Living in faith - St Bride's: Reflection

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Living in faith

1 Corinthians 1: 10-18

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10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptised none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptised in my name. 16 (I did baptise also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptised anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptise but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

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In the year 1596, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the people of the little parish of Swallowfield in Berkshire got together and drew up a series of articles designed as ground rules for their life together as a Christian community.  These articles were to guide them in living, as they put it, 'in good love and lykinge one another.'  They declared (and I quote):

Non of us shall disdayne one another, nor seeke to hynder one an other ne[i]ther by woordes nor deedes.  But rather to be helpers, assisters and councellors of one another.  And all o[u]r doyings to be good, honest, lovynge and juste.'[1]

So the people of that otherwise unremarkable little Elizabethan parish decided to make a real effort to live in a different kind of way, both as individuals and as a community.  The book from which I gleaned this nugget of information observed that the 'Swallowfield Articles', as they are sometimes called, represented a new awareness of the importance of neighbourliness, which was inspired by the scriptures - which by then were readily available in the English of the people, rather than the mediaeval Latin.  A commandment such as 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour', spoke to its hearers in a very compelling way.

We have no idea how successful the good people of sixteenth century Swallowfield were in turning their commendable aspirations into reality.  We have no evidence either way.  But when I came across that story, I was profoundly moved by the thought that a very ordinary little community of working men and women back in Elizabethan times, could have taken their faith so seriously that they took steps to commit themselves to living out their shared vision of the Christian life.  It is often said that Christianity is caught not taught - and what better kind of advertisement can there be; what better missionary activity, than that kind of undertaking?

Jesus called people to live differently.  It is a theme we encounter again and again in the Gospels and the letters of St Paul.  However, from the very outset this proved an unusually difficult challenge, even amongst those who were most committed to following Christ.  And for evidence of that, we need look no further than the New Testament itself.

It is always tempting to assume that the first Christians had it easy.  After all, some of them had actually known Jesus, or knew people who had known him.  His teachings, his extraordinary acts, and the story of his crucifixion and resurrection, were still recent events; their memory still vivid.  But in some respects at least, it is we who have all the advantages.  Christians today have the benefit of two thousand years of reflection upon the meaning and implications of Christ's ministry, death and resurrection; we have the New Testament at our disposal (which they didn't); we know what happened next in the unfolding history of the faith (which they also didn't). 

Indeed, if you think about it, the first followers of Jesus knew virtually nothing at all: they had been left to try and make sense of these earth-shattering events for themselves - not only the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection, but also the implications of this for their own lives: for how they should behave towards one another; for how they should organise themselves in the new age that had dawned.  And sometimes, it has to be said, they got it quite badly wrong - which is why St Paul felt moved to write to the church in Corinth in the first place.

The letters of St Paul are the earliest parts of the New Testament - considerably older than the Gospels.  And the thing that I love about them is that, even though they contain passages that can sometimes be hard to understand; even though they sometimes focus on issues and controversies that can seem very remote from the concerns of our own age - nevertheless what we are witnessing within them is St Paul grappling for the very first time with questions of what it actually means to live as a follower of Christ. These were questions that had simply never been posed before.  And Paul has no option but to try to work out the answers for himself.  Hardly surprising, then, that sometimes his writings can seem a bit opaque; because he is thinking as he writes, so he ties himself in knots occasionally.  But the reason why his letters have stood the test of time, is that his passion and eloquence and conviction shines through so powerfully that one cannot help but get caught up in the sheer vision and enthusiasm of a man, who has glimpsed a reality so extraordinary and so life-transforming that his life was never the same again - a man who feels compelled to dedicate his whole life to sharing that truth with the world.

Paul travelled extensively, taking the Gospel message across the Roman Empire, and planting churches as he went.  And it was as a result of his own labours that a church was founded in Corinth, which was then one of the most important cities in Greece.  Back in 2016, a group of us from St Bride's travelled through mainland Greece following in the footsteps of St Paul.  Sitting in the ruins of ancient Corinth, thinking about his ministry there, was for me one of the most memorable experiences of the whole pilgrimage.

But that newly founded church in Corinth was riddled with problems from the very outset, which is why Paul is writing to them, tearing his hair out at what he is hearing.  The issues in the Corinthian church were legion.  The place was in chaos.  As we heard in our second reading this morning, this is a church divided into factions: some are saying, 'I belong to Paul' others 'I belong to Apollos', or Cephas or Christ.  Hopeless!

Some of them are interpreting the knowledge that they are free from the constraints of the Jewish law as a licence to do whatever they want: there are reports of sexual immorality amongst them.  At the meal they share together, some are going hungry while others indulge themselves and get drunk.  There are huge arguments going on about whether Christians should be celibate or whether it is OK to marry; there are disputes about what Christians should eat.  Paul is desperate to rein them in and impose some sort of moral order.  The core problem in Corinth is that they have ceased to put Christ centre stage; and they have lost sight of the fact that their behaviour as individuals impacts upon their life as a community of faith.

When I was first ordained, one of the churches where I was curate used to have PCC meetings that were legendary for their volatility. (So very different, of course, from the wise, prayerful, and constructive gatherings we have here at St Bride's!).  Mercifully I was never in the chair (being merely an assistant curate, and so the lowest form of pondlife); but I do remember going home one night after a particularly grim evening of blood and carnage, and reading 1 Corinthians - and actually feeling quite heartened that, however difficult the disputes were within my own church, they were simply not in the same league as the problems in Corinth!

But to return to Swallowfield and 1596: however naïve they might appear to us today, those Elizabethan parishioners had it right.  The New Testament made it clear to them that in order to follow Christ they must strive to live in a way that was worthy of their calling; a way of living that was different.  And in terms of what this actually meant for them, the kinds of things they identified as important were neither complicated, nor unrealistic, but devastatingly simple: 'To live in good love and lyking one another, to live in such a way that 'non of us shall disdayne one another, nor seeke to hynder one an other ne[i]ther by woordes nor deedes.  But rather to be helpers assisters & councellors of one another.  And all o[u]r doyings to be good, honest, lovynge and juste.'  Challenging? Certainly.  Unrealistic?  Not at all.

And Paul's response to the Christians in Corinth was not that dissimilar.  It was specifically in response to the problems of that church that Paul wrote one of the most famous passages in the whole of the New Testament, in Chapter 13 of his first letter to them, which includes these words:

I may speak in tongues of men or of angels, but if I am without love I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  I may have the gift of prophecy and know every hidden truth.  I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am none the better. 

Love is patient.  Love is kind and envies no one.  Love is never boastful nor conceited, nor rude.   Never selfish, not quick to take offence.  Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over the sins of others, but delights in the truth.  There is nothing that love cannot face.  There is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance...

... In a word, there are three things that last for ever: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of them all is love.

[1] Cited by Tadmor, The Social Universe of the English Bible (CUP, 2010), p. 23.

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