Sermon: We are the New Testament Church

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
15th
 of January 2017

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

This is my first sermon for 2017, given that I spent most of Sunday the first of January in my pyjamas reading a murder mystery just because I could and that last week I read you the beautiful children’s story The Greatest Gift instead of preaching. So I’m glad that today’s readings, on this third Sunday of the calendar year, still have a very ‘beginning’ feeling to them. We have Jesus calling his first disciples, two of whom were initially disciples of John the Baptist, and the third of whom was Simon, renamed Peter by Jesus, that emotional, committed, brave, cowardly, wonderfully human disciple of whom we will hear so much more in this year of Matthew. This is the beginning of his story. We also have our first reading from Paul’s magnificent first letter to the church at Corinth.

We will hear from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians throughout this Epiphany season, and much of it is very critical. The church at Corinth had problems. As I’ve said before, the most famous passage in this letter, one of my favourite passages in the entire Bible, the description of love as patient; kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, was written precisely because that was not the sort of love the Corinthians were demonstrating. It’s interesting, then, that Paul’s letter begins with today’s enthusiastic thanksgiving: ‘I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.’ We might think that Paul’s being sarcastic, but it seems that Paul is able to give thanks for this community because he looks at them in the light of God’s faithfulness to them. It’s not their sparkling personalities or intellectual acuity, or even their love, that’s most important, but the fact that God has called them into the fellowship of his Son.

Being called to be part of the fellowship of Jesus Christ is intimidating. Paul’s first description of the Corinthians is as ‘those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Anyone else feeling a little less than ready to be sanctified a saint? I’m not sure if the Corinthians were equally intimidated; from the rest of the letter it appears that some of them at least had quite a high opinion of themselves. But according to Paul, we should be neither scared not proud of this saintly identity. Just as Paul can give thanks for the Corinthians because of the faithfulness of God, so he can describe the Corinthians as saints because of the work of Jesus. The Corinthians, and us, are saints because they and we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. The church’s identity as a community of saints is not dependent on us or our activities. It’s dependent on Christ. In the book I read to the children this morning the Word of God says to all of us, throughout time and space, ‘I will set you free. I won’t let you be anything but holy, good and free’.[1] We are saints, holy, good and free, because that is who God creates us to be.

jesus-the-word

Equally, this saintliness is not an individual matter. Paul addresses all the saints in Corinth, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord. It’s as a collective that the Corinthians are saints, not as individuals; saints in their shared vocation. We never have to live up to this calling alone. God not only calls us, God calls us into community, the church.

In his greeting Paul also gives thanks for the particular gifts upon which the Corinthians pride themselves, speech and knowledge. Later in the letter we’ll hear about the problems these gifts are causing in Corinth, so Paul may well be being ironic here. But he’s also reminding the Corinthians why they’ve been given these spiritual gifts: ‘so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’. God gives the church what it needs to flourish; these gifts are given not for individual use, but for the well-being of the entire community. In the rest of the letter Paul goes into further detail about the right use of God’s gifts, here he just gives a hint.

This one fairly short greeting to the Corinthians tells us a lot about the church, the community of saints created by the faithfulness of God. We’re reminded that we exist because of God’s faithfulness. We’re reminded that we have a calling to sainthood to live out. And we’re reminded that no matter what our differences are, we can give thanks for our fellow Christians because of God’s faithfulness to them. This is true for all those who belong to the church of God, and it is true for us as members of the Uniting Church.

One of the past Presidents of the Uniting Church, Andrew Dutney, wrote a book about the creation of the Uniting Church called Where did the joy come from? In it he wrote: ‘whether there are six of us or six hundred, whether we are burdened with debt and worry or dancing with the Spirit, whether we are together to worship, to study or to make decisions about property and finance, whether it feels like it or not, it is Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit who has gathered us together …It doesn’t matter whether [our] achievements are glorious or banal … we just are the New Testament church’.[2] This year the Uniting Church will turn 40, we enter middle age, and so it’s a good time to remember our origins as a church, in the Union of the Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches in 1977, in the house churches in places like Corinth, and in the people of Israel six centuries before the birth of Jesus.

Lego - Inside.jpg

Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the second of Isaiah’s Servant Songs. In it we hear from the Servant directly: ‘The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.’ We don’t know exactly who Isaiah considered the Servant to be: an individual; a group; all Israel. The early Christians saw Christ in the Suffering Servant. We, today, can read the Servant as a metaphor for the church, and hear in this song more about our calling. (I feel more confident about this identification because John Calvin made it before me.)

‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel,’ God tells the Servant. ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ God’s salvation is to be announced to all people, just as his justice is to fill the whole earth. This is part of what we are called to as the church of God: to announce God’s salvation to all and to play our part in God’s justice. Just as Isaiah prophesised that this salvation was for all the nations, not just Israel; so the message of God’s salvation and justice is for the entire world, not just for those of us in the church. Looking at the world around us, the earth that is meant to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters fill the sea, it can sometimes seem that we are a long way from the vision of Isaiah. Like the Servant, we could say: ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity’. But that also means we can console ourselves with the Servant’s consolation: ‘Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’

Despite all their failings, Paul could give thanks for the Corinthians because of God’s faithfulness to them. The same was true of Simon-Peter in everything he did, in all the triumphs and failures of his discipleship that we will hear this year. And the same is true of us. No matter what our failings or difficulties as a church or as individuals, we can rely on the faithfulness of God. As we live out our vocation to be a light to the nations, bringing God’s salvation to everyone, God won’t let us be anything but holy, good and free. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones, Jesus the Word (2005).

[2] Where did the joy come from? pp. 13-4.

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