We’re two months through a three-month series on the Holy Spirit. This was our subject last Sunday morning, but it was an all-age worship service, where we couldn’t go into much depth. Normally we have an evening service on the same day where we take that morning’s them deeper. However, this time that service got delayed by a week, and so here is the adult sermon for tomorrow night based on last week’s theme. You’ll see the odd reference back to last week in this text. Longstanding readers will also notice one or two favourite old sermon illustrations coming back into play.
Are we united? Are we one as Christians? As Methodists? As worshippers at KMC? To listen to some Christians, you would think that the whole matter of unity was simple. Someone in a previous circuit once glibly told me that Methodists and Catholics believed the same things. Er, no we don’t. And after the recent episode where Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral withdrew permission for a Methodist ordination service to take place there, it’s clear the Catholics don’t think we believe the same.
Or is it right what I heard in a prophecy at an ecumenical renewal gathering many years ago: “Weep, for my Body is broken”? Yet on the other hand, there is so much we have in common.
So which is true: are Christians united, or not?
The answer, surely, is both. Yes and no. And in the two passages we have different answers. As Jesus prays for all who will believe in him, he assumes his disciples are not united and prays for the Father to make them one. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, he assumes that the church is one in the Holy Spirit, and so his concern is not to make them united but that they maintain it. Both will be a challenge to us. Let us explore them in turn.
Firstly, we are not united. Jesus prays that all who believe in him may be as united as he and the Father are united, and that this unity will be a missionary witness to the world (John 17:20-23).
One of my previous churches had what I thought was a rather tacky letterhead for official correspondence. The logo was an outline drawing of the church building. I objected that the church was not the building, but the people. I asked that we have a new logo, showing some people gathering around the Cross. Because that was the church.
Did I get my way? No.
But I think I was right. I believe Jesus came to form a community, centred on him, even if it was in continuity with Israel. The New Testament word ekklesia literally means, ‘those called out’, and it originally referred to the assembly of people who made decisions in a Greek city. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it renders a Hebrew word qahal, which also means assembly: it refers to the assembly of Israel in the wilderness, when she was called out of Egypt. We are ‘called out’ to be an assembly of people. No special buildings existed for a long time.
We become one, then, when we are drawn to the Father through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our unity is based on the Father’s love, the atoning work of Jesus and the enabling of the Holy Spirit. So deeply do we share in what God has done for us that we become one.
And we become one, not only in the sense that we have these things in common, but that God binds us together and makes us into one body. We are not isolated individuals who share a common interest: God binds us into a new community, because his purposes were always bigger than just saving individuals. Human beings were created as social creatures, and society needs a model of a new community. That is God’s great purpose for the church.
So our witness is seen when we so live for Christ and for one another, that we put God and one another ahead of our own desires. This is what speaks powerfully to the world. They will not be impressed by a mutual love of Wesley hymns, or a preference to hear different preachers every week. Solid, binding love in the company of Jesus will make an impression. Nothing less.
What will not give a good witness is when we major on minors, when we behave as if we can live without each other, when we gossip or when we tear each other to shreds. There is more than enough of that in the world. It does not need the Church to add to it. Of course, we shall have conflict, but our task then is not to pretend that the conflict does not exist, but to model a path of love, grace and truth towards resolving it. We have the same differences as human beings as the rest of the world, but what Christ has done for us gives us the resources to work through those tensions and be a model of harmony.
So we do not have unity without God giving it to us in Christ, but the fact that he has leads on to the second half of our thoughts, where Paul says we are united. He builds on what God has done for us in Christ, and which the Holy Spirit makes real and present. Now we do have the gift of unity, our task is to maintain it.
And so before we ever get to all the protracted and apparently fruitless discussions between denominations about formal unity, Paul gives us some basic tasks in our relationships that will enable us to maintain the unity of the Spirit:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)
I wonder if you remember the four sets of contrasts I set up between different types of people in the all age worship last Sunday morning? Some of us are such opposites that it requires these very qualities of humility, gentleness, patience and bearing with one another in order to maintain our unity. We need to deploy these qualities so that we appreciate the different gifts other people can bring, rather than being frustrated by them.
So the person who loves being in crowds mustn’t tell the one who loves solitude that he is not a people person, and the one who appreciates solitude must not say that a sociable person is shallow. The person who uses her five senses and has an eye for fine detail can be a gift to the man who operates by a sixth sense and only sees the big picture. The man concerned for the truth and the woman who cares for harmony and love both have essential gifts for the church. The one who plans and the one who is spontaneous need patience to avoid winding each other up, when in fact each of them has a useful contribution to make.
I’ve not always found it easy to believe that the church can exhibit this kind of unity in the Spirit. I’ve been in gatherings where we’ve sung Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord’, and we’ve come to verse four and found it hard to sing:
E’en now we think and speak the same
And cordially agree;
Concentred all, through Jesu’s name,
In perfect harmony.
Because my experience has not been of cordial agreement, but of rabid disagreement, sometimes on the most fundamental areas of Christian faith, sometimes because people were not prepared to have a generous spirit towards those whose personalities or cultural tastes were vastly different. It made it agony to be a Christian in those circumstances. I can think of one or two churches and religious institutions to which I would happily never return.
However, the challenge is clear, and the elements of healing and peace present when you encounter Christian communities and congregations that are committed to the humble, gentle, patient love that the unity of the Spirit entails make such places like iced water on a hot day. In fact, more than that, a community that exhibits these qualities can be a powerful witness to God’s love in the world.
And that leaves me with just a couple of closing questions. One is, how can we be like this? It seems to me that this is a basic issue of Christian holiness. And like all other matters of holiness, the New Testament holds two things in tension: one is that we are called to obey, and the other is that we need the Spirit’s empowering. I put these together and say that holiness is active co-operation with the Holy Spirit. Therefore we need to hear God’s call to this unity of the Spirit and be prepared to obey with the humility it requires to put it into action, but to do so in reliance upon the Holy Spirit. We say ‘yes’ to the Father, and at the same time seek the Spirit’s help.
My other question is this. It’s all very well saying that a Christian community living in the unity of the Spirit can be a powerful witness, but how will that be seen by the world? It isn’t much good if the only way this is experienced is within the inner confines of the church family. And seeing as most of the population don’t come much into contact with who are, what we are like and what we do, isn’t that all a bit hopeless?
I would suggest that this therefore comes down to another of those issues of where we need to reimagine church. Just as I’ve emphasised since coming here that mission is a primary function of the church, so we must carry that through to all areas of church life. One such area would be our small groups, where the love and unity is often best experienced. We need to think of our small groups as more than Bible study, fellowship and prayer for each other. We need to see them as cells for mission.
I have no time tonight to go into the details of what has become known as the ‘cell church movement’, but Graham Horsley, who is coming to preach at our Missions Sunday on 9th October, is a Methodist expert on that subject. But essentially, we can see small groups as the church in microcosm. They follow what has become known as the ‘Four ‘W’s’: welcome, worship, word, witness. In ‘welcome’, they get to know one another better. In ‘worship’, they worship in a form appropriate to the group size and members. In ‘word’, they study the Bible, but with an emphasis on practical application. And in ‘witness’, they pray for people who need God’s love and they plan outreach activities of all sorts. With that stress on witness, the cell group has a great opportunity to demonstrate the unity of the Spirit as it interacts with the world.
So the challenge of unity in the Spirit is clear and important. We have no unity save that in Christ, but what unity that is. It is to be guarded and maintained. If we do that with the humility that entails, and depending on the Holy Spirit and in the presence of the world, then we have a gift for those we live among, a missional gift of God’s love.
May it be so.
One of the joys I have in my new appointment is the presence of an Iranian congregation. They meet on Sunday afternoons on the premises of one of my churches. I have been asked to develop closer links with them. This was already beginning under my predecessor, who worshipped with them nearly every week. The Iranian congregation’s lay pastor is in the early stages of Methodist Local Preacher training.
I go as often as I can, and it’s a fascinating experience. There are only a dozen or so who attend each week, and they are warm and friendly. Not only do I experience their warmth, I notice how they treat one other visitor. There are a number of people in our area with serious mental health issues, and some of them regularly visit our services. One chap in particular often comes to the Iranian service. They sit him down with a coffee and do their best to chat with him. Frequently, Michael will leave early during the worship, and they are not offended. They understand, and give him a quiet, but cheerful farewell.
Worshipping at their service is difficult for someone like me who cannot speak or read Farsi. (Although one or our two musicians who attend to help with the worship is learning!) The young woman who leads worship has a beautiful singing voice, and I can appreciate that. However, I haven’t the foggiest what they are singing, except on the rare occasions when they seem to be singing a translation of a worship song originally written in English. The other week, the tune was unmistakably ‘You Are Beautiful Beyond Description’.
When the pastor preaches (or when he talks in other parts of the service), his wife provides a basic translation into English for the musicians and me. The very first week I went, she was unable to come, so that was fun! However, the pastor indicated which Bible passages they were reading, and gave a one or two-sentence summary of his sermon.
My early reaction to this experience was to think, “Whom will they reach? Their likely clientele will be very small, and some of the existing congregation travels several miles to be at this service every week. So how will they grow?”
However, I then realised they were not so different from many established English-speaking congregations. Effectively, we already have thousands of ‘niche churches’ in this country. Our language, practice and culture are so beyond the understanding of many unchurched people that they would struggle to integrate into them. And some of our folk travel several miles to attend worship at the church they love.
More positively, there is a certain case for niche churches in a diverse and fragmented culture. (Thinkers like Michael Moynagh have advocated them.) They will inevitably be small, and they must still express Christian unity with disciples from other backgrounds, otherwise the human reconciliation aspect of the Gospel will not be expressed.
Moving back to the negative, one danger of a niche church is that it becomes a private chaplaincy. I have seen churches for expatriate English speakers abroad function like this. They become like little embassies – where the territory is that of home, not the disturbing country, and the congenial company is a shelter against reality. Come to think of that, plenty of regular churches are like that. It needs regular and persistent challenging.
My Iranian friends have a special opportunity to reach out into their community. We have our unique opportunities, too. Within our diversity, we need to celebrate our unity in Christ as a sign of hope to the world that reconciliation is possible.
And that last point isn’t meant to be an idle theological platitude. Our six-year-old son Mark is aware that Iran as a nation doesn’t like the UK. He was worried at first that I was going to share fellowship with Iranians, because he thought I was going to share with some enemies. I had to explain to him that these Iranians were different from the government in their native land, and that Jesus made us one. Given the levels of racial prejudice I have sometimes found in churches as well as in our society generally, this call to express Christian unity across racial and cultural boundaries – and especially across such a boundary as this one – is vital for Gospel witness.
The Methoblogosphere (at least here in the UK) is buzzing after David Gamble and Richard Vautrey, the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, addressed the Church of England General Synod yesterday and declared that Methodism was ready to die if it furthered the mission of God. They challenged the C of E to consider whether they would say the same. Good sources on this story come from Ekklesia, the President and Vice-President’s blog, Dave Warnock and various posts by Pete Phillips. Less kudos for Ruth Gledhill’s blogs in the Times, I’m afraid.
Here are a few thoughts that have been going through my mind.
The critical point is we should be willing to die for the sake of mission. Amen to that. Would that every Methodist signed up to that. ‘Unless a grain of wheat …’ etc. David Gamble said:
We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission.
Indeed. However, the problem is we might cease to exist without making the choice freely because in many places we are failing in mission. The ‘mission first’ theme (as Dave Warnock calls it) has to be top priority. And not so we can save our chapels so they continue to exist; rather, because people need the love of God in Christ.
On the mission theme I found one of the most telling quotes to come from Ken Howcroft, the Assistant Secretary of Conference and Ecumenical Officer (in one of Pete’s blogs linked above):
Methodism began as a discipleship movement within the wider church, a society of people seeking holiness and engaging in mission. It’s calling was expressed as “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land”. The modern expression of that is the programme Our Calling. We have over time gradually become a church. We cherish our traditions and history as a church. We cherish our institutions and structures. But we still have the DNA of a movement.
Exactly. It is my understanding as one whose postgrad research was in ecclesiology that so much of Methodism is still structured like a para-church movement rather than a church. The circuit system is the most obvious example. It was created by Wesley as a way of getting preachers to go round servicing the midweek renewal groups that he established during the eighteenth century revival, but those groups were meant to worship at the parish church on Sundays. We translated that structure into a denomination, where preachers still move – but from congregation to congregation – and not midweek but on Sundays. (For anyone who wants to explore more of this academically, the late missiologist Ralph Winter wrote about it using the terms ‘modalities’ and ‘sodalities‘.)
I don’t accept the way in which the Anglo-Catholics argue we aren’t truly a church (bishops, the ‘historic succession’ and all that nonsense), but there is a real argument that we never stopped being structured as a renewal movement. The problem is, that isn’t how we’re viewed on the ground. Our members see us as a church; the world sees us as a church. And of course the church should be about mission. However, we have imported into our renewal structures other aspects that come direct from the Christendom centuries of the church (notably ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care) that bias us in a direction of being concerned for internal matters first. I applaud what David Gamble has said enthusiastically, for all my reservations about union with the Church of England (I don’t believe in a threefold order of ministry, I think what is claimed for the historic succession is bunk and is also pastorally damaging, I don’t believe in an established church). However, we have a lot to do to convince our people that he is working from the correct premises (which I think he is).
And then there is his challenge to the Church of England. Well said! I hope it will be heard and taken seriously. The difficulty comes in the fact that they are the majority party and this could be taken as Methodism going into submissive mode – ‘OK, we’ll accept your terms’. (Not that the President meant that for a moment!) Like it or not, power comes into these discussions. It was there from 1946, when Archbishop Fisher invited the Free Churches to ‘take episcopacy into their system‘. In other words, unity is on our terms, folks. It’s been explicit in Anglican unity thinking since the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 to 1888. There was provision for episcopacy to be ‘locally adapted’, but episcopacy was still a non-negotiable.
Furthermore, we should never lose sight of the dangers of organic union. If we delude ourselves that a formal union is a great witness, we should think again. Did Jesus have merely institutional unity in mind when he prayed for the unity of his disciples, as recorded in John 17? Of course not! As the current debate underlines, it was about mission. But it isn’t simply that an institutional union provides credibility to the world: rather, mission is a spiritual activity, and must be empowered spiritually. There are too many examples littering our globe of organic unions and plummeting membership. Therefore this welcome debate has to be fuelled by a powerful renewal in the Holy Spirit or the fruits will not match the fine aspirations.
Come, Holy Spirit.