— Seventh Sunday after Epiphany —
Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the 1st Century Christian community in Corinth, is part of Paul’s continuing encouragement for Christian unity focused on Christ’s example and ministry. Paul is clear that, as Christians, the Corinthian community belongs to Christ and not to any other leader—including Paul himself. Following Jesus’ Way means recognizing and giving thanks to God in worship, prayer and practical action just as Jesus had done.
I like to think that in the early development of the Christian Church there was a strong sense of unity and purpose. After all, this is a time that was long before the schism that led to a division of the Western Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church and a very long time before the Protestant Reformation and the resultant multitude of Protestant denominations. But, Paul reminds us that even in the late 1st Century in Corinth, rifts and divisions have already begun to emerge that are cause for concern.
Corinth, was then a cosmopolitan city that had one of the most diverse populations in Greece. It was a major centre of commerce and trade that attracted people from all over the Roman Empire. Christianity emerged within this intermingling of cultures, customs and religious backgrounds and experience. I imagine that the Christian community in Corinth was vibrant and attractive in its energy and enthusiasm for its new-found faith. If the community was growing rapidly, as I believe it was, it is not surprising that they had some difficulty keeping up with how to organize themselves. There would be a variety of ideas about what aspects of Jesus’ ministry they would focus on and emulate. Could they do it all—and how would they go about doing it?
Some scholars think that the Christian community in Corinth had already “splintered into at least four different groups centered on different leaders. Each group asserted its status as the true and correct representation of the church of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Christian community in Corinth desperately needed to reflect on what it meant to be ‘the church’.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, pg.376, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)
Paul consistently contends that Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church and that the community of believers, wherever they may gather, are God’s temple. The biblical commentary, Feasting on the Word, says that,
“To suggest that God dwells among the gathered community was radical in first-century Corinth, because previously God was understood to dwell in the temple in Jerusalem. …Yes, God dwells in the temple, but the temple is not a building, it is a community. Community is what we are called to build, knowing that the Holy Spirit dwells in the people of God.” (Ibid, page 378)
This week, as I’ve been reading about Paul and the early Christian church in the 1st century, I’ve also been thinking about the challenges and blessings of the Christian Church in the 21st century. Our denomination, The United Church of Canada, is an amalgamation of three founding denominations—Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian. The act of union itself took years of collaboration, compromise and a determination to create a partnership that would be a strong and vibrant expression of Christian community for present and future generations. Like any human construct, we are a flawed organization that strives to be faithful in our evolving understanding of what it means to be the church in our time and place. A current United Church document states:
“Members of the United Church share a common belief that God’s will for the church is continually being revealed, and that the church must therefore be ‘always reformed’.” (The Manual 2013, Intro. pg. 2, The United Church of Canada)
It is important to remember the struggles and challenges of the past—to look back and see how far we’ve come in order to look forward and discern God’s guidance for us today. Like our ancestors in faith, we are called to open our hearts and minds to possibilities whose outcomes we cannot imagine. God is constantly surprising us with new ways of responding to the changes and opportunities that are present to us as individuals and as a community of faith. Being willing to risk, to let go of conventional expectations and trust God to lead us into the future takes a courageous and daring faith.
Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing our United Church Moderator, Gary Paterson speak. Gary shared a storybook with hundreds of people gathered at the Epiphany Explorations symposium in Victoria this past January. The story was about Scaredy Squirrel who wouldn’t venture from the safety and security of his home in a tree because of all sorts of imagined dangers. Scaredy stuck to what was known and familiar and only ventured out when absolutely necessary for needed supplies. He had an elaborate array of safety devices for these infrequent journeys. All went well, in his isolated existence, until one day when he realized he’d jumped out of the tree – without his parachute and safety line and other survival gear—only to find that, much to his surprise, he was a flying squirrel. After that, he made flying leaps—leaps of faith—regularly into a new and exciting world of discovery. And, I’m sure you can guess that Gary made some connections with the story and some of the challenges facing the United Church of Canada now and in the future.
The United Church, as some will realize, has just completed a Comprehensive Review of United Church structures and governance. More than 600 congregations across Canada participated in facilitated conversations with the Comprehensive Review Task Group between April 2013 and January 2014. This information is currently being reviewed and will form the basis for recommendations for the 42nd General Council in 2015.
Our own Kimberley United Church Council knows that it is important to review how we go about the business of being the church in our community. Ways of organizing ourselves that have been effective in the past need to be reviewed to see if helpful changes may be implemented. We know, in our hearts, that we are an evolving church but it is sometimes scary to venture into unknown territory.
Thinking about venturing into unknown territory reminded me that one of the most exciting, and hopeful, experiences that I have had recently happened this past week when I attended a gathering of representatives from various churches in Kimberley. We met at the Roman Catholic church and had representatives from the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican and Baptist churches—with regrets from the Presbyterians who are keen but couldn’t attend that particular meeting. The purpose for getting together was to share ideas and test the commitment to work more closely together as a Christian community in Kimberley. We made a commitment to share information about activities and services in our individual churches with an open invitation for anyone to attend. We talked about being supportive and working together on projects that benefit the wider community. All the denominations represented face similar challenges and know that we can be more effective if we, as much as possible, not to duplicate programs and functions. We affirmed that our commonalities are greater than our differences and that with enough commitment and goodwill obstacles can easily be overcome. We talked about what was possible, beginning with small things, which have the potential to foster closer relationships with time and patience. I can hardly imagine where this may lead but I know that I have already learned from—and been enriched by—this initial association with brothers and sisters in Christ from other denominations.
As we gather today as Kimberley United Church, at our Annual General Meeting, we will review the past year and celebrate our accomplishments together. We will also look forward, with eyes wide open, to current and future challenges. My hope, and prayer, is that we will take Paul’s words of encouragement to heart as we listen to each other with ears tuned with faith, hope and love. Let us work together and choose with care how to build on the foundation of Christ’s ministry not just for ourselves but for future generations.
With this in mind I’ll close with an excerpt from A Song of Faith:
We sing of a church
seeking to continue the story of Jesus
by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.
We are called together by Christ
as a community of broken but hopeful believers,
loving what he loved,
living what he taught,
striving to be faithful servants of God
in our time and place.
A Song of Faith: A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada, 2007
Thanks be to God for the challenges and blessings, of our ministry together, now and in the future