A naïve idealism can be allowed to disguise the occasional chaos that was the Early Church – and notions about everything being sweetness and light need to be challenged. Yet the beautiful thing that is true unity in Christ is both to be sought and celebrated.
“ …that they may be one, as you and I are one.“
Sermon: One Church?
From the earliest days
there was conflict:
Anyone who thinks that the Early Church
was one big, happy, band of pilgrims,
hasn’t read their New Testament!
From the beginning
there were issues:
and actual schisms.
Was the Church exclusive to Jews -
or open to Gentiles?
Was it a sect of Judaism,
or a world religion, with universal appeal?
What should the attitude of the church be to the government of the day…
compliance – or defiance?
Was the ancient holy Law of Moses now defunct and discredited,
and should the new liberty of the gospel
spell an end to restraint?
Plenty of issues to get your teeth into:
plenty to argue about, and fight over.
Add in a few tasty heresies, filtering in from
Paganism and Gnosticism,
and you soon see the myth of
The “tidy harmonious first century church
bending to prayer and good works,
in a happy agreement of minds.”
Throw in the experience of the church at Corinth
as a case study in first century Christianity,
and you have theological anarchy,
mingling with moral delinquency,
rubbing shoulders with ecclesiastical chaos.
Church disunity is nothing new.
The old divisions don’t disappear
They simply reinvent themselves under a new name.
So, there is nothing in our multicoloured tapestry of church life
in the year 2000 – that is new or startling.
It seems that there has always been
A broad spectrum of options.
While there might have been a glorious instant
a sunburst of unity, lasting about five minutes,
in the life of the church,
as soon as people starting getting involved -
like more than four at any one time -
the trouble began!
The reality of “diversity” entered the equation.
And, the long and sometimes glorious - often disappointing –
story of the church reveals that it was only when
· Christ was at the heart of everything
· When the Holy Spirit was loose in the church
· When that spirit of humility and tolerance was allowed to hold sway
that Christian people were enabled to learn to appreciate the insights each brought –
able to stop making their own finger- in -the -chest point,
ong enough to discover that the other person had a point too.
Dr. Keith Russell, our missionary partner, reminded us of that, a couple of weeks ago –
when he spoke to us about our future relationship with the Coptic church in Cairo – where he will be working and serving.
A church very different in style and culture -
that we in our arrogance might be thinking
“We are sending missionaries to support” –
but who, in fact, could teach us a thing or two about being the church - having survived crisis upon crisis for nearly 2000 years.
Their style, their presentation, their emphasis may be very different from ours – but once we transcend the cultural differences - each can enrich the other with their special insights.
We have that to look forward to.
The tendency for the church to “come apart at the seams”-
a tendency born out of the human desire to
want to be right all the time –
has been aggravated by the passage of time and the crisis points of history.
The church has been around a long time –
the surprise is not that it is divided-
but that it has survived the upheavals of history in such robust good health.
When Christianity has been mixed up with and confused with nationalism
the thirst for power
pettiness of mind,
then the wedge has been driven in more forcefully,
and the church has shuddered, creaked, and been riven asunder by the division brought about by these corrupting elements in human relationships.
Labels have been applied that isolate, segregate,
and generate suspicion.
Denominations become locked into their image of self-importance and their arrogant certainties - and ancient memories harden into insularity…the liberty of the spirit is imprisoned, and the church becomes loveless.
There is a high price paid for all this certainty.
An economic cost
as pride built large unnecessary church buildings, cheek by jowl with existing large church buildings – just to make a point.
So bigger and emptier churches robbed the people of God of the sense of their togetherness, and stood like an open sore – a rebuke to notions of fellowship and sharing.
The image of the church was tarnished, as eager unbelievers pointed to the uncharitable nature of the divisions
that mocked the Spirit of Christ.
And, all the while, the church cannibalised its energies
with its squabbles, and its attempts to build stout bulwarks
against other denominations –
And, as so easily happens, the focus shifted from reaching out -–to preserving, conserving, defending,
our patch, our view, our identity.
And the world waited for the church to do what it was put into the world to do – to win that world for God.
All is not lost.
Since the war, after centuries of aggravating and enhancing divisions in the name of some spurious notion of truth – truth which we possessed, but the others didn’t quite… the church came to its senses, and began to think differently.
Initially working together to deal with the terrible aftermath of war – the displaced people – the needs of refugees,
the church discovered that when we do the work of caring in the name of Christ, we are together, in a new and creative way.
The realisation dawned that parading our divisions before an already cynical world – was a pretty poor witness to the gospel – and we needed to look again at what was supposed to be keeping us apart – and see if we might not find what things would bring us together – and make our witness to the world sharper and more believable.
All this gathering around a fresh focus on the call of Christ, in the gospel of John, that his people should be one as he and his Father were one – so that all the world could see that we are his disciples.
And so the ecumenical urge grew more pressing and definite, and the commitment of the divided church to finding its common purpose and life grew stronger.
There was a price to pay for this, too.
Such a movement towards each other – or rather towards the centre - meant, required, “give and take.”
A willingness to let go - an openness to the staggering possibility that none of us actually had it all quite right – and that there were things to borrow, and things to lend.
It meant admitting the shocking truth that not everyone in heaven will be Presbyterians, singing from CH3 – nor, indeed, would all in heaven be chirpy charismatics, clapping in time to a Mission Praise medley.
All of which, I have to say - is very good news!
The challenge to the denominations has been
to find the common ground and celebrate it:
to allow diversity and celebrate it:
to be flexible not rigid.
And perhaps, above all,
to be prepared to learn from other traditions and ways of being the Church.
That means refusing to nit-pick-
But instead, to concentrate on what really matters,
what is of the essence – rather than insisting on going to the stake – or dragging others to the stake - for what is merely tangential and peripheral.
It requires the insight and humility to admit to the accidental nature of much that we hold precious.
That means for example, acknowledging the glory of the Reformation, and what it rescued from a corrupting and misleading way of being the Church – but appreciating that the Roman Catholic Church of now, is a very different thing from the Roman Catholic Church of 1516!
So that, for example - the Westminster Confession of Faith,
which addressed a particular situation, many centuries ago –
may not be so very helpful now: in a very different religious context and atmosphere.
We live in interesting times.
Next week at the General Assembly there will be prolonged and passionate debate about the Scottish Churches Initiative for Unity SCIFU– which proposes church union between the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church and the Church of Scotland by the year 2010.
Representatives of all the churches will be asked to vote on that in due course – and there will be those who hesitate, those who refuse it, and those who welcome it with joy.
It’s the people thing that is unavoidable!
Many will see it as tiny but significant move in the right direction – others will resist it – for it will inevitably involve letting go of some things, taking on other things. The hope is that, whatever structural union takes place- it will still allow diversity and richness – and be carried through in a generous spirit that recognises the folly of allowing the church to be trapped in an irrelevant loyalty to a long dead past.
· In the name of mission
· For the purpose of effective church witness
· In obedience to the call of Christ
we are required to dismantle the barriers that our troubled history has built:
and to reach across in true Christian love:
to offer each other the peace of Christ.
If that means loosening things up a little -
then loose is good.
We’ve tried rigid and unbending and proud.
We tried: “We are the people”
- and it hasn’t worked.
It’s time to give “loose” a chance.
It was my delight and privilege to share in a communion service at St. Anne’s Church during Holy Week
There was something quite precious and lovely
And right about that.
Dunbar Churches Together had a glorious celebrations together at Belhaven on the first Sunday of the New Year.
There was something fine, and lovely, and precious about that.
I’ve noticed a trend in all of that:
that those who want to walk closest to Christ
that those who are walking closest to the heart of Christ,
have no anxieties about these closer connections!
They are more than happy to celebrate the oneness of Christ’s people.
Perhaps there is a signpost there
for us to follow?