Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Week of prayer for Christian unity

Just four chapters into the New Testament, and Matthew tells us Jesus goes north to preach his message in Zebulun & Naphtali.

Matthew really wants us to notice –

  • that it’s Zebulun & Naphtali (he even quotes Isaiah’s prophecy about Zebulun & Naphtali)
  • that this is how Jesus begins his ministry.

So what?

Why didn’t Jesus go straight down to Jerusalem? Surely that’s where all the important things happen?

Let’s recap a bit of Old Testament history, so we can appreciate what Matthew is saying.

Remember Jacob & sons-12 sons

  • Two of whom were Zebulun & Naphtali.
  • The 12 sons had families and grew into 12 tribes.
  • They all ended up in Egypt as slaves…
  • …until the Exodus, when Moses and Joshua led them to the promised land.
  • The land is divided up among the 12 tribes —Zebulun & Naphtali settle in the North.
  • Eventually the 12 tribes fall out & fight:
  • North (Israel) divides from South (Judah),
  • There’s rivalry; there’s civil war.
  • …with more to follow —
  • One day the Assyrians come along and conquers the northern tribes, carrying off the survivors into exile.(722 BC).
  • Then a bit later, the Babylonians come and conquer the south. Jerusalem is devastated, but eventually gets rebuilt
  • While the north is largely written off.

The exile was a painful experience of great shame, regret, and depression for God’s people. But into that emptiness,

  • the prophets start preaching hope, for a king, who will one day come to restore these tribes, reunite them, and build a new kingdom.
  • Isaiah tells of a ‘great light’ that will shine on the peoples of Zebulun & Naphtali.

So when, after many years, Jesus of Nazareth deliberately goes to Galilee—the old haunts of Zebulun & Naphtali—with good news, that’s when people like St Matthew get excited and want to say, “Look!”

Once there, Jesus does three things

  1. Preaches, ‘Repent: the kingdom of heaven’s here!’
  2. Heals the. sick, casts out demons,
  3. Calls the first of 12 disciples.

Let’s think about those three:

1: He calls the people to ‘Repent – that’s the first part of his good news.

  • In the Old Testament, all the problems that led to the destruction and exile of Israel are due to their sin and disobedience.
  • So the prophets talk about their hypocrisy; corruption; injustice; power-grabbing; their constant unfaithfulness to the Lord and to each other.
  • Those things haunted them all through the exile – they were bad memories.
  • And when Jesus called people to repentance, he gave them an opportunity to acknowledge their wrongdoing, so that they could face it, then move on
  • “Repent” – Why? because the kingdom of God is here. It’s time to move forward.
  • To repent means to begin again — a fresh start.

Sometimes God gently takes us back to sinful mistakes we made, the times we messed up or the things we could have done better, because he knows how they hang over us like rainclouds.

We can feel like Zebulun & Naphtali sitting in darkness.

  • And by acknowledging those things we can move on in a more healthy direction.
  • Sometimes that might involve us doing a bit of repair work, the humility to apologise, some genuine confession, and rigorous honesty.
  • But with God, it’s never about shame or condemnation. It’s always about healing and moving forward.

That’s where we come to the second thing Jesus was doing…

2: Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is at hand, and he demonstrates it by healing the sick and casting out demons.

  • In the old stomping grounds of Zebulun & Naphtali, was an awful lot of pain and damage, loss and misery.
  • Things that shatter people’s morale and confidence;
  • Thing which crush people’s identity;
  • Things which cause a brokenness that seems impossible to fix.
  • But by curing diseases and casting out demons, Jesus says to the North, “You are still precious to God; here am I, to bring you his love, power, energy.”
  • Jesus was cleaning, repairing, and restoring hope.
  • Just as Isaiah said. “These people have been sitting in darkness, but now there’s a great light.”

There are times and experiences of darkness in our world, in our lives, which can shatter us or slowly drag us down, taking hold of us like demons, or wrecking our health, and like Zebulun & Naphtali we long for the light to shine.

  • Jesus comes to cure us, and to send the demons away.
  • Sometimes that’s almost impossible to believe.
  • He doesn’t always do that in the way that we hope, or at the time we’d like.
  • And he doesn’t always do it this side of the resurrection.
  • But then (if not before) it will come.
  • He came to Zebulun & Naphtali after many years of their waiting. And he came at the right time, in the best way.
  • They didn’t earn it, nor deserve it, but he came to them out of sheer grace.
  • Let’s pray today for fresh visitation of God’s grace into the darkest places.

3: Jesus calls the first of his 12 disciples.

You can’t get more symbolic than this.

  • 12 sons of Jacob, 12 tribes, broken apart (first) by their own infighting, then by invaders who took them away.
  • But Jesus gathers a company of 12 around him – not just because it’s a nice number, but because he’s rebooting the system, he’s rebuilding the kingdom.
  • Those 12 would spread out into the world and make a much bigger family of God, which spans the globe, of people from every race and culture.
  • This family of God would start meeting and praying in small communities – churches, including St Michael’s & St Mary’s.
  • We are part of that worldwide family of God, which Jesus started putting together in the north of Israel.

Our second reading was part of Paul’s 1st letter to one of the very earliest of those communities in Corinth.

It was a gifted, diverse church, but before too long it began to suffer some of the same problems as the ancient sons of Israel: tribal warfare!

  • (1:11-12) ‘For it has been reported to me… that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos, ‘ or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
  • The church starts breaking into factions, according to their favourite ministers- whose personality or style or way of doing things they preferred.
  • So Paul reminds them who it was that died for their salvation (1:13) ‘Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?’
  • It’s not about the minister. It’s not even about the church or the denomination: It’s about Christ – he is the place of unity: in his Name, gathered around his table.
  • So Paul urges them (1:10): ‘…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.’

This is a very important reading to hear this week, because it’s the week of prayer for Christian unity: churches of all denominations up and down the country praying for a greater unity and reconciliation.

Christian disunity is sad, painful, and damaging to the gospel.

  • There have been episodes in the church’s history when Christians have fallen out and treated each other appallingly.
  • But today, perhaps more than ever, the different denominations around the world are making huge efforts to work together, which is exciting and encouraging.

Instances of Christian unity are precious, and this is the week, especially, to pray for it.

  • But what Paul stresses to the Corinthians is that unity must begin in the local church— in our own congregation.
  • And that’s a very important matter for our prayers & actions here as we prepare for an interregnum.

There should be no better way of fostering that unity than sharing in Holy Communion –

“Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.”

Today, this meal

  • reminds us,
  • empowers us
  • encourages us

to continue the work Christ began in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Sermon by Rev James Pettit on Sunday 22nd January 2017