Paul talks about what true Christian unity is in his letter to the congregation in Corinth. Just as the political commentators today, Paul talks about unity because it is sorely lacking. The Corinthian church, rich in spiritual gifts and physical blessings, is turned in on itself in dissension, bickering and jealousy. And so Paul gives this sermon in his letter, a sermon that tries to call them back to what all their gifts and blessings are for at the basic, foundational level.
And this is important for us, just as it was then for the Corinthian Christians, because we also need to reflect on what our place is in the whole picture, the whole body.
Our unity is in being made members of the one body of Jesus Christ.
Let me say that again. Our unity is in being made members of the one body of Jesus Christ.
We don’t make ourselves members of this body. That is God’s work, through being baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the active agent of the Trinity in the sacrament of baptism, bringing us to faith in Jesus Christ so that we can receive him as the savior sent from the Father. The Holy Spirit is, as it were, the leading edge of the Holy Trinity, who always works in coordinated action for the salvation of the world, in each one of us. It is all of that Third Article of the Creed stuff, what Luther lays out so succinctly in the Small Catechism:
“But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith, even as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it in Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
As Luther writes here, and as Paul reminds both the Corinthian Christians and us, this is not just about “me and Jesus getting saved.” Yes, it is personal, and individual, the Holy Spirit working in your life, and in yours, and in mine, so that each one can hear God calling by name as his beloved child. But it is also, always, by necessity, about us, about the whole Christian Church, about those who came before and who will come after, about the others in the pews along side us, and about those Christians who are in congregations and gatherings around the world. Some we know, some we don’t know, and occasionally some we wish we didn’t know!
And now, as in Corinth, there are differences. Disagreements. Oh, let’s be really honest: there are some real cat-fights in the church, feuds that would rival the Hatfields and the McCoys! Those are not things for us to be proud of, but they must be admitted, confessed to, before any kind of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation can take place. And sometimes that work of reconciliation takes a long time, even centuries. Fortunately, we are claimed by a God who takes the long view, and is willing to hang in there over the centuries.
In the midst of disagreements, disappointments, rivalries, and opposing claims to what is right and proper among Christians in the same congregation, church body, or tradition, Paul gives us a vision, a wake-up call, as to what is the purpose of all of this multitude of gifts and callings. It is to point to Christ. It is to build up his body so that the weaker members, whatever and whoever they might be, are clothed with greater honor; so that all members might have the same care for one another; so that we suffer together and rejoice together; so that the whole body together might be a witness to what Jesus Christ has done and how He has taken each one of us and at the cost of his own life, given his life away so that we might live.
Now, there are times when this unity seems, indeed is, pushed to the breaking point. There are situations, moments, even decades when it seems that Christians are better at snarling and biting at one another than at caring for one another; when emotions run so high that the mere idea of working together in one body is abhorrent. The difficulty of those times and situations are well known; and indeed, sometimes there are matters that are worth arguing and fighting about. Jesus himself at times seems to pick arguments with others; those situations emerge over the course of the Gospels.
But remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon. Our unity comes from being made members of the one body of Christ . It isn’t something we make happen, it is something that is done to us and for us. Our dissensions and even our separations are real, and sometimes get worse as we humanly struggle. Our prayers for Christian unity are sometimes more like whistling in the dark.
But our unity in Jesus Christ is real. He is the one who has brought us into his life, and while he stretches he doesn’t break. His unity exists beyond what we can see or know, in our limited human existence in this corner of the whole Church. His Holy Spirit binds us together in our baptism into his death, and we will rise together, to then know one another as we have been known by him. He brings us that good news, that being one isn’t up to us. He has accomplished it already, and gives it to us as his gift.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.