22nd January 2017
With Rev Canon Cheryl Collins
’I have a dream’ declared Martin Luther King and he went on to speak about how those now segregated by racial prejudice would one day ‘sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’ This vision of community is at the heart of many of our dreams and longings today, a time when, experts tell us, we are more separated and estranged from our neighbours and from the whole notion of community than ever before.
But if it is a dream that is common to many of us, then what keeps getting in the way?
Like most dreams, in order to realise it we have to ask ourselves what we are prepared to give up to make it happen.
I suspect that Paul would have given up anything and everything for his dream. Indeed, he describes everything else in his life as so much rubbish compared with the gain of knowing Jesus; for which he did in fact forfeit everything which in his former life he believed precious and important.
Jesus is always first for Paul, first, last and everything in between. Nothing else, however good or worthwhile was allowed to come between them.
While this could make Paul a difficult character to deal with, it demonstrates his radical repentance; the way he had totally re-ordered his life around Jesus.
Repentance, turning one’s life around, changing direction, embracing a new set of values and a new way of living was exactly what Jesus required, and requires. After all, no careers service would have advised a group of uneducated fishermen to change direction and become part of the entourage of an itinerant preacher. But they did it, and all this while knowing nothing about him except what they saw and experienced right in front of them.
In obedience to the sign of John’s imprisonment Jesus begins his public ministry by calling people to new life because the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand. He is himself the embodiment of that kingdom, in the values inherent in what he says and in his acts of acceptance, restoration and healing. We know what life in the kingdom is like because we know about the life of Jesus. And when we know about the life of Jesus we have a picture of how our own lives should look.
And despite its obvious disadvantages, Jesus’s life is so attractive that it inspires grown men with family responsibilities to give it all up and follow him. So, it follows that it’s only by focussing on him that we can hope to attract others, even today. Everything else is secondary.
That doesn’t mean of course that we can’t have good ideas. But the danger is that gradually without us noticing it they begin to take precedence over what we’re really here for. No style of worship, church building, method of church organisation or anything else you care to mention can possibly be more central to the life of a church than Jesus Christ. Indeed, he is our life.
But it is easy to let ourselves get distracted. Look at the Corinthians. Corinth was a cosmopolitan city; diverse, multi-cultural and deeply competitive. They were used to rival gods and rival religions making claims about themselves and scoffing at the claims of anyone else it was all part of the fun. Indeed, every time an itinerant sophist philosopher appeared they could be sure he would do his best to collect disciples and encourage them to attack the followers of his rivals.
Paul’s reaction to the way that Corinthian Christians seemed to be more concerned with their favourite Christian teacher than with Christ himself is to turn them firmly back to the centre of their faith.
He begins the passage we heard this morning by calling them brothers and sisters, a relationship that is founded on their mutual identity as children of God through Christ. And immediately he identifies his appeal with Jesus, ‘by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ he writes, to remind of their common cause with all those who call upon the name of Jesus, near and far.
This is their identity- not Paul, not Apollos, not Peter but Christ.
And as Paul speaks about baptism he ignores the question of who is doing the baptising, which is irrelevant, in favour of reminding them what they were baptised into. Remember, the early Christians were generally baptised by complete immersion, as a symbolic re-enactment of the dying and rising again of Christ. As they linked themselves with his death, so they received the power of his life, alive in their lives.
Paul is clear that any divisions within the Christian community mean that the gospel is being fundamentally misunderstood. ‘Is this about your teacher, or about God?’ he asks.
Division along the lines of personal preferences about ways of doing things has the nasty habit not just of glorifying other things above Jesus, but of leading to the denigration of and estrangement from each other that Christian community is supposed to save us from.
For once I make the style of worship, the kind of music, the state of the church building, my primary focus then I will soon become dismissive of those who have other priorities. If my way is right then any other way must by definition be wrong, and must either be changed or excluded. Of course, Paul himself was robust in disagreement, but when we examine his arguments they all come back to his fundamental understanding of Christ, Christ crucified. Jesus remains the centre of his life and work.
And the power of the cross is the absolute opposite of human power. That is why it has nothing to do with the aggressive determination to be proved right that is part of division. The power of the cross, is the power of God’s love which transforms our lives by loving us so much that we can surrender our fiercely held prejudices and opinions and see each other as the children of God that we are.
When I survey the wondrous cross it demands my all says Isaac Watts. And as we ponder our own hearts and the things that we hold dear, as we look at the quality of our Christian community, as we remember with sadness the way that our determination to have uniformity gets in the way of unity between Christians then we have to ask ourselves what more we will give up to make our community, united under the cross, a reality.