Christian unity and Christian responsibility

This message was preached by me on Sunday 3rd July 2016, 5:30pm, at Dawlish Methodist Hall.

Church unity

1 Corinthians 1:10-13

My dear friends, as a follower of our Lord Jesus Christ, I beg you to get along with each other.  Don’t take sides.  Always try to agree in what you think.  Several people from Chloe’s family have already reported to me that you keep arguing with each other.  They have said that some of you claim to follow me, while others claim to follow Apollos or Peter or Christ.  Has Christ been divided up?  Was I nailed to a cross for you?  Were you baptised in my name?

1 Corinthians 3:4-9

Some of you say that you follow me, and others claim to follow Apollos.  Isn’t that how ordinary people behave?  Apollos and I are merely servants who helped you to have faith.  It was the Lord who made it all happen.  I planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but God made them sprout and grow.  What matters isn’t those who planted or watered, but God who made the plants grow.  The one who plants is just as important as the one who waters.  And each one will be paid for what they do.  Apollos and I work together for God, and you are God’s garden and God’s building.

A hostile culture

When Paul is writing circa 55AD, Christianity as an organised religion is still to be established and it faces myriad existential threats.  Behind the remarkable numbers of people coming to faith, as we read through Acts, we can’t escape the sheer hostility of the culture into which the gospel message is being preached.  Paul, Peter and the Apostles are literally kicked from pillar to post as they proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And their message is offensive to the religious sensibilities of the time: in Paul’s letters we see time and again the twin threats of Jewish legalism on the one hand, and a laissez-faire spiritualism practised by the masses and having as its heritage a fusion of paganism and Greek philosophy.

Into this heady mix step the Apostles, travelling from town to town, living and working in the community, and building and training self-sufficient networks of local believers.  And yet soon after they move on, we see Christian communities being torn apart by their “super-evangelist” status, as each Christian aligns themselves with one or other Christian superstar and boasts of being saved by Paul, or Apollos, or Peter.  Paul’s rebuke is clear and authoritative: he will not see Christians riven by factions – or denominations if you will – we are all to glory in being united as a single church under the headship of Christ.  This theme of unity in Christ runs through Paul’s letters whether talking about super-evangelists, socio-economic status, or theological differences.

Parallels today

The challenges we face as Christians in today’s society have certain parallels with those faced by the early church.  Despite centuries of being the established faith, Christianity now proclaims its message in a hostile environment, where religion and spirituality are personal choices about what I want to believe.  “The Life of Pi”, a brilliant book and film, sums this up perfectly as it invites the viewer to decide which story they like best – drawing explicitly a link to religious belief.  At the same time, there is enormous public distrust in authority and institutions: politics and government; bankers and economists; churches and their leaders.  Whilst Michael Gove’s comments that “the public have had enough of experts” are ridiculous on one level, they reflect a deep cynicism in trusting anyone with a vested interest.  And let’s be clear, we have significant vested interests in getting people through the doors of our churches: our buildings are large, expensive to maintain and to heat, and however meagrely our ministers have to be paid.  One consequence of “church as business” are that much of the fluctuation in church numbers comes from churchgoers changing allegiance from one local denomination to another – a bid for viewers in the prime-time Sunday morning slot to help pay the bills.  And the world sees this merry-go-round and believes rightly that it is better off without it.

Because the brutal truth is that the people of Dawlish do not need Evangelicals and Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics, Congregationalists and Baptists – they need Jesus, pure and simple.  Yet in our own ways, codifying what it means to belong to this church or another we revisit the arguments of the Corinthian church and reintroduce the sort of religious legalism that Jesus criticised so vehemently.

This is not a new situation and it is a lesson that we have to learn over and over again.  Just as arguments over which super-apostle you were baptised by threatened to tear apart the Corinthian church in Paul’s day, so Martin Luther during the Great Reformation had to remind us of the differences between the “church visible” and God’s “church invisible”.

Christian responsibility

Romans 14:13-23

We must stop judging others.  We must also make up our minds not to upset anyone’s faith.  The Lord Jesus has made it clear to me that God considers all foods fit to eat.  But if you think some foods are unfit to eat, then for you they are not fit.

If you are hurting others by the foods you eat, you are not guided by love.  Don’t let your appetite destroy someone Christ died for.  Don’t let your right to eat bring shame to Christ.  God’s kingdom is not about eating and drinking.  It is about pleasing God, about living in peace, and about true happiness.  All this comes from the Holy Spirit.  If you serve Christ in this way, you will please God and be respected by people.  We should try to live at peace and help each other have a strong faith.

1 Corinthians 8

Don’t cause problems for someone with a weak conscience, just because you have the right to eat anything.  You know all this, and so it doesn’t bother you to eat in the temple of an idol.  But suppose a person with a weak conscience sees you and decides to eat food that has been offered to idols.  Then what you know has destroyed someone Christ has died for.  When you sin by hurting a follower with a weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  So if I hurt one of the Lord’s followers by what I eat, I will never eat meat as long as I live.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24

Some of you say, “We can do whatever we want to!” But I tell you that not everything may be good or helpful.  We should think about others and not about ourselves.

Our responsibilities to each other

Alongside the calls for Christian unity, Paul stresses also the theme of Christian responsibility.  We are not merely to bear with each other, we are to build each other up; whilst celebrating theological diversity we are also to refrain from practices that offend others or threaten to lead others astray.  The view that what happens in my home, or my church, is my business and no-one else’s, has never been a Christian doctrine – our duties of Christian responsibility to each other do not permit that.  In Paul’s day we see Christian communities divided not just by a notional alignment with one or other apostle, but also by their practices.  It is easy to build walls around our beliefs and withdraw into the community of followers that believe and behave as we do, but this does not glorify God.  Paul describes his rebuke of Peter when he withdraws into his comfort zone, in the following way:

Galatians 2:11-13

When Peter came to Antioch, I told him face to face that he was wrong.  He used to eat with Gentile followers of the Lord, until James sent some Jewish followers.  Peter was afraid of the Jews and soon stopped eating with Gentiles.  He and the other Jews hid their true feelings so well that even Barnabas was fooled.

Avoid leading others astray

We know that we are free in Christ, we know that the powers of darkness no longer have any hold on our lives, but there are Christian brothers and sisters still seeking, still young in the faith who need us to set a good example, beyond reproach, in order that they themselves are not led astray.  Nowhere is this more important than what we allow to take place within our own churches – how can we expect new believers to be discerning in their own lives, if we do not demonstrate discernment when it comes to the use of our own church buildings.

In addition to our responsibility to be good witnesses to each other, we have that same responsibility to be good witnesses to non-believers regarding the way Christ is working in our lives.  In Hebrews 12, the author writes about the witness our forefathers are to us and how we must give that same witness to those who may not yet be gathered into the kingdom.

Hebrews 12:1-3

Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us!  So we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially the sin that just won’t let go.  And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us.  We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete.  He endured the shame of being nailed to a cross, because he knew that later on he would be glad he did.  Now he is seated at the right side of God’s throne!  So keep your mind on Jesus, who put up with many insults from sinners.  Then you won’t get discouraged and give up.

Our Christian responsibilities of witness

We are running that race together, side by side, pulling each other up and spurring each other on, rather than competing with each other for the prize.  And always we are to keep our eyes on Jesus, taking Christ as our example how to witness to others as we run the race.  Jesus who lived daily with his disciples, teaching them everything he knew and training them to be the next leaders of the church; Jesus who fed the hungry, healed the sick, cast out demons; Jesus who partied with untouchables and sought out the lost sheep.  This is the Jesus the world needs and we are the only people here to show him to the masses.  In the words of Teresa d’Avila:

“Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world,
Yours are the hands; yours are the feet; yours are the eyes; you are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours.”

What’s clear is that we can’t do that from within the silos of our own churches – we can’t be witnesses to the glory of Christ if when we feel threatened in our beliefs our response is to withdraw to the community of believers who share our practices.  Churches Together and UCADD are a good start in that rapprochement between denominations and believers, but the real onus lies with us as grassroots Christians to bridge the divide between congregations.  That’s why fellowships such as this one are so important and we need to be doing more together.  Where are the small groups where Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists and Baptists learn side by side, building each other up?  How can we evangelise Dawlish and offer an answer for the hope that we have, if we can’t discuss the fundamentals of faith with each other?  How can you hold your own in debate with an atheist, if you haven’t first sharpened your faith in debate with other Christians who interpret scripture differently?  Because the Christian believer’s message is not “trust me”, but “seek together with me”.

In the days of the early church, the apostles moved from town to town teaching, correcting errors, drawing together communities of believers, and training the next generation of leaders.  It was precisely by engaging with different communities that saving faith was worked out in practice – the “church militant” in Reformation terminology.  Where are those spanners working across denominational divides to patch together the fractured Christian community?  Who are the next generation of leaders in Dawlish working together and building each other up in the faith?

Guerilla warfare

In today’s hostile society, monolithic church institutions are not the solution to spreading the gospel message far and wide.  There will always be a place for believers to come together en masse to learn from God’s word and to glorify God together.  But the hard yards need to be done by a more extensive inter-connected network of believers: studying, living and working across denominational divides; ready to respond as witnesses in the community through good works and bold testimonies.  In some sense, like the spread of the gospel in Paul’s day, we are fighting a guerrilla war on hostile terrain and we need to flexible, agile networks of believers to respond to the corresponding challenges.

Yet, there is a yearning, a hunger within society that we need to learn to respond to also.  Church membership is on the wane and an increasing atheistic spiritualism is on the rise, precisely because the established church has vacated the spiritual battlefield.  If Christian believers are on the Lawn healing the sick, people won’t be turning to alternative methods; if Christian believers are out in the community witnessing to the plan God has for every life, people won’t seek distractions through drink, drugs or extra-marital relationships; and as Jesus frees person after person from the slavery of sin, we need an integrated, responsive network of believers to support, love and train them in turn as soldiers for Christ.

As believers, it is tempting to leave the responsibilities of spreading the faith and building up the community of believers to our church leaders – and sometimes they are complicit in letting us do that.  But that was never the plan, it wasn’t how the early church worked and throughout history, it is not the grand schemes of Christian institutions that have brought salvation to the masses.  It is when ordinary believers have sought to make a difference alongside their brothers and sisters, within and across denominational divides, taking personal and corporate responsibility for the state of Christian life in their community that change happens.  And as we honour God in seeking to glorify Him in every aspect of our own lives, so He brings spiritual blessings and a harvest to those communities who are closest to Him.

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