A sermon delivered on 26 January
to mark the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2020
by Dame Mary Tanner.”
Epiphany 3 2020 Isaiah 9. 1-4; 1 Corinthians 1. 10 – 18; Matthew 4. 12-23
Let’s focus on our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where Paul confronts a divided and contentious church. The Gospel is being distorted by factions: some claiming, ‘I belong to Paul’; others, ‘I am of Apollos’; others, ‘I belong to Cephas’. Christians in Corinth are being fiercely loyal to whichever missionary brought the Gospel to their group, misunderstanding what the Gospel is really about. Paul asks them sharply – ‘Whose death brought you salvation? In whose name did you accept baptism that leads to new life?’ Paul is shocked and I guess hugely saddened, even angry, that his preaching in Corinth has led to division, to such misunderstanding of what the Gospel is really about. He pleads with the Corinthians to ‘be united with the same mind and the same purpose’.
How appropriate that we read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, just as we are finishing the 112th Annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity , praying for unity together with Christians around the world from many denominations . Paul is quite clear that the divisions in Corinth distorted witness to the message of the Gospel and gave a contradictory sign to what is required of Christians, ‘to be united with the same mind and the same purpose’, to live in unity.
As an ecumenist I’m often asked – ‘What do you mean by unity?’ Or with some frustration, ‘Do we really still need a Week of Prayer for Christian unity?’ Other friends ask me wearily, ‘Haven’t we come far enough in the ecumenical movement? ‘. Indeed, we have come a long way since my childhood growing up in a family half Roman Catholic half Methodist and sensing but not understanding the suspicion one side had of the other’s religious affiliation. We have come out of our denominational isolations; we have begun to understand those things that were the cause of our divisions. We say that we are not looking for uniformity but unity with rich diversity, though that’s often just an excuse for staying as we are. We do sometimes act together – serving in the food bank in Stamford and the many food banks in towns across our country. Pope Francis and our Archbishop are planning a joint visit to South Sudan this year. Isn’t this enough? What more are we praying for?
I can only turn to Jesus for an answer, to that amazing chapter in St John’s Gospel which inspired the first Week of Prayer, John 17. Jesus prayed the night before his death, for his disciples then, and for his disciples after them, that’s Jesus praying for us. In his prayer Jesus gives us three clues to what our unity ought to be like.
First, Jesus prays that we might all be one as he and the Father are one. We glimpse something of what that means as we enter the prayer of Jesus on the night before the crucifixion, when fearing what lies ahead of him; he prays that he will do not what he wills but what the Father wills. Our unity is to be joined with one another, striving for that same conformity of minds, wills and desires that Jesus shared with his Father, not like the Corinthians with their factions , with’ no common mind’, no ‘common purpose’.
And Jesus gives us a second clue about unity. He prayed not only that his disciples might be one as he and the Father are one, but more mysteriously – ‘May they be one in us’. Our unity is a gift God holds out to us if only we will receive it, the gift of being drawn into the life and love that flows between Jesus and his Father and live together within God’s life of love. In our baptism we believe that we die with Christ in the waters of baptism and are raised to new life in him, new life with the Father and with all the baptised. Our unity is given in our baptism and our shared baptismal faith, the faith those fishermen in our Gospel were called to preach. United with God and with each other in our baptism our unity is nurtured as we share together this morning, eating the same bread, drinking from the same cup. Sadly, however far we have come in the ecumenical movement these last 100 years the scandal of disunity remains. We do not eat and drink with all the baptised around the one table, not even with some of our Anglican brothers and sisters, not with Roman Catholics, not with Orthodox Christians. How can we think we have come far enough in the ecumenical movement?
And, Jesus gives us a third clue about our unity. He prays – ‘May they be one, so that the world may believe’. Our life together is to show to the world that it is possible to live together, even when we are challenged by new and hard theological, moral, ethical issues. Of course there will be differences of opinion as we struggle with new issues. We Anglicans know how issues in the area of human sexuality threaten to divide us now. But as Justin our Archbishop tells us, we are called to listen to each other, to see things through their eyes, to stand in their shoes, to disagree well, as we search together for that ‘common mind’ of which Paul speaks to the Corinthians, however long it takes. And we are called to express our faith in action together, supporting the increasing number of Christians who are persecuted, caring for the poor, the homeless that sleep on our streets or beg outside the railway station in Peterborough, the migrants seeking refuge. Christians are called together in their life and in their service to be a sign to the world that there really is a better way of living together, not only for Christians but for the whole of humanity.
I’m glad that as we end this 112th Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we are reminded by Paul’s message to the Corinthians that divisions obscure the Gospel message we are called to proclaim. Let’s go on praying with Jesus, not just for one week of the year, but throughout the year – ‘May we be one, so that the world might believe’.