A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Our 20th Anniversary service featuring as guest preacher: The Rev. Dr. John Young
(full text below)
I want to begin by saying how pleased I am to be here with you today. To be asked to speak at an anniversary service is a particular honour. But my pleasure today comes from two sources. First, Larry is a former student but, more significantly, someone of whom I think very highly and value as a friend and colleague in ministry. Second, church amalgamations are challenging things to pull off, and Faith United Church is an example of as successful an amalgamation as I know. Indeed, I do not know of one more successful, though I am aware of many that have been far less successful. So, I want to congratulate you on the success of that amalgamation, one involving first two congregations and then at a later point, Harmony United Church.
I chose a reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. I shall come back to some specifics of the passage later, but I want to begin by talking a little bit about that church in Corinth. We do not know a lot about it. But we know a few things. First, it was a church Paul founded. He spent about eighteen months there before moving on either to found other congregations or to try to strengthen other congregations someone else had founded. Eighteen months was a long time for Paul to stay in one place. Generally he moved around a lot, visiting an existing congregation in one place, trying to start a new congregation somewhere else. The Christian church at this point in time, twenty years or so after Jesus’ death, was not the kind of institution we think of today. When Paul was writing, Christianity was a movement; there was nothing we would recognize as an institutional church. Congregations existed as independent entities with little contact between them. I use the term “congregations,” but that term could mislead. These early congregations met in people’s homes. A well-to-do early church member or family might have been able to accommodate thirty or forty people in their home with its accompanying courtyard, but many early Christian churches probably had a group of between fifteen and twenty gathering for worship. We do not know the size of the Corinthian congregation, though we know from other things in the letter that the congregation did have some well-to-do members, so it is possible we have a group here of thirty or so. My point is that these early churches to whom Paul wrote were not large, and they did not have buildings like the one in which we gather this morning.
Another important thing about the church in Corinth—they had not been around a long time at the point Paul wrote this letter to them. We are celebrating Faith’s twentieth anniversary this morning. The church in Corinth was probably three or four years old at the time Paul wrote.
A final thing about the congregation in the early 50s of the Common Era, the time from which this letter comes. The church in Corinth, like all the Christian congregations, functioned in a wider society that knew nothing or next to nothing about what this new religious group believed, how it worshipped, or what it required of its adherents. Those in the wider society who did have some knowledge of this new religion were generally ambivalent toward it, though some may have expressed a mild hostility. An active persecution of the Christian church would come at a later time, but such was not a reality when this letter was written.
Paul, both in this passage, and in his letter as a whole, had three goals. He wanted the Corinthian Christians to see that, as a congregation, they were involved in something God has initiated and maintains. He wanted them to be a united community. And he hoped to have them catch the vision of what they were called to do and to be.
Those three points of Paul’s are relevant to us in our time. While the Christian church has been around for a long time, the environment in which we operate bears, I think, a striking resemblance to that in which the church functioned during the first several generations of its existence. Then, as now, the wider society knows little if anything about who we are or what we do when we worship. Then, as now, the values we have as Christians differ from those of the wider society.
Let me now come back to those three things Paul wants the church in Corinth to recognize. The first is that they are involved in something God has initiated. Enid DeCoe read the first nine verses of chapter 3 for us this morning. In that section of the chapter, Paul spoke of the Church as God’s field and God’s building. If I had asked Enid DeCoe read the entire chapter, the reference to God’s building would have been developed much more than it is here, and we would have discovered Paul also used a third image for the Church, namely that it was God’s temple. By temple, Paul did not mean a building, but, rather, a place in which God’s spirit dwelt. Paul’s point to the church in Corinth, whose members tended to think about their status, and what they would accomplish, and the gifts they had, was that they were part of something God had initiated. In making this point, Paul was not saying that they did not have a role to play with those gifts they had. However, he wanted to stress that God was the one who had brought the church into being for God’s own purposes. Their temptation was to stress the gifts they had, what they brought to the Church. Now Paul never, here or elsewhere, advocated passivity on the part of the Christians. Remember this same letter to the Corinthians is one in which Paul used as an analogy for the Church the human body—the human body with each part needing to contribute or to do its part if the whole body is to function as it should. But in this chapter, with his reference to the Church as God’s field, or God’s building, or, later in the chapter, God’s temple, Paul wanted to remind the Christian Church in Corinth that the Church is something God had established. They had a part to play, but the Church was God’s entity, and God would use their gifts in ways beyond their imagining.
We, too, need to hear this message. We live in a society where we are taught from the time we are very young that everything depends upon us. Indeed, our culture exudes this philosophy in all aspects of life. Paul’s challenge to the Church of his day applies to us to. It is not that we should be passive and live as though the world owes us a living or that the Church will prosper if we sit back. However, what we need to do is to use our gifts as best we can, to give of ourselves as best we can, knowing that God can and will take and use these efforts of ours in ways beyond our imagining. Those who founded St. Andrew’s United Church, or Courtice United Church, or Harmony United Church could not have imagined this future. In this passage, Paul challenged a party spirit that had developed in the church in Corinth. He noted that, as the founder of the church in Corinth, he had planted; a successor of his, Apollos, had watered; but it was God who had given the growth. So, too, God takes our gifts, the planting by some, the watering by others, and develops those gifts.
A second challenge of Paul’s in this letter was community formation in two senses of that term. He wanted to from a community, to get the Corinthians away from identifying with one leader or another. In the opening chapter of this letter, Paul criticized the way the Corinthians had divided into parties. It seems that some persons had identified with Paul as the founder of the community, while others had identified with Apollos, as a subsequent leader of the community. Paul made the point that he and Apollos had both had important roles, one as the founder or “planter” of the community and the other as the developer of the community or the one who “watered.” However, Paul also made clear that such identifications were far from what either he or Apollos, not to mention God, wanted to see. He and Apollos had played different roles, but their commonality was serving God in the leadership they offered to this new congregation. Their common purpose was the growth of the congregation, and the congregation needed to see itself as one community.
As an amalgamated congregation, and a congregation that has developed its own identity following this two stage amalgamation involving three different congregations, you have had to be intentional about thinking of yourselves as one community. You have had to work to be one community, Faith United Church. From what I have heard, you have managed to do that in a most remarkable way. You have become one and learned to think of yourselves in that way. You have been able to do what Paul was working to persuade the church in Corinth to do.
But there is a second way to think about community formation. This second way also applied to the church in Corinth and it applies to us. Paul wanted to form a community designed to follow in Jesus’ way, a community of disciples, a Christian community. He saw the need for a process of formation, for teaching the faith tradition and for preparing them for the life to which they had been called. As Christians, that way of being differed from the norms of the world and culture in which they lived. Part of their unity problem arose because in the surrounding society people sought leadership positions for status and power. So, attaching themselves to a previous leader, saying that they were “of Paul” or “of Apollos,” was to follow the way of that society. Some of Paul’s criticisms of them later in this letter concerned the sense to which they had retained their culture’s practice of valuing people on the basis of their race, or their gender, or their wealth.
Third, Paul wanted them to catch a vision of what they were called to do and who they were called to be. This third hope of Paul’s may apply to us even more than the two previous ones. Paul was quite clear that to become a Christian was to become counter-cultural in many ways, even if he did not use the term “counter-cultural.” To be a Christian in our society is to have an alternative vision as to how the world can be, and when I say, “an alternative vision,” I mean a vision different from what our society and our culture sees as “normal.” At one time the Church and the society seemed relatively close in the values we held. That certainly seemed to be true when I was a child. That said, I do not think the overlap then was nearly as great as we believed it to be. Certainly it is not so now. Our contemporary congregations, congregations like Faith United Church, need to help to form those who come here as Christians, as those who know the faith tradition and who are also prepared to try to live their lives according to it.
We live in a society that says what we have has come to us as a result of our own efforts; we practise a faith tradition that says that what we have comes to us as grace, as God’s gift. Yes, we need to work at those gifts and develop them, but I did not choose the country of my birth, or the family that gave me much love, or any one of a number of other things that have helped to make me who I am. Those things were gift; they were not my accomplishment.
We are part of a society that encourages us to look after ourselves and not to worry about anyone else. Watch carefully the ads for investment counsellors or financial advisors that one sees on TV or that pop up when you are looking at something on line. Our faith tradition tells us we need to love our neighbours as ourselves and to share what we have.
Our culture teaches us that our happiness lies in owning a particular type of car or having a house of a particular size, or having a TV with a very large screen. None of these things are bad. But none of them are the basis for our ultimate happiness. And a consumer driven way of life that sets our valuing of ourselves on the basis of what we possess is proving toxic for the environmental capacity of our planet. We are part of a faith tradition that says we find meaning in life through loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbours as ourselves.
In other words, our faith tradition provides us with an alternative picture for what the world should be, a picture different from the images we would draw from our culture. In their book, Minding the Law, Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner assert, correctly I think, that every culture is, at its base, a “negotiated” compromise between what is “already established” and what is “imaginatively possible.” Every culture has battles over how to conceive reality, that is, over what is real and over how things ought to be. Or, to quote Amsterdam and Bruner, “In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible.” In the Christian church, we have an alternative imagination. We do not have alternative facts, but we do have an alternative imagination of how our world could be, of how it could look. In such a world, we would not have ongoing boil water advisories in a large number of indigenous communities here in Canada. We would have more initiatives like the United Church Women’s one of several years ago that raised a large sum of money for maternal care in Tanzania.
Like the church Paul was working to correct and to create, Faith United Church needs to be a place where people can learn about and grow in the faith tradition. Indeed, that must be, or become, the reality for all our congregations. All our congregations need to be places that help provide an alternative imagination, an imagination that can picture the world as we believe God would want it to be. Hopefully our congregations are also ones that strengthen us not only to have such an imagination but also to work to bring that imagined world into being.
The United Methodist congregation at which I worshipped while doing my doctoral degree in Dallas celebrated its 25th anniversary during the time I was there. A hymn writer who was a member of the congregation wrote a hymn for the occasion, hymn that was picked up by a number of hymnals though not, alas, by ours. However, I want to close with two stanzas from that hymn, for they capture well both a sense of what we owe to those who have gone before us, both here and in the history of the congregations who came together to form Faith, and a sense of what we contribute to a future for this congregation, a future that runs beyond what we can foresee. Here are the two stanzas from Jane Marshall’s hymn “What Gift can we Bring”:
Give thanks for the past, for those who had vision,
who planted and watered so dreams could come true.
Give thanks for the Now, for study, for worship,
for mission that bids us turn prayer into deed.
Give thanks for Tomorrow, full of surprises,
for knowing whatever Tomorrow may bring,
the Word is our promise always, forever,
we rest in God’s keeping and live in God’s love.
In the days that lie head, may we water what others have planted, and plant for those who will come after us. And to that God, in whose keeping we rest and in whose love we live, be all honour, glory, and praise, Amen.
 Quoted in Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. vii.