Readings: John 17, 1-2, 20-24; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Names are powerful things. From Rumplestiltskin to Dr Who, Voldermort to the Scottish play, the power of a name is a common trope in literature and a truth of our daily living. I was reminded of this last Sunday when families were clearly moved at hearing the name of their lost loved ones read aloud at Castle Square’s Light for our Loss service. A less edifying example of this was witnessed on Friday when the Presidency of the United States of America was given to a narcissist who demands that his name be put on everything – literally everything from planes, hotels and casinos to steaks, vodka, even water. It’s probably only a matter of time before The White House gets the same treatment!
And yet, the belief in the power of a name is one area – perhaps the only one – on which Trump’s outlook converges with that of The Bible. From Genesis, where Adam names all the living creatures and thus has power over them, to Revelation, where a white stone revealing a new name will be given to the faithful – in scripture names carry with them a lot of power and meaning, and this is evidenced in our readings this morning which both speak of the power of a name. The former speaks of the revelation of the divine name which Jesus spoke to his disciples and the latter with the division that names and our allegiance to them, can bring. In this first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul first opens with salutations and praise before getting down to business –
10 I have a serious concern to bring up with you,” Paul writes to his readers. “And I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. I appeal to you to be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[e] 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 I ask then, has Christ been divided?’
So the Corinthian Church was split between those who aligned with Paul, Apollos, Cephas or who claimed a closer connection to Christ over and above others. Their allegiance was defined by a name and to the identity that such a name gave them. The church in Corinth was so divided, and thus Paul asks them, ‘Has Christ been divided?’ To which, in 2017, we might have to respond ‘Yes’.
For if, as Paul declares later in the letter, the church is the body of Christ, then the fact that today there are estimated to be around 33000 Christian denominations in the world means that Christ’s body is divided or, to quote from The Message, ‘Christ’s body has been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic of our own’.
Like me, you might find those words difficult but those who believe that every split of the church, every denominational divergence, is a division of the body of Christ, would say that we shouldn’t mince our words – that the division of the Church into tribal denominations is a scandal. In a document published by the World Council of Churches in 2015, our current context is described as follows:
“Our brokenness and division contradict Christ’s will for the unity of his disciples and hinder the mission of the Church. This is why the restoration of unity between Christians, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is such an urgent task.”
So, what do you think? Is the restoration of unity between Christians an urgent task? Are you passionate about the need for us to seek, pray and work for the end of denominational divisions and the unity of the Church…because, if I’m totally honest with you…and I generally try to be…most of the time, I’m not. And that became very clear to me when writing this sermon. I can get excited by the parables and poetry of scripture; I can be overwhelmed by glimpses of grace and the tale of God’s extravagant love; I can get spirited about welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, standing up for the oppressed…but reflecting on Christian unity just didn’t set me on fire. The fact is that working for the restoration of unity between Christians is rarely at the top of my to do list…and that comes from a minister of an ecumenical denomination working in a uniting church who has been tasked to sit on two national committees which are working for Christian unity! I’m by no means proud of holding such a view but I do, at least, understand if the week of prayer for Christian Unity doesn’t stir the soul; I can empathise if you sigh to yourself when you hear that we’re holding another joint service with sisters and brothers from another church; I can accept that some who normally come to our evening worship won’t be going to the united service at St Catherine’s tonight because Christian unity can often be frustrating or challenging or just plain boring!
And yet, Jesus prays that we may become completely one. 20 I am not praying just for these followers,” Jesus says in the gospel according to John, “I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me. 21 I want all of them to be one. Just as I am one with you and you are one with me, I also want them to be one with us. For then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.”
Can we explain away these few verses? Possibly. Are Jesus’ prayers and our actions misaligned? Possibly. Does Christian disunity play a part in hindering our sharing of the good news of God? Possibly. And if so, that is a scandal that we should be fired up about.
So where do we go from here? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect on this. I invite us to turn to hymn 131 and as we do I encourage you to really think about the words that we are invited to sing.
Filled with the Spirit’s power with one accord
the infant church confessed its risen Lord.
O Holy Spirit, in the church today
no less your power of fellowship display.
Now with the mind of Christ set us on fire,
that unity may be our great desire.
Give joy and peace; give faith to hear your call,
and readiness in each to work for all.
Widen our love, good Spirit, to embrace
in your strong care people of every race.
Like wind and fire with life among us move,
till we are known as Christ’s, and Christians prove.
Words: J.R. Peacey (1896-1971), alt.
‘Now with the mind of Christ, set us on fire, that unity may be our great desire’.
Did you sing those words? Do you agree with them?
A week ago we were celebrating the founding of St David’s Uniting Church – we were giving thanks that St David’s Presbyterian Church united with Pontypridd United Church 15 years ago. So have we done our bit for Christian unity now or is there more to be done? Are we to be known as St David’s Uniting Church for good or will circumstances dictate otherwise? Who knows…but as we wrestle with the challenges of Christian unity, let’s spend the next few minutes reflecting on what our name – St David’s Uniting Church – might say about our approach to unity today.
We start then with ‘St David’s’. The naming of Protestant churches after individuals canonized by Popes of centuries gone by is something of a quirk of history and why the founders of the new Presbyterian Church in Pontypridd called it ‘St David’s has – to the best of my knowledge – been lost in the sands of time. Perhaps it was to recognize that the new English Cause, as it was called back then, was still part of the Presbyterian Church of Wales so naming it after the nation’s patron saint. Perhaps, but we can’t be sure. Nor can we be certain about many of the details of the life of Saint David himself as much of the information we have comes from an account of his life written over 500 years after he died. And if we did follow the example of the man portrayed in legend, we’d all be tee-total vegetarians who believe that babies are born in sin and adults cannot choose to be good…which some, but by no means all of us, do.
So if we’re unsure as to why we’re named after a Welsh bishop and we don’t align ourselves to his example, just what does it mean to be so called today? Well, perhaps, for you, it is significant that this church is named after St David. Perhaps it represents something of your national identity. Or perhaps it makes no difference. Whatever the case, like those followers of Christ in Corinth, we cannot define and divide the church by an allegiance to one name or another. In truth, there is no church of St David’s or St Catherine’s; we don’t belong to Dyfrig, John the Evangelist or Mary; to Luke, Apollus, Paul or to any name other than that of Jesus Christ. There is one church – his. There is one body, one family, one faith. Jesus himself prayed for us to be one –could we do more to answer his prayer in Pontypridd?
In our celebrations last week we spoke of Martin Luther and remarked that most of the changes that came through the Reformation were for the good but we must also acknowledge that the separation the movement caused created great suffering and pain to Christ’s body. Prejudice and persecution and conflict between followers of Christ ravaged throughout Europe for centuries as church after church declared that they were the elect ones faithful to the true teaching of Christ, the one who commanded us to love each other – and would kill anyone who thought different!
“This is how the world will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said over bread and wine, “if you love one another’. The image on the screen suggests the Church didn’t listen to these words of Jesus, showing as it does just a few of the thousands of schisms that occurred in the church following the reformation. It is, I think, a sorry sight.
But it is not one without hope for there amidst all the branches splitting off from each other, we also see an anomaly, a freak occurrence – for there on the top right, we see two branches that were once separate coming together as one; there we see the founding of The United Reformed Church. For the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Church in England and Wales, Christian unity was not simply something to pay lip service to but was a prayer of Jesus to be answered. It was hard work, of course. It involved interminably dull discussions, compromise, unease from many members and yet the end result was a denomination that benefitted from the blessings of different traditions, that learnt more of Christ’s humility and hospitality, that witnessed that we are Together Stronger!
And what the United Reformed Church achieved on a national level this church family achieved and extended in Pontypridd. For whereas the URC was initially the joining together of two churches, in 2002, this church saw the joining of three – Congregational, Presbyterian and Baptist. What’s more, our very name suggests that we’re not finished yet for we are not simply three churches united but a pioneering example of the Church of God uniting. Those few letters difference remind us that our task isn’t over, the mission is not yet accomplished for we have more uniting to do both within this community and without.
Perhaps such uniting calls for us to let go of grudges and forgive past hurts from those within these walls. Perhaps it calls for us to be open to change, challenge and compromise in how, when and with whom we worship. Perhaps it will lead us to unite with yet more Christian communities, not out of a sense of falling numbers and necessity but from a spirit of generosity, humility and love. Are we open to such a move? Are we prepared to perhaps move buildings, accommodate different ideas, to share our ministry and mission with other communities? It’s no small ask but this community has done it before and has seen the benefits for itself. “Uniting as one church was like being brought out of the wilderness and into the promised land’, is how one member explains 2002’s union and many more who were unsure of the move at the time, who maybe even voted against it, have come to delight in it. Well, as a uniting church, we are called to be open to where the Spirit takes us next, to pull the tent pegs up again if asked. Why? Well that leads us to the final part of our name – St. David’s Uniting Church.
We gather here today – we meet throughout the week – not as a self-preservation society or as some private members club but as a church. We gather together around a cross which lays bare our division, our hurt, our shame. We gather together around an empty tomb, giving thanks for resurrection, new life and hope. We gather together around a Christ who lives and forgives, who comforts and challenges, who loves us and prays that we be one with another and with God that so the world may believe. This is why Paul seeks unity and scorns division. This is why he rebukes those who claim they belong to one name or other. This is why he addresses his letter;
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, 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 our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
Names are powerful things. Some divide and demean. Some enliven and strengthen. Some can tell us of our journey, our hopes, our purpose. Yet only one unites us all. Only one can bind together all Christians and churches, all seekers and strivers, bold believers and doubting disciples of every denomination, place and time. Only one can give us a passion for unity, calls us to work for it and offers us hope in the day when divisions will be healed, when the church will be one and God will be all in all – that’s the name of Jesus Christ, saviour of the cosmos, brother of each one of us, the God who prays that the Church be one. May it be so. Amen.