There’s a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy strides into the room where Linus is watching television, and insists, with a raised fist, that he changes channels. "What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?" asks Linus.
"These five fingers," says Lucy. "Individually they're nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold."
"Which channel do you want?" asks Linus. Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, "Why can't you guys get organized like that?"
Today is the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and each year a Bible text is chosen to focus prayers and thoughts. This year, the reading we’ve heard from 1 Corinthians 1 was that text. The strapline to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2014 is simply ‘Is Christ divided?’ Looking at the complex and often confusing differences and animosities between churches and Christians, a visitor from outer space might well assume that the answer to that question must be in the affirmative, as so many of Christ’s people are divided.
Yet here is St Paul, holding out to us down the ages the grand vision of Christ’s people not as a gathering of lots of individuals who relate to each other to the extent that they find one another agreeable or likeable or useful, but rather as a gathering of one body which must necessarily relate to the other parts of itself despite finding some of those parts disagreeable, dislikeable and frankly, a liability. If we see the people of God as a plural entity, then it makes it easy to pick and choose from within the great smorgasbord of expressions of faith those which we like. If we see the church – not just this little gathering here this morning but what C. S. Lewis calls ‘the church militant, terrible as an army with banners’ meeting together in church buildings and schools, huts and houses all over the world and going back through time all the way to Corinth, the Upper Room of Jerusalem and of the Last Supper, as one thing, then such picking and choosing is not really an option.
So in this passage Paul is insistent that ‘there be no divisions among you.’ The word ‘divisions’ is schismata, a word that has come to be associated in English, ironically, with religion. If Paul could have looked down the ages, pretty much exactly a millennium, from when he was writing in the early 50s, he would have seen the Great Schism of the Eastern and Western churches in 1053. But even before then the church’s failure to live up to this Pauline ideal was already evident in the ecumenical councils which hammered out what it is that the people of God believe, and what it is that they should do when they meet together. And if Paul could have looked a bit further still, nearly five hundred years after the Great Schism, to Germany in 1517, he would have seen a passionate monk pinning 97 ideas to a church door in Wittenberg; Martin Luther and the gathering momentum of the Protestant Reformation. And of course it goes on and on; schism seems to be a depressingly recurrent feature of Christian faith. Yet Paul still speaks to us down the ages, rebuking us, winning us over, pleading with us that there be no schisms among you.
And why does this matter? Why does it matter so much that Paul devotes his entire letter to what it means to live as one body, and the implications of that radical vision? If we take seriously the message of Paul in this letter, then we are forced to see the people of God in the singular; and that means acknowledging that when we fail to see the Christ in the other, we fail to see the Christ in ourselves. When we hurt or sideline other Christians, we diminish and damage ourselves. If we are part of one another, then, to be blunt, we can’t escape each other so we might as well learn to get on. As you might know, I know a bit about auto-immune disease, the type of illness in which the individual human body reacts against part of itself and overcompensates for what is, actually, normal functioning. This type of illness is debilitating, painful and can become, in its complications, life-threatening. By overstretching the immune system in an attempt to protect itself against itself, it conversely lays the body open to all sorts of ailments. I think it can be seen as a kind of hyper-allergy, except that in it’s not an allergy to an external substance like peanuts or egg, but to an inescapable part of oneself. I sometimes think that the church of God is suffering from auto-immune disease, and is in great pain because of it.
So how do we, as little tiny parts of this huge and unwieldy body, do our little bit to heal this fractured self? Well, that’s where the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes in. It may have officially ended for this year, but the hope is that we will keep on praying; praying for parts of ourselves in other churches and countries, praying for parts of ourselves which are in real pain and suffering real persecution, praying that where vision is small and love is lacking, the power of the Holy Spirit will enlarge our eyes and hearts.
And from that place of prayer, we hope, will come a seeing of the world, and the whole church, through the eyes of the God who is Love, an acceptance, a charity, a living with the messy and the unresolved and the strongly-held opinions. A recognition that until all is gathered up into Christ and the end comes, we live in messy, unresolved, opinionated world, and we are part of that as Christians. A recognition that, as Paul says later in this great gift of a letter, as yet we see as though a glass, darkly; then we shall know fully, as we are fully known. And because we see through a glass, darkly, the most excellent way to live is the way of love. With that comes a humility, which makes it easier to see the Christ in the Other, and to accept all in us that has not yet become like Christ.
Ultimately, prayer must be the centre because the message of Paul to us is that our unity as Christians is only possible because we are part of the body of Christ; we can’t unify ourselves any more than the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle can form themselves into the picture they are intended to represent. It is God’s work in us and God’s will for us to make us unified, and our part is to work with God by praying, as ever, ‘thy will be done,’ and to respond to the answering of that prayer by opening ourselves to love one another in Christian charity. Amen.