Focal Point

Sunday, 26 January 2020 10:30

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

I am a long-time Star Trek fan. If you know Star Trek then you may have heard of an alien species known as the Borg. If you haven’t let me explain that they are a cyborg species that are part ‘human’ and part machine, but the main point is that they have what they call in the series a ‘hive mind’. That is, they share thoughts - they have a kind of collective mind. This has advantages: they act with great common purpose that allows them to conquer many planets. When they adapt they adapt quickly. On the other hand they aren’t very inventive and the unexpected tends to catch them off-guard.

More importantly, they aren’t human. In fact that whole ‘collective mind’ thing is about as far as you can get from being human. Each of us, in a sense, is contained within this dome of bone that we call a skull. Within here we have our own thoughts and ideas. In here we have our own secrets and dreams. In here we have our own perceptions and understandings of the things we see around us. This is what it is to be human. No one knew that better than Paul of Tarsus - a man who had formulated, within his own skull whole new ideas about the relationship between being Jewish and the Jewish Torah, about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles and was well ready to argue his point

So, at first sight, it might seem a bit rich coming from Paul, this idea that the Corinthians should “all be in agreement” and that there be “no divisions” among them. And it might seem a little rich for us, as Christians, to be reading this aloud in our churches and preaching on it. After all, we’ve scarcely been very good at the whole “being in agreement and having no divisions” thing, have we? When you read Paul’s concerns here, that some of the Corinthians are talking of themselves as ‘Apollosians’ and some as ‘Petrines’ depending on who baptised them, is that really a million miles away from modern-day Christians talking of themselves as ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’? Or as Baptists, Presbyterians, Free-Churchers, United Free-Churchers, Reformed Free-Churchers (sorry - made that one up) or Seventh-Day Adventists?

We really haven’t been very good at doing that whole “being in agreement and having no divisions” thing, have we? And let’s be honest, it’s led us into some very dark places down the centuries. If we are meant to be of one mind, having no divisions between us, then, it has been argued in times gone past, we should extirpate those who sow such divisions. An argument that led, in parts of Southern France, to whole cities being razed to the ground because they housed heretics. If we are meant to be of one mind, having no divisions between us, then, so the argument has gone in times gone past, that those who hold a different understanding of the faith from our own must be the enemy. How much grief has been caused by the sectarian hatreds that that idea has planted?

That’s why this verse is so dangerous, taken at face value. The way Paul talks of being “united in the same mind” can be so easily understood as meaning we should all think the same thing - that we should belong to some kind of collective mind where questioning, original thinking, unorthodox ideas on scripture and on the nature of God and the meaning of the Gospel needs to be shunned and cast out because our group, our sect, our denomination has it right and all the rest are wrong and that gets us right back to what Paul is trying to prevent among the Corinthians.

The thing is, we cannot be “of one mind”. Each of us come to this place this morning with our own unique educational background, our own unique strengths and weaknesses, experiences and lack of them. We come with our own emotional and intellectual and political and social baggage and for each of us all of that is contained in this box of bone that means that we can never fully communicate all that makes us who we are to anyone except the God who knows us intimately - not even the people closest to us. And we have a chance of being “of one mind” about the nature of a transcendent, eternal, omnipresent God who came into the world in the life of a human being like you and me?

Let’s say that Paul means something else here. Let’s say that what he means here is that we, as Christians, should have one focal point in the way we think and act and speak - that one thing we focus on and direct our attention toward. That focal point, in Paul’s letter, is Christ. That’s what he’s getting at when he asks, “Is Christ divided?” It doesn’t matter what church we go to. It doesn’t matter whether we think there are seven sacraments or two. It doesn’t matter whether you sit to pray, stand to pray, kneel to pray or gyrate like a dervish. It doesn’t matter whether you get baptised as a child or an adult. None of that is the focal point of our faith.

Our focal point is, must be, Christ. Our focal point is the Christ who taught things that seemed, sometimes absurd but which work - turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as you love yourself, go the extra mile. Our focal point is the Christ who healed the sick and fed the hungry, who walked among the poor and forgotten and who was ready to come and serve the Centurion whose subordinate was dying, the frightened father of a sick girl and two grieving sisters. 

Our focal point is, must be, Christ. Our focal point is the Christ who called ordinary folk - folk like me - like Andrew and Peter; like James and John. Folk who could communicate a simple idea - the idea that every one of us is precious in the eyes  of a loving God who is the father to each and every one of us. An idea that binds humanity together rather than dividing us into sundered fragments and sects.

Imagine if we, as Christians, with all our divisions, with our history of hatred of heretics and those who are not in “our camp” could live together and love one another and recognise each other as brothers and sisters and embrace each other. What an example we could be to the world! And you know what’s brilliant? We can and we do. When I was Interim Moderator at Langholm the heating failed. There was no way we could hold services in that building. So the Catholic church came to our aid and my last few services there were conducted in their church.

That’s the point that Paul is getting at here. If we, as Christians, make Christ our focal point, rather than the things that divide us, then we can set an example to the world. Imagine a world where it doesn’t matter what nationality you espouse, you are one with those of other nationalities. Imagine a world where it doesn’t matter what social class you belong to, you are one with those who are in need. Imagine a world where we can disagree with each other - and we always will - but do so without hatred. Imagine a world whose focal point is a man who told his most ardent follower to put away his sword when they came to arrest him. To follow in that way is to take on the mind of Christ.

Lord may we share the mind of Christ - a mind not fixated upon doctrine or sectarian division but on expressing your love for your children through service care and self-sacrifice.

Preached at Gretna: St Andrew's