Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4 Psalm 27:1, 5-13 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Matthew 4:12-23
by Sherman Hesselgrave
The week between January 18th, the Feast of the Confession of St Peter on the Church calendar, and the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul on January 25th has come to be known in ecumenical circles as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I imagine to many the words ‘Christian Unity’ must seem oxymoronic, for Church history is littered with the bodies and detritus of countless battles. St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that Christian disunity has been around pretty much from the beginning.
Disunity comes in a variety of flavours. I have noticed a flurry of online discussion recently about bullying in church, bullying of all stripes—bullying of parishioners by pastors, bullying of lay people by other members of a congregation, and even bullying of pastors by congregations. One congregation, First Assembly of God in Madison, Indiana, a town with a population of 13,000, had a decades-long reputation in the town and denomination for being a clergy “killer.” Four successive pastors had been called and then painfully driven out until the latest pastor helped them to name and own their dysfunction. They made the news for holding a service of reconciliation that involved calling their former pastors back to ask their forgiveness for the way they had been treated. The liturgical action at this service was the current pastor washing the feet of the former ministers on behalf of the congregation.
According to St Paul, one of the conflicts in the new community of Christians in the port city of Corinth appears to be related to people forming cliques around the missionaries who baptized them: Apollos, Cephas, or Paul. I suspect we all have seen the power of personality cults, and the Church is certainly not immune to their seductiveness. But in falling for the charisma of the various leaders, the new converts missed the one thing they all had in common: their baptism into the community of Christ. This passage is emblematic of so many of the things that have caused division in Christian communities when the original vision of what makes up the core of the Gospel is lost. I believe Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, was satirizing the Church when he described the wars between the Big-Enders and the Little-Enders, those who ate their soft-boiled eggs by cracking them at opposite ends. There are many distractions that make it difficult at times to keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak.
When Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and follow him, one has to wonder what they thought “fishing for people” would look like. What kind of community were they being called to? From the record, it seems that, even after following Jesus around for quite some time, they weren’t sure. Today’s gospel and today’s Hebrew scripture both quote this passage from the prophet Isaiah: “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,…” In the original context, the darkness that has fallen over the people is the darkness of death that accompanied the continuous warring in that critical geopolitical region. Isaiah was promising that a Prince of Peace would be coming to bring a new dawn. In the gospel context, Jesus was the light who had come to bring a new day, and the way he was going to do it was by inviting people to help him to spread the news that God was taking a new approach to creating peace and justice on earth. He spelled out the details as he travelled from town to town. In the Sermon on the Mount he claimed that God blessed peacemakers, the pure in heart, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He told his followers that they were the fertilizer of the earth. He taught them how to pray, and how to live one day at a time. And he taught them about the danger of storing up treasure on earth. The kind of community that Jesus’ followers were called to was a community of character that stood in stark contrast to the values of the surrounding empire.
Flash forward to Germany in the mid 1930s. A different empire, the Third Reich, was coming into being, and the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been called to lead an illegal, clandestine Confessing Church seminary in the then North German town of Finkenwalde. Sharing a common life in emergency-built housing with twenty-five seminarians, he wrote a book, Life Together [New York: Harper & Row, 1954, p. 26], describing his insights into living as an intentional Christian community. Early in the book he observes that many a time “a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.” The disillusionment that shatters such dreams is an act of grace that helps a group of Christians to discern the true community God is trying to create. Look at Jesus’ disciples and how disillusioned they were when Jesus turned out not to be a political messiah. Until they were purged of that fantasy, they could not become part of the apostolic movement they were commissioned for.
Over the centuries, Christian communities have struggled with the tension between unity and uniformity. There are some who believe that unity requires uniformity, but that is not what either Jesus or the apostle Paul taught. Paul speaks of the diversity of the body of Christ, the Church, and the many gifts with which God’s Spirit has blessed God’s people—but there is one Spirit behind those gifts, so all spiritual gifts are complementary. And, I believe that when Jesus prays that we may all be one, as he and his Abba are one, he is speaking of the oneness that comes from being intimately connected to the source of all life, truth, and beauty.
Diversity, too, can be a source of tension. We have seen how new ideas or scientific revelations have challenged Christian communities over the millennia. And just when you think consensus is about to solidify after decades or centuries of debate, someone comes along and tries to bring back the Middle Ages. As a Roman Catholic nun once remarked to me, “The Church changes very slowly—one funeral at a time.”
To be true to our calling as a community in Christ, there will be times when we will struggle to discern which fork in the road to take, or how to make the most of our resources, or the best way to retool for carrying on our mission in a new context. We may be called to make bold leaps of faith or to overcome a fear of failing. These are all situations that faithful Christians have faced in the centuries leading to this moment in time, so we are not alone as we continue to make sense of our life together—we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and God’s Spirit is the wind that fills our sails.