One in Christ
Given on Sunday 20th January 2008 at The Abbey by Revd Graeme Hartley, Assistant Curate
Like brightly wrapped sweets in a sweet shop Christians come in many different flavours! There are just as many denominations which make up the Church as there are say, newspapers; each one having its own particular emphases on a spread of subjects ranging from ethical and social issues to liturgies and the way in which worship is simply 'done'. Some denominations focus on God being intimately with us and thus very close to us - in an informal, almost casual, way. And some revel in the awesome grandeur of God's mysterious hiddeness and so their worship involves celebrating the awe and wonder of the God who is over all and beyond all things. But when all is said and done there remains a common set of beliefs that unite us together into one faith. Two of these, which I would like us to look at this morning, are baptism and our resulting fellowship with God the Holy Trinity though Jesus Christ.
Last Sunday we heard about the baptism of Jesus according to St Matthew. When Christ came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form and the voice of the Father was heard affirming Jesus of Nazareth as his Son! [Matthew 3:13-end] So here at the baptism of Christ all three aspects of God's being were revealed to us marking baptism as something special and of great importance.
In today's gospel reading [John 1:29-42] we heard St John describe again how John the Baptist saw the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus and then coming to rest and remain upon him [John 1:29b]. For John the Baptist this was something of an epiphany (or an appearance) of God because he would not have known who Christ was unless the Holy Spirit pointed him out first. As John confesses, 'I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit"' [John 1:33] Jesus himself was immersed both into the ordinary but highly symbolic element of water and also into the extraordinary and mysterious Spirit of God. And just in the same way we, at our baptism, were immersed into God and joined to one another. Thus the pattern of baptism became historically and firmly embossed as a seal upon the Church; upon the very people of God!
In our New Testament reading [1 Corinthians 1:1-9] St Paul greets the Corinthian Church in his letter's salutation telling them that they are 'those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours' [1 Corinthians 1:2b] The Church in Corinth would probably have been an ethnically diverse and philosophically eclectic bunch of people from all walks of life. But they all would have been converts : from Judaism, the Greco-Roman religions or the many pagan cult religions practised in the city. They would, before their conversion, have had favourite gods and would have worshipped in one or more of the many temples which could be found in the city. But now they were a small Christian community wrestling with their own individual thoughts about God and how these fitted into the framework of their personal and corporate identities in Christ. And we can still see this occurring today all over the world in the various denominations of the Church.
St Paul however was adamant, as the apostle to the gentile Church, that the Corinthians were not to consider themselves elite in any way, either in their own assembly or in their relations with other Christians. In fact a large part of his first letter to the Corinthian Church is a warning against an attitude which was cultivating a two tiered class structure among them. The salutation of this letter teaches that the Corinthian Christians were to understand themselves as a part of a much wider and glorious body of believers who were also sanctified and called to be saints - just like them - in every place and that their uniting hallmark was their baptism and faith in Jesus Christ. I am sure that the Apostle would put this challenge to the modern Church too!
Today historical and cultural differences have resulted in a magnificent diversity of peoples within the Church - who are now Christ's Body on earth. Although there have indeed been bitter feuds fought within the Church in the name of doctrine and dogma throughout the centuries, these feuds only reinforce the fact that we are not to be identical body parts in the Body of Christ - all feet, or all hands, or all eyes, or all ears - but we must accept that we are all unique and placed where God wants us to be placed so that we can be the living body of his Son to the world [1 Corinthians 12:12-31].
Last week I had a phone call from a person whom I had seen a few times to offer prayer and support. She told me that she felt awful because she had once been a member of another Christian denomination and that she wanted to return to that tradition and so felt that in some way she was betraying my pastoral kindness. However I was delighted for her rather than disappointed or insulted - I think this rather surprised her! I was delighted because her faith had been reignited and that she had found a place where she felt she belonged and where she felt at home.
It is this kind of attitude that I think is at the root of true ecumenism within the Body of Christ. That is respecting where other people are at and enabling them in love to flourish in their own setting without trying to batter them into our own denominational image! This of course does not stop us from sharing what is important to us as Anglicans and reciprocating by listening to and learning from them. But we must be careful to recognise that not all people will fit through Church of England-shaped holes, or vice versa, without the possibility of harming them.
Since becoming a Christian at the age of twenty one I have been fortunate enough to be able worship and serve in several parts of the Church. First of all I joined the Free Church and was very much involved with the charismatic movement which particularly seeks an intimate relationship with God and actively practices the belief that God still empowers his Church with spiritual gifts. As I became more Anglican I began to appreciate the rich history of the one catholic and apostolic tradition within the Church of England. And when I was at college in Oxford I managed to further experience the richness of other Church traditions - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches to name but a few! But in each and every denomination I found people of genuine faith who were united with me in a common baptism and the belief that Jesus was God come to us and God among us today.
The Bible tells us that the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those he might devour [1 Peter 5:8]. And the powers of darkness would like nothing more than to see the Church family bickering and feuding. Our ecumenical diversities can indeed be a strength in helping square Church people and round Church people fit through their right ecclesiastical holes. But we must always be praying for the unity and protection of the intricate relationships that form the warp and weft of Christ's marvellous body on earth - not only for ecumenical ones, but also those in our own parish. This is especially important in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which began on Friday.
Therefore as we celebrate all our brothers and sisters 'who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ' let us rejoice in the fact that there is indeed one Lord, one faith, one baptism and that by one Spirit we are all baptised into one body, the universal Church of God. And for that, thanks be to God!