A sermon originally preached at the Church of the Annunciation, Brighton, 24 March 1999.
“I appeal to you, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, to make up the differences between you, and instead of disagreeing among yourselves, to be united again in your belief and practice.” (I Corinthians 1.10)
I wonder what you would say if I asked you where the majority of the arguments you have take place? Survey after survey has shown that we are most likely to disagree with each other — not in the office, at the shops, at school, or even in the bus queue — but in the home. It is obvious, really, that it is when we are with those closest to us that we are most liable to let off steam, vent our frustrations and work off our anxieties.
Now this is not all bad. We are always being told these days that we should not bottle up our feelings — and it is certainly the case that repressed disagreements (the kind we try to pretend aren’t really there) can be the most damaging in the long run. But sadly the vast increase in work and revenue for counsellors and family therapists in our pressurised world also illustrates that apparently minor squabbles can rapidly boil over into deep bitterness.
What is true in our everyday lives is also, I fear, true in church, where the spiritual as well as emotional stakes can be pretty high. Arguments in the Church of England today threaten further division and acrimony. At the recent World Council of Churches Assembly I attended, the pain of continuing rifts between Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches was also evident. To celebrate our unity in Christ at the end of another Week of Prayer for World Peace without admitting all that would be unhelpful and false.
But this Sunday many of our churches are also remembering the conversion of St Paul. And as he constantly reminds us, this division is nothing new. Indeed the whole reason we have so many of his letters in our New Testament is that the first Christians were such a contagiously quarrelous lot. But then so was Paul. And here he is, ripping them off a strip for their disunity and faction-fighting!
Before we think about the divisions in Corinth we should recall that St Paul remains both the greatest exponent of Christian unity and also the source of huge disagreement among Christians. No-one can possibly deny that the deal he brokered at the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, is probably the most important single moment in the life of the young church. By preventing a division between Jewish and Gentile believers through a very creative compromise that allowed the Gentiles to escape the requirement for circumcision while observing some other outwards features of the Jewish Law — a classic Anglican fudge of its time! — Paul prevented a disastrous division which could have blown apart the Christian mission at its earliest phase.
Nevertheless, especially in our times, he is often blamed for dampening the radical flame of the original Jesus movement, for being autocratic and dogmatic. So what is the truth? How are we to read Paul for our own spiritual guidance, and in our common search for a Christian unity which will be both convincing and liberating to our fellow human beings?
There are many ways of understanding Paul, of course. Like us he had strengths and weaknesses, complexities and contradictions. But what enables us to make sense of this enigmatic Apostle is that dramatic event on the Road to Damascus — without which neither Corinth nor Brighton would ever have heard of him.
You remember the story. On a journey to harass and arrest members of the fledgling Christian community in Damascus, Saul (as he was then) was struck by a blinding light, and by the voice of Christ confronting him with the consequences of his own zeal. “I am Jesus, whom you persecute.” (Acts 9.5) This extraordinary vision changed the course of Paul’s life for good. The man who had used religion to torment others suddenly discovered that without love, belief is nothing (I Corinthians 13). After being turned around on that road, Paul had to begin the task of re-reading his history and tradition.
He realised, for example, that God willed unity among people, not division. Paul could simply have become a Christian persecuting zealot rather than a Jewish one. But he did not (Galatians 1.23). Realising that his previous understanding of God as the upholder of a particular ‘in group’ was inadequate, he sought to create bonds of peace where there had once been enmity. He went on to describe Christ as one who breaks down the walls of hatred between different communities (Ephesians 2.14). And he wrote that in Christ we are all one: there is no longer any division between Jew and Greek, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3.28). The old order of domination is gone.
It is hard to overstate what a sea-change this was. Paul the religious legalist proclaiming grace. Paul the Jew announcing God’s love for those dismissed as unclean or unworthy. Paul the Roman citizen throwing in his lot with a despised community who, as he himself pointed out, included few of the wise, wealthy or worthy (I Corinthians 1. 26).
But we would oversimplify if we made that the end of the story. Because, like us, Paul was also a person of his time, upbringing and culture. On occasions he found it very hard to live up to the implications of the faith that had gripped him. The instincts of his original religious training were conservative, and his task of organising and propagating the church made him naturally pragmatic.
The struggles between Paul’s new faith and his inheritance can be seen everywhere. For instance, as we read in Romans and elsewhere, his co-workers included women like Priscilla (a missionary), Chloe, Euodia, Tryphena and Tryphosa (deacons) and even Junia, or Julia, (an apostle). To have women in positions of religious leadership was exceptional both by the standards of Judaism and Graeco-Roman society, and it reflected something very special about the Christian community as a sign of an entirely new creation in Christ.
Yet elsewhere, as in his first letter to Timothy, Paul fell back into the tradition of advocating silence and submission for women. Similarly, the Paul who defied conventional distinctions between social classes in many situations did not question the basic institution of slavery (Ephesians 6.5).
Of course, it is quite possible for us modern day Christians to pursue Paul’s cultural limitations for our own purposes. In earlier years a former Bishop of London used the Letter to Philemon, among other Scriptures, to defend the slave trade, for example. Today we find that abhorrent. But our contemporary church quarrels — about authority, the role of women, human sexuality and (fundamentally) about how we interpret our Christian inheritance — give us other grounds to lose the central plot of the Gospel if we are not careful.
In Paul’s time all the key church disagreements revolved around two basic issues. Who is eligible for God’s mercy? And where are those “ends of the earth” to which the Gospel, in the words of Acts of the Apostles, must be addressed? Paul’s upbringing told him that the favoured people were his own and that the world ended with them. His transformation by Christ forced him, sometimes through his own judgement and sometimes in spite of it, to begin to recognise that God’s love is in fact beyond limits. Whatever the arguments about the details, the overall message is very clear.
In our second reading Paul challenges his own supporters; and also those following sophisticated Apollos, a man in good-standing with well-educated Jews; and those speaking up for earthy Cephas, who favoured breaking the stranglehold of Judaism on the new Christian movement; and even those following Jesus’ identification with the marginal people. All of these concerns can be united in Christ, he says. But only on the basis of the cross, which puts God’s suffering love for all people at the centre.
What Paul (and we) are being drawn to is an understanding that unity cannot result from factions in the church when they are reduced to power struggles based on arguments about authorities and traditions. Unity can only come from concentrating all our attention on the unlimited love of God breaking down walls of hatred. That, for Paul, is what the crucifixion is all about — the cost of being caught in the crossfire.
When, in today’s Gospel, Jesus goes to the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali and calls on ordinary workers to “fish for people” ( that curious phrase in Matthew 4.19) he is recalling Isaiah’s great vision (8.23 ff) of the restoration of two dispossessed tribes. Out of the least likely material the possibility of a new community is promised. And the signs of that new community (the kin-dom of God) lie in overcoming what Jesus calls “the sickness of the people” — both their physical torments and their past divisions and humiliations.
It was to this barrier-breaking love of Christ that Paul was converted. Yet throughout his life he continued to be torn between the Gospel of equality which had overwhelmed him on the Damascus Road, and the more exclusive customs of his own age and culture.
What does all this mean for our churches today? Well, that is something we have to work an talk out together. There are no short cuts. But we must all surely recognise that we cannot go on in our present fractured and fractious ways and still expect our message of a new creation in Christ to be taken with any seriousness in the world at large. So, as we end this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let us commit ourselves to thinking about how our own limitations (as well as our gifts) here at the Annunciation can be offered to the greater glory of God. And perhaps in doing this we will be comforted by St Paul’s struggles, just as we are encouraged towards that new kind of oneness through Christ which did not leave him (and will not leave us) unchanged.