Text: 1 Corinthians 12.13
A German missionary tells of his experience in southwest Africa, "Kneeling on the prairie sand I celebrated the Lord's Supper with some Herero tribesmen. They had never been to any of our cities or even ever heard of them and I had never known anything of that remote bush country until recently. Neither of us understood a single word of the otherís language. But when I made the sign of the cross with my hand and pronounced the name ĎJesusí their dark faces lit up. We ate some bread and drank from the same cup, despite apartheid, and they couldn't do enough to show me their love. They held out their children to me and took me into their poor huts. We had never seen each other before. We were separated by social, geographical and cultural barriers. And yet we were enclosed by arms that were not of this world." *
That might have happened in the 1960s but today we have similar experiences when Christians meet and even though they come from different backgrounds and traditions immediately they feel something of a bond.
We experience this togetherness in Christ as we meet here for worship at St Paulís. We experienced this at the ecumenical gathering at Woodford recently celebrating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the covenant between Anglican, Roman Catholic, Uniting and Lutheran Churches in the Stanley River area. Perhaps you have visited other churches here in Australia and overseas and felt the warm welcome of fellow Christians even though you have never met them before.
As you know last year we worshipped with Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, the service was in Arabic, the Bible readings were in English and Arabic, but even though we didnít understand the actual words of the hymns, it was a delight to be seated with fellow Christians worshipping our Lord and Saviour, experiencing the oneness that doesnít rely on language or customs or culture but feeling the warmth of our fellow worshippers as they went out of their way to make sure we had the right page in the hymnbook (even though we couldnít read a word of it) and doing everything they could to make us feel at home knowing full well that culturally we were poles apart but in truth we were one in Christ. As we prayed the Lordís Prayer Arabic and English voices prayed together. The last hymn was a tune we knew. In amongst the Arabic voices you could hear ĎRock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in theeí. To me that was a pentecostal experience. Different voices, different languages speaking together as one in prayer and praise of the one Lord.
Whether in cathedrals or small churches in villages and towns anywhere in the world in spite of the different cultures, different languages, different ways of worshipping, different nationalities that make up these congregations, there is a special and unique unity that joins all Christians together. There is diversity without a doubt, but there is also something that unites in spite of the differences.
In Jerusalem that first Pentecost, there were people from all over the world. They had little or nothing in common. Perhaps the only thing they had in common was that they had come to Jerusalem along with Jews from all over the world to celebrate the Jewish Pentecost Ė a festival celebrating the first fruits of the harvest and also the giving of the law at Mt Sinai. The barriers of national language and interest and personality stood between them. Yet when the wind of God's Spirit swept over them this estrangement, this separation is suddenly blown away.
The one common Lord became the one binding force of fellowship around them all and at once understanding appeared amongst them. Those people of different backgrounds on Pentecost Day, and those tribesmen of the African prairie and that missionary, and those who worshipped with the Palestinians found, that in spite of the barriers that separated one person from another, there was a uniting influence. The barriers were no longer important. As the multicultural crowd in Jerusalem that day heard the disciples speak to them in their own language and then heard Peter explain that what they were experiencing had already been foretold in the Old Testament when God said, "I will pour out my Spirit on everyone" they were experiencing what Paul describes as the unity of the Spirit that binds everyone together.
And of course, the unifying
factor between Christians who outwardly have no other basis for any kind of
togetherness is Jesus Christ.
We all believe and trust that Jesus is our Saviour.
He has died for us and given us forgiveness.
He rose from the dead and assures us that we too will rise from the dead.
He has brought all of us together as members of God's family regardless of our backgrounds and all the things that divide us in this world.
This is highlighted for us at our
baptism. In a very simple way, through the water and the Word he has united us
all together with him. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and when I say
"we", I mean people
from every tribe, nation and tongue,
young, old and in between,
the unemployed, trades people, business people, academics and people from every other occupation,
the likeable and the unlikeable,
the agreeable and the disagreeable,
the good, the bad and the ugly.
There is no discrimination in God's family. Paul says it so well in Galatians, "All of you are God's children because of your faith in Christ Jesus. And when you were baptised, it was as though you had put on Christ in the same way you put on new clothes. Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether Jew or Greek, a slave or free person, a man or woman" (Galatians 3.26-28).
This might sit uncomfortably with some of us some of the time. This oneness, this unity in Christ, this togetherness in the spirit has far reaching implications for the way we regard our fellow Christians as brother and sisters in Christ. It hits hard when we think of the people that we really struggle to like and at times find ourselves really wanting to give them a Ďwhats forí if not to their face then behind their back.
Paul had to deal with this kind of
thing in the Corinthian congregation to whom he wrote the words of our second
reading today. There were all kinds of things happening that went against the
unity they shared in Christ and in the Spirit.
Some thought themselves more important than others.
Some considered themselves more religious than others.
Some didnít care if they gave offense.
Some regarded their spiritual gifts as superior to those of others and it went on. Paul had to speak firmly to those Christians saying, "All of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether slave or free, have been baptised in to the one body by the same Spirit, and we have been given the one Spirit to drink" (1 Corinthians 12.13).
As you can appreciate this has a powerful message about the way we regard one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Itís far too easy to deny the unity that we have in Christ and ignore our baptism and the unity it gives, and rebut the Holy Spirit by letting our sinful nature win the day. We get ourselves into all kinds of strife. Paulís words to the Ephesians apply equally to us, "Try your best to let God's Spirit keep your hearts united. ... All of you are part of the same body".
This unity that we have in Christ goes beyond the walls of our church. It goes with us into our homes, our work places, our places of leisure. The Holy Spirit is an every day Spirit. He helps us in our daily living as Christians in this very complex age.
For instance, there can be no doubt that conflict will always remain part of our marriage relationships, and the relationship between parents and children, but having a successful marriage and home will depend very much on being able to resolve conflict. Forgiveness, understanding and caring will always remain critical for family relationships. The Holy Spirit is always nearby influencing us to make real in our lives the unity that have in Jesus. As Paul said, "Do you best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together" (Ephesians 4:3).
Because we are united in the one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father who works through all and in all (Ephesians 4:6) we have an obligation to let the Spirit work in our lives to make that unity real in all of our relationships as hard as that might be. We have to lean pretty heavily on the Spirit most of the time to guide us and motivate us and rely on Jesus to forgive us for the mess we make of things, but we have God's promise that under his control all the different parts of the body will fit together and live and work together in peace (Ephesians 4:16).
But not only is this unity we have in Christ to be expressed in our relationships with our fellow Christians but also with all people. A member of a congregation who was having a terrible row with his neighbour tried to convince me that he didnít have to make peace with his neighbour because what Paul wrote only applied to Christians and his neighbour wasnít a Christian.
The Spirit living in us and guiding
us as disciples of Jesus enables the light of Christ to shine through us as we
to show a reconciling spirit even when we think it hasnít been deserved,
to seek justice where people have suffered wrong,
to show compassion where others have preferred to ignore,
to show love to those whom everyone else has branded as unlovable.
This is a tough call and one we prefer to walk away from but itís one to which we are called by the Spirit of God.
The people on the first Pentecost listened to what Peter had to say, and they acted. Likewise the Spirit promotes Jesus in our lives; he gathers us around the cross of Jesus; he changes our lives, to be more patient and forgiving, to seek new beginnings in our relationships with one another and let the power of God's love have the final say over the conflicts we get in to. He is available to us every moment of every day as we face the choices between self-centredness or being the people the Spirit has called us to be in Christ.
With all this talk about unity letís not forget that we are a diverse bunch. This diversity is God-given; it equips us to meet a diverse world and community. Diversity is a wonderful thing, and makes St Paulís what it is - a wonderful gift to the community in which we live. Filled with the Spiritís power, together we are his diverse, yet unified, people.
* Helmut Thielicke, I believe, The Christian Creed, Fortress 1968
© Pastor Vince
12th June 2011