What does unity mean? – Psalm 40:1-12, Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (15th January, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany)

It starts so positively!  I can imagine the excitement at Corinth when the letter from Paul arrives.  The people assemble.  The letter is opened.  Someone starts to read out loud.  Greetings from Paul and Sosthenes.  And then a whole list praising the church for what is good there.  They have been given the grace of God.  They have been enriched in every way.  They are not lacking in any spiritual gift including gifts of speech and knowledge.  They are waiting for Christ to come again.

God will strengthen them to the end and be faithful to them.

And there our reading ends.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that all was going really well at this church.  But if we had continued, we’d have immediately realised this was not the case at all.  From the very next verse onwards and for most of the rest of the letter – all 16 chapters of it – Paul is addressing a very difficult situation that is threatening to split the church.  Yes they have these spiritual gifts, but they are elevating some of these gifts over others.  In particular, a superiority complex is developing among those who have the gift of speaking in tongues.  The people of this church are not behaving towards each other as Christians should.  And the resulting divisions will get in the way of their witness to Christ in the world.  They are not practising unity.

Unity.  This coming Wednesday sees the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  A week when we’re encouraged to pray for all Christians to work together as one body.  We can pray for the worldwide church.  We can pray for neighbouring churches of different traditions, such as the Methodists, Roman Catholics or Baptists.  We can pray for the very different traditions within the Church of England itself.  And of course we can pray for unity within our own church community here.

What does unity mean?  Well it doesn’t mean that everyone has to think in the same way, to worship in the same way, to express their faith in the same way.  That would get rather boring!  People are different from each other.  Differences are good.  Variety is the spice of life and all that.

No, what unity means here is being able to work with difference and even conflict when you passionately disagree.

And the best relationships result when people are good at negotiating difference.

But to negotiate difference, you need to try to see where the other person or party is coming from.  You need to try to be able to see an issue from their point of view.  And sometimes this means stepping out of our comfort zone.

I heard a radio programme recently that was discussing how people choose to get the news.  These days more people are getting it on the internet than from the TV or radio or newspapers.  The problem with this is that the internet quickly learns what sorts of things you’re interested in, what your political and religious bias is and offers you more of the same.  You can end up never learning the point of view of others whose views are vastly different.  The same is also true if we only read one particular newspaper.  So the programme’s contributors recommended things like regularly reading a politically different paper or looking at websites reflecting an alternative viewpoint.  Uncomfortable perhaps, but it helps to see things as someone with the opposite view to yours might see them.

Because you need to be able to see the other person’s point of view if you are to get them to hear yours.

This programme pointed out that certain issues tend to get associated with particular party politics.  Concern about Climate change is an issue that is associated with the Democrats in the US.  So when a Republican went to a conference about Climate change and was horrified about the damage being done to the planet, he hit a problem.  He tried to raise the issue with his fellow Republicans and was accused of betraying the side.  They thought he’d gone soft and become a lefty liberal.

However, this man was able to draw on something he did still have in common with his fellow Republicans.  He was an evangelical Christian.  So he was able to refer to the beginning of Genesis, to remind his colleagues that it was God’s creation.  Humankind was given the task by God to be stewards of creation.  Climate change was resulting from humanity’s misuse of its God-given role.

Because he understood where many of his Republican friends were coming from, and the way they expresssed themselves through their faith, this man was able to get through to some of them.

This week there was an article in the paper about marriage.  It noted that January is the busiest month for the divorce lawyers and offered some reasons for why relationships go wrong and what you might do to help a relationship succeed.  It reminded readers that we have this rosy idea of love.  We look for the perfect partner and then expect them to fulfil our every need.  And then we discover that the more you’re with someone, the more you realise you have less in common with them than you think.  Disappointment sets in and we can end up being our worst selves with the people we’re closest to.

The article suggests that in a successful relationship one should be more ready to love than be loved – like a parent loves a child unconditionally even when they’ve been up all night, driven to distraction all day and sometimes would gladly throttle the child.

Unconditional love.  Love when you don’t feel like loving.  This is what Paul talks about several chapters later, after he has gone on at length about the tensions which are tearing the Corinthian church apart.  The famous passage on Love from Chapter 15 which we often have at weddings.  Love that is not restricted to romantic relationships, and in the Corinthian context wasn’t intended so.

Working together when you don’t agree is hard.  Loving each other unconditionally when you have fallen out is hard.  Sometimes it’s tempting to give up on a relationship, leave a church, go it alone.

But that’s not what God wants us to do.  God has called us into fellowship.  Fellowship with his son, Jesus and fellowship with each other.  Paul reminds the Corinthian church of this at the end of the passage we heard this evening.  God has given us the gifts we need to live and work together, just as he had given the Corinthians the gifts they needed.  God has given us the gifts we need as individuals and together as a church to share the gospel with others.

God is the focus, the driving force behind our faith and the way we live as Christians, not only with our Christian brothers and sisters, but with our families and friends, our colleagues and neighbours, many of whom won’t share our faith.  It is God who calls us into Unity.  So in this coming Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let us pray for Christian Unity in the widest possible understanding.

Reader Catherine Burchell


Readings for the sermon and links:

Psalm 40:1-12  Isaiah 49:1-7  1 Corinthians 1:1-9