This sermon was delivered to a local Anglican congregation during a "pulpit swap" on Christian Unity Sunday. It is based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The Christian denominations that are part of the World Council of Churches began an eight-day period of prayer for Christian Unity this past Thursday, the eighteenth of January.
It is as part of the observance of this week that I am here with you, as a Methodist minister, invited to preach and also participating with you in your service of worship. You may or may not be aware that the Anglican and Methodist denominations signed a Covenant on 1 November 2003, agreeing to work toward the “full visible unity of Christ’s Church”.
But as far as I am personally concerned, it is not this Covenant between our two denominations that makes us one. Rather, as Paul wrote in his First letter to the Corinthians, I believe that you and I are brothers and sisters in Christ by virtue of our baptism, and by virtue of the fact that we confess Jesus Christ to be our saviour and Lord.
Now, different people have different ideas about what it means for Christians to be “in full visible unity”. I expect that any position I took on this matter I would likely find someone here who would disagree with me. I expect that I’d probably have the same experience in my own congregation.
So I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that there is “one right way” for Christians to express their unity. If anything, I think that it is a Christian virtue to be able to listen respectfully to the point of view of another Christian on this matter and to agree to disagree if necessary.
But this morning, I’d like to look at the first two verses from our Epistle reading and see if we can draw any useful ideas from it with respect to Christian unity.
How A Community Functions
1 Corinthians, Chapter 12, verses twelve and thirteen read as follows: ‘Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Cor 12: 12, 13 NRSV)
The Apostle Paul was an expert at taking current ideas and adapting them in order to communicate a Christian message to his audience. The Corinthian readers of this letter would have been familiar with this image of the body and the workings of its different members because it originated in the world of Greek politics.
The Greeks and Romans used this image of the body in a particular way and this is how their story went.
The community is like the human body (Greek political leaders would say). Some people are more important than others just as some body parts are more important to the functioning of the body than others. The King is the head of the community - the most important part of the body – and then other classes proceed down the line from more important people to the less important people.
However - they would exhort their citizens - even though some people are more important to the life of the community than others, it is necessary for our community to function as one, just as all parts of the body cooperate and function together.
But Paul takes this story and changes the details. Rather than using the image of the body to make the point that some people in the community are more important than others, Paul uses the image to make the opposite point: that all members of the Christian community have equal status in the eyes of God, no matter what their function.
He even emphasises this by saying that the body’s “shameful bits” do not have a lesser status, but have vital functions that have been ordained by God. Paul uses this common metaphor about the secular community to make the point that the Church universal is an alternative community with an alternative way of living.
So, we have here the familiar principle that is usually drawn from these verses: Each person in a church community has been given different abilities and gifts to exercise on behalf of the church community. In God’s eyes, what is important is not whether a person is a bishop, a churchwarden or a volunteer worker, what matters is that each person is using his or her own gifts in obedience to the call of God and for the benefit of the Kingdom of God.
Different Denominations, Different Gifts
But I think that perhaps we might be able to extend this idea beyond the walls of any particular congregation and think about the Church universal and the church as a whole.
I expect that this may be one of those areas of disagreement, but I’d like to put it to you that perhaps different “sorts” of Christian congregations may have different functions to fulfil in the Universal Church of Christ.
Some congregations may best be able to minister to young people and young families, other congregations may be best placed to minister to older people. Some congregations are best suited to people who are moved by beauty and ceremony and symbols. Other congregations can communicate the love of God best to people who respond to words and ideas.
It’s my suspicion that just as every individual has his or her own gifts, so do different denominations and different congregations have different gifts to contribute to the Church of Christ on earth. God has created human beings with an amazing variety of different personality characteristics and talents. It doesn’t seem surprising to me that one kind of Christian community will not necessarily help all Christians to grow in faith and discipleship.
One in Christ
In just a few minutes, we are going to affirm our faith together in the Triune God. We are going to say that we believe in the Father as Creator, the Son as Saviour and the Spirit as the one who makes Christ known.
For me, it is this belief in the Triune God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - that makes us one. For me, it is the fact that we profess belief in Jesus Christ as our saviour and Lord that makes us one.
As someone who grew up in the bad old days when Christians of different denominations were suspicious of each other and would not take communion together, I rejoice that as a Methodist, I am able to receive communion here with you today. For me, our communion together is an important indication that we understand that we are one in Christ.
The progress that has been made over the last decades with respect to different denominations being in communion with each other is significant and we should be encouraged by it and not under-estimate it. We should be even more encouraged by the Anglican Methodist Covenant which challenges us to go even further and seek for “full visible unity” – whatever that may mean.
In the meantime, I think that we can demonstrate some “visible unity” in the community of B*******, not in any institutional sense, but by all the Christian churches seeking to increase their contact with each other.
Between the different denominations and the different Anglican parishes, we have many hundreds of people with all sorts of different abilities and talents who can work together.
I believe that in working together and pooling our talents and resources, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts – which is the great message of this image that Paul uses. I realise that I am a new face here in B******* but my impression is that there is an awful lot of good will amongst Christians here – both clergy and lay people.
So my prayer for all of us this morning is that as Christian congregations, we can find ways to celebrate the talents that we possess and at the same time look increasingly for ways to come together in order to discern the will of God for us as representatives of the Universal Church of Christ here in B*******.
I pray this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen