Sermon 22 January, 2017

“Has Christ been divided?”  

Here from the novel Shirley is Charlotte Bronte’s portrait of the curate Mr Macarthey:

“I am happy to inform you” she writes “with truth, that this gentleman … proved himself … decent, decorous and conscientious … . He laboured faithfully in the parish: the schools, both Sunday and day schools, flourished under his sway like green bay trees. Being human, of course, he had his faults; these however were proper steady-going clerical faults; what many would call virtues: the circumstance of finding himself invited to tea with a Dissenter would unhinge him for a week; the spectacle of a Quaker wearing his hat in the church; the thought of an unbaptised fellow-creature being interred with Christian rites - these things could make strange havoc in Mr Macarthey’s physical and mental economy: otherwise he was sane, rational, diligent and charitable.”  

This is probably a pen-portrait of Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate at Haworth – and her own future husband. It is certainly warmer than her portraits of other curates in the novel: the Irish giant Malone who carried a sheleigheigh and vanished suddenly from Briarfield parish or the utterly tactless Mr Donne, routed by the formidable Shirley herself.  

Yet Mr Macarthey had his faults, his “proper steady-going clerical faults”. In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we may hope these particular prejudices are not quite so easily evoked today but I think I think we can still recognise the pattern.

These faults of the rational, diligent and charitable Mr Macarthey can remind us that the primary division to be overcome by Christian unity is not division between denominations but division that exists in the mind and perhaps the heart, of a Christian.

“Has Christ been divided?” St Paul challenges the quarrelling Christians of Corinth.  

All such Mr Macartheys treasure identity; they expect wholeness - unity - to come from like-mindedness, common adherence to a defined authority. The builders of the Tower of Babel fit here – one people having one language. We may be tempted to admire their enterprise, their organisational skills and their sheer chutzpah. They aimed higher than a flourishing Sunday school but then so did those building the pyramids - or the Third Reich.

“The Lord confused the language of all the earth and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth”. This confusion of language and this scattering bring to mind another facet of reliance on our own identities - we gain confidence in ourselves and strength by designating someone else as the outsider; the one who is different.

What if God’s scattering and sowing of confusion is not just to punish us for presumption, or shame us, or stop us even, but is for our good? What if God desires a better outcome for us than the uniformity of Babel’s tower?

This story in Chapter 11 of Genesis is followed by the call of Abram in Chapter 12. Abram: the one who leaves his country and his kindred and his father’s house to enter into a covenant with the Lord, a living relationship.  “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go … in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him”. Abram listens to the Lord; he gives an example in how he lives; he responds promptly and fully. He becomes the vehicle for God’s blessing on the nations - blessing, not through planning together their own thing but through God’s choice to make this relationship.  

So to Jesus, walking among us in today’s Gospel. He has made his home in Capernaum, in Galilee of the nations.John has been arrested and Jesus is daunted, perhaps but undeterred. For we hear him proclaiming exactly the same message as John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. It’s John’s message and it is Jesus’ message.

Does this mean they are relying on the strength of a common identity to carry the day? That they are single-minded in pursuing a common project? I don’t think that’s it. There is a resonance of vision, surely but that’s because each is responding to the one heavenly Father. The place where the message is proclaimed and the person proclaiming it, are different.

Those hearing Jesus enter into permanent relationship with him. God calls Abram and Jesus calls these Galilean fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John and St Matthew shows them immediately dropping everything. They follow him without question. “I will make you fishers of men” [excuse the translation] - this sounds not unlike “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Here in this simple and strange encounter on the shore of the lake, God is entering afresh into relationship with his creation.

It’s an Epiphany-tide gospel. It’s manifestation of the light, the great light that has shined in the land of deep darkness and the four fishermen respond whole-heartedly. Here, in this Gospel, there is no divided mind, no self-serving doubt. It’s as if Matthew wanted to give us a memorable portrait of singleness of intent, a perfect unity of thought and action, not counting the cost. It comes from being met by the Lord. The fishermen of Galilee, in a trice, have learnt to find the presence of the living God where previously they had never thought to look for him.  

This is true of St Paul as well - of the Pharisee Saul, met on the road to Damascus. He finds the presence of the living God where previously he had never thought to look - as we shall recall and celebrate later this week. There is an immediate response, however long his road of learning and sanctification would prove. Surely it was true of St Agnes too, for whose martyrdom we gave thanks yesterday. She went unwillingly to the altar of sacrifice, yet embraced the sword of martyrdom as seeing God in the most extreme of places: the foolishness of the cross.  

Our own disunity is overcome, not by a fierce policing of the boundaries of our identity and not by willing a project into being. This disunity is primarily within each one of us, as we fail day by day to respond to the great light we see with the prompt whole-heartedness of the fishermen-apostles, including that of our patron St James.

I choose, rather, to hold something of myself in reserve and to defend it with a hardened identity against a rainy day but the only identity I can have, or can truly want, is for me to be found in Christ. So I learn to look to the world, not with suspicion that it will rob me of what I have in Christ; not with fear that it will “make strange havoc in my physical and mental economy”. I learn to look to the world not just for the Christ I already know, as if life was a great game of Where’s Wally? (You can now go out and buy a Finding Jesus version of Where’s Wally? if you want to).  

We who are in Christ - we who hear and respond to his call to repent - we have the freedom to look to the world and expect that the great light that has dawned will illuminate us afresh in ways we do not yet know and at times that we have not foreseen.

“Has Christ been divided?”

The answer to Paul’s question, of course, is ‘Yes. Christ has been divided’ but it is Christ himself, God-with-us, who has seized the initiative:

‘This is my body broken for you’. Broken, that we may be whole: made whole within and made one in Christ.  

To him be the glory now and forever. Amen.

Oswin Gartside, Prior CR