First Church . . . was a thriving church; a model church; the church that other churches pointed to saying, “they must be doing something right.” For First Church had had a boom in membership the past few years. It was in an area with lots of new homes being built and lots of people moving in; it attracted all the community and corporate leaders, the so-called “winners” of the area; people were all dressed perfectly, looked good, and smiled at each other all the time. It was the place to be on Sunday morning if you wanted to be regarded as classy and conscientious and cool.
First Church had programs appealing to every age group and interest; it had talented and entertaining leaders for all its activities. Everyone was happy with First Church. First Church was doing so well, in fact, that it was outgrowing its building: it was hard to get a seat on Sunday morning, even with two services, and parking was a major headache. Finally the inevitable question had to be faced: is it time to build a bigger church building?
Well, First Church, as we noticed, had a lot of corporate leaders and can-do business men and women types among its members, and they were looked to first, to research and investigate the possibility: How much would it cost; what would be the advantages and disadvantages; how long would construction take.
The group researched and figured and discussed and researched some more, and finally presented to the congregation not one but two reports – a majority report and a minority report. For First Church’s building task force had been unable to reach a consensus on the question of a new building, and had ended up divided into two groups: some members believed they absolutely had to have a new building, no doubt about it; the others believed it would be irresponsible and a waste of money and effort. Two reports.
It wasn’t long before the rest of the church members chose which side they were on – the “new building” party or the “no new building” party. Tempers flared, name-calling began. The issue soon dominated every get-together. Bible study groups split and fell apart; the two parties couldn’t work together. Even on Sunday morning they would sit in their pews and silently pray: “Lord Jesus, make them see that they are wrong and we are right. Set their minds right so they will agree with me and finally admit it, so we can do what I say. If you bring them over to my side, then I can work with them and we can start on the way to being a unified church again.”
Second Church . . . was located in the middle of the city. It was a wealthy, well-attended church, but there were many poor people in the surrounding neighborhood, and there were many unchurched people. Second Church had a very positive attitude about this situation: “This is a wonderful opportunity,” the people thought, “to carry out the mission of the church right in our own back yard: to serve the poor of the area, by helping them materially, and to spread the good news of the gospel to those who don’t go to church – to bring them to Christ. What better place to carry out our mission. We have time and energy and resources; we can’t wait to begin.”
So Second Church formed an Evangelism Committee and a Social Action Committee, and each of them met and brainstormed and drew up plans and brought their plans to the Session for approval. The evangelism committee, reporting first, asked for 80% of the church’s remaining available funds: to finance a door-to-door campaign to bring people into the church, to hire a leader to train evangelism teams, to hire a preacher to preach to the people at the soup kitchen they figured the Social Action Committee would want. They requested a series of sermons on evangelism, beginning immediately, “because,” they said, “everyone knows that the job of the church is to lead other people to Christ.”
The Social Action committee reported next, and they asked for . . . 80% of the church’s remaining available funds: to establish a soup kitchen, a food pantry, and a shelter; to hire a social worker to advise them on how best to do social ministry; to hire a counsellor for those attending the programs who would need one. They stressed the importance of giving help with no-strings-attached, like not forcing anyone to listen to a sermon in order to get a lunch at the soup kitchen. They requested a series of sermons on social action, beginning immediately, “because,” they said, “everyone knows that someone who’s hungry and homeless and ill can’t be approached first by preaching. We must start by demonstrating, by living out, by doing the gospel; by helping and loving unconditionally, as Jesus did; after all, that is the job of the church.”
It wasn’t long before the rest of Second Church chose which side they were on – the “evangelism party” or “the social action party.” Tempers flared, name calling began. The issue soon dominated every get-together. Bible study groups split and fell apart; the two parties couldn’t work together. Even on Sunday morning they would sit in their pews and silently pray: “Lord Jesus, make them see that they are wrong and we are right. Set their minds right so they will agree with me and finally admit it, so we can do what I say. If you bring them over to my side, then I can work with them and we can start on the way to being a unified church again.”
Third Church . . . had a new pastor. The former pastor had been very much loved, and had been easy to love. He was outgoing, spontaneous, always ready with a funny story, and always had all sorts of ideas for new projects. The new pastor was very well-liked too; she was conscientious and caring, great at following through and getting things done. Third Church had been blessed with two talented people in a row, and hadn’t even had to wait very long between them.
Now the old pastor had been a spontaneous kind of guy: see something; do it, whatever it takes to get done. Don’t worry about all those little details about how it’s supposed to be done, about the rules, about reports and documentation. Those things get in the way – he was like the old Nike commercials: “just do it.” That’s how churches work and grow; who needs any old Book of Order or by-laws?
The new pastor, however, worked “by the Book.” If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. If you discuss it and document it, people won’t come back mad later on because you went over their heads or snuck it past them. “We should follow our Presbyterian procedures,” was her thinking. After all, we are a Presbyterian church.
“We’ve always been a Presbyterian church!” the impatient people cried. “To us being Presbyterian means just going out and doing it without worrying about a bunch of rules. Presbyterians are active; Presbyterians do things, not just talk about them.”
“NO, being a Presbyterian means doing things the right way,” the by-the-book people said. “It means doing things but doing them decently and in order.”
“Who cares about being Presbyterian?” a third group asked. “We’re Third Church – one congregation, in one town, with our own set of problems and challenges. What’s the point worrying about what’s Presbyterian and what isn’t?”
It wasn’t long before all of Third Church chose which side they were on – the “follow the rules” party, the “our way of being Presbyterian” party, or the “congregational party.”
Tempers flared, name calling began. The issue soon dominated every get-together. Bible study groups split and fell apart; the three parties couldn’t work together. Even on Sunday morning they would sit in their pews and silently pray: “Lord Jesus, make them see that they are wrong and we are right. Set their minds right so they will agree with me and finally admit it, so we can do what I say. If you bring them over to my side, then I can work with them and we can start on the way to being a unified church again.”
Fourth Church . . was located right next to a big university campus, so had a large Thursday evening college-age Bible study. And like many college-age Christians, especially new Christians, many in the Bible study group were very concerned about personal morality issues – things like smoking, and drinking, and premarital sex. There were often speeches about how bad other college students were, especially the ones that partied all the time. “Turn in your Bibles to Galatians 5:20!” the speakers would say. “Paul condemns party spirit. It is a work of the flesh.” A few members of the college group had nearly been ostracized for having been seen at a party having a couple beers. “Party spirit! Party spirit!” came the accusation.
The group was obviously unaware that what “party spirit” really means in the book of Galatians is: don’t split up into different factions or different parties; it has nothing to do with going to parties. For this situation of some members accusing others escalated, and it wasn’t long before the Fourth Church youth group had split into parties over what they thought was the issue of parties. Everyone joined either the “temperance” party or the “responsible users” party. Tempers flared, name calling began . . . well, you know the rest. “Lord Jesus, make them see that they are wrong and we are right. If you bring them over to my side, maybe we can start on our way to being a unified church again.”
Our fifth church, today, was the one in the town of Corinth, in Greece – 1900 years ago. The recipients of the letter that included our second Scripture reading. And the parties that had developed there were a Paul party, an Apollos party, and a Peter party, each claiming the name of the person who had baptized them. An angry Paul wrote them a letter: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? . . . As long as there are jealousy and rivalry among you, that surely means you are living by merely human principles,” not those of the Spirit. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus Christ, not to have factions among yourselves.”
Yes, from the very start, the earliest Christian churches, it appears that Christians have liked parties, have liked splitting up into groups and saying nasty things about one another, have liked arguing and dividing and promising that they would only work together in unity with the people who had already come over to their side. “First you agree with me, then maybe we’ll talk about unity” is what Christians, from the very start, have too often been heard to say.
The very “first church,” the first Christian church, was called together in Galilee by a young carpenter. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” And immediately they left their nets, they left their boat, and followed him. Because Jesus of Nazareth called people together. Matthew 4:23 is a verse in which Jesus’ whole ministry is summarized: “And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.”
And what’s the last thing Jesus did before beginning that ministry, the last step in preparation? He called disciples. He called his church together, to go out together to do ministry. No conditions. No interviews, no written tests, no compatibility measurements, no surveys of their opinions and work styles. Not “first you work like me and then maybe we can talk about Christian unity,” but “first we get together and then we can do the work.” First we get together, around the central figure of Jesus Christ, and then we’ll work out the details about how to do the work. What we have in common, Jesus Christ, is what is essential, and as long as that’s our focus instead of any lesser loyalty, such as opinions about buildings, priorities, Books of Order, or partying, we can work together in unity. First we get together, as did the disciples, around Jesus Christ.
First we come together.
Sixth Church . . . could be any church today, in any location, of any denomination. It could be us. And sooner or later some kind of issue will come up at Sixth Church around which people can take sides. It might be about a new program being proposed, or a hot-button political issue; it might have to do with finances; it might be the color of a carpet. But sooner or later there will be something.
And the people of Sixth Church will then have a choice: what will they pray as they sit in their pews Sunday mornings? Will it be “Lord Jesus, make those wrong people see it and do it my way”? Lord Jesus, make my side win”? Or will they pray, “Lord Jesus, bring us together, around you”?
Let us pray: God, thank you for calling us as disciples of Jesus Christ. Help us remember that we are all first a church committed to following him, not committed first to a smaller faction, a party, created by a controversial question or issue. Lord Jesus, keep us together, around you. Amen.