Sunday, January 19, 2014

is Christ divided?

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

The theme for this year's week of prayer for Christian Unity is 'Has Christ been Divided?' - referring, I think to Christ's body, the Church. The answer to that question is, I think both 'yes' and 'no.' 'No,' because Christ's body the Church is supernatural in nature; it is God's Church, founded by Christ our Lord himself and he founded only one Church, something we testify to each and every time we recite the Nicene Creed and say we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This One Church that Christ founded is something that no human being can ever damage.

But the answer must also be 'yes' because of the obvious divisions that exist, due to human weaknesses, in the way that the body manifests itself on earth. The problem is not one that began in our time; nor did it begin at the time of the Reformation, as much as we might to blame Martin Luther or King Henry the Eighth; it is something that goes back to the earliest days of the Church. We can see it as being a problem going right back to the earliest days of the Church, as we can see in the first chapter of St Paul's letter to the Corinthians, when he has cause to rebuke the church there for the divisions that existed among them in the tiny church of that small city only decades after the death and resurrection of Christ.

But understanding that it is a problem that has always been with us is not to say that it is not one that we do not have a responsibility of dealing with. Not that it is an easy task to leave behind nearly 2000 years of infighting and bad-blood. In many ways that situation has improved dramatically in recent years – the week of prayer for Christian Unity is proof of that; and the good ecumenical relations enjoyed in this parish is further evidence. But Christ,I think, wanted a little more than that we should be gracious and polite to each other when he prayed that we should be one, just as he and the Father were one. He wanted his followers to have a real, organic unity; he wanted us to be in full communion with each other, even if we have different ways of practising some elements of the faith.
How is that to be achieved? Well, I think our Gospel reading today provides a wonderful image of how that might come about. We are presented with John the Baptist, the wild-man dressed in camel hair; he's standing by the banks of the Jordan, preaching his message of repentance and baptising all who come to him. He's doing very well for himself and getting quite a following … and then along comes Jesus and John sees the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove … and the way John reacts is remarkable … he doesn't ignore it, or try to undermine Jesus in some, saying to himself 'I've put a lot of work into what I've done here; I'm not going to let some johnny-come-lately show up and take over.' No, without a hint of pride or resentment he at once declares what he has seen and cries out 'Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.'

The answer to the problems of the disunity of the Church Christ founded could well be modeled in the heroic humility of John the Baptist; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness at the beginning of Christ's ministry leads the way for us by his immediate response in doing the will of God, even at great personal cost to himself – and not grudgingly; he cheerfully declared that he John must grow lessor, while Jesus must grow greater.

It is something for us all to emulate … how that is to work out in practise, I can not say. John was a great saint and his heroic humility is not easy for us to live … but the opposite of humility is pride, and pride is a sin, one of the seven deadly sins for those of you who remember the old way of talking about such things. And John, when he first beheld Christ, declared that he was the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The pride that separates us is among those sins. Christ, who called us to be one in the first place, will heal us of the divisions that keep us apart, if only we will accept him in the same spirit as John did.

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