1 Corinthians 1:10-18
On October 31, 1517 in a relatively obscure town in Germany a monk who lectured in the university ‘nailed’ 95 theses in Latin to the Church door inviting people to debate them with him. At least this is how the story became to be told. Scholars are not sure whether he nailed them, posted them, or just had them printed. However, the monk issued them, they were to have seismic consequences.
The monk was Martin Luther. The theses were in many ways innocuous. The cause of them was a Papal Fundraising Scheme. The Pope wanted to build a magnificent Cathedral in Rome. To pay for it, he issued indulgences which were sold throughout Europe. These indulgences granted the purchaser the power to get a loved one out of purgatory. They were very popular.
Luther, however, was opposed to them and his theses challenged their sale. Implicit in his opposition was a challenge to the authority of the Pope. His protest went viral as one would say today. And it was not long before the argument became about much more than ‘indulgences’. Western Christianity which had been united around the authority of the Pope disintegrated and the Church became extremely fragmented. Many more joined the protest and it spread to other countries. The word protestant came into being. However, while the Protestants could agree on what they were against, they found it much harder to agree on what they were for. And rather than there being one protestant church, many different churches came into existence sometimes hating each other as much as they hated the church of Rome.
In England things were even more complicated. Initially the King, Henry VIII, opposed the protestant movement earning himself the title of Defender of the Faith, that is, the Roman Catholic version of the faith. However, Henry then decided he wanted a divorce and the Pope for political rather than religious reasons refused. Thus setting in motion the English reformation and the creation of the Church of England.
I realize that this is a very general and simple summary of what by any account was anything but simple. But I think it is accurate enough. What is beyond dispute is that as a result of the Protestant reformation division between Christians became the norm and the different groups formed their own denominations: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Baptist. Having got a taste for division there was to be no stopping Christians and since the reformation many other denominations have come into existence.
If you walk down Waterloo Road you see church after church all belonging to different denominations and mostly not talking to each other in any meaningful way.
What began as a movement calling for the reform of the Church ended up dividing it. Some regretted this, but saw it as necessary, many did not and even seemed to relish it. You still hear people arguing that truth must always come before unity.
I dwell on this today for 3 reasons: firstly, this year is the 500th anniversary of the reformation. Many events are being organized to commemorate it. We are even being invited to celebrate it. We are going to hear a lot more about the reformation in the weeks ahead.
Secondly, we are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian unity. Each year at this time Christians all over the world are invited to join together to pray for the unity of the Church. Of course, having prayed for it, we then spend the rest of the year doing absolutely nothing about it. I don’t think I am being unfair to say that many Christians would be horrified if it started to happen.
Thirdly, our second reading this morning is a passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he tackles division in a church be founded.
St. Paul had spent 18 months in Corinth doing what is known as his second missionary journey. Many were converted and the church was lively and successful. They attracted some of the celebrities of the early church people like Apollos and Peter as well as others not so familiar to us today.
The Corinthians seem to have been very pleased with themselves and started discussing which of the various Christian leaders they preferred. Some argued for Paul, others for Peter, others for Apollos and they were beginning to form into groups depending which they preferred. Paul was horrified not because some preferred other leaders to himself, but that they were prepared to divide the church. ‘Is Christ divided?’ he asked. ‘Did Paul die for you?’ he goes on to tell them that they are the church, the body of Christ. They’re God’s temple. And says, ‘St Paul, anyone who destroys God’s temple God will destroy.’
So what would Paul have said about the reformation? Some argue that Paul was prepared to cause division for the sake of the truth. They point to Galatians and how Paul reacted to people he believed to be preaching a false Gospel. He even openly and publicly challenged Peter when he believed Peter to be in the wrong.
Of course, they argue, Paul would have supported Luther and others like him who stood as he did for the truth of the Gospel.
Personally, I am not so sure, or rather I think he would have agreed with many of the things the reformers said whether he would have been prepared to welcome the division of the Church I am not so sure.
The reality is we just do not know. What we do know is that Paul thought the church should be united and do what it could to avoid diversity. So when writing to Rome and knowing that there were different groups within the church each taking a different position on a variety of issues. He tells them to accept one another and to live with the differences. Unity, in other words, does not mean uniformity. We can have diversity without diversity and division.
The reality is that many of our divisions are not over key doctrines of the Christian faith, but over matters where it is of little real consequence. This is especially true within individual churches. Frankly, I hold out very little hope of the church reuniting. When it comes to the different denominations my own approach is to be denomination lite. I do not think that the Anglican Church is the one true church. I don’t think we have got it right on every issue – not by a long way. I do think that there are many good even outstanding Christians within other denominations so rather than working to keep my denomination apart from other denominations, I try where and when I can to work with Christians of other denominations without letting our denominational background get in the way.
While we may not be in a position to bring about denominational unity, we certainly are in a position to affect unity within our churches. I think we do a good job at Christ Church. While we have our differences and disagreements, we don’t let them drive us apart as, sadly, often does happen in churches.
There is, however, no room for complacency. As I have said people sometimes say that the truth of the Gospel must come before unity. But unity is part of the Gospel; As we will see in our studies in Ephesians, St Paul sees unity as the central message of the Gospel; Unity in the first place between us and God, but as Paul explains, peace and unity between God’s people. He writes how the death of Christ has made possible unity between two groups who were deeply divided: Jesus and Gentile. So a very simple challenge to us this morning: to maintain our unity in the bond of peace.