Epiphany III Year A
January 23, 2011, Abbey Church
I Corinthians 1:10-18
"Jesus came to give us a new life, not a new religion." That is a good thing to remember. Of course, one of the best definitions of true religion is simply 'the way that one leads one's life', but if we are thinking of religion in the lower sense of a set of prescribed doctrines and rituals to which one must adhere, then the saying is true - Jesus came to give us a new life, not a new religion. We hear in the gospel this morning about Jesus traveling through Galilee teaching and preaching good news and curing diseases. He was busy spreading new life around. In other parts of the gospel, we hear about Jesus sending others out to do the same thing, and at least one time, they come across some people whom they do not know who are also spreading new life around. When they tell Jesus about it, he says to not worry about it - if those others were not working against the apostles, then they were working with them.
Paul confronts a similar situation in our second reading this morning. He mentions the partisan spirit which has sprung up there in the church, and warns them about how silly it is. He reminds them that although different people brought them the news of Jesus, the messenger and the way the message was presented is not mportant. Jesus is the important thing, and their new life in him is the important thing. We need to be told the same thing. New parties and denominations are being formed all the time, and often the people in the various denominations and organizations forget that the reason for their existence is to proclaim the gospel, not to bolster the public image and membership rolls of their particular group.
Sometimes new Christian groups are formed because the founders see a specific need that is not being addressed by existing groups. Sadly, more often new groups are formed because of disagreements and bitterness within existing groups. It does not matter how or why the denomination was formed - if its members are open to God's will, then good will come of it. People will be healed, good news will be spread, and new life will be given to people. That is what matters - not total conformity in every detail of doctrine and practice. But we must remember that no matter what good comes from any organization, the group is merely a channel of grace, not the source of grace. All life comes from God, and the new life being spread by any group comes solely from God, not from the organization, so we must be careful never to cling blindly to any denomination - they are all merely tools that God can use or dispose of as different needs arise. We should remember that our gospel story this morning begins with the arrest of John the Baptist; John did not claim loyalty to himself or his followers. Instead, he pointed to Jesus and faded away after his task was done.
We need to have the same willingness to fade away after we and our particular parties have pointed to Jesus in their various ways. Church organizations and denominations are means to an end, not the end itself. The goal is spreading the gospel - the good news that Jesus brings new life. The gospel story this morning says that where Jesus went, a prophecy was fulfilled: "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,". We always need to check the goals and accomplishments of our parties against that standard. If people have light brought to them because of what we are doing, good. If not, we need to do what we can to change the course of our group in order to align with that goal. No organization, no matter how great its history, is exempt from the danger of forgetting its purpose, and that forgetfulness will eventually bring about its downfall.
Our purpose is to spread the good news of Jesus to a world that needs good news. That news can be spread in many different ways, as we have seen throughout history. There is no need for competition between the various groups spreading the news. Instead, we should be ready and willing to support each other, and be joyful at the successes of others as well as mournful at their losses. Our criteria should be whether or not people are being healed and hearing good news, not the details of internal organization and discipline, and certainly not whether or not other groups offend our sense of style. Of course, there are times when harmful things are preached in the guise of Christian doctrine. Most of these negate either the full humanity of the full divinity of Jesus, and therefore water down the good news that God really is with us. We do have the responsibility of refuting those groups and their message, but we must always do so with love, compassion, and kindness. However, having said that about bad news in a Christian veneer, we must always remember that there have always been and always will be non-Christians of good will who do a wonderful job of spreading the kingdom of God in our hurting world. In fact, some of the most Christlike people I know would not call themselves Christians. That is quite alright. Every person is unique and therefor has a unique relationship with God that no one else can judge.
So we need to be careful about judging people with different opinions about how best to spread the gospel. We can be proud of our own denominations and parties in a good sense - acknowledging past accomplishments and carrying visions for the future - but we should never let that good sense of pride twist into an attitude of superiority toward other groups. There is one Gospel: God is with us. There is one Jesus: God with us. There is one goal: sharing God with others. Jesus came to give us new life. May we all work together to spread that life around. AMEN