Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Being of Christian Unity

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Peace to you brothers, sisters and friends. Today, I will start off the series on 1st Corinthians by covering the greetings and thanksgiving from the first nine verses. However, it is an important starting step to ask what is the purpose and occasion for Paul to be writing this letter to the Corinthian Church. The answer lies in 1:10.
10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.

This is a letter of appeal from Paul to ask for Christian unity in the Church. It was with this purpose in mind that Paul addressed all their problems in the rest of the letter. There were problems in church conflict, moral discipline, theological issues and differences in worship practices. Therefore, my message today is to share on Paul‘s understanding of the identity of the church, and how that is important in laying a strong foundation in working towards Church unity.

However, as I was preparing for the message, and had finalized my three points from the passage, I remembered that I had already spoken about Christian unity more than two years ago. That was on a passage from John 17. Since then 2 years have passed. Has anything really changed? This is a critical moment of reflection. We can talk endlessly about the importance of unity. We can say why we need to be united, and how we can be united. But unless we truly believe in this unity and we are willing to put in genuine effort in enabling it to happen, it will just be empty words. I can give a beautiful sermon with my nicely prepared three points, but unless we are committed to making real sacrifices in time, financial resources and painful transformations in our character, this sermon and your time this Sunday will be yet another forgotten chapter in your life. Two years down the road, we will meet again and talk about the same matters with nothing really changed.

There is an interesting anecdote that I like very much: The story begins with an announcement that “our church was saddened to learn this week of the death of one of our most valued members. The name is Someone Else. (Qi Ta Ren) Someone Else's passing creates a vacancy that will be difficult to fill. Someone Else has been with us for many years and for every single one of those years, Someone Else did far more than a normal person's share of the work.
Whenever there was a job to do, a class to teach, or a meeting to attend, one name was on everyone's list, "Let Someone Else do it." Whenever leadership was mentioned, this wonderful person was looked to for inspiration as well as results; "Someone Else can work with that group."
It was common knowledge that Someone Else was among the most generous givers in our church. Whenever there was a financial need, everyone just assumed Someone Else would make up the difference. Someone Else was a wonderful person; sometimes appearing superhuman. Were the truth known, everybody expected too much of Someone Else. Now Someone Else is gone! We wonder what we are going to do.
Someone Else left a wonderful example to follow, but who is going to follow it? Who is going to do the things Someone Else did? When you are asked to help this year, remember -- we can't depend on Someone Else anymore.”

Brothers and sisters, the same goes for effort and work in Church unity. There is no Someone Else. Is church unity something that you believe in? Is it something that you truly desire? If you do then you have to play your part. It is not the job of Someone Else. Church unity is not just an ideal, it is not a dream that is to be accomplished by others. Church unity is a reality that we embrace by faith, visualize with hope and materialize in love. Unity occurs when everybody attends the same Church service regardless of the age differences. Unity occurs when everybody rejoices in the success and mourns for the troubles of a ministry, no matter how large or small its size. Unity occurs when we put aside our social status to serve one another, be it in prayer, parking, teaching, providing food or even to give a warm greeting to someone unfamiliar and sitting alone.

Hence it is important for us today to do this personal reflection even before we hear what Paul has to share today, because we need to see that Church unity is what we believe in and it is what we are willing to work towards. Let no man think today that Church unity is just a nice unattainable ideal, or is the work of Someone Else. Amen? There are two elements to Church unity that we must all understand. It is an existence of both Act and Being. The Being of Church unity describes why the Church is one. The Act of Church unity describes how the Church is one. You cannot have the Act without the Being, because there is no basis, and hence all actions will be meaningless. But you cannot have the Being without the Act, because without the Act, the Being is only true in namesake, but never manifested. Let’s take the concept of a husband for example. The Being of a husband lies in the marriage. You can do all the tasks of a husband, but all that can never make you truly the husband unless you are married to the woman. Similarly, if you are married but you never perform any Acts of the husband, the reality of the husband is never realized despite your identity is so.

The Act of Christian unity is described in detail for the rest of the 1st Corinthian epistle. Paul settles all the differences and conflicts and shows them theologically how to bring about Christian unity. But first, we have to grasp the Being of Christian unity, for it is the basis of why we can claim to have Christian unity. Paul starts the letter with the typical greetings and thanksgiving. He addresses the Church and states what he can thank God for in the Church. But carefully embedded inside, is what Paul thinks is the identity of the Church. It is the Being of Christian unity.

1st Corinthians 1:1-9
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, and our Christian brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God which is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy people, together with all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you on the ground of God’s grace given to you in Christ Jesus,
5 because in every respect you were enriched in Christ, in every kind of speaking and in all kinds of knowledge--
6 as the witness to Christ was confirmed among you,
7 so that you fall short in no gift, while you wait for the public revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
8 He will keep you firm to the end, free of any charge, on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 Faithful is God, through whom you were called into communal participation in the sonship of Jesus Christ our Lord.

What does it mean to be a Church? What is its essence? There are many interpretations depending on your traditions and point of view. What Paul wants to highlight in his greeting and thanksgiving are three key elements of a Church that makes Christian unity an absolute necessity. These three elements form the Being of Christian unity such that our acts of Christian unity are never meaningless or in vain. These three elements are: called to Christ, enriched in Christ and waiting for Christ. Obviously, all three elements are about Christ because Christian unity rests on Christ alone. This is so fundamental to Paul that he excitedly mentions Christ nine times in the opening nine verses. It is because of Christ that we are united; it is through Christ that we are united; and it is for Christ that we are united. Christ is the origin, the sustainer and the hope of Christian unity. It is hence essential that these three elements form the Being of Christian unity. Let us study these three elements in depth.

Point 1: Called to Christ
Paul states that he is called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. The Corinthian Christians, just like the rest of the Christians everywhere, are called to be holy people. The Christian life begins with this calling. What is calling? To be called is to have a divine vocation. To be called carries the significant implication of being set apart by God. Paul states that Christians are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy people. Both sanctification and holiness carry the same implication, which is to be set apart. Being set apart does not mean that Christians are very special or unique such that God chose them because of their qualities. You will find that Christians are often people with average qualities and even holy items, such as the Church building or even the Communion elements are not inherently more expensive or have supernatural powers. Being set apart simply means that things or people are now no longer in common use, but now in Godly use.

For example, you can set apart one specific chair at your dining table for the eldest member of the family. It doesn’t mean that the chair needs to have any special quality or for it to mean that from now on it is the best chair. The chair is only different because it is called out by you, and it is meant only for serving the eldest member of the family. Similarly, the Sabbath is set apart for the Lord, and it is different because of the Lord, not because it is intrinsically different from other days of the week. The same with your offering and any other things set apart for their divine calling. Hence, there is an important concept we must grasp about our Christian calling. Our Christian calling is received, not achieved. It is only in existence and meaningful because of Christ. This is our basic common ground, our common beginning.

Before we talk about our calling as Christians, I want to speak about Paul’s calling as an apostle. Why did Paul mention his calling as an apostle in his greeting? Is it to drum up his unique status and hence assume authority over the Corinthian Church? The Christians there have no choice but to submit to his title and his commands? No. The reason Paul states his calling as an apostle, is to point away from his own personal wishes or self-agenda in this task that he has been entrusted with. It is like a person who is assigned to be the internal auditor of a company. That person must act outside of his own interest from now on, and commit himself in undertaking the task of the role he is given. Similarly, Paul’s call to apostleship carries with it a dimension of necessity or compulsion. He has to perform his role in teaching and correcting the Corinthians for that is the will of God. Being an apostle means that he must forever be the living witness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s reminder of his personal calling therefore has a strong impact on understanding our general calling as Christians. We are sanctified, and called to be a holy people. Because it is the call of God, we have the same level of necessity and compulsion as Paul to live up to our calling. This call to be a holy people echoes the call of Abraham and the nation of Israel. It is God once again creating salvation history. We are called to Christ. We are a holy sanctified people because of Christ. It is because of grace and peace from Christ. It is grace because Jesus was given freely to us. It is peace because Jesus has become our peace between God and us, and between Gentiles and the Jews, and between all of us who are children of God. What are we set apart for? We are called to form an assembly that will call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We who belong to this group of chosen people, are all characterized by this vocation to call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. To call on the name of the Lord means to commit oneself in trust to the name we call, Jesus Christ. We are set apart to be fully dependent on Jesus Christ. This is our calling: that Jesus is our Lord. We must be united in this, for we all call to the same Lord. This is the first element of the Being of Christian unity: we are all called to Christ.

Point 2: Enriched in Christ
The second element of the Being of Christian unity is that we are all enriched in Christ. It is not just that we all have a common starting point. Our present daily living as a Christian community is fully dependent on Christ. Paul states that the Corinthian Church is enriched in Christ. The first thing that we must take note is that this enriching is because of God’s grace. Once again, this is a clear indication to us that it is not because of our personal attributes but solely because of God’s own will. It is because of what God wants to do, and that which must be completed through Christ in us.

The second thing is that this enrichment is manifested through every kind of speaking and all kinds of knowledge. Here, we mean both spiritual tongues and prophecy and also in teaching and preaching. The key here lies in what is being communicated during worship and in the community. This relates to their Christian experience. Paul tells them that they fall short in no gift, meaning that in every part of their Christian experience, they can feel this enrichment as it is manifested.

The third thing is that this enrichment is for the witness to Christ. Here in the thanksgiving, Paul testifies that their witness to Christ is confirmed. In what sense is it confirmed? This would mean that the gospel continues to spread within the Christian community and it continues to grow and develop. This confirmation from Paul signifies that the enriching from God has enabled them to testify in truth and with real effectiveness. Christ is the focus of witness, and God brings home the truth of their witness as their Christian experience develops in speaking and knowledge, and as their lives are changed.

So we know from the thanksgiving of Paul to God about the Corinthian Church that the Church is enriched in Christ. It is out of God’s grace. It is manifested in speaking and knowledge. It is for the witness to Christ so that the community continues to grow. But what is this enrichment? What is it to be enriched in Christ? It means to be given Christ himself. It means to be filled with Christ. It means to have as it states in verse nine “communal participation in the sonship of Jesus Christ our Lord.” The common translation in verse nine is often “fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” But fellowship is often wrongly construed as having a social relationship. Like Jesus and us are good buddies. It is much more than that. It is not simply or primarily the experience of being together as Christians, but the reality of being-in-Christ and of being shareholders in a sonship derived from the sonship of Christ.

A simple analogy would be that of a helium balloon. It is not the material of the balloon that causes it to rise. It is not the color, nor the shape nor any external factor. It is the helium inside. Christ in us is like the helium in the balloon that causes it to rise. He is given to enrich us purely by the grace of God. We experience him in our community through speaking and knowledge. And that is what we can witness for the community to grow. Just like the helium in a balloon, Christ in us is what gives our Christian identity our true essence. When we relate with one another in the community, it is the Christ in us that we can offer to one another. And when we see others in our community, it is Christ that we must identify.

In the classic book Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he states it clearly, “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility and joy.”

In another passage, “God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” So you see, the enrichment in Christ is manifested in speaking and knowledge.

What has this got to do with unity? I have heard of this statement “In Church, do not look at other people, or you will be disappointed. Only look at God.” Today I say this: if you do not look at your brothers and sisters, how would you see God? Together with Paul, I give my thanks, for he has enriched us in Christ, to experience him in our Church through one another as one. So, the first element of the Being of Christian unity is our called to Christ, the second is being enriched in Christ.

Point 3: Waiting for Christ
The third element of the Being of Christian unity is our waiting for Christ. This I think is very clear, though often forgotten. It points towards our common future. And it lies in Christ. He has risen, and he will come again. There is an analogy that I like very much, and it is the lifeboat analogy. Someone may have been saved (past) decisively from a sinking ship; but as the lifeboat brings him or her through choppy, uncomfortable seas (present), the final safe landing on the solid shore lies still ahead (future). Celebration comes then. Yes, we know that we have decisively entered into salvation when we are enriched in Christ. But this is not the whole story. We need also the realization that we are all awaiting the eventual reunion in eternity.

When Christ comes again, it is when we will forever be together. That is already sealed in eternity. That is also the time that we will all face judgement together. And both the happy reunion and the solemn judgement of our earthly actions should have a dramatic effect on how we view our living together today. For starters, we should know that there will never be such a thing as forever enemies. That will also mean that all petty differences becomes insignificant in light of God great act of forgiveness in eternity.

But the most important significance of all is that we once again realize from our calling, and our enrichment that we the people of God, the Church, were never meant to exist for its own sake. The Church and our life today is for the greater reality in eternity. We the Church exist for the heavenly kingdom in eternity. That is the final element of the Being of Christian unity. We have a common purpose to live for a common future. For that, Paul gives thanks to God, as we all must do. We are meant to be united as one, and God will keep us so till the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To conclude, let us truly understand the Being of our Christian unity. We are all called to Christ. That is our common origin, and forces us to admit that we all have Christ as our Lord. We are enriched in Christ. We are given Christ so that we depend on one another to experience Christ in our lives, and for the Church to grow. We are all waiting for Christ. That is our common future sealed in eternity. But to round up from what is reminded from the very beginning. It is one thing to know that we are meant to be united as one. But it takes more than just knowing. To believe is to work towards it and to live it. Let us take every effort in bringing about our Christian unity knowing that it had all been accomplished in Christ.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi SHWong,

Wonderful beginning of your message with the "Someone Else" story! Brilliant!

SHWong said...

One of my favorite illustrations.