wrote them a letter. The church was being torn apart by divisions. It was contaminated by pride and self–interest. Different groups were busy promoting their own agenda with no regard for the church as a whole. Some people were also engaging in some questionable moral practices.
Paul is quite angry with these folks. “You’ve turned your back on the gospel,” he says. “Come back and lead lives worthy of the gospel I taught you while I was with you.”
Paul begins his letter with a brief thanksgiving to God for giving these people everything they need to live faithfully. Then comes his first complaint (from The Message):
“I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends. I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another and to cultivate a life in common.
“I bring this up because some people from Chloe’s family brought a most disturbing report to my attention—that you’re fighting among yourselves! I’ll tell you exactly what I was told: You’re all picking sides, going around saying, ‘I’m on Paul’s side,’ or ‘I’m for Apollos,’ or ‘Peter is my man,’ or ‘I’m in the Messiah group.’
“I ask you, ‘Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own? Was Paul crucified for you? Was a single one of you baptized in Paul’s name?’ I was not involved with any of your baptisms, and on getting this report, I’m sure glad I wasn’t …
“God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center—Christ on the Cross—be trivialized into mere words.”
This very small church—maybe a couple dozen—are fighting with each other. For Paul, this is at the heart of what’s wrong. So Paul calls them to unity.
Now anyone who has spent any time at all in churchland knows that there are always going to be people in any church who get on your nerves. That’s just a part of living with other people. You’re not going to like everyone. It’s just not possible. And even those people you like sometimes get on your nerves. Sometimes even the priest gets on people’s nerves. Imagine that!
But that’s not what Paul is talking about. The people in Corinth have forgotten that in Christ, we have more in common with one another than there are things that divide us. We—all of us—belong to God. Even if we don’t like one another, the gospel calls us to work together for the healing of creation. The gospel calls us to unity.
Now I need you to know that Christ Church is the healthiest church I’ve ever had the joy of serving. There are very few conflicts here, and I can’t begin to tell you how glad that makes my heart.
But that wasn’t the case in Corinth. Paul tells them to shape up. Stop picking sides. Some of them were saying “I’m on the priest’s side”; or “I’m on the secretary’s side”; or “I’m with the musician.” And some of them thought they were super spiritual—“I’m on Jesus’s side.”
Stop it! You act as if Jesus has been split up, as if the Messiah has been apportioned to different people.
Stop it! Work together. We were all baptized into Christ, and baptism changes everything. You don’t belong to yourselves any longer. You all belong to God. So start living like that.
Baptism changes everything. It changes the way we define ourselves. When we are baptized, Paul says, we move from the old way to the new way, to God’s way of doing things. In Galatians 3, Paul reminds us that “in Christ, we are no longer divided into Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. In Christ we are all one, we are all equal.”
Since we have been baptized, we share a connection with the one who was crucified. We are baptized into the cross of Christ, and if you are fighting with each other, you deny the power of the cross. You are denying your own baptism.
We are in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity right now. Paul’s word to the Corinthians speaks to us today. We all have been baptized into Christ—Christ Church, First Baptist, Cranbrook United, Christ the Servant, St Mary’s, Cranbrook Alliance Church, Foursquare Gospel Church—we all have been baptized into Christ. Whatever our disagreements may be—and they are many—we are nevertheless called to work together so that God’s gospel purposes may be known in the world.
I’ve worked hard with the Ministerial the whole time I’ve been here. I’ve said over and over again that despite all our disagreements, we can still work together. Many pastors disagreed with me. But the thing is that the ones most opposed to me have moved; things have begun to change in the last couple of years. We are actually starting to do some things together. I didn’t think I’d ever see the day, but my heart is glad.
In the world, we identify ourselves according to the tribe we belong to. We identify our race, our economic circumstances, our education, our social status, our age and those kinds of things.
When we are in Christ, Paul says, none of those things count. We are one. We are equal. We are God’s people, called to serve the world.
Later in his letter, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are the body of Christ. A body has to work together. You can no more separate yourselves from each other than the eye can tell the kidney to take a hike. Everyone is a valuable and necessary member of the body.
Then Paul writes his magnificent hymn to love. Most often these days, we read it as if it were a nice, sentimental reading for weddings. But that’s not Paul’s intention.
The hymn to love tells us that whatever we do must be done with love. If we don’t do it with love, it is worthless. We can sing the most beautiful solo, but if we don’t sing with love, it’s just noise. We can preach the best sermon, but if there isn’t any love, it’s just a waste of time. We can give the most money, but if we don’t give with love, who cares? No matter what we do, it must be done with love, always working to strengthen the body of which we are a part.
To use a musical metaphor, a very early church father named Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “In your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung.”
We sing together in the glorious choir which God puts together in creation. Sometimes the harmony is complex. Sometimes there is dissonance, but we always return home to concord. Sometimes we lose the line of the music, but it always winds its way back home.
More to the point, to sing together in this way requires practice and discipline. A choir prepares to sing. It warms up. When it sings with an orchestra, the orchestra tunes up so they’re all in the same key. We interpret the notes on the page written by the composer … and it only becomes music as we join the creative process. We watch the conductor, follow the time she beats.
And in all of this, we learn perfect freedom as we work and sing and make music together. If everyone does their own thing, it is a cacophony. It’s only as we do our part in the script that the music becomes glorious and beautiful.
That’s how it is to be for us. We sing the unity of the gospel. We work hard at it, and in our singing God’s healing love is made known in the world. We hear Jesus call us, “Come, follow me,” and as we do so, we discover that God has given us everything we need to sing beautifully, so that we live out God’s gospel purposes.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
1 Corinthians 1: 10–18
Matthew 4: 12–23
Isaiah 9: 1–4
3rd Sunday after Epiphany