Archive for January, 2011

January 23, 2011

Unity

Light and Shadow
Today’s Sermon.  Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, (Epiphany 3, Year A)

The couple of us here that are older than thirty, do you remember where you were and what you were doing in 1989 when you heard the news of the Berlin wall coming down?  I remember listening to my radio late into the night as news reporters standing by the wall described the events as they unfolded, the emotion, the sheer joy that was all around.  As sledgehammers were taken to the wall and big chunks of the graffiti-clad concrete crumbled, interviews were taking place with people who were so excited and overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with family and friends from whom they had been separated for decades.  There was a time when the collapse of Communism in Europe seemed an impossibility; the ‘Cold War’ seemed as if it would go on for ever and yet, the impossible happened…

Look at the church today.  There are more divisions than we could number, divisions between East and West, between North and South, divisions that are new and many that are old, and every single one is because of human greed and power struggles and that rather unfashionable word, sin.

People are the same today as they always were, that is why we can look at the church in Corinth in AD 55 and learn from their mistakes, because exactly the same mistakes are being made today.  The church in Corinth resembled the society in which she lived.  Corinth was a divided city: there were rich and poor, slave and free, educated and uneducated, Jew and Gentile.  The church should have been different, a place where every one of these different groups could come together, with Christ as the common ground between them, but this was not the case.  The Christians had taken their eyes off Christ and had instead become obsessed with the differences that there were between them.[1]

So in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (10)

He appeals to them, he pleads with them, he calls them his brothers and sisters in Christ.  They are all part of the same family – for heaven’s sake!

Division is a tragedy.  At the time I was writing this sermon I was also following on the news the unravelling of our government.  In some ways, watching and listening to all the infighting and power struggles has been so ridiculous it has been almost funny, like a pantomime – perhaps it would be more funny if it were not so serious, these are the people we have elected!  Yet it is not only our politicians who are sometimes a laughing stock, how many times has the church been in the spotlight of the cold eye of ridicule “look at those Christians fighting with each other, I thought they were supposed to be full of love!”  Because of the kind of world we live in we can be absolutely sure that news will travel far and fast when we fall out with each other, the world loves to make fun of Christians and yet time after time it is our own fault that we are seen as weak hypocrites.  It was the same in Corinth.  Paul was in Ephesus, hundreds of kilometres away across the Aegean Sea and yet long before the days of Telephones, T.V. or Twitter, news got to him about what was happening in Corinth.  Look at verse 11:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

Bad news travels fast.  The Apostle Paul had spent eighteen months in Corinth, but since he had left the church had split up into various groups.  One group were loyal to Paul, another group were followers of a preacher called Apollos, another group were followers of Cephas (the Apostle Peter) and another group thought they were superior to the rest saying that they followed Christ.  Paul goes on to tell them how completely absurd and foolish this is:

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (13)

Christ died so that all who believe in Him might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  There is only one Christ, not one Christ for Protestants and another Christ for Roman Catholics, not one Christ for Eastern Orthodox and another for Pentecostals, not one Christ for the Church of Ireland and another for every Community Church, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker and Mennonite!  There is only one Christ, so the logical conclusion is this: there is only one church.  That’s right, there is only one church.  Every Christian in Corinth, despite their differences had one thing in common.  Every Christian today, despite our differences, has one thing (or rather One Person) in common.  Christ.  How can division be allowed to remain when we all belong to the same Christ?  How can we have doctrine and theology, laws, articles and canons that divide God’s people up, putting the sheep in different pens?  Not only is it crazy, it is sinful and how God must hate and detest the barriers that we have put up.  We have lost sight of Christ and we have focused on our differences and that is the reason why so much of the church today is dead or dying.  What did Jesus say?

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…” (John 15:5,6, NIV)

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity[2], Christians all around the world “become aware of the great diversity of ways of adoring God. Hearts are touched, and people realize that their neighbours’ ways are not so strange.”  When we take our eyes off those things that divide us and together focus on Christ, it is something very profound, special and exciting.  I hope that as time goes on we will be able to do more and more together with our brothers and sisters in Christ that worship elsewhere within this Parish and that in time the differences between us will diminish to the point that we can no longer remember what they were!  When we look back a generation or two and see how far we have come, there is much to give us hope for the future.

At first glance it seems a bit strange that verse 18 is tacked onto the end of today’s reading because it clearly belongs to the next section.  But with church Unity in mind, it is the perfect verse to end with.  Here’s what it says:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

As far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, there is only one dividing line between people, the cross of Christ.  Many of us like to sit on the fence about different things; about politics, about religion or sport.  But there is no sitting on the fence when it comes to the cross of Christ, either we are with Christ or we are against Him (Mark 9:40).  The Corinthians were supposed to be in agreement about the cross, and if they were then all the other human-made differences would have melted away.  The same is true of the church today, the cross should be the only dividing line between those who put their faith and trust in Christ and those who do not.

Being much concerned about the rise of denominations in the church, John Wesley told of a dream he had. In the dream, he was ushered to the gates of Hell. There he asked, “Are there any Presbyterians here?” “Yes!” came the answer. Then he asked, “Are there any Baptists? Any Anglicans? Any Methodists?” The answer was Yes! each time. Much distressed, Wesley was then ushered to the gates of Heaven. There he asked the same question, and the answer was No! “No?” To this, Wesley asked, “Who then is inside?” The answer came back, “There are only Christians here.”[3]

Wouldn’t it be great if one day someone would say to us, “Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the walls of division within the church came down, the day when we finally realised that we were one in Christ?” One day it will happen … Amen.


[1] Roger Ellsworth, ‘The message of 1 Corinthians’, Evangelical Press, 1995, p.22

[2] http://tinyurl.com/6zdbabb

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January 20, 2011

Roll 24

It is just over a year since I developed my first black and white film, (you can read that post here).  So roll 24 means that I am averaging two films a month – hope you are blown away by my mathematical skill :-/

It’s been great fun and it’s been a steep learning curve; I’ve lost pictures because of not developing them properly which is frustrating, but I’ve also learnt a lot about picture taking, composition, timing, light and so on.  Film photography, especially with an old manual camera and a prime (fixed focal length) lens really forces you to slow down and think about the picture you are taking, and it is also great fun.  So here’s a few pictures from roll 24…

Dreaming of Spring

“Dreaming of Spring”

Charlie

Charlie

1101apx019

Early Sunday morning near the Timoleague Road

Out of the Cave

“Out of the Cave” at Simon’s Cove

Rock Patterns #2

Rock Patterns at Simon’s Cove

Icicles

Icicles

Ice patterns

Ice patterns on a window

(Details: Camera – Olympus OM-1, lens – Zuiko 50mm f1.4, Film – Agfa APX 100, Developer – Rodinal (8 minutes @ 20°C) – Scanner Epson 4490)

January 16, 2011

Corinth, a perfect Church?

"The Split Rock" Easkey, Co. Sligo Sermon from 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Probably all of us have been frustrated with the church at one time or another.  It may well be that the God-given gifts which we have are not being given the opportunity to be used.  Maybe someone has said something to us that hurts or maybe we are feeling ignored and left out of things.  There is no such thing in this life as the ‘perfect church’, every church has its faults and problems because it is made up of imperfect people – forgiven and redeemed people yes, but nevertheless far from perfect.

As we sigh and get frustrated with the fact that we are part of an imperfect church we can draw much support and encouragement from the Scriptures, especially the letters written to the early churches, and there was perhaps no church in need of more help than the one in the city of Corinth.

This ancient city was a major centre for trade in its day and it was a mix of many different people, religions and cultures.  The Apostle Paul had been there around about 50 AD during his second missionary journey and with the help of Priscilla and Aquilla had set up the church there over eighteen months or so, (quite an achievement given the type of place it was).  Perhaps not surprisingly the young church had its fair share of problems, which Paul deals with in the letters we have today of 1 and 2 Corinthians.  Divisions appeared in the church between the stronger and weaker members, those with money and power in society and those without, those that had great oratory skill and those that were less well educated.  There were problems too with sexual immorality and social snobbery.  On top of all this, they had little understanding of Christian marriage and their worship services were lacking in order and discipline.

You would have thought that with the church in such a mess, the Apostle Paul would get immediately stuck in, but he doesn’t, he actually starts off with a lovely greeting and then for the rest of today’s reading he tells them just how thankful to God he is for these Corinthian Christians.

Look at verse two.  Paul writes:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…

To be ‘Sanctified’ means to be cleansed and set apart for God.  This is done through the Lord Jesus, for there is no cleansing apart from Him.  Yes the people had been sanctified by the blood of Christ but they were still not living their lives for Christ as they ought.  The church is supposed to be a physician, there to help heal the sickness of society, but what can a doctor do if he or she is suffering from the same sickness as those they are trying to cure?[1] This was the case with the Corinthians – they hadn’t yet been able to be fully free from their previous way of living and this was killing off their ability to act as effective witnesses for Christ.  Remember that the Lord called his disciples to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16); salt to arrest the contamination of the world around us and light to shine God’s truth and love to dispel the darkness of this world.  But just like the church today, the Corinthians were swept away by the twin tides of contamination and confusion.  Just like so much of the church today the Corinthians were paralysed by moral laxity and doctrinal uncertainty.  This is why the Apostle Paul was writing to them and that is why this letter is perfectly preserved, because we need it just as much in the church today.

In the nine verses that make up our reading, the Lord Jesus’ name is mentioned nine times – why?  Simple, because He is the answer to the problem.  To use a sporting metaphor, the Corinthians had taken their eye off the ball, meaning they had taken their eyes off Christ, and to do so is to fail and fall.  We need to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, He should be our first thought in the morning and our last at night and his name should be continually on our lips and for ever present in our minds.  He is the way the truth and the life, He should be everything to us because without him there is no hope for us, we are totally reliant and dependent upon Him for our salvation and without Him we are nothing.  So in verse two we see that He sanctifies His followers, then we see that His followers are called to be saints.  Saints are not just super-Christians, the heroes of the faith, Saints is a similar word to Sanctified in the Greek, it means ‘holy people’.  Anyone who has invited Jesus into their life has been set aside by God as a holy person, and because they are a holy person they need to reflect their masters holiness.

There is a word in verses 3 and 4 which helps all this to make sense.  First of all though think about this; have you ever heard the phrase ‘that’s not very Christian’?  It is usually directed at someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus that has done something wrong.  I’ve had it said to me a few times, especially when I was a new believer and I was constantly talking about what Jesus had done in my life and annoying a few people as a result!  They would look for every opportunity to show me up as a hypocrite, which was an easy task!  None of us are perfect, none of us deserve the love that God shows us through Christ, none of us has any right at all to think of ourselves as better than anyone else.  What’s that word I was talking about, sure you know it:

GRACE

There are lots of definitions of grace, one of my favourite is by Bono,[2]

“Grace makes beauty out of ugly things”

Because of our sin, we are ‘ugly things’ but the beautiful thing that Christ has done has changed us and will go on changing us more and more into the likeness of his image (2 Cor. 3:18)

By ourselves, none of us are very ‘Christian’ because all of us have fallen short of God’s standard (Rom.3:23) so that is why Christ came and that is why the Apostle Paul mentions Christ’s name so much because Christ died and Christ rose again for the Corinthians and for you and for me.

We were heading for death, but Christ has given us life.  The very second you gave your life to Christ (if indeed you have done so) God set you apart and made you holy.  God has fulfilled His side of the bargain, He has declared us to be Holy, through the Person and work of Christ, now we have to act Holy, we have to live our lives set apart, Holy lives; not cut off from the world, but in the world, as salt and as light.  We are holy in God’s eyes already, so we need to be what we already are![3]

[4]For 11 years a lady by the name of Mary Leonard has dealt with polymyositis, a rare inflammatory tissue disease that invades the muscles. There is no known cause or cure.

Mary’s case turned deadly when the disease invaded her heart. In fact, last March, Mary was told by doctors that she had 24-48 hours to live. But after 20 days in a hospice centre, another 51 days in rehab, and a number of days at home, Mary is still alive. She’s now reflecting on the changes that take place when you learn your time is short.

“I call myself an average Christian,” Mary says. “I don’t know exactly why God has done this for me, but I do know that life looks different now.”

Mary offers five life lessons she learned through the ordeal:

1. Know that prayer is powerful.

2. Mend fences now.  [Mend your relationships as best you can]

3. Release the reins of life to God.

4.  Know that God is able—more than able.

5.  Put your focus on what really matters.

All of us could benefit by being told that we had just two days left to live.  Imagine if everyone in the church was told the same – oh how those problems would just melt away!  Denominations – who would care? Theological differences, what would they matter?  When death is staring you in the face there is only one thing, or rather one Person that matters. Jesus.  If we could live like that all the time, the church would very different, and so would we… Amen.


[1] Metaphor from Roger Ellsworth, ‘The message of 1 Corinthians’, Evangelical Press, 1995, p.11

[3] ‘Closer to God’ Bible notes vol. 13, p.57 Scripture Union, 2002

January 10, 2011

Looking Ahead

Looking Ahead (tonemapped)

Walking with my family along the sea front at Aberaeron as 2010 drew to a close, something about this little telescope caught my attention.  Perhaps it was the sheer lack of view on offer; it was hard to see even where the sea and sky met, the horizon lost in a featureless haze.  And such is the future, we have shadows and glimpses of what might be and what may become, but it is all just out of reach – and probably for the best.  What will happen this year, what good will come to pass, what tragedies will unfold?

There will certainly be an election in this country (though the present Taoiseach will do his utmost to delay it as long as possible), even more people will lose their jobs, even more will emigrate and it is hard to see any positives at all on the political / economic end of things.

As I look at the mess this country has increasingly become, my prayer for this year is that people will let God into their lives, their homes, families and workplaces, that the countless failings of the churches will not continue to drive people away from faith and that people would not make up their mind to reject God because of the failings of God’s followers but would instead look to Jesus, the Way the Truth and the Life.  How wonderful it would be this time next year to be able to think of many people who have let God into their lives and been utterly transformed as a result – at the moment I can think of a few, but I am greedy for more!

And so I wish you a belated Happy New Year with a quote from “Trotty” in Dickens’ short story The Chimes:

So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you!  So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.