13th September 2020

Trinity 14
Romans 14.1-12
Matthew 18.21-35

Rev. Cheryl Collins

May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Apparently, someone had a competition for the funniest religious joke of all time- who knew?

I wouldn’t want you to miss out, so here is the winning joke.

Walking across a bridge one day a man noticed another man looking like he was preparing to throw himself off the bridge. He rushed over and begged the man not to do it, and reminded him that God loved him. ‘Do you believe in God’ he asked. ‘Yes’ said the man.
‘Are you a Christian or a Jew or a Moslem?’ ‘A Christian’ he replied. ‘Me too!’ said the first man.
‘Are you Protestant or Catholic?’ ‘Protestant’ ‘Me too!’
‘What denomination?’ ‘Baptist’ ‘Me too!’
‘Are you a Particular or General Baptist?’ ‘Particular. ‘ ‘Me too!’
‘Are you Regular or Conservative?’ ‘Conservative’ ‘Me too!’
‘Are you Northern or Southern Baptist?’ ‘Northern’ ‘Me too’
‘Are you Northern Conservative Baptist great lakes region or northern conservative Baptist eastern region?” ‘Great lakes region’ ‘Me too!’
‘Are you northern conservative Baptist great lakes region council of 1879 or northern conservative Baptist great lakes region council of 1912?’
The man answered ‘Northern conservative Baptist great lakes region council of 1912.’ So, the first man pushed him off the bridge shouting ‘Die heretic, die.’

Anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time gets the joke, but of course, when we stop to think about it, it’s not really funny at all, in fact it’s tragic.

On the night before he died, as he prayed to his Father for those in his care, Jesus asked ‘that they may be one, as we are one.’ Two thousand years later the continuing fragmentation of Christian churches and our judgemental attitude towards one another is so well known that it forms the basis of a joke. Differences between Christians and how we interpret faithful discipleship are not new. Paul’s letter to the Romans points us towards some of the earliest issues around food and holy days which were points of contention, particularly between Gentile and Jewish Christians. Paul leaves us in no doubt about his own views, but he is also clear about how we should treat one another. As always with Paul, his argument is built on theological foundations. We find the answer to our questions when we focus on who God is and what God has done for us in Christ. This provides us with an example to follow as we seek to love our neighbours as ourselves. Although we respond to God as individuals we have been created by God to live in community. Not just a community of like-minded souls, but one in which everything about us can be different from each another except that we all confess that Jesus is Lord.

In this reading from Romans, Paul calls Jesus Lord 9 times in 12 verses. This title was reserved in the Roman Empire for Caesar himself, but Paul wants his hearers to remember that we belong to another kingdom. The Empire, like most secular societies is built on status, on exclusion, on money and influence. The Kingdom of God is built on inclusion, on mutual love and support and on equality before God and with each other.

‘We do not live to ourselves...whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s’ says Paul.

And we are called to act as faithful subjects of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are accountable to God. God created each one of us as a unique expression of God’s image and likeness so there is bound to be a rich diversity of faithful expressions of the gospel and of kingdom life. Our unity is not found in agreeing with one another in all particulars, but in proclaiming together that Jesus is Lord. Anyone who can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is my brother or sister in Christ whether they are a strict and particular Baptist, a Tridentine rite loving Roman Catholic, a Quaker or a Russian Orthodox. We stand together under the Lordship of Christ.

Therefore, our attitude to one another is to be of welcome as God has welcomed us in Jesus. It is be about building up one another’s faith and encouraging one another, not criticising or belittling. It is be about being prepared to listen and learn from one another so that we can live in harmony, not casting one another out or telling each other ‘You’ve got it wrong’. Each person must follow the path that God has given them, and they may be different yet equally obedient. Paul wants his hearers to see a bigger context than themselves. This is about the full sweep of God’s saving activity in Christ.

While we try to force our own practices on other Christians, God is saving the world. Yet our small lives will have ripples of consequences in God’s great design. Will they be ripples flowing out from the huge impact of God’s forgiving love in Christ, or just a very small eddy from a tiny, self-obsessed pebble, which has nothing to do with the tidal wave of God’s love?
Our history as Christians is littered with schism and condemnation. One little known chapter in the Church of England is what is known as the Great Ejection. The Civil War was as much about religion as secular government and the returning cavalier parliament of 1660 were determined to have revenge on those more puritan Anglican ministers who had supported the Parliamentarians. The Act of Uniformity required every Anglican minister to subscribe to a Book of Common Prayer which had deliberately been tweaked to offend puritan sensibilities in one or two places, or risk ejection from their livings. On the day known as Black Bartholomew, 24th August 1662 2,500 clergy did indeed lose their livings and a definitive step splitting English Protestantism was taken.

I’m including that little history lesson because it’s pain still reverberates. One of the men who lost their living son that day was Richard Baxter, who you might know as a hymn writer, his best known being ‘Ye holy angels bright.’ Baxter is one of my heroes, he urged fellow Christians to ‘bottom on the great fundamentals’ and not the differences between them. He was persecuted and imprisoned for continuing his ministry after the Great Ejection in congregations which became part of what is now the United Reformed church. My college chaplain is a minister of the URC and gave me a copy of Baxter’s ‘The Reformed Pastor’ when I was priested with a letter praying that ‘by the grace of God your tradition and mine may find a way to heal the wounds of 1662 and be one as we break bread and drink wine.’

Another of Baxter’s hymns ‘He wants not friends that hath thy love’ speaks of his pain at the schism and prayer that in Christ we will all be one. Let us make that prayer our own, and seek in all that we do and say to welcome one another as God has welcomed us.