St Bride's: Sermons

Called to reconciliation

1 Corinthians 1: 10-18

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10 Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

11 For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.

12 Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.

13 Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?

14 I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius;

15 Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name.

16 And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other.

17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.

18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

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It's been a cold week hasn't it?  I've found myself out and about on a couple of evenings wondering if I might need to invest in a new winter coat, desperate to arrive home and realising how awful it must be on days like these not to have a home to go to.  One of the items that came across my desk at work in local authority public health this week was a report on homeless outreach.  When the temperatures are below freezing outreach services are triggered that proactively look to identify the homeless and get them into shelters or emergency accommodation.  Twenty one people had been identified and supported in my local authority.  One gentlemen refused accommodation though, apparently concerned that he would lose his sleeping spot.  I found that quite upsetting, that someone has so little that they would choose to protect their right to sleep on a particular stretch of concrete in sub zero temperatures.

Well today is homelessness Sunday.  It's a partnership between Housing Justice in England and Wales, and the Scottish Churches Housing Action.  It's intended to be an opportunity for Christians to pray for those in their own community who are homeless, to consider practical steps they can take and voice their own concern about the scandal of homeless.  It proposes a 3 point plan for the day:

CONNECT with homeless people

CHALLENGE local politicians to act for change

COMMIT to act

Perhaps you might find some time today to consider these.

The challenge to connect has resonated particularly with me.  In my work in Public Health I certainly give attention to the needs of homeless people but as is often the case with strategic public health work, my focus is on what we refer to as 'the homeless population'. As such I really don't connect with homeless people much at all.  Treating the issue as an abstract problem is protective I realise because it means I don't have to face the human reality of life the streets. I see homeless people of course but I'm guilty of walking by.  I know the advice is not to give money directly to the homeless as apparently more often than not it will be used for alcohol but I don't take the time to buy them food instead and I don't connect.  In doing this I divide myself from the marginalised and the vulnerable and that division makes it that much easier for me to live with my neighbours misfortune. 

Division in the early church was the focus of our epistle today. In his letter to the Christian community in Corinth Paul asks of those who say "I am of Paul" or "I of Apollos", "I of Cephas", "I of Christ" - "Is Christ divided?". He says "I beseech you, brethren...that there be no divisions among you".   At the heart of the Gospel is the good news of reconciliation between God and humanity, won for us through the sacrificial love of Christ and the calling to allow that love to shape us.  In his letters Paul explains that the love of Christ compels us to bring God's reconciliation to bear in all aspects of our lives.

We are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian unity.  This year's resources for the week of Christian Unity, produced by Churches together focus on the 500th Anniversary of the German Reformation.  The event is being commemorated there with a 'Christusfest' - a celebration of Christ, with an emphasis not on the particular histories of each denomination but on the ways in which they have all failed to uphold unity in the body of Christ.  By openly acknowledging their failings, the German churches seek to reach out towards opportunities for reconciliation.  In the light of their example we might examine our own consciences over how our church and we ourselves have fed division.  We are compelled to repentance and we seek to forgive, as we ourselves have been forgiven. 

It's important that we don't down play the scandal of division in the body of ChristIt's very easy to do so because in many ways we're very comfortable with division.  It serves human purposes.  Division helps us to shape distinctive identities and we often rely on shared distinctiveness to create connections with others; so even the unity we do share may be build on foundations of division. Christ though points us beyond these inclinations.  John's Gospel tells us that on the eve of his crucifixion, during his most troubling hours Christ prayed to the father for unity -  "I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me".

Part of the approach to building unity must surely be looking for grace amongst those with whom we disagree.  Paul rebukes the Corinthians for their disputes, but before he does so, at the beginning of the letter and before the section that we heard this morning, Paul says "I always give thanks to the Lord because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus".

I must admit, I often find myself skipping over the opening and closing passages of Paul's epistles because they can feel as if they are merely convention.  I lived in Singapore for a couple of years.  I recall the first time a Chinese colleague greeted me "have you eaten yet?" he said.  Rather taken aback by the apparent interest in my diet I didn't really know how to reply.  I assumed he wasn't actually interested in what I'd had for breakfast.  "Yes thanks and you I said" - and apparently with appropriate pleasantries exchanges we looked ahead to the days work.  Of course I realised later that a convention such as that developed in circumstances where the next meal couldn't be taken for granted.  Paul though is doing more than observing formalities in greeting the church in Corinth I think and his words tell us something important about how he views the world.  Before he makes any criticism, and he is very robust in his challenge, he first acknowledges and rejoices in those gifts given to the community by God.  That attitude is an encouragement to us, and to every Christian community, to joyfully recognise God's gifts in other communities.  That applies to other Christians, be they Anglicans of different persuasions or from other denominations, and it applies to those beyond the Christian community, particularly the marginalised and the excluded.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ?  It surely isn't about an effort to define a pure community and separate it from the world.  Jesus didn't look to test the beliefs of those he called.  Rather he called them to follow him as we heard in our gospel reading.  He called them into relationship.  Now we know of course that amongst those who seek to follow Christ there are significant disagreements about what exactly that means.  Those are important but rather than allowing those disagreements to separate us we might first recognise others as precious to God who, like us, may be forgiven their sins through Christ's love.  We might give thanks for the gifts that God has given others because we are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation in our world.

Amen.

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