The events in Paris over the three days of January 7-9 were horrific. Beginning with the massacre at the offices of satirical magazine, ‘Charlie Hebdo’, it ended with two sieges and a huge police operation two days later. During that time 17 people were killed by gunmen pledging allegiance to Islamic State. Some of the most barbaric images shown were of the moments leading up to the cold-blooded killing of a wounded policeman who was holding up a hand in a plea for mercy.
Over the last few days, however, other images have come to the fore: Pictures of demonstrators holding up pencils to show their support for free expression, placards proclaiming “Je suis Charlie”, and buildings in central London illuminated with the colours of the French flag. It is estimated that over the weekend more than three million people took part in unity marches across France. More than 40 world leaders joined over a million others for the start of the Paris march, linking arms with one another in an act of solidarity. In Madrid, many Muslims joined in holding banners saying “Not in our name”.
Boris Johnson, reflecting on this world-wide response, wrote in an article, “Yesterday we were all Parisians.” Resistance and defiance has been shown, not through violence, but rather through peace and unity. As I reflect on this, the message is clear: there is something very powerful about people standing together in peace and unity.
As I considered this, my eyes were drawn to some papers on my desk reminding me that January 18 marks the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” In my mind, I can’t help thinking the same message applies in a very different situation.
Unity is something the church has not found easy. Issues come up that people feel very strongly about and disagreement leads to broken relationships.
It was estimated in 2012 that there were around 40000 different branches within the Christian church. Take my own denomination as an example - As you look at world-wide Baptists you discover that there are the General Baptists, the Strict and Particular Baptists, Southern Baptists, Northern Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Regular Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Separate Baptists, United Baptists and I could go on and on.
This is nothing new. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we see that the issue goes back to the New Testament church: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 1 Corinthians 1:11-12
It led Paul to ask: “Is Christ divided?” The answer is, of course, no. It is interesting to note that if you counted the number of times Paul refers to Jesus in the opening ten verses of the chapter you would find that the answer is ten times. Paul keeps pointing back to Jesus. He is preparing the ground for his point that everything is about Jesus.
Christian unity is held around the central message of our faith – Jesus Christ crucified and raised again. It is through Jesus we are put right with God. It is through Jesus that we receive grace and mercy. Jesus is our strength and our hope.
The reality is that we will constantly find things that we don’t agree on. Our theology will differ on various matters. Our idea of how to run the church and worship God will be different. How we understand Scripture may well challenge us in many areas. And all this is true not simply between different denominations but is replicated within our churches as well. The major problem lies when we make these matters of difference more important than the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminds us that we are united around the cross and empty grave.
Furthermore we need to consider how we treat these differences. There have been many great rivalries in sport over the years: Think of the Ashes, Borg and McEnroe, Prost and Senna, even Norwich City and Ipswich Town! Some of the rivalries are friendly whilst others create more tension.
Sadly, the church has not been immune to rivalries. Sometimes people argue that one denomination is better than another, one expression of worship is more powerful than another, one way of doing things (our way!) is not only right but ‘more Godly’.
Perhaps once again there is something to learn from this opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was plagued by problems of division, sexual immorality and social snobbery. We believe that the church wrote a letter to Paul that revealed confusion over a number of theological issues including marriage, divorce, participation in pagan religions, propriety in worship and even the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Paul would respond to these points in due course but in his opening remarks he says: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” 1 Corinthians 1 : 4-7.
Paul sees the good in them, encourages them and wants to build them up, as well as challenge them. Sometimes we can find fault too easily and fail to see the good in people. We have a choice as we look around at other people and other churches: We can see the negative and be critical or we can give thanks for that which is good. It doesn’t mean that we have to go along with or agree with every aspect of their theology, any more than Paul did with the Corinthian church. However, what is clear from this letter is the depth of love Paul had for the people of that church as he lovingly challenges them.
Imagine the church of Norwich that stands together and says: “We are united through Christ and His death and resurrection. We honour and give thanks for other churches of this city. We may do things differently, but I pray God’s blessing and anointing on them.”
Imagine the church standing together in this way throughout this country and indeed throughout the world. Would that not be a strong witness, a light shining out with Good News? And as we look at the world around us, and events like those in Paris earlier in the month, isn’t that what our broken world needs?