Whom do I follow?

EPIPHANY 3A – 26th January, 2014 – St Barnabas’, Rivervale
I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25

Today, as you are all obviously aware, is Australia Day, a public holiday and the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. There are those who call it “Invasion Day”; and many others are, not inappropriately, seriously uncomfortable with celebrating an event which precipitated the downfall of most of the “original inhabitants” of this land.

On the other hand, Australia Day, at its best, is a celebration of all that we hold in common by way of our lifestyle, our “multicultural mix”, our shared values, and the freedoms which our great nation offers. And fireworks, barbecues and a public holiday are – in my opinion – not a bad way to celebrate this well. We do need, however, to guard against complacency and self-satisfaction.

Our national anthem says that “for those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”. And in the last two-and-a-quarter centuries we have welcomed people from most nations on earth as settlers here. However, these days, there seems to be more and more reluctance to welcome; and our political leaders are making Australia less and less accessible to those who are fleeing unjust and oppressive regimes around the world. Whoever is hardest on refugees can expect to be elected to our Federal government.

It may be simplistic of me to say this, but a major part of our problem as a nation seems to be our reluctance to accept change or challenge to our life and lifestyle.

With my Dad and two brothers, I came to Australia as a migrant in 1966. We came seeking a new life with opportunities that were probably not available in our homeland of the UK. Australian governments were crying out for new settlers – so much so that our entire family came here for the princely sum of ten pounds. I think both Australia and we got a bargain!

One of the things of which Australia used to be proud was that everyone was entitled to – and, in theory, received – a “fair go”. We as individuals, groups and as a nation believed in equal opportunity. And it was a good theory if you were white, male and employed. But under the surface of the nation were always tensions over gender, language, race and “usefulness”.

We rightly rejoice in democracy, freedom and equality before the law. But in reality not all have been treated as equal. We can honour with our lips “truth, justice and the Australian way”, but all too often, when we scratch just beneath the surface, we will find sexist, racist and unjust attitudes and actions.

There is a verse which has been added to our national anthem by well-meaning Christians and is used in many Christian schools which is a good ideal for all of us who are both Australians and Christians. It reads:
With Christ our head and cornerstone,
We’ll build our Nation’s might.
Whose way and truth and light alone
Can guide our path aright.
Our lives, a sacrifice of love,
reflect our Master’s care.
With faces turned to heaven above,
Advance Australia fair.

If only!

Lest my sermon become just an idealistic dream of what our nation should be, let me call you back to the Scriptures set in today’s lectionary. Because much of what I say about our nation is recognisable as challenge in the church.

Last week, we heard St Paul praising the Church at Corinth in glowing terms:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In today’s passage from First Corinthians, however, we begin to hear the “but…”

The Church at Corinth, founded by Paul himself, and nurtured by his disciple, Apollos, is indeed flourishing; but beneath the surface there are many problems and challenges. Through the course of the book, we will hear of division, immorality, superiority, fights over food laws and spiritual gifts and more.

Today’s problem is division. The missionary work which Paul and his companions had put in here had certainly resulted in a growing church. Corinth was a strongly multicultural city. There were:
Greeks, obviously, for Corinth was in northern Greece;
Romans – Corinth was a major garrison city for the Roman army;
Jews – Paul originally preached in the synagogue there and worked and lived “for a considerable time” with Aquila and Priscilla who had been exiled with all the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius;
and there were undoubtedly “foreigners” from all over as slaves and traders.
The church seems to have included some from all of these groups.

With this multiracial, multicultural mix was also a variety of religious and philosophical views and beliefs – worship of the Roman gods and the Emperor, worship of the Greek gods, and Judaism, at least, were all part of the mix.

Out of all this smorgasbord of race and religion, God called and formed, through Paul, Apollos and Aquila and Priscilla, a church of some size and significance. And for a time all was well. Now, some years later, Paul has heard from “Chloe’s people” that all is not well and that the local church is beginning to divide into groups under the names of various church leaders.
“What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

It sounds rather like our denominations, really, doesn’t it? I am often asked about various churches and their differences. “What’s the difference between your church and the Catholics, or the Baptists, or the Pentecostals?” And, while I can list off quite a few differences, along with the history of how different denominations came into being, I would rather talk of what unites us – the Scriptures which we call the Old and New Testaments; the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, to which 95% or more of Christians happily assent, whether or not they recite them in services as we do; Baptism, even if we differ in methods of administration or the age of the candidate; and the Eucharist, Mass or Lord’s Supper, in which we are fed with the body and blood of Christ, whether understood literally or symbolically.

The truth is that that which binds us together is greater than the things which divide us. The church as a whole is the Body of Christ, an image on which Paul expands later in this Epistle.

Finally, lest we get complacent and talk only of divisions in the larger church, let’s remember that St Paul is addressing a local congregation, “the church of God that is in Corinth”. And it is within that fellowship that division is occurring. They are divided over whose teaching is the best – Paul, Peter or Apollos – and some claim the distinction of following only Christ. Each group undoubtedly considers itself to have the “pure” gospel. In essence, of course, we all aim to “follow Christ”, just as did Peter and Andrew, James and John in today’s Gospel reading.

The Corinthian problem is a bit like various folk here at St Barney’s saying, “I follow Lionel”, “I follow Dave” or, “I follow Keith”. There may even be, many years hence, some who will say, “I follow Steve”. God forbid!

In every parish of which I’ve been in charge over the last thirty years, I have heard good and bad stories about every one of my predecessors. And I can be certain that there are folk in each of those parishes who still talk of me – some favourably and some disparagingly. That’s fine!

All of us who are called to lead are human and fallible. Apollos probably didn’t get it all right; Peter certainly didn’t; and I have reservations about some of St Paul’s attitudes, too! But each sought – as do most Christian leaders today – to give up their nets, take up their cross and follow Jesus.
Paul tells the Corinthians, later in this Epistle, to be imitators of him, the second time adding – very importantly – “as I am of Christ”.

This our calling – not just priests’, pastors’ and ministers’ – to imitate Jesus, to follow his example of love, justice and self-sacrifice. If we put Jesus first in our thinking and the good of his church and the world next, then we will be unified and undivided as parish, church and nation.