Sermon: The Church – always ‘of God’ but never perfect

This sermon refers to the sexual abuse of children by clergy. If this raises issues for you, remember that you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
15th of January 2023

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

‘To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Here at the beginning of the new calendar year, our lectionary readings also have a very ‘beginning’ feeling to them. We have Jesus calling his very first disciples, two of whom are initially disciples of John the Baptist, and the third of whom is Simon, renamed Peter by Jesus: emotional, committed, brave, cowardly, and profoundly human. We also have the greeting from Paul’s magnificent First Letter to the church at Corinth. If we ever feel that size, strength, wealth, or unity are necessary to show that the church is on the right path, Paul’s two surviving letters to the Corinthians remind us that the fellowship of Jesus Christ our Lord can be small, weak, poor, and divided, and still be the church of God.

The Romans had destroyed Corinth in 146 BCE because it had led the resistance to the Roman invasion of Greece, but it was in a strategic location, on a major trade route, and so Julius Caesar re-established it in 44 BCE. It was a multicultural city, populated by army veterans, freed slaves, and displaced peasants, and it had become the centre of Roman culture in Greece. A few small churches in a multicultural city peopled by immigrants that had been founded fewer than two hundred years before in an ancient land – we Melburnians should find the situation of the community to which Paul is writing profoundly familiar.

We will hear the first few chapters of this first of Paul’s surviving letters to the Corinthians throughout the Epiphany season. Much of what Paul writes is critical. The church at Corinth apparently had problems. The most famous passage in this particular letter, 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, at least in Paul’s opinion. (Of course, we might think differently if the letters from the Corinthians to Paul had survived; we are coming into the middle of an ongoing conversation.) It is 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.’ There might be some sarcasm in this; Paul talks about God enriching the Corinthians ‘in speech and knowledge of every kind,’ when it is precisely speech and claims to knowledge that he will later describe as creating problems (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 and 1 Corinthians 14)  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 is not their sparkling personalities or intellectual acuity or even their love that are 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’. I do not know about you, but I am incredibly intimidated by the idea that I have been called to be a saint. From the rest of the letter, it appears that at least some of the Corinthians would have had no problem with this, they had quite high opinions of themselves. According to Paul, we should be neither scared nor proud of our saintly identity. Just as Paul can give thanks for the Corinthians because of the faithfulness of God to them, 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 is dependent on Christ. We are saints, holy and free, because that is who God creates us to be.

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 is as a collective that the Corinthians are saints, not as individuals; saints in their shared vocation. Paul never uses the word ‘saint’ in the singular; according to him there are no individual saints, only a community of them. We never have to live up to our calling to sainthood alone. God not only calls us; God calls us into community, the church.

In his greeting, Paul gives thanks for the particular gifts upon which the Corinthians pride themselves, speech and knowledge, but he also reminds the Corinthians that they have 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. Our individual gifts are given to us not for our individual use, but for the well-being of the entire community. In the rest of the letter Paul goes into further detail about the proper use of God’s gifts, here he just gives a hint.

This one short greeting to the Corinthians tells us a lot about the church, the community of saints created by the faithfulness of God of which we are all a part. We exist because of God’s faithfulness. We have a calling to sainthood to live out. No matter our differences, 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.[1]

If we are feeling small and weak and unimportant in our own particular multicultural city, this is profoundly reassuring.

This week Cardinal George Pell died unexpectedly. Sadly, I have no good memories of Cardinal Pell. I only once attended a worship service at which he presided, on Sunday the 23rd of May, 1999. I know the exact date because I attended the service wearing a rainbow sash, accompanying lesbian and gay Catholics. As a Protestant, I am not eligible to receive communion in a Catholic church, but I accompanied a Catholic school friend of my brother down the aisle at St Patrick’s Cathedral and stood beside him as George Pell refused him communion, because his rainbow sash had made his homosexuality visible and the Catholic Church did not welcome ‘unrepentant’ homosexuals.[2]

Almost two decades later the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that as priest, vicar, bishop and archbishop Cardinal Pell had known about the sexual abuse of children by priests and had protected the priests rather than the children.[3] Because the Cardinal’s own conviction for child sexual abuse was overturned by the High Court some people have responded to his death by claiming that he was a saintly man, more sinned against than sinning.[4] Survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Australia would not agree.

As Australian Christians all of us, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Pentecostal, live in a post-Royal Commission society. The Royal Commission heard ‘more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other management type’. More than four thousand survivors talked to the Royal Commission in private sessions about abuse occurring in 1,691 different religious institutions.[5] Of the survivors that told the Royal Commission they had been abused in a religious institution the greatest number, 61.4%, said it had been in a Catholic institution. 2.3% of those who gave evidence said their abuse had occurred in a Uniting Church institution.[6] That much smaller percentage may be a relief for us as members of the Uniting Church, but it is no reason for us to congratulate ourselves. The percentage should have been zero.

We are those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. We are the New Testament church. Despite all their failings, Paul could give thanks for the Corinthians because of God’s faithfulness to them. The same is true of us. Yet while our status as the New Testament church should comfort us, it must never blind us to the church’s failings and our need to constantly seek to be better so that we may ‘be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’. You might wonder why I have spoken about Cardinal Pell, given de mortuis nil nisi bonum – say nothing ill of the dead. I did so because the reflections and discussions that have been prompted by Cardinal Pell’s death remind us that while God is perfect the church is not, and we should never pretend that it is. We must never try to protect the institution at the expense of its members.

We ‘are sanctified in Christ Jesus,’ the one who told his disciples: ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea … Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 18:1-11) It is as we care for and protect the most vulnerable, including children, that we will show that we are truly the church of God that is in North Balwyn.

[1] Andrew Dutney, Where did the joy come from? Revisiting the Basis of Union, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 2001, pp. 13-4.

[2] Fergus Shiel, ‘Homosexuality a health risk: Pell,’ The Age, 24 May 1999, p. 5.

[3] Timothy W. Jones, How George Pell failed child sex abuse victims: the full findings of the royal commission report (theconversation.com) published: May 7, 2020.

[4] George Pell dead at 81: World reacts, Tony Abbott statement | news.com.au — Australia’s leading news site

[5] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Church Sexual Abuse, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Church Sexual Abuse, Final Report, Vol. 16, Religious Institutions, Book 1 (Sydney, 2017), p. 11.

[6] Final information update (childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au)

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1 Response to Sermon: The Church – always ‘of God’ but never perfect

  1. Thanks for your sensitive references to child sexual abuse and Roman Catholic episcopal blindness, Avril.

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