Saturday, January 22, 2011

Epiphany 3A

I suppose it’s no secret that I’m a bit of a Dr Who fan ... whenever there’s a new episode, it’s a big evening in the Pederick household ... Alison is very gracious about this.  Everything else takes second place, the phones get put on silent, dinner is scheduled early, the washing up forgotten, Dr Who and I have got a universe to save ...

A series or two ago we were introduced to the Ood.  A funny race of slow-moving sentient creatures with big cow-like eyes and octopus tentacles where their noses should be - the Ood are odd.  When we first meet them they are enslaved, being used by creatures from another galaxy to do their dangerous mining work on some asteroid or other ...  But we quickly learn that the Ood are mentally and morally way in advance of the rest of us, able to communicate with one another telepathically - so even though they are able to express themselves in words with other people they find it kind of awkward, like an imperfect translation of what they can express among themselves directly – as you might expect, with beings who can communicate perfectly, directly from one mind to another, the Ood are also perfectly united – as Dr Who’s assistant soon discovers, when you talk to one Ood you are effectively talking to all of them – the answer you get from one is like a group consensus – in their own estimation the Ood  are also perfectly wise and bowed down by the weight of their own destiny – in short, they are a boring and conceited lot, and because they agree with one another perfectly in all things they have a fatal weakness - they refuse to admit anybody else could have a better idea – they are closed off to anything new and innovative.  Even though the Ood are theoretically on the good side they are a big problem because they end up working against the very things that a new and different situation demands – the Ood are a good example of unity gone wrong.

We don’t have that problem in the church, of course.  Not much perfect communication – in fact exactly the opposite – endless conversations at synods and between church factions and denominations that often seems more to entrench misunderstanding and conflict than to lead us towards consensus and unity.  We divide ourselves into factions depending on what we think God is like, and what we think God’s attitude might be towards the issues that divide us – and we pull in opposite directions.  It happens in a smaller way at parish level as well, when different groups have different priorities and different pet projects and we find ourselves in competition for scarce resources.  What does unity mean?  Does real unity mean always agreeing with one another, always thinking the same thing, and if it does, is that such a good idea? 

In his first letter to the church in Corinth St Paul is clearly concerned about the unity of the church that he founded there.  It’s not totally clear what the relationship was between Paul and the Corinthians – or even whether he generally approves of them or thinks they’ve lost the plot altogether.  What is clear, though, is that the Corinthians are a divided bunch of Christians, they’ve been going their own way on a number of things, some of them are even refusing to eat with others they don’t think are good enough for them, so that the Eucharist is in danger of getting divided into economy class and business class; there are different and conflicted ideas about marriage and dietary practices, and those who speak in tongues are setting themselves up as a spiritual elite so the church in Corinth is divided into factions – some of the controversies, like the one over whether or not to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, might strike us as being a bit quaint, but the parallels between the church at Corinth in the middle of the first century and the church of our own time are a bit too close for comfort.

So Paul is appealing for unity – Chloe, who appears to be a person of some standing in the community, has sent word to Paul that things aren’t so rosy and Paul is writing back to plead that the Corinthians should be united – and even though he doesn’t spell it out here, if we are alert we see in this an echo of Paul’s claim elsewhere in the letter that as Christians we have the ‘mind of Christ’ – Paul’s claim in the letters to Galatia and Rome that in baptism we die to ourselves and rise to new life ‘in Christ’ – what he seems to have in view is that being Christian means identifying with Christ at such a fundamental level that it becomes part of who we are – if each of us through our baptism has put on the mind of Christ then how can we not be united?  If Christ can’t be divided – then neither can we!

Characteristically, this point is put in more picturesque language by Jesus himself, for example in Mark’s gospel, ‘if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ and then at the end of John’s gospel Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, even as he and the Father are one – in other words, unity is the key to the Christian gospel that human existence and human relationships are an image of God’s own life and we are oriented toward God because we have a stake in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Unity, in other words, is not just an optional add-on, unity is the day-to-day practice of being God’s people.

Paul refers to the factionalism at Corinth – some say they belong to Paul, others to Apollos – then he pokes fun at that by inventing a couple more factions – what follows in the next couple of chapters is a lecture on how even though Paul came first and planted the seed so that all Apollos had to do was water it – the point being that the Corinthians should follow the example of Paul and Apollos themselves who even though they seem to have had quite different styles and disagreed on much, saw themselves first and foremost as co-workers.  In fact the example of Paul and Apollos demonstrates the sort of unity Paul is talking about – because, as the rest of the letter to the Corinthians makes clear, unity is not the same thing as uniformity - Paul never overlooks the individual integrity of believers, never suggests that unity means there should be no difference between believers.  But what he does always do is put the community of the church ahead of the individual and insist that individual decisions need to be made in the context of faithfulness to the community of faith – for example explaining that the decision whether or not to eat the meat that has been sacrificed needs to be made on the basis of not putting obstacles in the way of those who are new to the faith.  Those who speak in tongues should not do so in church unless there is somebody there who can interpret what is said for the community.  Paul always recognises that there is a give and take between the individual and the community, and he recognises that individuals in the community have got different gifts and different roles – in short, the unity that Paul is talking about is the unity of integration, the unity that does not blunt differences but makes them serve the community experience of life in Christ.  This sort of unity in fact can make us even more aware of differences, and even of differences of opinion, because it leads us to appreciate what each of us can contribute to one another and how each of us can challenge one another.  Real unity that nurtures and treasures difference without defensiveness and doesn’t see the need to protect boundaries is stimulating and creative – real unity is nothing like the unity of the Ood.

So this unity that isn’t the same thing as sameness – what does it look like?  If there is no conflict in our community – does that mean we are united?  Not necessarily!  Mightn’t it be just as possible that if there is no conflict it is because there is no energy?  That we’re just drifting?  If there is no energy or commitment – if no one passionately cares what happens in our community – then of course there will be no conflict – but there’ll be no unity either.  The orientation toward Christ as the fulfilment of our individual existence that Paul talks about as being ‘in Christ’ – the point is that this isn’t a static thing, it’s dynamic - an experience of moving toward something and finding that the only way to get there is in community – if unity means acknowledging and nurturing our differences then it also means working together to seek a vision, to share our faith and our hope and to encourage one another.  Unity is active, not passive, and it grows out of shared effort, out of acknowledging the conflicts that always arise when people are passionate about what they are doing, and continually recommitting ourselves to one another and to the goal of shared life ‘in Christ’.

So, how do we do it? How do we intentionally practice the sort of unity that celebrates and nutures difference, and that holds us together as a people who know we are growing together in Christ? First and foremost it means recognising that it is God’s vision, not our own theories and our own vision, that is important – that it is God’s vision of the future, not our own comfort zone, to which we need to be orientated. It means recognising the glorious possibility that we might be wrong about much that we hold dear, but that we are still God’s beloved people with much to learn from one another and from the world around us.  And it means commitment, the everyday unglamorous work of dreaming God’s dreams and putting them into practice, of looking for opportunities not to be served, but to serve, of supporting one another and of building one another up in love.