Today is the Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. This evening the Christians of All Saints will be hosting a service of choral evensong for Christians from across the town from the Roman Catholic church, from the Society of Friends, from the United Reformed Church from the Methodist church from the Salvation army from the Union Baptist church and beyond.
This week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18th-25th January and these dates were chosen in 1908 as covering the period between the feasts of St Peter and St Paul. In today’s reading we heard a good reason why these two dates might have been chosen. Peter and Paul were the two great leaders of the very early Christian church and yet their leadership and vision led to division.
In my sermon today I would also like to lead you from St Peter to St Paul
In the Gospel we see the clarity and seeming ease of the call of Christ. Jesus says to Peter, his brother and his friends
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."
Jesus called these men as individuals but also to be a group, the first church; the disciples. Yet from the time of St Peter’s first calling we move to the time of Paul an s soon the churches found space for division
This great reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth shows that even in the early days of the church, Christians didn’t agree on absolutely everything. Paul speaks very plainly:
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.
And he goes on to chastise those who profess to follow, not Christ but himself or Peter.
Although we know these words of Paul hold a great truth; the need for our faith to be centred not on individual leaders and ideas but on Christ, yet throughout history, many Christians have discovered that they were separated, often without even knowing why.
In 1086 When this great building was founded by Wulfstan who we celebrated earlier this week, there was only one CHURCH in England – yet there were divisions hundreds of years before then about when we should celebrate Easter. Now in High Wycombe alone there are many different Christian churches.
Age-old divisions, but also recent ones, have undermined the communion between them. Christians all pray to the same God of love; how can it be that they sometimes use so much energy in opposing one another?
Today the separations between Christians, the age-old ones and the brand-new ones, make it more urgent than ever to look for solutions. It is no longer possible to keep putting off until later communion among Christians.
In my work with other youth workers in the town and the diocese we are often rather aware of our differences when discussing possible events or services. It is not only with youth workers from other denominations that this is necessary but also with those from the Anglican church who have a different tradition, theology or style of worship, even a different hymn book. The recent Windsor report which responded to the divisions resulting from disagreements over the appointment of homosexual priests to senior positions in the church shows how much we need to work on unity even within our own Anglican communion.
If we get caught into discussing how we are different and using the “elegant wisdom” which Paul rejects, we would never do anything. This is why we have a week of prayer for Christian unity not a celebration of thanksgiving for it but seeking it for without unity we are not the church Jesus calls us to be. So we need to find common ground.
The answer to this question of overcoming division comes somewhat paradoxically in the unique and individual nature of each of our callings. In our gospel we heard how Jesus called the disciples. So too now Jesus calls each one of us. He does not call Anglicans, or Methodists or Roman catholic, he calls Kate or Bill or Peter or Alison.
You might think this leads to even greater division but in seeking our own personal connection with Christ we find that common ground we are seeking. This is not a question of finding the lowest common denominator of our belief or of compromising what we believe to fit with others. No the common ground is not difficult to find. That common ground is at the foot of the cross. The common ground is where Christ is at the centre.
Christ calls each one of us to follow him and it is in following him that we find unity. It is not by seeking to be all alike and in agreement that we find unity but in the fact that we set Christ before us in spite of our differences.
And what does it mean to follow him together in that unity? To be Christ-centred on that common ground?
Well one of my favourite passages from Paul’s writing is from his letter to the Philippians. He asks us to shine as lights in the world
That light is the love of God through Jesus and to follow Jesus we commit to shining that light. Now we can all shine on our own and in part we are called to do so; to be Christ in our homes, our schools, our places of work, our communities. This raises the age-old argument that a person can be a Christian without coming to church. Yes, in part they can. Yet if a Christian IS a member of a church, that light is not just a point of light but it becomes what Jesus calls a “great light” and a great light can have a great impact.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
For many people today, life is one in darkness, of anguish, sorrow and struggling, of stress and dissatisfaction.
Through Christian unity, with this great light, Christians can make an amazing impact on the world. In shining light on the issue of world poverty, in shining a light in places of war and disaster. In shining a light on High Wycombe
The answer seems so simple and yet bringing this to action sounds rather more difficult. I don’t say it isn’t.
Seeking reconciliation and peace involves an inner struggle. It does not mean taking the easy way out. Nothing lasting is built when things are too easy. The spirit of communion is not gullible. It causes the heart to become more encompassing; it is profound goodness; it does not listen to suspicions.
To be bringers of unity, of this great light will each of us walk forward in our lives along the road of trust and a kind-heartedness which is always renewed?
On this road there will sometimes be failures. Then we need to remember that the source of peace and unity is in God. Far from becoming discouraged, we shall call his Holy Spirit upon our frailties.
And, throughout our lives, the Holy Spirit will enable us to set out over and over again and to go, from one beginning to another, towards a future of unity.