Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow Church on Epiphany 3, 26th January 2020
1 Corinthians 1 vv 10 – 18 Divisions in the Church.
Matthew 4 vv 12 – 23 Calling of the first disciples. Jesus’ early ministry.
- Introduction. The evenings have been getting lighter for over 6 weeks. Not too long before we will be planting seeds for vegetables and flowers. We always plant runner beans. One has to be careful with them as they are not frost resistant. I am hoping for a better crop this year, have dug out the unfruitful fig tree that I brought with us in a pot when we came here almost 20 years ago. The tree was stunting the growth of the nearby beans. The Apostle Paul uses the illustration of planting and watering a seed and the subsequent plant, when he writes to the Church of Corinth about their disunity. He plays down the role of Apollos and himself, saying, in Chapter 3, that he merely sowed some seeds and Apollos poured some water on, but it is God who causes the seed to grow into a full plant. The whole of 1 Corinthians is aimed at bringing unity to a disunited church, a Church divided into four factions, those who followed Paul, those who followed Apollos, others Peter, and those who followed Christ. Disunity is not confined to the 1st Century immature church at Corinth. Sadly, it has been a feature of the Church in every age, down to the present. Let’s look at the situation in Corinth and apply the principles of Paul’s teaching to the Church today, remembering Jesus’ prayer (John 17) that the church should be one.
- Corinth. As we heard in our first reading, there were four factions in the Church at Corinth. One group followed Paul, one group followed Apollos, one, Peter, and another, quite rightly, said, ‘we follow Christ’. Paul’s challenge to this situation is to say that you should follow the one into whose name you were baptised. He says in effect, ‘none of you were baptised into my name. I baptised almost none of you. My task was to preach the gospel with, at its heart, the reconciling work of Christ on the cross.’
Who though is this person Apollos? We learn quite a bit about him in the Acts of the Apostles especially Acts 19. Luke tells us he ‘was a Jew, a native of Alexandria. He was a learnéd man with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.’ Alexandria, on the coast of Egypt, was a great centre of Jewish learning. Meanwhile, the couple Priscilla and Aquila arrive in Ephesus and put him right about baptism in the name of Jesus. Apollos goes on from Ephesus in Western Turkey with strong encouragement of the Church at Ephesus, to Corinth in Greece, in the full knowledge of Christian baptism. There is no reason to believe that he did other than baptise the believers there in the name of Christ. There was no discord between Paul and Apollos. Towards the end of 1 Corinthians, he writes (16 v 12), “Now about our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers.” In Paul’s brief letter to Titus in Crete, he writes (3 v 13), “Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.”
Paul and Apollos had been engaging in a Christ-centred ministry at differing times in Corinth. This was not the cause of the divisions. As one reads on in Paul’s first letter to the Church one finds a Church that is very immature spiritually, with some instances of serious sexual immorality and of one member taking another to court, rather than settling things amicably within the Church. There was poor behaviour and an overuse of the gift of tongues in their communion services. It is into that situation that Paul goes on to the teaching about the primacy of love, in his famous chapter 13, beginning, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am only a sounding gong or a clanging symbol”. I am pleased that we will not be having a sounding bong on Big Ben on Friday evening.
- Church generally. As the Church has grown down the ages, it has hardly ever been free of divisions, generally at a higher level than the local church. Sometimes it has been ostensibly about doctrine, especially the nature of Christ, his divinity and his humanity but quite often the viewpoint has included a personal element of pride and position of those in high places, of bishops and leading theologians. In recent years particularly in the Anglican communion there have been and are divisions over the nature of human beings generally, involving the ordination of women, homosexual relations including marriage and also problems of abuse of vulnerable people by those in positions of power and authority in the Church.
- Way forward. What is the way forward in the Church today? I will look briefly at three aspects, all beginning with the letter ‘C’, Communion, Contemplation and Collaboration, focussing my attention on the local church level.
- Communion. Firstly then, communion. When the ‘peace’ was included in the Anglican Communion services with the introduction of the Alternative Service Book in 1980, many people found it hard to accept, but most churches now have become quite used to it and welcome it; I think that we have here. It is a very practical way of expressing our unity with other members of the Church, even to minimises tensions which have developed between one person and another. It is perhaps difficult for younger church members to appreciate how far we have moved from a very rigid uniformity in our worship to a great freedom, within a common pattern. Let me give one example, a personal one in the context of marriage. In 1967 at our wedding rehearsal with the Vicar, Julia said “And now we have selected Psalm 100, the Jubilate”. The Vicar responded, “You can’t have Psalm 100, there is only one psalm set in the marriage service and that is Psalm 67.” Returning to the communion service, the Book of Common Prayer embodies the same principle as the peace in the invitation to the confession, where it says, “Ye that … are in love and charity with your neighbours.” We come to the Lord’s table as one body, not as a just a number of unrelated individuals. The Common Worship daily and seasonal orders of Morning and Evening Prayer all have, near the beginning, the injunction to be said by the minister, “Let us pray with one heart and mind”. The Apostle Paul finishes his instructions in Chapter 15 on conduct of worship, “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (v 40).
- Contemplation. Secondly, ‘Contemplation’. As well as corporate acts of worship, we need times of personal prayer, of reflection and study. I note that, as Luke records in Acts 19 (v 24), “Apollos was a learnéd man with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures”. At that time of course it was only the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. He was also a humble man, willing to listen to Priscilla and Aquila’s correction. The Apostle Paul, whose conversion was marked yesterday in the Church calendar, was also a person who studied the scriptures and evidently reflected on the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was open to God’s complete re-direction of his life as he journeyed from Jerusalem to Damascus. We all need to be reflective, in personal prayer, in studying and reflecting on the scriptures, that they may form a firm, intelligent, God-inspired basis for our lives. As a particular suggestion, I invite you to read through 1 Corinthians, perhaps during the coming week or read through this sermon when in a few days it is on Paul’s Facebook, with a link from St Mary’s website.
- Collaboration. Communion, Contemplation and thirdly Collaboration. Our worship, our private prayer, our study are not just hobbies that we enjoy, they are preparation for collaboration with God in the work of his kingdom. That may be collaboration with one another in the outreach of the Church in Hadlow or it may be as a sole Christian witness in your place of work. Either way it is collaboration with God. In worship and contemplation we have deepened our relationship with God and our understanding of his will, so that under the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit we may go out to do his will, whether in the way we do our work or how we relate to our family, to friends, to people in our leisure pursuits, in fact in every aspect of life. 1 Corinthians 12 places great emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit which are more effective in building up the Church, rather than the lesser gift of speaking in tongues, which can become an ‘ego trip’. 1 Corinthians 13 is an excellent overarching guide in all our service of God in the work of his kingdom. The exercise of a true, sacrificial love, for this is the significance of the Greek word ‘Agape’.
I conclude my sermon with the collect for the Conversion of St Paul, set for 25th January.
Almighty God, who caused the light of the gospel to shine throughout the world, through the preaching of your servant St Paul, grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion, may follow him in bearing witness to your truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
1680 words Christopher Miles