This is the written transcript of a sermon I preached this morning. It was the first one I’ve done on a Sunday morning for about 11 years, so I was a tad nervous, but I’m not sure it came through too much.
There is also an audio recording here if you really wanted to hear it as well.
This is a picture which tells quite a story. It is a chart which shows all of the major breaks and schisms within the Church over the last 2000 years. There are more, many more, but to fit them all in would have meant a picture so large I’d have needed the whole back wall to project it onto.
My question is this; take a look at this picture and think about what is meant when we speak of “the Church”. When you hear it or say it yourself, what comes to mind? Do you think of this congregation? Do you think of the Church of Scotland as a whole? Do you go as far as thinking of all Presbyterian or even all Protestant Churches? Or do you look at this picture and think of all of it?
The thing is that all of those would be right. We are the church in this building, as part of the Church of Scotland, but most of all as part of the wider body of Christ. We are all connected, although sometimes it may not feel that way.
There was a lecturer in a Bible college in England. He was a staunch and proud Baptist and was happy to teach in a college which, predominantly, prepared people for the Baptist ministry. At the start of one year he asked anybody in his class who was not a Baptist to raise their hand. One young man did so, rather nervously,
“So, what are you?” he asked, rather dismissively.
“I’m an Anglican.” Came the reply.
“An Anglican?! Please enlighten the class as to why?” Sneered the lecturer.
“Well, my father was and Anglican, his father was an Anglican and his father was an Anglican before him.”
The lecturer laughed,
“Really? That’s the reason? And what if your father had been an idiot, his father an idiot and his father an idiot before him?”
The lecturer stood back, looking very pleased with himself.
The young man thought for a second, then replied,
“Well, then I guess I’d have been a Baptist.”
Now, please do not take the story to be a reflection on Baptist, Anglicans or my views on either. However, the fact that we find this story amusing is, in part, because we can relate to it. We know of some people who are very proud of “their Church” in particular. We may have experienced it or, on occasions, felt it ourselves when we hear news of another denomination or go to a service somewhere else and we look down on how things are done. We think things are wrong, we do it right in “our Church”, but this place has it all wrong; they sing the wrong songs, say the wrong types of prayers, they put their hands up/ don’t put their hands up to worship, too much clapping, too boring, too noisy, too modern, too traditional… the list goes on.
This pride in the way we do things can lead to much jealousy and derision, especially when one denomination suddenly hits the public consciousness for either good or bad reasons. Last month, for example, Songs Of Praise went to the refugee camp in Calais. If anybody saw it, it was an amazing demonstration of God working through a desperate situation. However, when it was broadcast there were many online commenters who pointed out the division in the congregation between the men, sitting on the left, and the women, sitting on the right. When it was mentioned that this is how the Ethiopian Orthodox Church conducts worship, some Christians who were extremely unhappy about this, saying it was an awful step backwards and that this Church was sexist and the BBC wrong for promoting it.
This is a part of the Church which is suffering, but the reaction of some was to deride the way they worship as it differs to our western norms.
Let me read verse 26 of the reading from 1 Corinthians to you again,
“If one part of the body suffers, all other parts suffer with it; if one part is praised, all other parts share its happiness.”
We are all a part of that one body. We share in each other’s suffering and comfort and support one another through it, regardless of cultural differences. Each different part, each different worship style, each different type of song, each different style of preaching helps each different kind of man, woman or child respond to God in his or her own way. We all differ, yes, but we are all one. When we criticise another part of the Church for how it does things, because it isn’t our way, we criticise ourselves, for we are all one in Christ. There is, as Paul says, “no division in the body, but all its different parts have the same concern for one another.”
Thankfully, the response from most Christians has been of overwhelming support, love and, where possible, a move towards either direct or indirect action. But the negative mindset of a few highlights how easy it is for us to be so tied up with our own way of doing things that we can’t accept anything different.
This week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, announced a summit of all Anglican leaders to address the possibility of looser ties, particularly in light of disagreements regarding homosexuality. The Guardian put it like this,
“He will propose that the Anglican Communion be reorganised as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury, but no longer necessarily to each other.”
This is the type of thing we have seen in denominations and in individual congregations the world over.
If we look back at the picture we can see these splits happening over and over again over a period of the last 2000 years. This is not a new phenomenon and I daresay it will not be stopping any time soon. If ever. We have had splits on which language the Bible should be in, the authority of Rome, what translation of the Bible we should use, the links between church and state, the role of bishops, women in the priesthood and, now, homosexuality and its impact on the priesthood and marriage.
We see division in society all the time. This is a typical human trait. Only a year ago we had a referendum on Scottish independence which in many quarters was, and still is, so divisive that the accusations are still flying from either side and show no sign of slowing. We’ve just had a leadership campaign in the Labour Party where we hear how one side are traitors to the true Labour cause whilst the other are naïve, stupid idealists who haven’t thought through their beliefs properly.
We see fights over which estate people live on, which football team they support, who is the best boy band (if you aren’t on Twitter, trust me, these can be the most vicious of all disagreements!).
So, when we disagree within the Church, are we any better?
Sadly, not always. I heard stories of gloating and name calling by more progressive Christians at the decisions taken by the General Assembly over the matter of Gay ministers. I’ve heard accusations of throwing away scripture and being led by the desires of the world coming from the other direction. People and congregations have refused to worship with one another over issues, which is sad in the extreme.
However, I have also seen much in the way of reasoned, intelligent, heartfelt and loving debate. Many people who know that they disagree on some issues, but do not let that get in the way of their unity in Christ. That shows a recognition that this is not our church, but his church. We shouldn’t be divided by smaller issues, but united by the cross and our place in his body.
When the Guardian wrote that piece about the Anglican Communion and put in the part about being “linked to Canterbury, but no longer necessarily to each other” I shook my head. Look again at Paul’s letter, especially verse 21,
“So then, the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I don’t need you!’ Nor can the head say to the feet, ‘Well, I don’t need you!’”
How can churches no longer be connected to each other, yet still stake a claim as a part of the body of Christ? It’s not possible! We rely on each other and need to recognise that fact in order to further the kingdom of God.
We rely on each other as denominations and as congregations, but also as individuals. We all, both inside and outside of the Church, rely on each other and are deserving of respect as children of God. Every person on Earth has a role to play in God’s kingdom and we need to learn to work together in order to achieve that.
I’m going to read something to you and I want you to see if you can relate to this,
“[It] was all about wealth, education, leisure, sport, entertainment 24/7, religious diversity, and values of tolerance, sexual licence, personal satisfaction and party life – [it] was used to describe a life of drunken and promiscuous living.”
Does that sound familiar? It sounds just like western society today. However, it came from a book called “The Bible: Book By Book” by Cris Rogers and is a description of the society in Corinth at the time Paul wrote the letter we have looked at today. This is a letter which was speaking to a church going through challenges that we all would recognise, particularly that of individualism, the idea that life is all about individual gain and pleasure rather than that of society working as a whole.
Now, of course, we can see many examples in modern society where people really do pull together, but individualism is still a trap we can all fall into all too often, even within the church. We can jealously guard our own little jobs, see some roles as being more important than others, refuse help, just work in our own way with no regard for how it affects the bigger picture. Yet one small part of the church, even one person, can have a huge effect on how the church works.
Think of the body, as we have been doing. If you lose a big toe, or have an infection of the inner ear, they can have a serious effect on your balance. Your eyebrows and eyelashes aren’t just for decoration, they also stop sweat from your forehead running into your eyes. The spleen is a small organ, but a loss of function leaves you much more susceptible to infection.
Similarly, one person trying to do everything on their own, or going off and doing their own thing with no help or direction can lead to important functions in the church slowing or grinding to a halt altogether. We all need each other and need to work together as one if we are to achieve our aim.
And what is our aim? Look at the passage John read from Genesis. We have been left in charge of God’s creation, to take care of it, all of it; from the plans and animals to one another; and to teach our children to do the same. We do that by holding on to the one thing God has given us which unites each and every one of us, Jesus. It ultimately all points back to him. We are his body; his hands, feet, eyes, mouth, ears and even his spleen, appendix, pituitary gland, kidneys and liver; every part of the body, big and small, attractive or… not so attractive, strong or weak, all working together in delicate harmony to do what Jesus spoke of throughout his ministry, to bring God’s Kingdom here on Earth so that we can all be one in him.