Archives for posts with tag: St Mary’s Stoke D’Abernon

Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 21st October 2018

Psalm 141: Matthew 12:1-21 – ‘Smite me Friendly’

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

That’s from Psalm 141, which is the one set in the Lectionary for tonight.

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

and keep the door of my lips.’ Make sure that I only say the right things. But if I should inadvertently stray off-piste,

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

I rather like the idea that the righteous should ‘smite me friendly’! Anyway, I have been warned.

As quite a lot of you know, I haven’t been very well. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent a week in Epsom Hospital three weeks ago, and then had a quiet week at my daughter Alice’s outside Exeter, before spending last week getting back up to speed at home in Cobham. It was very nice to hear from so many friends from St Mary’s, and to have some lovely visits too. Thank you for all your kindness!

I don’t know what it is that makes this happen, but my irregular stays in hospital have coincided with momentous events in the world outside. The last time I was in Epsom Hospital, in 1997, coincided with the death of poor Princess Di. I became quite an expert on all the various theories and odd facts surrounding that sad story. Now, just recently, and again in Epsom Hospital, I’ve been trying to keep on top of all the twists and turns in the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the ideas which our government and the European Commission have each come up with in order to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ around Northern Ireland.

Now you will realise why I adopted the ‘smite me friendly’ words from Psalm 141. I may find that you’re smiting me, but not friendly, if I’m not careful when I talk about Brexit!

Well, here’s the thing. There’s a nightmarishness about all the twists and turns of the Brexit process. If you go one way, you bump into an obstacle, perhaps something we’ve agreed beforehand or that Parliament has decided on, which rules out what you now think might be a good idea. So you turn down another entrance, and head off in another direction. You come up with something that you think will square with what the EU will accept – but your own MPs don’t like it. Nightmare. And of course, all the time there are plenty of people reminding you that they feel that nothing can compare with what we already have, as members of the European Union.

People are very passionate about it. Friendships have been broken. Families aren’t speaking to each other. And the worrying thing is, that no-one seems to agree how to decide who is right. People cling to the principle of democracy. More people voted to leave than to remain: 52% to 48%. But other people point out that 67% didn’t vote to leave. So people even disagree about what the democratic outcome was.

A factor in all this, this inability to decide who is right, is that there has been a lot of cheating and lying. There was the infamous red bus which had a banner down each side saying that, if we left the EU, there would be £350m a week more for the NHS – whereas even before Brexit day, as soon as the vote to leave was passed, the NHS has taken huge hits, from the devaluation of the £, making many drugs 20% more expensive, from doctors and nurses from the EU leaving, because they feel that the Brexit vote shows that people don’t like them – and from the 98% drop in numbers of nurses from the other EU countries applying to work here. The message on the bus was a wicked lie.

How do people know whom to believe? What is true in all this? Is it just a question of shouting louder?

Sitting in my hospital bed, and on Dr Alice, my daughter’s, couch, I started to wonder. Does it make a difference if you are a Christian? What would Jesus have done?

Today’s lesson from St Matthew shows him facing a rather similar set of conundrums to the ones that Mrs May and Dominic Raab, our MP, who’s now the Brexit minister, have to wrestle with. The question of eating on the Sabbath. Maybe what was held to be wrong extended to the act of gleaning, picking up the ears of wheat left at the edge of the field. Healing sick people, again on the Sabbath Day. Conflicting realities. Being hungry; worse, being ill: and you have the means to solve the problem. You can see where there is food freely available. Just pick it up. You have the power of healing. Just get him to stretch out his withered hand, and you can restore it to full strength. Does it matter if the Sabbath rules make it wrong to do these things?

Jesus gives a scholarly answer. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures to show that there are exceptions. King David and his men ate the bread offered on the altar in the Temple when they were hungry, which was something only the priests were allowed to do. Jesus pointed out that they had moved on from the limits of the old Temple worship. He was here. He was something else, something more. In Hosea [6:6] is a prophecy which includes these words, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’. In Hosea those words follow a prophecy about rising again from the grave on the third day. This is all about Jesus, Jesus as much more than just a teacher, a rabbi. More than ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’ as the letter to the Hebrews describes him. (Hebrews 5:5, 5:10)

And he goes on to give the lovely example of a shepherd rescuing one of his sheep which has fallen into a pit on the sabbath day. We always want to help if an animal is trapped or hurt. That is why I was angry the other day when our local Painshill animal rescue team were not able to be on duty because the austerity cuts had reduced their numbers, so that a cow which had fallen into a ditch locally, and was in distress, had to wait for a crew from Sussex to come. Never mind what Jesus would say about austerity – the point is that He said that the animal, the sheep, must be saved, whatever day it is.

And finally Jesus quoted from Isaiah chapter 42, a prophecy again about the Messiah. Gentle, quiet – and trusted, even by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. ‘A bruised reed he shall not break’.

What can we bring from this, from how Jesus squared the circle with the Pharisees about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath? He, Jesus, rises above any day-to-day considerations. The Temple rules don’t apply to him. But almost more important, Jesus is the servant, the gentle spirit of kindness. He expects mercy, not ritual sacrifice. It’s not about Him, but about the ones in need. The man with the withered hand, maybe a Thalidomide victim, in today’s world; the sheep which has fallen down into a hole.

So what could we learn from Jesus about the Brexit ‘conundrum’, as Godfrey [Revd Godfrey Hilliard, Rector of Stoke D’Abernon] calls it? What principles can we use as followers of Jesus, as Christians? Obviously no-one can say for sure what Jesus would have said or done. But surely it would be good if we at least thought about it.

Would Jesus have wanted the Jews, his people, to get their independence from the Romans? Was it a bad thing to belong to the great Roman empire? After all, St Paul did very well out of being able to say, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’, Acts 22, after Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162) – and indeed he was very proud of being able to say that. Jesus himself seems to have felt the same way: ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, is what he said. (Matt.22:21)

What about immigration? The Jewish law protected the widow, the orphan – and ‘the stranger that is within thy gate’ (Deut. 10:19, Leviticus 19:34). That stranger is in the same position as the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saved by a Samaritan, who was a foreigner, not someone Jewish people would ordinarily have wanted to have living next door. But this foreigner showed compassion and kindness. He showed that human dignity, human rights, the right to life, the right to medical treatment if you are hurt, are far more important than nationalistic considerations. Being a neighbour, a good neighbour, is far more important than what flag you fly.

But as I sat on Alice’s couch I realised that I wasn’t hearing those sort of arguments very much. There are some of our bishops who have said things along the same lines. [See, e.g., https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/church-leaders-seek-to-unite-divided-country] But it occurred to me that we ought to try to work through it, through the Brexit conundrum, with Jesus on our shoulder. What would He think of as important? Would He ‘smite anyone friendly’ for things they said? What about that red bus? What else do the politicians know about that they aren’t telling the ordinary people? Aren’t all the doctors and nurses from other countries who work in our NHS ‘Good Samaritans’, just as Jesus would have wanted?

And we, when we argue passionately for one side or the other, do we give any thought to what our Christian faith might bring to the argument? And if not, why not? I have a feeling that things might work out rather better if we did – and if our leaders remembered Psalm 141.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

Advertisements

Sermon for Holy Communion on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

You might wonder what the connection is between our two lessons today. The first one is from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which you might think was more apt for one of those Sundays when we review our giving to the church and our stewardship, and on the other hand, the passage in St Mark’s Gospel, the two miracles of Jesus, healing the woman with the unstoppable haemorrhage, who just touched the edge of his coat, and Jairus’ daughter, one of Jesus‘s greatest miracles, where he raised a little girl from the dead. We know that story so well, but not in the words that Godfrey read. I don’t remember Jesus saying, ‘Little girl, get up’ – although that is what the Greek literally says. The words I remember are so much more mighty and memorable.

And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth.

And they laughed him to scorn. …

And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.

‘Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.’ Not ‘Little girl, get up’. Now that’s a proper miracle, in proper miracle words. Just imagine what it must have been like

if you were Jairus or the damsel or the damsel’s Mum, indeed everyone around. She wasn’t just some little girl. She was the damsel, the damsel in Mark’s Gospel.

Anyway, I’m not really going to talk about the gospel today. Because I’m sure you’ve heard loads and loads of sermons about that lovely passage in St Mark’s Gospel about the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage; the key point about both stories being the importance of having faith. To the woman who touched his cloak he said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, when people were saying it was too late, that his daughter had died, Jesus said, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well,’ and to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ They both had trusted in the power of God.

No, what I want to have a go at this morning is to look at what St Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, where he is trying to get some funding for Christians in Jerusalem, who are hard-up, from the relatively well-off people in Corinth. This was like us in wealthy Surrey putting together a collection for a parish in the East End of London or in down-town Sheffield.

I think that it’s very interesting to see what St Paul was writing – or actually dictating to his secretary, because that’s how he worked – at the very earliest times in the history of Christianity. These letters to the Corinthians are usually dated by scholars at around 50AD [CE], so less than 20 years after Jesus was crucified. It is reckoned that only the letters to the Thessalonians are earlier. So we are getting a glimpse into the life and concerns of the earliest church. And St Paul is banging on about people upping their planned giving! Clearly, some things haven’t changed. But I’ll let Stephen Chater speak to you quietly about whatever St Mary’s needs.

The interesting things about what St Paul was saying here are precisely how sensitive he was, and how he recognised how tricky it is to reconcile money matters with faith. There are churches who preach a ‘prosperity gospel’. According to that idea, if you are wealthy, it is because you are blessed – and conversely, if you are faithful to the church and give generously to it, then God will reward you, and make you rich.

I doubt whether any of us here would believe in that sort of thing. And neither does St Paul, here. What he does say is that he wants the Corinthians not only to talk the talk, to ‘excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness’, but also to walk the walk, in giving – the word in Greek is χαρις, from which we get our word ‘charity’. It’s also the word for ‘grace’, and indeed the words of ‘The Grace’, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ come from the end of this very same letter.

And ‘grace’ has another connotation, a ‘free gift’. In St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, and in the letter to the Ephesians chapter 2, salvation, eternal life, is said to be the gift of God, not something people can earn through doing good works. It is a χάρισμα, which means a free gift, given by χαρις, grace, generosity. These are all related ideas. So what St Paul is asking the Corinthians to do is to be generous. Give a free gift – this isn’t a payment for services. Paul says, You’re not obliged to give; I’m not ordering you to do it. He says in v 8, ‘This is not meant as an order; by telling you how keen others are I am putting your love to the test.’ [NEB translation].

St Paul says that although Jesus was rich, he became poor. Actually that seems a bit unlikely. Jesus was, at least on earth, a carpenter’s son. He was a sought-after preacher, a rabbi. But I doubt whether he was like some of the telly-evangelists in the USA today, who are pretty well-heeled, as I understand it.

That’s true in parts of Africa too, incidentally. We had an interesting visit from a clergyman, a bishop’s chaplain, from the diocese of Owerri in Nigeria, with which St Andrew’s Oxshott, or rather Revd Canon Jeremy Cresswell, their previous vicar, had links. This chap fully expected to be kept in some comfort wherever he went. His reasoning was that, as Christ’s representative, people in the church should accord him respect and provide for his needs generously. I see that Godfrey is making notes here … But unfortunately, I think it only works for vicars in Africa …

I don’t know whether St Paul knew Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite, which is recorded in St Mark’s and St Luke’s Gospels (Mark 12: Luke 21). His Letters to the Corinthians were written before those Gospels; but his point in his Letter, which he spells out in the next chapter (2 Corinthians 9:6) where he says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’, is very much along the same lines as Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite. What she gave may have seemed very small, a couple of coppers only; but it was all that she had.

Paul goes on to make it plain that you mustn’t feel pressured into giving more than you have (2 Cor 8:12). He reminds the Corinthians about the story of the Israelites after they had come out of Egypt, when they were with Moses in the desert, and they started to grumble and complain that they didn’t have enough to eat.

The Lord gave them an ‘ample sufficiency’ when he dropped manna from heaven, and numbers of quails for them to eat. I’ve always wondered how that last bit worked. In the sixties you got ‘chicken in a basket’ at Berni Inns. Maybe the effect was similar. The point, though, was about the quantity. Not too much, and not too little. An ample sufficiency. That’s what the Lord gave them. So the Corinthians – and we – should give to the Lord just what we can afford, and not more.

So what is the link between those miracle stories, about the damsel, Jairus’ daughter, and the other lady with the chronic illness, and St Paul banging the tin – albeit very elegantly – but clearly twisting the Corinthians’ arms – to give generously to the church?

I would suggest that the idea might be this. When you read the Gospel stories of what Jesus did, and particularly the miracle stories, the idea is that they are revelations, revelation of Jesus’ divine nature. God, with all that God can do, in a man. That man, Jesus, healed people, even raised the damsel and Lazarus from the dead. It demonstrated that he was much more than just a young man from a humble carpenter’s shop.

On the other hand St Paul interpreted it all, and he explained Jesus’ teaching in a way that everyone, not just the Jewish people, could understand. And when you have believed the miracles, when you ‘excel in faith’, then St Paul teaches that you will want to gracious, to be generous.

St Paul was the great church planter, the original Alpha Course teacher – and he was also, effectively, the first archdeacon. Paul was totally practical about how the new churches should operate, not only in their worship and care for others, but also in the nitty-gritty of church admin. You need enough money to run the church. And then you need more, if you are going to do something for neighbours in need.

It’s teaching which is still valid today. Do please think about what you give to the church. Are you doing in practice what you say you do? Please do give -cheerfully – but don’t bankrupt yourself in the process. Be like the widow and her mite.

Oh – and you know, if your wallet is somehow empty, St Mary’s is geared up to take credit cards, even Apple Pay. God bless you – and thank you!

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday in Advent, 10th December 2017

1 Kings 22:1-28, Romans 15:4-13 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=379774448 for the text of the lessons

I went on Friday evening to a church meeting. ‘Tell me something new,’ you will no doubt say. ‘That’s what you do – you’re a Reader, for heaven’s sake!’ True – and moreover, the speaker at the meeting was a vicar. But it’s worth telling you about, I think. The thing which struck me, even before the speaker opened his mouth, was the crowd of people who had come to hear him.

As well as the ‘usual suspects’ that belong to the church, there were almost half as many again – I think there were about 70 people there – quite a few of whom I either didn’t recognise at all, or who I knew were people who had some background of going to church but who don’t, so far as I know, belong to any of the local churches now.

The topic was definitely to do with church. It was billed as a curry evening (originally a ‘men’s curry evening’, but I’m glad to say, it got widened out to include ladies too), with a speaker, Revd Dave Tomlinson, from St Luke’s, West Holloway [http://www.saintlukeschurch.org.uk], and his topic was ‘Everyone is Welcome’.

Dave Tomlinson – and he is ‘Dave’, (what with being a Scouser and that), does a ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2 called ‘Pause for Thought’, and has written some quite well-known books, for example ‘How to be a Bad Christian’ and ‘The Bad Christian’s Manifesto’ [2012, 2014, Hodder & Stoughton], and now ‘Black Sheep and Prodigals’, which has just been published. He sets himself out to be a vicar for people who don’t think of themselves as religious, people who might say they were, in the new-age phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious’.

What he says is that Christians are, in bare essentials, following a spiritual practice, what he calls ‘a way of approaching life’, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. [Tomlinson D., 2014, The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p.245]. What they’re not necessarily doing, though, is belonging to a particular church or following particular theologies or rituals. There shouldn’t be, he says, any barriers or ‘qualifications’ required before one can become a Christian.

It certainly seems to be an approach which gets people interested, and indeed, got them in, got them to turn out, on a cold Friday night. In a good sense, it was evangelism – although I think most of those who came would have already called themselves Christians, but not actually coming to church in a number of cases.

In a very real sense, you could say that, in another age, Dave Tomlinson could have been regarded as a prophet. You know, a prophet, meaning someone through whom God speaks. Not in the sense illustrated in our Old Testament lesson, where the king of Israel and the king of Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Jewish people, when they were contemplating trying to take back from the Syrian invaders the town of Ramoth-Gilead, consulted four hundred prophets, who all said that the attack would be successful and they would capture the town.

However, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, the southern kingdom, rather oddly asked if there was a ‘prophet of the Lord besides’, that they could ask. It implies that the 400 so-called ‘prophets’ that the story mentions, were not real prophets, speaking the words of the one true God, but were rather more in the way of magicians, soothsayers, inspired more by folk superstition than by God. So instead of them, they dug out Micaiah, who was a real prophet, and he warned the kings, correctly, that the attack they planned would end in disaster. They didn’t take any notice.

Dave Tomlinson’s approach is perhaps more in line with our second reading, from St Paul, in his letter to the Romans. He doesn’t specialise in predictions, military or otherwise: instead, he tries to impart truth, without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter what denomination you are; Paul and the disciples’ mission to spread the gospel, the good news of Christ, didn’t just go to their fellow-Jews, but also to other groups, to the ‘Gentiles’, the non-Jews – and all, both lots, would be equally welcome to follow Jesus.

It’s a very important message. Today, the second Sunday in Advent, is the day when traditionally the church remembers the prophets: like Micaiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and all those. But it might be good also to celebrate and listen to modern-day prophets, like Dave Tomlinson, because his approach looks to have been very productive, on Friday night’s showing: people actually did bother to turn out and listen to what he said – even people who don’t usually come to church.

The key, according to Revd Dave, is for Christians to be caring – to love their neighbours – and for them not to set much store by superficial distinctions and divisions. I think that there are lessons there for us at St Mary’s too. People have said that we’ve done a good job in moving away from a time when St Mary’s was run as a sort of club, where strangers weren’t really welcomed, to the warm, friendly place we now are. That’s good; but how are we to keep up the momentum and engage with our parish community so that we will still be around as a church to proclaim the Gospel when we relative oldies are long gone?

Dave Tomlinson says he’s not especially bothered by how well ‘qualified’ people are in relation to Jesus Christ. He gives everyone, confirmed or not, Holy Communion if they want it. He doesn’t regard every word in the Bible as literally having been dictated by the Almighty. He is willing to accept anyone, however ‘sinful’ they may have been. Famously, he conducted the gangster Reggie Cray’s funeral, for example.

But it’s plain from looking at his church’s website that he doesn’t regard any one style of worship or liturgy as being the be-all and end-all. They do sung Evensong just like us. I think that they might agree with us that there’s a lot to be said for worshipping in a way that is familiar, that we’re used to – and that we think is worthy. If you are forever tut-tutting about banal words or suboptimal rock music instead of sublime harmonies, you’re being led away from bringing yourself to the Almighty and instead getting distracted by earthly trivia.

What we do here is to build on familiar foundations. Many people come here and, even if they haven’t been to church for a long time, may well remember a hymn or some of the liturgy, from their schooldays, or university chapel, perhaps. I think that’s all good.

I think that it’s important also, where newcomers are concerned, to make sure that everyone ‘knows the drill’: when to stand up, when to sit down; is there a collection? Do you have to wear any special clothes? – and so on. (Only I have to dress up!)

This all comes from the idea of being welcoming and inclusive. Of course, Jesus didn’t actually build any churches, so in his eyes, the concept of ‘bums on seats’ in churches wouldn’t have meant much to him. But for us, it is important. If we are going to reach out to people and bring them into our church family, we need to show that we are truly open and inclusive to ‘all sorts and conditions of men’.

Revd Dave Tomlinson was one of the founders of the organisation called ‘Inclusive Church’. Although it was founded as a reaction against the sad events which led to Dr Jeffrey John first being offered to be Bishop of Reading, and then having it taken away because of his sexual orientation as a gay man, Inclusive Church now goes much wider.

Its statement of belief says: “We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

When a church joins the Inclusive Church network, it is encouraged to put up a sign outside to tell people that, inside, if they come in, they will really be welcome. For someone who feels they are in some way different, perhaps because of race, or sex, or disability, it’s very reassuring to see that there’s a clear offer of hospitality on the outside of the church.You don’t have to ‘risk it’ by going in somewhere where you might not fit in.

Well, you might be wondering about where this church meeting that I went to was; this curry session, addressed by Revd Dave Tomlinson, which attracted so many people including people who’ve drifted away from the church: where was it? It was, as you’ve probably guessed, just down the road, in our sister church, St Andrew’s, in Cobham.

When I was a member of the PCC there, there was a motion for the Church to affiliate to, to join, the Inclusive Church network. I spoke as passionately as I could in favour. Apart from the person who had proposed the motion, I was the only one. The vote was 22 to 2 against. Now that they’ve listened to Dave Tomlinson, I wonder if some of the stalwarts down the road will revisit that decision. Because, you see, I think that the message, the message of Jesus and the prophets, that God welcomes us all, that all are welcome, is still vital. What do you think? Should our PCC think about it, as part of our vision for social engagement? In all humility, I hope so.

Sermon for the third Sunday of Epiphany at St Mary’s 22nd January 2017 

1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23 

When President Trump took the oath of allegiance on Friday, according to the report on the radio, he had his tiny hand on two Bibles, one of which was the one which Abraham Lincoln used, and the other was one which his mother had given him. It makes you think that the Bible must mean something to the new president. 

Using two Bibles in this way reminds me of a story which I heard about a rich old man who had two Rolls Royces. Somebody once asked him why he needed two. He wasn’t a car collector. However, he said, he felt better having two, just in case one broke down. So perhaps Donald Trump needs two Bibles, just in case one breaks down. 

‘Wait a minute’, you will say. One of the things about the Bible is that it is utterly reliable. It’s even better than a Rolls-Royce. It doesn’t break down. All you need in life is holy scripture, ‘sola scriptura’, only scripture, in Latin. But different churches say different things here. There are, perhaps, some differences of emphasis.

Today is the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I must confess that my heart does sink a little bit when I realise that I have to try to say something useful and enlightening about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, especially when we have a lesson like the one which we had today from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. St Paul ticks them off. ‘… each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ St Paul says, Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?’

Poor old Corinthians. They are always getting ticked off by St Paul. It’s one of those points where I have to say – and I think some of you will agree with me – that I feel rather sympathetic to those Corinthians. Why am I an Anglican? Why is somebody else a Methodist? Or for a Wee Free? A Baptist? Or a member of the United Reformed Church, or indeed Roman Catholic? And is this a good thing? 

When you read a lesson like the one we’ve read from 1 Corinthians, It’s an ‘oh dear’ moment. It looks as though, although for hundreds of years, the church has been divided into lots of different denominations, everybody seems to turn a blind eye to these Bible passages which suggest that we should be all one church. 

We can trace back the various splits and disagreements which have given rise to the different denominations. For instance the original split between the church in Byzantium and the church in Rome, the orthodox and the Roman Catholics respectively; and then in the time of the Reformation – 500 years ago this year – Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, and starting a movement which split the Western Church into Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants themselves were divided, mainly between those who were Lutherans and those who followed Calvin and Zwingli, the reformed Christians. And there were – there are – Baptists as well!

This isn’t going to be a sermon where I try to teach you all about the various differences in theology and the philosophy of religion as it has evolved down the ages; why, for example, the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics have not moved together – after all, Henry VIII was a jolly good Catholic, the only problem being that he had some local difficulty with the Pope. 

Apart from that, Henry had no difficulty with the Catholic doctrines, of transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine in holy communion actually become the body and blood of Christ; and the blueprint or route map of heaven, what happens to people after they die: that their souls go to a place called purgatory, where all the sins are laundered from the souls. Possibly laundry is too nice an image; it is more like the refiner’s fire. 

Not a nice process, but after that you were ready for your encounter with St Peter at the Pearly Gates. Henry had no difficulty with all of that; but of course Martin Luther did. He was particularly opposed to the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences, according to which you could pay in order to shorten your time in purgatory. It was very lucrative for the church but it didn’t have any basis in holy scripture. 

Martin Luther wanted to strip out all these things that were not in the Bible but which had grown up in the church’s tradition. ‘Sola scriptura’, only scripture, was his motto, his byword. Calvin and Zwingli, on the other hand, as well as relying on scripture, like Luther, did not like the traditional idea of a priest, as someone standing between the believer and God, somehow mediating worship. That Catholic idea was based on the Jewish concept of the priesthood, according to which an ordinary mortal who came into contact with God would die.

The trouble with having a priesthood is that you start to have a hierarchy, ‘princes of the church’ among the bishops, living in splendour in complete contrast with the simple life enjoined on his disciples by Jesus. In reaction against that, Calvin introduced the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. God would meet anyone, directly, face to face in prayer or worship.
Why would you follow one form of theology rather than another? Surely what the Bible says, if you follow what St Paul has written to the Corinthians, is that splitting up into all these different churches is an aberration. Somehow we have all got lost on the way. True believers will all just belong to one church, whatever that is.

At that point, of course, all of you in the pews mentally shift from one foot to another, with your eyes cast down, thinking privately that it’s hopeless, after 2,000 years of history and because of the way that all of us have been brought up in different traditions round the world. There is no chance of abolishing all the various denominations in favour of a single unified church, and the idea of having to go to a single church may well fill us with some trepidation. 

‘Our beliefs are not one-size-fits-all’, you will say. You might even say, ‘My God is not like your God.’ I have always found it rather difficult when people talk about ‘my God’, because it seems to me that God does not belong to us, but rather that we belong to Him. So saying that something or someone is my God, mine, is nonsense. 

In your mind’s eye, even if not out loud, you are probably thinking, ‘I don’t want the churches to be all just like so-and-so down the road. Just think, they might make me wave my arms around or clap in time to a guitar, or have to smell incense!’ – or, indeed, whatever it is that you get sniffy about in other churches. 

But I think the thing that you need to take into account is the idea that is behind what St Paul is saying to the Corinthians in our lesson today. In effect, it is not what the Corinthians want that matters, it isn’t that they must have that great thing, that we celebrate so much in our society today, namely, choice, it isn’t that: It isn’t up to them, it isn’t up to the Corinthians: it’s up to Jesus himself. 

What would Jesus say about, ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I follow Paul’? Or, I’m a Methodist, I’m a United Reformed? I’m a Roman Catholic, or an Anglican? I’m a high Anglican. I’m a low Anglican. I’m a middle of the road Anglican. I’m an Evangelical (Godfrey will tell you more about that, of course); or I’m an Anglo-Catholic. Every shade and nuance is catered for. What do you think Jesus would think about that?

What St Paul says is, ‘Christ did not send me to baptise, but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.’ In other words, the key thing is for people to hear the gospel, and in particular to hear about Christ’s passion and death and resurrection: to hear about the role of the cross which is at the heart of it. 

Provided we get the Gospel, nothing else really matters. I don’t think that Jesus would particularly care whether we like a particular church or a particular style of worship or not. The more important thing is that Jesus gets to be believed in by more people. So my feeling is that is that, although there might be moves to get closer to each other in the various denominations, moves such, for example, as ARCIC, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, or more recently the conversations between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the covenant discussions between the Anglicans and Methodists, still, you can give yourself a break; you can smile sweetly at your friends in the other churches, particularly in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: you can take the opportunity to go and visit each other’s churches and worship with them. But you don’t have to give up being based at the church you’ve always gone to, where your friends are. 

You definitely can be confident that we all, all of us in Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and Downside, are united, united in that we believe in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; so I think we wouldn’t get ticked off like the Corinthians were. 

Mind you, going back to Donald Trump and his two bibles, as Canon Giles Fraser has written recently in his ‘Loose Canon’ column in the Guardian [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2017/jan/19/for-donald-trump-faith-has-become-the-perfect-alibi-for-greed], President Trump does go to a different sort of church, different from any of the ones round here, a church called Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, where the minister is, or has been, the Rev Norman Vincent Peale. Mr Peale has published a book called ‘The power of positive thinking’ and has developed a theology, if you can believe this, of how to be a winner, how to be successful in business. It seems to be a sort of ‘prosperity gospel’.To be blessed, in that congregation, means to be rich.

Giles Fraser wrote, ‘When Trump was asked what God is to him … he came up with this: “Well, I say God is the ultimate. You know you look at this … here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the great deals, they say, ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals.” 

Awful, isn’t it. And it came from something at least pretending to be a church. Now what that means is something which we ought to be thinking about, especially in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.