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Apollos, Cephas and Paul

True religion makes men peaceable and not contentious. These words were written by Matthew Henry sometime in the early seventeen hundreds (MH 1662 - 1714) as part of his commentary on the passage we have just heard from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. And would that they were put into practice, “for as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving according to human inclinations?” asks Paul.

Where does it come from this tribalism? When I was at school I was arbitrarily put into a “house” (no sorting hat in my grammar school). Mine was Bartram, a worthy benefactor of the town represented by an orange badge and incomparably superior to Courtauld, dark blue and Tabor light blue. We were tribes gathered around the football pitch or athletics track later to be superseded by my college affiliations on rivers and other pitches. I notice that Patrick now at Sheffield University participates in the rivalry between the two universities in that city. Perhaps in sport or other endeavours getting together under banners is helpful but not in matters of church.

Paul pointed this out in 53 AD, so there is nothing new here, so at the beginning of this letter he complains: ”What I mean is each of you says ‘I belong to Paul or I belong to Apollos or I belong to Cephas.” So the church very early in its history was already divided and two thousand years later it still is. The intervening history has been turbulent, intolerant and full of bloodshed; the history stands in the way of belief. My father would say “What good has religion done in the world?” and for every positive I might identify he can easily counter with innumerable bad examples. What is more the present stands in the way of belief.

As Christians we are not alone in suffering divisions but as Christians we should do better. We believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, The Trinity, three-in-one united by love beyond compare and perfect in every way, a model of ideal cohesion. Yet, even in our own Church of England, setting aside the wider congregations of Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformists and others, even in our narrow segment of the religious spectrum we cannot always agree and we adopt labels to define our differences:

Anglo-catholic, liberal, evangelical, high, low, you know them all. Said someone to me recently “Well I am high church” meaning - well I am not so sure actually, did they mean ‘I am not like you’? And if so why start there? 

At deanery synod this week in the introduction we were told that St. Saviours was the only church in town where there was asperges every Sunday. It defined itself, and chose to define itself you see by difference.

And yet in a moment when I come down these steps we will join together in the Creed beginning “We believe” and we will enunciate our great beliefs any one of which is far greater in importance than whether there are many or few candles, robes or no robes, long or short sermons, women priests or no women priests, incense or no incense or asperges on any Sunday at all. And in a few moments more I shall say at the altar:

Renew us by your Spirit
Inspire us with your love
Unite us in the body of your Son

For we are God’s servants, neither orange, nor light or dark blue but working all together in God’s field.


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