The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which always falls during the season of Epiphany, began last Tuesday and, looking a little ahead, the first week of February has been designated by the United Nations as the week of Inter-faith Harmony. I would like to consider these topics this morning in the light of our reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.
Paul wrote the letter from Ephesus, where he was staying at the time, somewhere around 54 AD, to a congregation that he had founded several years earlier in Corinth, the capital city of the Roman Province of Achaia. Corinth, at that time, was a large and prosperous urban centre with an ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse population. The congregation there reflected this diversity and were largely Gentile. A few were persons of local importance but most were of lesser means and lower social standing. It is likely that they lived and worked in many different quarters of the city but came together regularly for a shared meal and worship.
In this morning’s reading, taken from the very beginning of the letter immediately after the customary lengthy salutation, Paul is appealing for unity amongst the congregation at Corinth.
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
The congregation at Corinth were squabbling with one another
and rival groups were jockeying for control.
So engrossed had they become in arguing about details that they were failing to follow the way of Jesus. As a result, some had become arrogant and indifferent to immoral behaviour, some were failing to support the disadvantaged amongst them and some were boasting that they had special religious wisdom or knowledge. To use a modern expression, they were failing to see the wood for the trees. Paul, taking full advantage of the wider perspective afforded him by writing from the other side of the Aegean Sea, used his letter to urge them to step back and see the greater picture and let love be the governing power of their community.
Of course, all that was over 2,000 years ago. We’ve had plenty of time to learn from their mistakes haven’t we? Surely there can’t still be groups of Christians that believe that they have some form of knowledge or understanding that somehow makes them better than other groups of Christians? Surely not?
Unfortunately, we all know the answer to that question. The situation has not got better, it has got worse. Paul would be horrified to know the extent of the squabbling that still continues between different groups within the church whose mission, as we heard in his letter this morning, should be simply to ‘proclaim the gospel’ – the good news of Jesus Christ.
So what can be done about this problem? Will groups of human beings ever be able to discard the notion that they have some exclusive knowledge that makes their point of view so much better than anyone else’s? I have my doubts, but I would like to share with you two well-known stories which, between them, give hope that it may indeed be possible.
The first is a story that the children acted out for us in a Family Service a year or so ago about a group of blind men who came across an Elephant for the first time. One reached out his hand and felt a leg and declared an elephant to be ‘like a tree’. Another felt the trunk and said an elephant was like a snake. ‘No No!’ said a third who had felt the tail: ‘an elephant is like a rope’. Each was convinced that he knew the truth about an elephant. In one respect each was at least partly right, yet those of us blessed with the gift of sight can see that none of them had come close to describing an elephant
This story contains an essential concept that has to be grasped before progress can be made in bringing opposing groups together, no matter what the context. There is no such thing as the truth or, if there is, it is not the lot of humans to know it. There is my truth and your truth and both are equally valid.
For the second story we have no Family Service to think back to so you are going to have to imagine it for yourself. Look, if you would, at the stained glass window over the high altar or, if you cannot see it from where you are sitting, close your eyes and imagine it. Now imagine that the glass has become clear and you can see beyond, not Hall Yard, but a huge, tall conical mountain. The top, for the moment, is shrouded in cloud, but the foothills can be plainly seen. They are covered in thick, dense, impenetrable woodland. Now, hold that picture of the mountain in your mind for a few moments and prepare yourselves to go on a journey. As time is short, although it would be nice to walk, I’ve arranged for Scotty to beam us all into a clearing deep inside the wood on one side of the mountain. I suggest you close your eyes for this bit if you would, but I promise it won’t hurt a bit.
Right! You can open them again now. We’ve arrived and now it gets personal. The woodland is even thicker and denser than it looked from afar and it is very dark. You try a few steps into the undergrowth but there are briars and thorns that trip you up and cause great pain. Fortunately, though, there is a well-marked path leading upwards from the clearing so your journey can continue. A Guide tells you that this is the path that leads towards the light and gives you a book of directions. He explains that there is a path all the way but sometimes you will struggle to see it because you are not looking in the right place. Sometimes it will appear to go off at a strange angle and you will be tempted to take a short cut through the undergrowth. ‘At such times’, he advises, resist the temptation, re-read the directions and stay on the path.
You study the book of directions and set off. For much of the time the wood seems very dark but every so often it thins a little and you get a glimpse of the light somewhere way above you. The first time it happens you don’t really believe it but after several more glimpses you become more certain. The light is definitely there and you are moving towards it. But then you come to a long dark patch and maybe you are not quite so sure. ‘Keep going’ says your Guide who is keeping step a little way behind you, ‘this path will take you to the place that you seek.’
Eventually the wood starts to thin and you can see the mountain itself. Its summit is still shrouded in cloud for much of the time but it does appear to be thinning. As you look to your left and your right you can see other people on other paths. They too are seeking the light. Looking back you can see that some of the paths had been running very close and almost parallel to yours. Others had come from the other side of the mountain but all are now converging.
At the start of your journey, at the bottom of the mountain when you were the furthest from the light, you were also at your furthest distance from the people on the other paths. Now, near the top, you can see quite clearly that they are seeking the same destination as you. They started in a different place and followed a different set of directions but now, almost at the top, you are walking side by side. The cloud has gone. Your destination is clear. Hold that vision for as long as you can because:
I forgot to say: Scotty’s transporter is only good for 5 minutes so here we are again back where we started. Our journey took a little longer than expected but there is just enough time to reflect upon what we learnt from it and ask some questions.
Did you recognise the path that Scotty beamed you onto? Were you able to give names to some of the things mentioned like the light, the book of directions or the path itself? What did you make of the paths which, when looking back had been running almost parallel to your own all the way? Or those which had started from the other side of the mountain but which were now converging on your own?
And now, imagine that when Scotty energised his transporter you had been a Muslim or a Jew or a member of almost any one of the great religions of the world or even Richard Dawkins, and ask yourself the same questions. In what ways would your answers be different and in what ways would they be the same?
Think on these things throughout the remainder of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and onwards into the Week of Inter-faith Harmony. Talk about them and pray about them for your answers are of the utmost importance.