Sermon for Holy Communion on the Third Day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 20th January 2013
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 – ‘There are varieties of services, but the same Lord’ : Christians in a Plain Brown Wrapper

On Thursday we had the launch event for our Alpha Course (http://www.standrewscobham.org.uk/ see under ‘Alpha’). I can’t tell you very much about it, although I’m sure that it was a very good start. The reason is that the usual suspects in the church, like me, were not supposed to go. You might think that was rather odd, given that, as convinced Christians, we should have been very keen to spread the good news of Christ and to help to make other people into good Christians too.

I think that one reason why we usual suspects were supposed to stay away from Alpha is because of all the baggage, all the complications, that we might bring about our worship and about the way we follow Christ. We don’t want to confuse people.

You see for instance, I am an Anglican: but until 1996 I was a Methodist. Both my grandfathers and one great-grandfather were Methodist ministers. In the congregation here at St Andrew’s, I know that there are people who started out as Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Pioneer People. There are lots and lots of different types of Christians. All worshipping God and proclaiming the good news of Christ in different ways. And in different churches.

We’re in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which Churches Together in Britain and Ireland organises each year, and which is part of a worldwide movement for Christian unity.

I suspect that most of us are a little bit worried about being insincere about this. I’m quite happy being an Anglican. I know that my friends Rhys and Rhonda down the road are very happy to be Methodists. My friends Craig and Clare are very happy to be Catholics. I don’t think that any of us, when we say our prayers for Christian Unity, actually want our churches to be abolished and for us to go into one great amorphous mass of Christians with a plain brown wrapper, as it were.

But in the case of the Alpha Course, although it is definitely being run by us here at St Andrew’s, an Anglican parish church, nevertheless there is absolutely no pressure on the people who come to ‘explore the meaning of life’, as the publicity puts it, to attend any particular church if they decide to take things further. There’s certainly pressure to attend some church; but it doesn’t have to be St Andrew’s. It could be the Catholics, or the Methodists, or the URCs or Baptists or the Orthodox. The important thing is to become Christian, to join the Body of Christ, which certainly does mean joining a church – but not any particular church.

Why we are Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists or whatever, is an interesting question. I suspect that between us, we could give all sorts of different answers. Probably the most common answer would be that the church we attend is the one that our parents went to, and that we were brought up in, the one that we’re most familiar with.

But that’s not necessarily the only answer. Perhaps the person you married went to a particular church, and you went along too. Perhaps you moved into a new area; you went round and road-tested all the local churches and picked one because you felt most at home there.

Certainly now, here in Cobham, it’s a very friendly world among all the churches, with no sinister undertones between them. But of course, in some parts of the world, and indeed nearer to home in Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, what kind of Christian you are, and specifically whether you are a Protestant or a Catholic, is a question which has caused the most dreadful violence and bloodshed over the years.

Going back to the time of the Reformation, some very sharp divisions appeared. Catholics saw the Pope as the ‘Vicar’ of Christ, the person who stands in place of Christ. ‘Vicar’ comes from the Latin ‘vice’ – the same word as in vice versa: in place of. The Protestants didn’t like the thought that anyone was claiming to stand in for or represent Christ; so they called the Pope the ‘Antichrist’. Diametrically opposed views, additionally complicated in England by the thought that, once upon a time, if you were a Catholic, because of the allegiance which you owed to the Pope, this was in some sense treasonable, because you were acknowledging the authority of someone who is not the King or Queen.

In modern-day Palestine, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there are unseemly squabbles between the priests and monks of the various denominations who are all jointly responsible for keeping up the church and maintaining the holy places.

You can readily imagine how these sort of squabbles can come about. There’s nothing more important in a Christian’s life than their Christian belief. Therefore we can tend to think it’s vitally important that every detail of that belief should be absolutely authentic, absolutely correct. We might well think that somebody else has got some of it wrong, has misunderstood something important. I don’t particularly want to get into specifics, but I think we can all imagine the sort of things that Christians in different denominations might well debate about.

Even within the same church, there is scope for disagreement, for example about the best form of worship. There is a huge variety of worship that you can take part in, just within the Church of England. You can go to a so-called ‘high church’, where the priests and the choir wear the most beautiful vestments and robes: there may be incense, wonderful liturgy, beautiful words; very formal, great ceremony. There will be an emphasis on Holy Communion as being the most important form of worship.

Or you could go to an evangelical church where the minister doesn’t even wear a dog-collar: the choir don’t wear robes: there isn’t an organ – they play guitars and sing ‘worship songs’ instead of hymns. The heart of the service is not Holy Communion necessarily, but the word of God, in the Bible, and then in the explanation of it, the teaching on it, in a sermon.

Some services, again, haven’t changed since the mid-16th century. If you go to our sister church, St Mary’s, for Evensong or Mattins, that’s what you’ll find: a service which hasn’t changed since 1549 (http://tinyurl.com/akmehxw). Or alternatively you could come to our Family Service here at St Andrew’s, and we’ll be using a pattern of worship which our wonderful liturgist, Jan Brind, may have compiled in the last few weeks.

‘There are varieties of services – and there are varieties of spiritual gifts,’ to paraphrase what St Paul says in our lesson today. So how does all that bear on the question of Christian Unity? Do you remember Donald Rumsfeld, and his ‘unknown unknowns’? Well, in the context of Christian Unity, I want to say that there is another rather Rumsfeld-sounding concept – ‘indifferent things’, in theology the Greek word αδιάφορα, [adiaphora] which means things which don’t make much of a difference. The make-no-differences are an old idea in Christianity, and a very useful one. At the time of the Reformation, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the time of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, one of the points of difference between the reformers and the Catholic Church was all about what was happening in the Holy Communion service.

Did the bread and wine somehow, sacramentally, become Jesus’ body and blood? Was there what was called the Real Presence, or transubstantiation of the elements, or was it just bread and wine? The reformers couldn’t agree. They all had slightly different understandings of it. Luther thought that there was transubstantiation, that there was Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine. He didn’t disagree with the Catholics on that point. Calvin and Zwingli did disagree. They thought that the bread and the wine are just symbols, symbols to remind the people taking communion what the sacraments stand for. But they all, Reformers and Catholics, could agree on the basic, core doctrines within Christianity, all the things that we say in the Creed.

A great early theologian of the Church of England, Richard Hooker, used the idea of αδιάφορα, indifferent things, to great effect. The question, whether or not the bread and the wine somehow changes in the Communion service, was one of those things, he said, which actually made no difference – it was an ‘indifferent’ thing, so different sorts of Christians, Protestant, Puritan, Church of England and Catholic, could agree together on more than they disagreed about. This idea of ‘things that don’t matter’ is a very useful concept in the context of Christian Unity. It stops us from having sterile disputes, for example about what’s going on in the communion service, and we certainly don’t regard the Pope as the Antichrist any more. (MacCulloch, D., 2003, Reformation, London, Allen Lane, p.502f)

I want to suggest that whether you are a Catholic, or a Methodist, or an evangelical type, or a straight up-and-down middle-of-the-road Anglican, whatever, your Christianity is perfectly all right. I don’t think we should beat ourselves up over being in different denominations. St Paul said, ‘There are varieties of services – and varieties of service’. In his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, he deals with whether the new Christians should be circumcised, or whether they should observe any other distinctive Jewish customs like keeping the Sabbath, for example. He says, No, it’s not necessary any more.

The good news of Jesus is available to everyone, not just to Jewish people, nor indeed to any other kind of religious denomination in particular. St Paul’s great work was to spread the good news of Jesus Christ beyond the original Jewish Christians to the non-Jewish, so-called Gentiles – which is what we are, after all. All sorts and conditions of people. As St Paul says, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, in the kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28). All these distinctions are unimportant: they are ‘indifferent’, they make no difference.

So when we pray for Christian Unity, let’s pray not to become one great amorphous mass, but rather that we should make room for each other as Christians, to acknowledge that we are all one in Christ, we all believe in the same good news. But let us give thanks that there are many spiritual gifts and many varieties of service.

Further reading: http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Diocesan_Address_May_2010.htm

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