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Thought for the week - 22 January

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.

This week has been the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity when we reflect on the sad divisions that mar Christ’s Body, the Church. As we look back in Christian history we can see how the Church has been divided with different groups of Christians breaking off from the main body of the Church and forming their own churches or denominations, or of other groups of Christians being cut off from the Church, in effect excommunicated. Looking back at some of the issues that divided the Church it sometimes seems difficult to understand what those issues where and it is certainly very easy to become entrenched in one’s own denominational position.

Given the palpable disunity of the Church – and our own Anglican Communion is far from united - it is easy to think that we can look back to a golden age when the Church was united in faith and practice, an undivided Church pure in doctrine. Sadly, there has never has been such an age. The Christian Church has been damaged by division right from the outset. I suppose, given the diversity of human personality and thought this is inevitable.

"I follow Paul", "I follow Apollos"; "I follow Cephas"; "I follow Christ." - words we have just heard in our New Testament reading. It is an almost natural human instinct to align oneself to a particular set of opinions of which there may be an outstanding spokesman. Divisions in the Church are almost inevitable and have been there from the beginning as the letter to the Corinthians demonstrates.

Corinth in the first century when Paul was writing was a very cosmopolitan place, busy and loud. It was a wealthy trading centre and attracted people to live there. Consequently it was multi-cultured and multi-religious. There were temples to the many Greek Gods, and there was a flourishing Jewish community there. In some ways it was not unlike many cities today, with various and different cultures and religions rubbing shoulder to shoulder. When Christian missionaries arrived in Corinth they would be faced with this multi-cultural and multi-religious society. When Paul arrived in Corinth he stayed with a Jewish family, the family of Aquila who was a tent-maker like himself. Although he faced opposition from the Jewish community he found some converts from them and also from the Greek community. His mission was remarkably successful and he spent 18 months there.

In the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters to the Corinthians many people are mentioned by name. He obviously knows them well and they are well known in the wider Christian community.

The Church at Corinth was fairly well-established. So much so that it was already beset by division. It's clear from Paul's letter that he was not the only person to preach the Gospel in Corinth. Other missionaries had also preached there, and had their followers. And so the Church is divided: "My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."

The Church is quite clearly divided into factions. How this has come about we don't know. Some are followers of Paul himself. Some of Apollos, whoever he might be. Some follow Cephas - possibly meaning Peter. And some are followers of Christ. What a Church!

Loyalty can be a virtue in human beings. It can also be misplaced. There can be no doubt of the Corinthians' loyalty to whichever missionary brought the gospel to their particular group. But it is a misplaced loyalty that actually distorts the gospel. And so Paul reminds them of the Gospel that he preached:

"Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel--not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

Paul is quite clear where a Christian's loyalty must lie. And that is with Christ who died for him and in whose name he was baptised. It is not the messenger but the message that is important. Not the preacher but the one whom he preaches. In a sense this goes against the grain of human nature and human loyalties. We like to identify with a strong leader. We like to identify with the person who brings the message. History bears this out. But, as we end this week of prayer for Christian unity, we are forcibly reminded by Paul that it is in the name of Christ that we are baptised and that it is Christ who died for us.

The gospel we are charged to proclaim is the Gospel of the Christ crucified in whose name we are baptised. And that is a charge that is given to each and every Christian. It is no easy charge, for we know that to the many the gospel we preach is at the best a mere irrelevance, at the worst foolishness.

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."


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