Sermon - 18th September 2011
I will show you a more excellent way
Scripture - 1 Corinthians 12:31b - 13:13
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
We are at the beginning of our anniversary week. The effect of our typical working week is often to make Sunday feel like the end of our weekend, with tomorrow as the real start of our week. But in fact, as Christians, we start our week by celebrating the Lord’s Day.
So welcome to a new week, a week when we reflect that the Metropolitan Community Church of Manchester has been working for 20 years to share a message of God’s inclusive and unconditional love for all people. And when you consider how things have changed for the sexual and gender minorities to whom we tried to give a voice within the church, within the Christian faith, and within society as a whole, I think we can agree it has been a remarkable 20 years.
Set against the 2000 year timeline of the Christian faith, our life as a congregation accounts for 1% of that life of faith. But it has been a remarkable 1% in terms of acceptance - and even positive affirmation - of who God calls his lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children to be, and who we are called to become.
It’s a very pleasant coincidence that our preaching rota puts me here with you today, because - by chance - I happen to be the longest-standing active member of this church. Andy has been a member of our denomination longer than I, but I can stretch my connection with this worshipping community back to 1994 when a small group of people were holding onto a hazy and rather stumbling vision of being called to do something, but it wasn’t very clear ‘what’, and there was some confusion about ‘how’.
But there were people to follow: people who were leading confidently and with commitment to a vision of inclusion and social justice. And one of those people will be here later this week.
He’s been to Manchester previously; he came in the early 1990s to give confidence to a small group of lgbt Christians who were looking to connect with like-minded groups by affiliating to the Metropolitan Community Church. On that occasion, Troy Perry took the beginnings of this church by the hand and led our early members towards the vision he offered. Later this week, he will shake us by the hand and bless us for helping to make much of that vision into a reality.
So, in readiness for a time of celebration, perhaps we can spend ten minutes reflecting on twenty years of ministry.
Our reading today came from a letter written by someone who founded churches. Paul experienced his own revelation of the relationship which God has with each one of us. He came from a traditional and highly orthodox background, but he came to believe that the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth brought people closer to God more truly than anything he had previously learned, experienced or believed.
Paul was so consumed by Jesus’s gospel of love, that he was driven to share his faith with all who would listen to him while he travelled around whichever parts of the ancient world he could reach. And he left behind him communities of faith who shared his vision of a world seeking to live by the gospel of Jesus and bring about the kingdom of God.
Because the early Christian communities were quite few, and were scattered over a wide area, Paul taught and guided and corrected them by means of letters which were intended to be read out and shared among the members. Sometimes the letters were quite broad in what they taught; sometimes they were quite specific and addressed particular problems which had been referred to Paul for guidance.
Starting a church, and nurturing it through its early stages of formation is never easy. Enthusiasm, energy and excitement sometimes become overbearing and overdemanding for those who are feeling their way more slowly than others. Different views, backgrounds and upbringings can often take time to work in harmony and find shared ideas and values. And when leadership and gifts emerge from within the community, they can be sources of suspicion, jealousy and conflict unless handled with wisdom and discernment.
Many of Paul’s early communities went through these birth pangs; but the church which became the most serious hotbed of discontent was the one in Corinth - the one to which Paul is writing in today’s reading. Power struggles and personality clashes were running riot in the Corinthian church; and so, in a long letter to them, Paul addresses many of the issues that were occurring in that community. But, he says, when you stand back from all the particular problems that the Corinthians were having, there is one golden thread of teaching that has been ignored - what he calls ‘a more excellent way’. And that teaching is that they should love one another.
Come forward in time around 1900 years, and we hear of a Pentecostal minister called Troy Perry being dismissed from his job, evicted from his home, and experiencing the complete absence of any sign that the golden thread of Christian teaching is that we love one another. In fact, Troy experienced an even more pernicious teaching: this was that some are to be loved, included, blessed and affirmed; but some are not.
Come forward another forty years and those lgbt Christians who were once excluded are finding a whole new range of expressions of God’s love for all God’s daughters and sons. The gifts we bring are starting to be recognised as gifts to the whole Christian community; the challenges we make around diversity, inclusion and understanding are taking hold in many parts of the church.
Today we heard Paul speaking to his church about the power of faith, hope and love. In a few day’s time, we will hear a modern-day prophet talking to us about his own vision of what was needed to bring about a new expression of love for God’s lgbt children. Troy shaped his vision into three priorities - he called it his three-pronged Gospel.
The first priority for the Metropolitan Community Church was going to be an expression of salvation based on the principle that whoever believes in Jesus shall have everlasting life; and that word ‘whoever’ certainly includes God’s lgbt children.
The second priority was going to be an expression of community which said that the Metropolitan Community Church will be a family for those who have no families that care about them, or who find themselves alone or friendless.
And the third priority was going to be an expression of Christian social action by means of which Metropolitan Community Church would stand up for our rights, both secular and religious, and would fight the many forms of tyranny that oppressed lgbt people.
This three-pronged gospel - Christian Salvation, Christian Community, and Christian Social Action - is still in our DNA as we reflect on who we are and where we’ve been in our first twenty years. But those three principles also parallel much of what Paul was saying to his church in Corinth when they were struggling for their own identity in an oppressive and tyrannical society. After all, faith is the foundation of our promise of salvation through our belief in Jesus; hope is what drives us to fight for a better world through our social action; and love is what empowers us to be a family for those who have no-one to love them.
To the best of my recollection, we have done all of that. We still do it; and there will always be more to do. So, here’s to the next twenty years when the challenges will be different, the world will be different, the people will be different, but the principles will be the same.