The following sermon was preached at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Parish in Saskatoon. The occasion was an Ecumenical Sunday to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Before I begin, I would like to say thank you to all of you for welcoming me this morning, and thank you to Father Tony for inviting me to share my reflections on the scriptures with you. As we begin this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is good for us to worship, to pray, and to share across denominational lines, as we seek to grow together in unity and peace.
As Tony mentioned, I am the minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, just down 20th Street at Spadina Crescent. I am pleased to see that there are a few members of my congregation here at St. Mary’s this morning, and I would encourage the members of St. Mary’s Parish, that you are most welcome to worship with us at St. Andrew’s later this morning at 11 a.m. If you decide to join us, you will get to hear Father Tony preaching, as well as to experience worship in the Reformed Tradition, just as we are sharing in your liturgy now.
Although our worship practices have some differences, one of the things that we share is the practice of following a lectionary of Sunday scripture readings. The Roman Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary are not identical, but most Sundays we hear and reflect on at least some of the same readings. This morning, all four readings are the same (including the psalm), with only some variation in the selection of verses.
From 1 Corinthians, the Roman Lectionary includes only the first three verses of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians in the middle of the first century. As you may know, ancient letters usually followed a standard format which included beginning with a formal greeting.
First, the letter would identify who the letter was from. And so, Paul’s letter begins: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes.”
Next, an ancient letter would include a sentence indicating to whom the letter was addressed: “To the church of God that is in Corinth,” Paul’s letter continues, “to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
So verses one and two are simply the “TO” and “FROM” lines of the letter, like the address and return address on the outside of a modern envelope. And verse three is a short greeting in the name of God… a greeting from Paul and Sosthenes to the Corinthian Christians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
When I first read those three verses in the Roman Lectionary, I wondered why the reading had been cut so short. I thought it was comparable to receiving a letter in the mail and being allowed to see who it was from, reading “Dear Amanda,” and then being made to stop. I wanted to know what came next, what the letter was going to be about.
Well, the Revised Common Lectionary does provide a few more verses. And when I read Paul’s words of thanks to God for the Corinthian Christians and the variety of spiritual gifts with which they had been blessed, I thought they were wonderful words for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
You see, I may not be very old, but I feel like I’ve been praying for the unity of the Christian Church for a long, long time. The same week that I began my seminary training, I met the Roman Catholic man who would soon become my husband. And as we have lived an interchurch life together – praying together, sharing our faith, and worshipping together in both of our traditions for the past ten years – I have experienced the variety of spiritual gifts within our churches.
Just as Paul thanked God for the gifts of the Corinthians despite the conflict and brokenness that plagued their internal relationships and hindered their unity, I have come to treasure the variety of gifts that are expressed particularly in our Presbyterian and Catholic traditions.
In my own Reformed Tradition, I appreciate the emphasis on scripture study and biblical preaching. I value the partnership between clergy and lay people in the decision-making courts of the church at all levels. And I could not fulfill my own calling as a preacher without the openness of my church to recognizing the gifts and callings of both men and women to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments.
But when I worship with my husband in his Catholic parish, I am blessed by another set of gifts. I have come to appreciate the rhythm of the liturgy… as our prayers move from our heads to our hearts, and it’s almost as if we are breathing our prayer to God. I treasure the emphasis on the Sacraments, the frequency of Communion, and the physicality of worship expressed in sign, symbol, and movement. And as a leader within my own church, there are certainly times when I long for a good bishop to give guidance and pastoral care to clergy and congregations.
As a Presbyterian who has spent time in the Catholic Church, I can honestly say with Paul that “there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are a variety of services, but the same Lord; and there are a variety of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone,” and the body of Christ with its many members is yet called to be one body. Just as the eye cannot say it to the hand, we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.”
But this morning’s reading of 1 Corinthians from the Roman Lectionary ends after the greeting. It doesn’t get into Paul’s thanksgiving to God for the variety of gifts within the Corinthian Church. Instead, it begins in exactly the place where I believe we need to begin as Christian churches who are seeking unity. It begins by acknowledging and naming our common identity as the saints of God.
I should mention, in case you aren’t too familiar with the Corinthian Church of the first century… The Corinthian Christians were deeply divided. All kinds of reports had been getting back to Paul about the conflicts and issues within their church.
Some of them had the special gift of speaking in tongues, and they looked down on those who didn’t share that gift. And among other things, they were arguing about how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and about appropriate ways for women to participate in worship and church leadership.
Like Christians today, the Corinthians were naming their affiliations to particular leaders and positions. They were saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”or “I belong to Cephas.”
And so Paul begins his letter by claiming his authority as an apostle who is called by Christ, and by confirming the Corinthians’ calling as well. No matter what conflicts or divisions or issues they may have with one another, they remain, in Paul’s view – “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”
And this identity as God’s holy ones, called to follow Jesus and live like him, is a shared identity… shared “with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
Before Paul could even begin to address the issues in Corinth, before he could recognize their gifts or help them to see the giftedness of their neighbours, the Corinthian Christians needed to see and acknowledge their shared identity as Christians.
Without that first and critical step, divided churches will always be suspicious of one another. We’ll always be wary of sharing too much, of changing too much, of opening ourselves too much… for fear of losing our faith. And we will remain divided. We will remain separated. We will struggle along… holding on tight to the gifts of our particular traditions, but lacking in all the other gifts that our Christian neighbours could so easily share with us… if only we were open to receiving them.
But let’s pause and consider the Gospel text that Father Tony shared with us this morning. It’s a story from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the world. Before he began, a community of followers had already formed. They were the disciples of John the Baptist. They were going out into the wilderness to be baptized by John, and they were turning their lives towards God, and looking for the One that John told them was to come.
Last Sunday you will have heard the story from Matthew’s Gospel about the day that John baptized Jesus. It was a life-changing moment for Jesus, when he heard God’s voice of blessing and was empowered to begin his work in the world.
But it must have been a life-changing moment for John also. He had a ministry. He had followers. He was likely a gifted preacher and leader, and he had a pretty good idea of what God was calling him to do.
But he somehow knew that the ministry God called him to was not about him. It was so much bigger than him! His job was only to prepare the way and to point to the Christ. In the same way, God has not called us to be Presbyterians or Catholics, or to build up a following of faithful Protestants or Evangelicals or Orthodox Christians.
The day after the baptism of the Lord, John saw Jesus coming towards him, and he declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John pointed to the Christ and said, “It’s not about me. It’s all about Jesus. Follow him.”
I think we do need to both treasure the traditions and gifts of our churches, and to share them with the wider Christian community. But at some point, we need to learn from the humility of John, and begin to point away from our particular traditions and practices, to point away from our churches, and to point towards Christ.
“It’s not about us,” we will say, “It’s about him. It’s about Jesus. We have seen for ourselves, and we testify that this is the Son of God.”
There is a moment in your liturgy when the priest invites you to share that kind of humility. He holds up the bread and the wine and declares, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are we who are called to his supper.” And you respond, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
This week, Christians around the world will gather ecumenically to pray for the unity of the church. I hope that you will join in those prayers. And I invite you to join me in praying two things in particular… Pray that Christians around the world will have the opportunity to meet and discover in one another our common identity as disciples of Christ, our common faith, and our common calling to be the saints of God. And pray that Christians and churches around the world will embrace the humility of John, so that we can learn to point away from ourselves and towards Christ Jesus our Lord.
Lord, as churches, as communities, and as individuals, we are not worthy to receive you. We are broken. We are divided one from the other. But only say the word, and we shall be healed. Amen.