Sermon: Being the (Uniting) Church
Sermon for transfer of Kyneton to Port Phillip West Presbytery
16th of January 2011
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
It’s a rather strange service, this, a service to transfer the oversight of a congregation from one presbytery to another. It might seem more of a bureaucratic matter than a theological or liturgical one, but as Andrew Dutney once wrote, it doesn’t matter: “whether we are together to worship, to study or to make decisions about property and finance … we just are the New Testament church”.In our gathering here today to liturgically recognise the redrawing of presbytery boundaries, we are the church of God. So this is an opportune occasion to listen to today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the church of God in Corinth, with its wisdom for us as church, too.
We hear from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians throughout this Epiphany season, and much of it is very critical. The church at Corinth had problems. The most famous passage in this letter, the description of love as patient; kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, was written precisely because that was not the sort of love the Corinthians were demonstrating. It’s interesting, then, that Paul’s letter begins with today’s enthusiastic thanksgiving. We might think that Paul’s being sarcastic, but it seems that Paul’s able to give thanks for this community because he looks at them in the light of God’s faithfulness to them. He gives thanks because the grace of God has been given to them in Christ Jesus. It’s not their sparkling personalities or intellectual acuity, or even their love, that’s most important, but the fact that God has called them into the fellowship of his Son.
Being called to be part of the fellowship of Jesus Christ is intimidating. Paul’s first description of the Corinthians is as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”. I’m a little concerned by the suggestion that I have a calling to sainthood. I’m not sure if the Corinthians were equally intimidated; from the rest of the letter it appears that some of them at least had an overly high opinion of themselves. But according to Paul, we should be neither scared not proud of this saintly identity. Just as Paul can give thanks for the Corinthians because of the faithfulness of God, so he can describe the Corinthians as saints because of the work of Jesus. The Corinthians, and us, are saints because they and we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. The Church’s identity as a community of saints is not dependent on us or our activities. It’s dependent on Christ.
Equally, this saintliness is not an individual matter. Paul addresses all the saints in Corinth, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord. It’s as a collective that the Corinthians are saints, not as individuals; saints in their shared vocation. We never have to live up to this calling alone. God not only calls us, God calls us into community, the Church.
In his greeting Paul also gives thanks for the particular gifts upon which the Corinthians pride themselves, speech and knowledge. Later in the letter we’ll hear about the problems these gifts are causing in Corinth, so Paul may well be being ironic here. But he’s also reminding the Corinthians why they’ve been given these spiritual gifts: “so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”. God gives the church what it needs to flourish; these gifts are given not for individual use, but for the well-being of the entire community. In the rest of the letter Paul goes into further detail about the right use of God’s gifts, here he just gives a hint.
This one fairly short greeting to the Corinthians tells us a lot about the church, the community of saints created by the faithfulness of God. We’re reminded that we exist because of God’s faithfulness. We’re reminded that we have a calling to sainthood to live out. And we’re reminded that no matter what our differences are, we can give thanks for our fellow Christians because of God’s faithfulness to them. This is true for all those who belong to the church of God, and it is true for us as members of the Uniting Church.
The Uniting Church has a particular way of being the Church of God. Recently I spent an evening with some young people who had been students at a Melbourne University college when I was a tutor there. One of them had a new boyfriend so, much in the manner of an irritating older relative, I gave him the third degree. To make it fair, I said he could ask me questions in return.
He asked why I was a minister in the Uniting Church, rather than in another denomination, and I gave him my standard answer. To begin with, there are still denominations that don’t ordain women. Not much chance of me ministering in those. My other pro-Uniting Church points are the Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, and the recent amendment to the church’s Constitution to recognise indigenous people; the 1985 declaration that we’re a multicultural Church; and the widespread, if not universal, acceptance of people in same-sex relationships as church members and as ordained ministers.
When I finished my spiel someone listening said: “The Uniting Church is definitely the coolest Australian church”.
The Uniting Church’s calling is not actually to make otherwise religiously-cynical members of Generation Y think that we’re cool, although that’s a nice bonus. As the church of God we don’t exist for ourselves; we’re not a body of congenially like-minded people who decide our own mission. We live our life as church in a way that some young people might find cool, because we believe that’s what God is calling us to do.
Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the second of Isaiah’s Servant Songs. In the first, which we heard last week, we saw the patience and gentleness of the Servant in bringing about justice, with that beautiful description: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”. Today we hear from the Servant directly: “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” We don’t know exactly who Isaiah considered the Servant to be: an individual; a group; all Israel. The early Christians saw Christ in the Suffering Servant. We, today, can read the Servant as a metaphor for the church, and hear in this song more about our calling. (I feel more confident about this identification because John Calvin made it before me.)
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel,” God tells the Servant. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” God’s salvation is to be announced to all people, just as his justice is to fill the whole earth. This is part of what we are called to as the church of God: to announce God’s salvation to all and to play our part in God’s justice. Just as Isaiah prophesised that this salvation was for all the nations, not just Israel; so the message of God’s salvation and justice is for the entire world, not just for those of us in the church. The young people I had that conversation with would identify themselves as atheist, only go to church for weddings and funerals, and yet they think that the Uniting Church’s commitment to justice and equality is “cool”. Since that commitment comes from our understanding of God, just by being the church that we are, helps the message of God’s salvation to reach to the end of the earth.
This particularly Uniting Church way of being the church of God isn’t easy. It leads to us venturing into dangerous territory ahead of other denominations. I’ve even had members of other churches tell me how much they appreciate the Uniting Church doing this, so that they can draw on our experience. People outside the church altogether admire us, without necessarily wanting to join us and boost our declining membership. Like the Servant, we could say: “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”. But that also means we can console ourselves with the Servant’s consolation: “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.”
Despite all their failings, Paul could give thanks for the Corinthians because of God’s faithfulness to them. The same is true of us. No matter what our failings or difficulties as the Uniting Church, we can rely on the faithfulness of God. Thanks be to God.