January 26, 2020
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using I Cor 1.10-18, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 26th January 2020, the Third Sunday of Epiphany.
Email 25th January 2020
To Tom, Dick, Harry; Gill, Jane and Megan
Following a conversation with a delegation from Chloe who met me recently, could we meet promptly to discuss the quarrels that seem to have broken out, which concern me greatly? These people report that there have been public divisions among different groupings, based on rivalry. Each is claiming a different leader to give them an edge over others, even in the same church. As you will appreciate, if this is happening, it would be totally opposed our mission to ‘renew, inspire and unite people in faith, hope and love’.
I would like to learn more from you all in person, as soon as possible, about where the source of this quarrelling may lie, so that we can swiftly address the underlying issues. Please respond to the attached Doodle Poll by return.
If that email were real, and not a rejigged version of today’s first lesson, few of you might be surprised. Human community is extraordinarily hard to create and maintain.
You may know the story of the new monk whose novice master asks him a week after his arrival how he is getting on. ‘Oh’, he says, ‘The brothers are wonderful, but I find all the chanting really rather difficult’. Six months later the novice master asks him the same question. ‘Oh’, says the monk, ‘The chanting is wonderful, but I find all the brothers really rather difficult’.
Community is a crucible in which we discover something about ourselves and human nature in the raw.
Perhaps you have read A History of the World by the journalist Andrew Marr – a mere 600 pages long! In the first chapter he debunks the myth of the noble savage, which from the Enlightenment has offered a vision of a far-flung time when our forebears, in their innocence and purity, lived in peace and harmony with each other – a Garden of Eden scenario, but without the apples.
Marr, however, points to the scholarly work being done on massacres in prehistoric times and the art that depicts not just bison being chased but human beings impaled by spears. And he rightly says that the cause of this perennial conflict lies in our basic psychology. We form groups not only by finding affinity with others but also by defining ourselves against others – we belong to Tribe A because we do NOT belong to Tribe B, the members of which are not like us, not at our level, and so on. (But that’s enough about Salisbury.)
It takes a lot to take us past our tribalism. Shaming people for not honouring the mission statement, as my fake email attempted, can’t begin to cure this deep streak of competitiveness in our psyches.
St Paul takes a different tack. In response to this factionalism, he reaches for basic convictions. We tend to think of the Bible as something written with extreme care, but clearly Paul was thinking on the hoof as he wrote to the Corinthians. Later on in today’s reading he claims that he’s only baptised two people, but then adds, come to think of it, I did baptise another family, and er, perhaps there are others I can’t think of for right now.
When you’re thinking on your feet, instinctive ideas and convictions come to mind, and for Paul, his big idea, the reality he lived and breathed, was the Church as Christ’s body. To belong to the Church meant belonging to Christ, being in Christ. His letters are peppered with that evocative phrase, ‘in Christ’.
The Church as Christ’s body is Paul’s big idea, but not an easy one. Modern people see themselves primarily as individuals with the right to choose, determine and act over and against others in order to establish a unique identity. Historically, this was more of a male notion, but now it’s common currency.
If you think about it, individualism is bound to make factions still more likely, as we see even families and tribes as optional extensions of our being.
But for Paul the basic unit of existence was not the self-determining ME, not even the family or tribe, but Christ. Our future hope and our present wellbeing lay, for Paul ‘in Christ’, in sharing in Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification.
When Paul heard of factions in the church, he instantly recognised the problem: believers were failing to see Christ as the present saving, all-embracing reality of their community. You hear his frustration: Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?
He must have been severely embarrassed that one faction was following him.
He’s saying, I’m not the one who’s uniting you; I’m not the one you belong to. Don’t be so foolish as to corrupt the good news of Christ crucified – Christ on the cross, reconciling us to God and one another, abolishing the walls of hostility, rivalry and hate among us.
Don’t turn away from the One who has brought you together and made you one in Him. Don’t throw away the gift he put into your hands by dying for you.
And this choice we still have: to see either the Body of Christ as the basic reality, or our selves, our tribes, families and nations as the fundamental thing.
Therefore, at this critical moment in our nation’s history we must not be so foolish as to see our leaving behind an old political solidarity as the chance to become more insular. My friends who wished this change believe that by it we ‘ll be freer to join hands with nations across the world; and we must pray for the development of this reborn commonwealth, as imagined on the new 50p proclaiming, “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations, 31st January 2020.”
But as well as that small political point, I want to make a final, pastoral one. Community is hard to find in our days, and there are many who, for whatever reason, find themselves outside conventional circles of belonging. They feel alone and out of things.
But they are not alone and out of things in the Church, because they are in Christ. That’s not a lofty idea but a real-life, incarnate body of people learning that their first allegiance is to each other, as brothers and sisters in Him. In the Church, this living body, we belong to each other, more than we belong to our natural families, our clubs and networks of affiliation.
From where I stand in this community, I see vital signs of this: people being drawn in and befriended; generous acts of kindness and service bringing strangers together; people given the space to go at their pace but with opportunities to join in; faithful prayer for the sick, the powerless and those who mourn; but the more we do this, the more we shall become a place where factions and tribes have been crucified and the new wine of Christ is flowing.
We take comfort from the fact that from dot the community has been far from perfect. The letter we heard is probably the earliest in the New Testament and almost the first word in it is Paul’s astonished rebuke about rivalry. Our natural ways of defining ourselves and of belonging assert themselves all too easily.
However, we are, despite all our failings, people of the chalice. We share a common cup and by drinking from it together we share in Christ’s reconciling death. We do not watch it; we receive it; and in so doing the substance of His life begins to course through our veins as our spirit is mingled with His Holy Spirit.
Hope rests in this cup – oneness with God and with each other, in this world-renewing gift.