Christian Unity 

Third Sunday Epiphany week of prayer for Christian Unity
1 Cor 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Jesus Begins His Work in Galilee
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he went away to Galilee. 13 He did not stay in Nazareth, but went to live in Capernaum, a town by Lake Galilee, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This was done to make come true what the prophet Isaiah had said,
 
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    on the road to the sea, on the other side of the Jordan,
    Galilee, land of the Gentiles!
16 The people who live in darkness
    will see a great light.
On those who live in the dark land of death
    the light will shine.”
17 From that time Jesus began to preach his message: “Turn away from your sins, because the Kingdom of heaven is near!”
18 As Jesus walked along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw two brothers who were fishermen, Simon (called Peter) and his brother Andrew, catching fish in the lake with a net. 19 Jesus said to them, “Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.” 20 At once they left their nets and went with him.
21 He went on and saw two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boat with their father Zebedee, getting their nets ready. Jesus called them, 22 and at once they left the boat and their father, and went with him.
23 Jesus went all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom, and healing people who had all kinds of disease and sickness.
 
Lord, please open our hearts so we receive more of your love; uniting us to become one body, whole and well, fit to show the world your love and reconciliation. Open our minds so we see you in all your people and build us into a kingdom that will bring your blessing to the world.
 
 
I wonder, how easy do you find it to get up in the morning? It may be January and the days may be getting longer, but it is still dark at 7.00 in the morning when I need to be up and out walking the dog. I’m not good at getting up when it is still dark outside, my body is clearly telling me that it is night time and I should be asleep, so 4 days of the week there is a raging internal argument going on in my head. And three days of the week I regret not getting up earlier, because once I am finally up and out I love it, I love the quiet, the other dog walkers at that time are always friendly, the sun is just beginning to show itself and the birds have started to sing again, it is a beautiful time of day. At least it would be if I didn’t know what the birds are actually saying to each other. The beautiful harmony that we hear is actually a warning. This is my patch, you others, you don’t belong. The birds may all be singing together, but their song is to reinforce division and keep the boundaries secure. This is where our gospel story begins. John, the last glimmer of hope, has been arrested, it seems that complete darkness has taken over the country; it is time for Jesus to reveal the great light he has come to bring. So he goes, not to the capital, not to God’s temple, where the Jews might have expected God to reveal the messiah, but to, Galilee. If you think our country has a North south divide, then you won’t be surprised to learn, so did first century Israel. Galilee was Jewish territory but full of foreign influence, they did things differently up there. People from Jerusalem looked down on Galileans, so Jesus begins his ministry by going north to heal the divide and declare the God’s kingdom had finally come near.
 
Kingdom movements weren’t new in Jesus’ time. The Jews had been the last in a long line of pagan nations over ruled by the Romans. For the past 60 years they had been ruled by puppet Kings doing the Romans’ work, the people were longing for revolution, not because they were subjugated, but because they were special, it couldn’t possibly be God’s will that they, the chosen people, were subjugated to another nation, they should be the ones ruling the rest. But Jesus’ message is no, stop, repent, turn around. Revolution by military resistance and power is not the way God works, that is simply trying to fight darkness with darkness. Violence leads to hate and division, it’s the way we act when we are responding to the insecurities of fear. What Jesus was coming to bring was the light of justice and peace that brings unity through the forgiveness and healing of people with God, and between people and the world. Jesus was bringing a way of reconciliation to people in the confidence of love.
 
And he demonstrates this by going and calling four fishermen to follow him. Two sets of brothers who are happily engaged fishing in their respective family businesses. There they were with no job worries. They have a family business to be part of, trade was pretty good and there were plenty of fish to catch. The work was hard and sometimes dangerous, but they had job security and a steady income. But they choose to drop all this to walk away from the security of the familiar and steady way of life they were enjoying because their eyes were fixed on Jesus. James and John, leave their father to become part of the new family Jesus was building.  Because the first thing Jesus does is to begin to build a community. So let’s look at who he chooses, Andrew, well that’s a good idea, we see later in the stories Andrew is always good at bringing other people to Jesus, and Peter, hmm that could be exciting, Peter is good at speaking out what is on his mind, but sometimes he jumps in too soon, (sometimes verbally and sometimes literally, like when they are in the boat and see Jesus) and Jesus is going to mix him with James and John, who are nicknamed the sons of thunder? What could possibly go wrong? And we haven’t heard yet about all the others that Jesus called, a tax collector, I expect the fishermen loved him, if James and John aren’t sparky enough he added some revolutionary zealots already for a fight, with Thomas for a little indecision and caution, and Nathaniel, well he’s good at just going off reading a book under a tree and doing his own thing. And if that’s not enough there will be the loss of pride as they end up financially dependent upon a bunch of women. Something tells me the arguments this group of people were going to have would not be just the silent internal wrangling such as I have on dark mornings. And I doubt their discussions sounded as harmonious as the bird song I hear.
 
Yet, something did happen. This is the group of people that Jesus brought together to change the world. So what happened? What brought them together? Three key things. They witnessed Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, they learned to keep their eyes on Jesus and accepted Jesus’ Lordship in their lives. Accepting Jesus as Lord they were able to work together with the common purpose of continuing Jesus’ kingdom work so that the community which Jesus began became a great multitude too great to be able to count. And in order to do that they needed to be reconciled completely to each other. Healing comes as a by-product of the kingdom. So instead of rejecting each other because of different personalities and experiences, or seeing the others as having something wrong with them for thinking or behaving in a way different to them, they were able to work together as a team, with Peter a spokesperson, James and John demonstrating the courage needed to face persecution, Nathaniel could share his knowledge of scripture, tax collectors would knew how Roman minds worked, and Thomas, well maybe he was the monitor evaluator of the group, taking his time to weigh up the events of the first Easter and then reach the conclusion ahead of the others that Jesus was not just his Lord but also his God.
 
But then comes our Corinthians reading, we have an image that the early church enjoyed a honeymoon period working together spreading the news of the kingdom. If they did it wasn’t for long. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has only just started and we learn there are problems in the family at Corinth. People are beginning to separate into different groups claiming this is according to different theological teachings but it is causing quarrels and factions suggesting there are much deeper seated underlying reasons. These aren’t little spats, but are major issues which could cause divisions within the Church or splinter groups or even schisms where one side refuses to even talk to the other. Wisely Paul doesn’t tell us the names of the leaders of these groups, he doesn’t need to inflame the situation and put Chloe’s people in an even more difficult position. Instead he uses the names’ of the people they claim to be following, and that gives us a clue to the real issue.
 
The problem is the church in Corinth is made up of many different people. Corinth is a Greek city on the Mediterranean coast In 146BC Corinth had been destroyed for opposing Rome. It was rebuilt in 44BC as a Roman colony and in the First Century was a centre of commerce attracting various ethnic groups particularly Roman, Greek and Jewish. The Romans were top of the pecking order, after all they are the ruling race and hold power. The city is in Greece so the Greeks came next while the Jews trailed along in third place as powerless foreigners who were distinctively different in their lifestyle. Paul, as you may know was Jewish, but grew up in Tarsus as a Roman, Paul was the Father of the faith in Corinth, so those who follow him could be the traditionalists but he also represents those who are Roman.
 
 Apollos was a Greek, from Alexandria, a great university city, he was a fine intellectual speaker, trained by Pricilla and Aquila and particularly good at engaging with new Christians. Possibly he was an attractive speaker to the intellectual elite of the town but he was also a draw for the Greek nationals.
 Cephas is the Aramaic name for Peter. We don’t know if Peter actually went to Corinth but his name represents the Jewish Christians who maybe found their security in following rules and laws particularly as we read on further in chapters 8 to 10 falling out with others over food laws.
 
Then there is the fourth group, the Christ party who claim they are the true believers and are spiritually superior to the rest. While the first three are appearing to argue over intellectual issues, which was the fashion of the time, this groups’ emphasis is on spiritual experiences which bypass the mind. They could well be a spill over from the mystery religions of Corinth.
 
It is easy to see how these divisions could occur and how damaging they could be to the church, especially if they are rooted in ethnic division. So Paul appeals to them to be united. He isn’t asking them all to be the same, what he is asking is much more important than that, he is asking, imploring them to be in agreement. The word he uses is a word you could use if you were fitting pieces together to make a tent, as Paul might well have done when he was with them. He doesn’t ask them to be the same as each other but to fit together so that united the Church will grasp the truth about Jesus. He asks that instead of divisions they will find ways to heal the wounds that divide them. And that this will come when instead of shouting about what they are good at, and there by criticising those who don’t do things their way, they have a common purpose.
 
These factions at Corinth remind me of two boys I used to look after, one afternoon in the holidays I had set up the scalextric track and they were playing with it, they were both very excited, John was bouncing up and down on his knees shouting, “I’m winning! I’m winning!” the while Mark was answering “I’m not racing, I’m not racing”. Which was a pity because of course, Mark’s car was the one in the lead. Neither child was listening to the other; both were locked in their fear of failing, one to the point of denying the truth in front of him, the other blind to his success. After a while I took the game away because there was no fun in it, they had both lost the plot and it was causing more stress than it was worth. If only they could have trusted each other, learned that winners need to respect the other people in the race or there will be no competition, or rather than racing made up another game, maybe a story, or just shared the skills they were learning with each other. If only they could have accepted each other’s view point as vital to the game.
Paul wanted the church in Corinth to do the same, to listen. Each has an important aspect about their faith which they need to share with the others, they need to fit together. And they will do this if they give up what divides them their ethnicity, and look at what unites them. Four times Paul speaks of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The point is Christ is part of all of them, but as they are separated, they have divided Christ, they need to come together to make the body whole. It is Christ who is Lord and their primary loyalty, not their church leaders, their security lies in Christ’s death on the cross, not in their traditions, their intellect or their rules, Baptism is what holds them together because now they are under the authority of Christ, all who are baptised belong to Jesus, it doesn’t matter who performed the ceremony it is Christ’s Lordship which counts.
 
So, the most powerful thing we can do as a church is to give up what divides us and gather together around the communion table as one body with Christ as our Lord and celebrate our differences. We saw a glimpse of this when the other local churches came to pray with us last Sunday.
This Sunday we are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian Unity. It’s an interesting understanding of a week as there are 8 days in it, an Octave from the feast of the confession of St Peter on 18th Jan to the Feast of the conversion of St Paul on 25th Jan. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on how two very different people worked together to bring the message of the Gospel to the world. And realise how limited we are by our own ways of doing things and how much we need others to show us the wider insights about Christ.
 
 We need a varied expression of our faith if we are to begin to grasp the truth about Jesus. The beauty about an octave of days is it reminds us through its musical connotation that we don’t come to be in unison with each other but to be in harmony. It would be a very dull piece of orchestral music if every instrument played the same note; it is the differences which bring life to music and it works as the players keep their eye, not on each other but the conductor. But so often we are held back from working with others because of fear, we are afraid of people who are different to us, who have a different way of thinking. We can be tempted to think there is something wrong with them and they need to be brought round to our way of thinking because their difference challenges our security. This week is a challenge to sacrifice the security of our ways of doing things to listen to those who do things differently and to value their thoughts and ways as equal to ours as we work together building a community the way Jesus did and so be healed of what divides us. Only this way can the Church become a body, fully functioning in amazing diversity. So together we bring God’s light to the world.
 
 
Questions
1 Think of a piece of music you enjoy and listen to how many different instruments are playing in it, try and pick out the different parts they are playing. Which parts do you enjoy listening to the most? How would it sound if it was just that one part?
 
2 What sort of things divides the church today? How does this create problems?
 
3 Can you suggest what might be the root causes of these divisions?
 
4 What did Jesus do as a leader to support different ways of thinking and doing things in order to create harmony?
You might like to look at stories such as, The woman at the well John 3
Jesus appearing to Thomas, John 20: 24-29
Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24: 13-32
Jesus washing the disciples feet John 13: 1-11
Jesus calling Nathaniel John 1:43-51
 
5 Accepting other people’s differences as equal to yours is hard, spend some time praying and discussing for the way forward so that our church can act as a team, our church can find a way forward as it explores mission partnerships, for the churches in this country to find ways of working together, and that the whole Church would be part of one whole and complete body.
 
 

Alison Cook, 28/01/2017