Posts tagged ‘Unity’

April 15, 2012

Unity

Leaving a mark...

Today’s Sermon.  Text: Psalm 133.

Parents, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents and teachers love it when the children they are looking after are getting on together. It makes life so much easier doesn’t it? When we see children sharing and caring, when they remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they use their knife and fork rather than shoveling the food into their mouths with their hands (or something they have found in the garden), it makes us happy and realise that all the hard work in trying to bring them up was actually worth it. Of course the reality is that often children are selfish and rude and forget how to behave towards each other and to grown-ups and it can often be very difficult for those who have responsibility for them.

One of the greatest privileges for those who are parents is that the actual experience of bringing up children gives them a deep insight into the relationship we all have with our heavenly Father. When confronted with a stubborn child stamping their foot and shouting ‘NO’, we hopefully realise that we too have done this sort of thing with our heavenly Parent, God! We might not have actually stamped our foot and stuck out our bottom lip, but we have been just as defiant in wanting our way rather than the right way.

As we look at the church, we remember that we are all God’s children and as such we ought to admit that we are not particularly obedient children at that; we are always bickering about this that and the other thing (and that is even within our denomination, let alone between different Christian traditions). Every way that we can let our Heavenly Father down we have and every way we could have hindered Christ’s mission, we have. Have you ever been in the supermarket and seen and heard a child screaming at their poor mother of father? Perhaps the child is lying on the floor, clutching a bag of sweets they are not allowed to have and the red-faced parent is trying in vain to be in charge. In looking at so much of the debate and dissension in the church today, are we not just like that child in the supermarket? We shout out ‘I am right, my way is best’!  Worse still, we mock our brothers and sisters who disagree with us, if not face to face, then in hushed conversation with others in the church car park, or on the pages of the Gazette or on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes it is just heartbreaking, that whether it be between members of our own church congregation, or between different churches or between clergy there always seems to be some issue that threatens to divide and break up any kind of fellowship that we have. What does God think of all this I wonder? Perhaps our Psalm for today, Psalm 133 will help us:

How very good and pleasant it is to dwell in unity.

When we walk into a house where everyone is at each other, arguing and fighting, we can sense the atmosphere almost immediately. On the other hand, when we walk into a house where the occupants are together and at peace with one another, what a difference it makes! Isn’t it lovely to walk into a peaceful and unified home, a genuine pleasure? The context of today’s Psalm could have originated in a number of different places – perhaps it refers to the relationship between Abram and Lot in Genesis chapter 13:8, where Abram said:

Let there be no strife between you and me … for we are kindred.

Perhaps this verse refers back to tensions between the tribes of Israel or perhaps even between the sons of King David, but I don’t suppose any of that matters to us too much because it is as wonderful today when people live together in unity as it always was.

The next couple of lines are interesting, we read:

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, Even on Aaron’s beard, running down upon the collar of his clothing.

Interesting it might be, but what on earth is it saying? You may remember the character of Aaron, as Moses’ brother, Israel’s spokesman to Pharaoh and the first high priest in Israel’s history. When Aaron was made priest, special and expensive oil was used to anoint him (and all those after him too). The oil was consecrated, which means dedicated, devoted and set apart for God. A generous amount of oil was used, hence the fact that it ran down over his beard and the collar of his robes. So how then is living together in unity like this oil? The idea is that when God’s people are unified then it is a community of people that are genuinely set apart for Him and carrying out their calling in the world. Unity, like the sacred oil, is a precious thing.

When we as brothers and sisters are living in disunity then we are set apart from God, but when we are together then we are set apart for God.

I think that there are few things that give the devil more pleasure than infighting between God’s children; it is a gift to him and a gift that we should at all costs avoid giving to him! But when we are together, when (as it were) we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, all pulling in the same direction, all playing for the same team, then wow, look at what God can do!

Next in our Psalm we read:

It is like the dew of Hermon running down upon the hills of Zion. For there the Lord has promised his blessing: even life for evermore.

Mount Hermon is a high snow-capped mountain in the north of the land. Today the region is between Syria and Lebanon. We might not think too much of dew in our green and wet climate, but if you are a farmer in an arid climate then the morning dew is crucial for the survival of vegetation during the dry season. The dew ran down the sides of the mountain and gave life to the plants round about. This then is a picture of what unity does amongst God’s people, it brings life and blessing to the church, it brings growth and a harvest. Without the water from the mountain, the plants would wither and die; without unity the church withers and dies and there is no blessing, no harvest and no future.

It is very exciting to see God at work in this Parish; I could not even begin to list the many great things He has done, they are too many to mention here. Someone recently had the idea of writing a book of people’s stories and I think that would be an excellent idea. We must not be complacent though because the enemy is constantly trying to sow seeds of disunity amongst us.  We must fiercely and jealously guard our unity. We need to pray for each other and we need to look out for each other. When someone comes at you with some gossip, ‘Did you know, so-and-so did this, and they didn’t do that,’ remember this: gossip is not harmless fun, it is evil, it destroys. Every time we say an unkind word we destroy a little bit of that person’s character and the devil gets very excited about it.

Sadly I hear a lot of gossip and I have to tell you that I hate it. I have never seen any good come from gossip, it destroys friendships and trust and unity, it is an evil thing that has no place in the life of the church where we are to dwell together in unity. We have to learn to fight each others corner, to stand up for each other, we are family! If someone or something attacks one of us, then we are all attacked, if one of us is gossiped about then all of us are gossiped about – we are one body – does a body fight itself? No! All the parts of one body work together to fight off the common enemy, and that is how we as the body of Christ should be, fighting off all that comes against us with God’s strength, which is there for us when we live together in unity. God loves it when we get on together and He will continue to bless us so long as we are.

Let us pray … Amen.

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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

November 2, 2010

Gougane Barra

During last months clergy conference we had a couple of hours of free time, so I made my way to Gougane Barra.  St. Fin Barre built a monastery here in the sixth century and it’s not hard to see why; it is a beautiful and peaceful place…

But there is something about this place that goes beyond its beauty. Perhaps it’s because of the centuries of prayer and Christian witness, perhaps it’s the example of St. Fin Barre himself or maybe it is because this place predates our man-made church denominations. In the sixth century there were no Protestant or Roman Catholic churches in Ireland, that all came later (and all the pain / mess that came with it which continues to this day).  Last night at the Institution service for the new Rector in Bandon, Rev. Denis MacCarthy, there was a particular prayer before the Holy Communion that struck a chord with me:

As the grain once scattered in the fields
 and the grapes once dispersed on the hillside
 are now reunited on this table in bread and wine,
 so, Lord, may your whole Church soon be gathered together 
from the corners of the earth into your kingdom.  Amen.

Gougane Barra 2
Gougane Barra 1
Gougane Barra 5
Gougane Barra Church Interior
All pictures taken using Nikon F100, Nikkor 18-35mm lens and Fujichrome Sensia 100 Slide Film (which has now sadly been discontinued).