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Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Epiphany (22 January 2017) by the Reverend Rosemary Morton, Minor Canon and Succentor
The Succentor says "Our strength is in our unity and together we must stand, united, in the face of fear and hatred."
“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.”
The Christian community in Corinth are, as ever, causing Paul a bit of a headache. They are dividing themselves into factions within the community, claiming other people’s names as that which identifies them based on who baptised them. Paul dives straight in – appealing to them “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, pointing out the commonality of their baptism in Christ, that what matters in not who baptised them but that through their baptism they are unified in their common identity in Christ.
The community at Corinth was not particularly large, dozens rather than hundreds of Christians, but they were disagreeing over a lot of things; worship practices, sexual ethics, social and economic class, spiritual gifts, and education and knowledge.
Paul’s urging of the Corinthians to be “of the same mind and the same purpose” may sound like a poor attempt to keep the peace, but actually identifies that the points of conflict and division in Corinth are presenting symptoms of an underlying problem – that the Corinthians don’t understand that the cross of Christ up-ends their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another.
The cause for Paul’s concern is the Corinthians’ on-going allegiance to a wisdom that Paul regards as overturned by God’s work in Christ. What really unites us with Christ is the death and resurrection we experience with Christ through our baptism. The source of all this is Christ’s death on the cross, which looks like foolishness to the Romans and their value system, and indeed to the rest of the world. Paul contrasts the cross with ‘eloquent wisdom’ – that the Corinthians need to let go of lives built around the Greco-Roman values of honour, wealth and power in order to embrace the values of God’s kingdom.
Our gospel passage comes from the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, when John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah in going to Capernaum, by the Galilean lake, a commercial fishing town in an area dominated by Gentile and Hellenistic culture rather than Jewish culture.
It is here, in this place not of Jewish culture, that Jesus calls the first disciples. Four local fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James and John, come away from their work to follow Jesus. As fishermen these were people who were unlikely to be of great social power or individual wealth, so giving up their jobs probably meant a total loss of income for them and their families.
After calling the disciples, Jesus gets straight to work – teaching in the synagogues, pronouncing the Good News of the Kingdom, and restoring the sick to wholeness. These are the defining characteristics of Jesus’ daily ministry, and it is by his teaching, preaching and healing that Jesus manifests the nature of the Kingdom he is proclaiming.
Jesus calls the fishermen to leave everything they know, to surrender their lives as they know them and to embrace adventure and risk.
We don’t like the idea of surrender – it seems weak and powerless and we don’t like to give up control. But surrender means giving up the false promises that control, money, wealth, and success make us important. Because if these things are in control then our inner voice is silenced and all we hear is our greedy ego.
Our surrender to embracing the journey with God gives us work to do. In love and solidarity we stand alongside those who are marked as ‘other’. In a world where the rhetoric of fear and division seems to grow each day, we are called to stand, not with those who seek to divide through imposing labels, but with those who are being labelled. When we hear from our pulpits, our parliaments and our press who we are entitled to hate, it is time to remember that God expects us to love all people – especially those who have been pushed to the margins.
As Christians united in Christ through baptism, we should remember that we belong to Christ, not to a political faction or figurehead. But this isn’t just about ‘getting along with each other’ despite our differences, because unity in Christ and getting along with others are not quite the same thing.
The gospel is not about passive consensus but about the radical good news of God’s Kingdom – that we do not need to be beholden to the values and expectations of the world. It does mean we have to work out how to live as brothers and sisters in Christ, irrespective of political affiliation, gender identity, sexuality, immigration status, ethnicity, or nationality. But unity in Christ also means that certain things are non-negotiable. We are to condemn, as Christ did, the oppression of the poor. We are to speak out against racism, xenophobia, abuse of the vulnerable and patriarchal violence.
Yesterday, I joined with thousands of people here in London, and in solidarity with millions across the world, to add my voice to a growing tide against the rhetoric of fear and hatred that is so dominant in our world. We marched for a variety of reasons under a variety of banners and slogans.
We marched for the protection of our fundamental rights, for the safeguarding of our freedoms threatened by recent political events, for the dignity and equality of all people, for the health and safety of our planet, in celebration of the strength of our vibrant and diverse communities, and to honour the champions of human rights who have gone before us.
We marched because black lives matter, because women’s rights are human rights, because as women we should be able to choose what happens to our own bodies, because men of quality don’t fear equality, because refugees are welcome, because resistance is never futile, and because we stand together against hate.
We marched because somehow, somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten our common humanity and we desperately need to be reminded of it. And in this movement I saw, enacted by Christians, by people of other faiths and those of no faith at all, the very values of God’s Kingdom. The non-negotiables of condemning oppression of the poor, speaking out against racism, xenophobia, homophobia, trans phobia, against abuse of the vulnerable and patriarchal violence.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, they were trying to operate by the same rules as the rest of the world – under values that pardoned the exploitation of the poor, discrimination, hierarchical violence, and systematic oppression or people who were different. In contrast to this, Paul writes, we are to be united in the foolishness of the cross – the same foolishness that Jesus embraced each day of his earthly ministry by calling ordinary people to follow him, by eating with the unclean and the outcast, and by healing and restoring the sick and marginalised.
Today we find ourselves in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, where we pray for our fellow Christians across the world, rejoicing in all that we hold in common and seeking healing for our divisions. The fractured state of Christianity reflects our human weakness. Like the Corinthians, we are so often concerned about the things that we can’t agree about that we forget about our common identity in Christ. The creation of God’s Kingdom does not hinge on the personalities of the people who make up the body of Christ. Our true unity is not found in the personalities of those who lead us, not in the philosophy of our congregation or the label of our denomination. Our true unity comes only from Christ.
May our prayer be that in this Week of Christian Unity we rediscover our unity in Christ, holding fast to what we hold in common rather than what divides us. May we grasp hold of the values of God’s kingdom, living these out in our lives - standing in solidarity with the oppressed and those on the margins, saying no to hate and division. Martin Luther King Jr wrote “Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere . . . It is my deep conviction that justice is indivisible.”
Our strength is in our unity and together we must stand, united, in the face of fear and hatred.