Sermon   for   3rd   Sunday   after   Epiphany,   Year   A

"Unity in Christ" A sermon by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, based on I Cor. 1:10 ______________________________________________________________________

In our second lesson today, the apostle Paul addresses an issue which is very near and dear to my heart--namely, CHRISTIAN UNITY. For Paul, and for Jesus himself, CHRISTIAN UNITY IS NO SMALL, SIDE-ISSUE--IT IS OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE. That's why Paul, with Christ's authority to back him up, speaks to the Corinthian Christians in the form of an urgent exhortation.

As an apostle, he is giving the Corinthians strong advice and recommendations. He is urging them to act upon the preaching and teaching that he had already given them. In a very serious manner, Paul says: "Now I appeal (I exhort, I beseech) 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 (be knit together, be completely united, be perfectly united) in the SAME MIND and the SAME PURPOSE (your belief and practice)."

If Paul were alive today, I'm sure he'd hear his share of comments like the following: "I belong to Luther," or "I belong to Calvin," or "I belong to Pope John Paul," or "I belong to Billy Graham," or "I belong to Eastern Orthodoxy." If Paul were alive today, he wouldn't have to ask the question he put to the Corinthians, "Has Christ been divided?" He would see for himself, without having to look very far! that Christ, indeed, HAS BEEN AND STILL IS DIVIDED! Unfortunately, tragically, Christians today are divided by the same problems which divided the Corinthian church. The Corinthians were divided because they had turned Paul, Apollos, Peter into a personality cult. Personality cults, then and now, always divide people into "us" and "them;" "we" and "they." We are always right, they are always wrong; we are superior, they are inferior. Personality cults lead people to worship a particular person rather than worshipping Christ. Personality cults cause people to worship the creature rather than the Creator. People who join this or that congregation or denomination because they like the leader or pastor, are joining the church for the wrong reasons. Those who leave this or that congregation or denomination because their pastor or leader has left also leave their church for the wrong reasons. We come to church to worship Christ--he is the One who heals our divisions and unites us as on Body of Christ.

As Professor John Ferguson so aptly put it: "We stand as Christ to the world. To us is entrusted the work of Christ. And, however precious our several traditions, as long as we are we are divided from one another we are not the body of Christ, for Christ is not divided."

"How can we proclaim reconciliation to others when we are not ourselves reconciled? How can we call the world to unity while we remain disunited?"

This is a scandal to the world. I remember, many years ago, how scandalized my atheist uncle was when he asked painfully: "How can people in places like Ireland call themselves Christians when Catholics hate and kill Protestants and Protestants hate and kill Catholics?" As Christians, our divisions hinder our witness and scandalize many non-Christians. Our divisions undermine the Gospel and the Person of Jesus Christ.

What, then, are we able to do about our divisions as Christians? There are a number of things actually. According to Professor Ferguson, we can engage ourselves in the following: "First, we can pray. This is the beginning of the week of prayer for Christian unity. Let it be YOUR week of prayer for Christian unity. Remember the churches of your community and around the world. Ask God how you can foster their life and work. Think of Christians belonging to different branches of the church from your own. Ask God how you can grow together with them in Christ. Pray with all your hearts the prayer of Christ, that we may be one. Remember that more things are worked out by prayer than are dreamed of in some philosophies or theologies. This is a service we can all offer, even the oldest of us, even the youngest of us."

Another thing we can do is learn from each other through dialogue and service. No one Christian, no single denomination or congregation within a denomination has the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth! Every Christian, every single denomination, every congregation has their strengths AND their weaknesses; their truths AND their prejudices! In dialogue, other Christians are able to grow in their appreciation for the Lutheran emphasis on God's freeing, loving, saving grace. On the other hand, we as Lutherans are able to grow in our appreciation of say, the Quaker emphasis on silence in worship to LISTEN to the Holy Spirit speaking; or the sense of mystery in the Eastern Orthodox liturgies; or the ministry of the Salvation Army to street people; or the biblical scholarship of the Roman Catholic Jesuits. In dialogue, we are able to discover one another and accept one another as equals without having to "convert" one another to "our way." In Christ, we are equals, yet different--that's what makes us the Body of Christ. Our differences are indeed TREASURES AND GIFTS TO OFFER EACH OTHER AND THE WORLD.

Dialogue can help us to celebrate and share our differences with RESPECT AND LOVE. Dialogue often helps us to grow and mature in our own faith because it makes us think more deeply and practice more profoundly who and what we are. Well-known ecumenist, Lesslie Newbigin, said that dialogue is really TRIALOGUE-because GOD IS ALWAYS A PARTNER WITH US. Dialogue is also important because when different Christians become comfortable with one another; when their dividing walls of arrogance, rivalry and pride are eliminated--Christians often discover ways of working together in service.

Several years ago now, the World Council of Churches developed the slogan: "Doctrines divide, but service unites." Although doctrines have their appropriate place and purpose in the life of the church; it seems next-to-impossible to reach a consensus on certain doctrines. That's why many Christians have discovered that service unites. Christians of many different denominations have often joined together to form coalitions and service organizations. In Canada, one example is our Ten Days for World Development (now Ten Day for Global Justice) program. Our Evangelical Lutheran Church In Canada and several other Canadian churches participate in this program every year--usually in February--to educate Christians on matters of the Two-Third's World and social justice. It is a program which tries to serve the world's poorest peoples. Service often has united Christians because in meeting the needs of the poor, they see, hear and discover Jesus himself.

During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, may we join together with Christians around the world and pray prayers like the following: Gracious God, we pray for your Church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son our Saviour. Amen.

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Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson