2 Corinthians 5:16-20
If you want to see what trying to force people to work together is like, then tie two cats together by their tails and throw them over a clothes line.
As we come, in just a few days’ time, to unite with Farnham Methodist Church, it’s good to reflect that negotiations have gone very smoothly, and I’m sure that this spirit can continue. So far people have all been hugely gracious, generous, kind, and hospitable. I’m sure that we can all continue in the spirit. Throughout this process it has been very clear that God has led us this far, and I’m equally confident that God will not abandon us. We are embarking on a new beginning. There will inevitably be teething difficulties, but if we can remain people of grace then we will find our way, with God’s help. God still needs all of us to work for him in the new church, and God still has a place for each one of us in the new church.
Looking back over the years, it’s clear that Farnham URC as we have known and loved it was dying. We have been doing many good things, many pieces of outreach into the community, many signs of God’s kingdom at work in the community, much growth in people’s lives, many good things, all through dedicated and loving service offered selflessly over a very long time. However, three factors have conspired to hamper that good work, and lead us into decline:
i) new members joined us at a far slower rate than older members became infirm and died;
ii) there have been a number of pastoral difficulties over the years, largely unknown to many beyond those closely involved, but which have had a negative effect upon the fellowship;
iii) the age and extent of the buildings have led them to become a drain upon our time, energy, and money.
In acknowledging the truth, however unpalatable, that things could not go on as they were, please don’t concentrate upon the negatives, but remember the good, loving, faithful, service to God and the community over many years.
And as we look forwards to the future, we can see ways to reach beyond these difficulties and to allow our service to the community and our working for God’s kingdom to once more become our focus, as we unite with Farnham Methodist Church and get stuck into the exciting future of our buildings with the Pilgrim Project. That has taken time and energy, but it has also released time and energy.
This time and energy that really has been released comes from what Aristotle called “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What that means is that when you add things together, they are more than ought to be. If you take two apples, and add two apples, you ought to get four apples, but if you follow Aristotle’s logic, then you get at least five apples. That might be nonsense in parlour games with fruit bowls, but it certainly isn’t in more serious matters.
This business of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is called synergy, and it’s the only way that science can make any sense of the universe and how it operates. To give you an example from biology, if flu virus A kills 10% of the people who catch it, and flu virus B also kills 10% of the people who catch it, then if virus A and virus B are both going around at the same time, you’d expect 20% of the people to be killed, but in reality it’s more than that, because the two flu viruses together have a greater effect.
This applies in church as well, and to explain what I mean I’d like to tell you about two United Reformed Churches that united in Woking, twelve years ago. When they came together they found that they had more people to do things, so instead of feeling stretched to have enough people to do the jobs and keep the show on the road, they found people with spare energy and time to serve the church not just in keeping the institution going, but in more creative ways. They also found that they had more money, because they were only paying one gas bill, one water bill, one electricity bill, one insurance bill, and the maintenance of one building. So, they had more members doing work with children and young people, more members involved in worship and Bible study, and more members involved in pastoral care; they found that their combined accounts meant that they could employ a youth worker. And the result is that that church has grown in numbers, and also become a much younger church. This is what I mean by the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
The French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry, said that “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach people to yearn for the vastness and immensity of the ocean.”
As we come to unite with Farnham Methodist Church, it will not always be perfect. Perfect unity and the perfect church, the perfect household of God, is God’s gift in God’s time and will only happen in the hereafter, not now and not by our efforts. But meanwhile the Holy Spirit can help us to form the penultimate church – the one before the perfect end – where there is a coming together of the broken people in fractured churches in the imperfect world – a coming together that will form a whole, if imperfect, body of Christ. But that wholeness is not the same as perfection. This is a message of hope: we can still work to become the penultimate church.
Our reading today from the second letter to the Corinthians has something to say to illuminate this.
1. We’re challenged to look at things from God’s perspective, not from human perspectives.
Are we looking for God’s kingdom to be real in the church and in the world? Are we applying God’s standards to what we do, seeking justice and peace, seeking life in all its fullness for everyone?
2. A new order has already begun.
What this means is that God is building the ultimate church – but we are not there yet – it has begun, and it continues every time we follow Christ more closely, and accept Christ in others. The new order has begun, but only God can bring it to completion.
3. God has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.
Church unity is not just an internal, churchy matter, it is about the message of the gospel we share with the world. The gospel teaches us that division is sinful, that we only imperfectly grasp God’s truth as yet, and that we should listen to and care for the lowest and the least. A broken world needs a united church which proclaims a gospel of reconciliation.
4. Be reconciled to God
Paul is telling us very clearly that all that we do to build unity should be about moving closer to God, and closer to God’s will. It’s about God, not about us.
You may recall that we had a little snow last winter. Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, tiny, made of water frozen into unique and intricate patterns, but just look at what they can do when they stick together.
So, as we unite with Farnham Methodist Church, let us look forward to the future with generosity, with welcome, and with grace. Let us do so with hope and with confidence that we are trying to do God’s will, and that God is with us.
Unity is not about growing more like each other, but together growing more like Christ. So, may Christ be our source and guide and goal.