Sermon – Growing in Partnership

Reading & Sketch based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 & Romans 12:1-5

As St Laurence’s we are halfway through a series of services and sermons trying to express a vision – the vision of the Archbishop of York and his staff – for the Diocese of York in particular, but a vision that ought to be one that all churches – all Christians – should share.  A vision of being a growing church – growing in five specific areas – it’s definitely not just about getting more bums on pews, though one would hope that would be the end result.  Something that is not growing is, pretty much by definition, either dying, or not alive in the first place, and the same could be said of a church.

The vision of the diocese is to have each church growing – growing in five areas in particular – growing in Christ-likeness, commitment, partnership, influence and, yes, in numbers, the Five Marks of Growing.  We have already thought about growing in Christ-likeness and Growing in Commitment.  And even though we’re in a joint service today it felt appropriate to carry on our series because the theme is ‘Growing in Partnership’.

The Partnership we’re talking about is about working together as individuals in our churches, working together with other churches, locally and globally, and also about working together with schools, community groups, people, organisations, others beyond the church for the common good, peace and justice, for the causes of the Kingdom.  It’s about loving our neighbours as ourselves.  The first letter of John says, “Those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” – whether they are part of the church or not.  Where love is, God is, and we need to be working with God wherever his Spirit is working.

Now partnership can take many different forms.  Can we think of a few famous partnerships real and fictional?   Batman and Robin, Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet, Torville and Dean, Tom and Jerry, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, Superman and Lois Lane, Anthony and Cleopatra, Morecombe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy, Marge and Homer Simpson.  Can you think of any more? …

What makes these partnerships work (or not work in some cases)?  Love for one another?  Ability to compromise, or inability to do so.  Inability to see beyond their own interests and desires tends to lead to comical disaster.  But in the cases of good and effective partnerships, the two working together are far funnier, far stronger, far more effective at what they aim to achieve.  Mother Teresa said, “You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together, we can do great things.”  It wasn’t Mother Teresa who single-handedly blessed the slums of Calcutta.  It was her whole community of nuns and them working together with others in their community and other supporters around the world.

There is an amazing power in partnership that goes beyond addition to multiplication.  This principle of partnership is found over and over in the New Testament.  In fact, the word “saint” appears ninety-nine times in the New Testament…and it is always plural. Every time you read the word it is “saints,” because you can’t have just one.  A saint ain’t! Saints come in groups of two or more.  What other things only come in plurals?  Trousers, pants.  I don’t know if you can think of any others?  Just as you can’t have a trouser, you can’t have a saint or a Christian.  We are part of one another.

Every Sunday morning a complex of partnerships is taking place, St Paul describes the church as a body and, just as within the human body, there are many different parts and many different functions in the church. Yet, they all work together to make the body of the church alive and active. We are all in partnership with one another.

On a typical Sunday our different churches each have a number of people doing various things.  What do we need every single Sunday?  A minister or worship leader of some sorts, readers, organist (or other musicians), choir members and those who sing up in the congregation, churchwardens or stewards, welcomers, childrens’ group leaders or helpers, coffee makers and servers, flower arrangers, cleaners, those who lead the prayers, servers, the list could go on. All of us need to be in partnership every Sunday so that we can worship God, share fellowship with each other, and grow as Christians.  And that’s just Sunday.

And partnership is also about working with other churches, other denominations – we are all part of the church – the body of Christ.  There is only one body of Christ.  In using this image St Paul was saying we belong together, different individuals and different churches.  The sadness of the division of denominations is that it’s a bit like disparate body parts trying to function without each other, as if a random collection of noses, ears, eyes, limbs, organs and so forth were trying to manage without one another.  Paul says even if one part does say, ‘I’m not part of the body’ it doesn’t for that reason cease to be part.  Just because we think we can manage alone – as individuals or as churches – doesn’t mean we’re less ridiculous than we are – disembodies noses etc.

In our little sketch at the beginning – the hand didn’t want to be the nose because it sneezed – do parts of one body really find one another unsavoury?  Even if they do, do you really cut off your nose to spite your face?  The hand may find the nose snotty and disgusting but the whole body will feel worse if the hand doesn’t get involved wiping the nose!  And the whole body gains from what the nose can tell it – avoiding disgusting smelly things and enjoying lovely smells.

We are ridiculous when Evangelicals find Liberals unsavoury or vice versa – when Catholic quarrels with Protestant, when Anglicans try to get on without Methodists and vice versa.  We do have our distinctive identities – if the whole body were a nose, even though it were perfectly united it would also be ridiculous – I’m not saying we don’t need or shouldn’t have our respective churches, but if we don’t work together when we can or should the body of Christ locally and nationally and internationally is harmed.

How we work in partnership with other churches is important.  It’s going to become a really live issue for us at St Laurence’s in the near future as we have to combine with the Cloughton Cluster of parishes and St Mark’s and St Luke’s.  You Methodists are in many ways a step ahead of us in this, the issues of how you relate to other churches in your circuit and wider area are things you have been working with for many, many years.  Like members of one body our separate churches and denominations have their own identities but they are parts belonging to each other – that should be working together.  If we only stick to our own church and never attend a joint service or go to another venue to join with our fellow body parts we’re like a body with a nasty disease – something like motor neurone disease where nerves don’t carry messages from one part to another properly.  Such a body becomes ill.  Together we form one body and each member belongs to all the others.

This also affects how we work financially – certainly within our denominations.  Because we are one body – or seek to be – there is a financial interdependence.  I’m not sure how it works in the Methodist church – I suspect it’s similar – but in the Anglican church the parish share system reflects this idea of partnership.  All churches pay to a central pot – those that are able pay more, those that are less able pay less.  And in that way churches that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a minister can have one.  Having said that, the system is breaking down somewhat as there isn’t enough money coming in.  The system is changing so that instead of paying a levy worked out somewhere else, each parish looks at what the ministry it receives costs, how much it can afford, and makes an offer – hopefully in a spirit of partnership in the gospel with other churches – other members of the body of Christ.  There are all sorts of practical flaws with the idea and we’ll have see how it works, but the spiritual thinking behind it is good.  It’s supposed to make this idea of partnership in the body of Christ much more part of our thinking as churches.  It will only only work if we’re growing in our idea of partnership with other churches.

As I mentioned earlier though this idea of Christians and churches growing in partnership is wider than just Christians working together.  It’s also about working in partnership with others in our community to achieve something that we cannot do alone.  If, for example we are going to have a significant impact on relieving poverty in and around Scarborough we will need to work together with other charities, with community groups, with council and government agencies.

Clare would be able to tell you much more about the work on Barrowcliffe for instance.  Working with the residents association there, with the childrens’ centre, with the school, the police, the council.  Things are happening because of this partnership which the churches, even working together, could not achieve.  A foodbank that can give out food parcels to struggling families is taking shape – in partnership with the Rainbow Centre, the children’s centre – other groups.  Taking what we have learned in being partners in our churches, between our churches, we can extend the reach of the body of Christ and work with the Holy Spirit, who is often at work far beyond the boundaries of our churches.

Partnership with others brings strength.  Research shows that diverse churches tend to grow. Where there are people of differing ages, gender, backgrounds and ethnicity a new creativity is often born.  Paul and Timothy’s partnership showed everyone how God could produce unity through diversity. Timothy had a Greek father and Paul was a Jew, but they worked in superb harmony to demonstrate how the Spirit blends diverse backgrounds through Christ. One of the characteristics of effective partnerships is complementarity: that’s a big word!  It means our differences complement one another.  Different people bring different gifts to the task. Diversity can be a tension – our differences don’t always sit comfortably together, but as long as people value one another, it is usually a creative tension.

We, here today, are already in partnership as churches.  Could we be more so?  Could we grow in partnership?  Could we grow in partnership within our churches – each part of the body contributing to the purposes of the whole?  What part could you play?  What partnerships could we make with others in our community that would further the cause of the Kingdom of God?

A living body is either growing or it is declining.  Let’s not be content with the level of partnership we have already within our churches or between them or with other churches.  Let’s seek to grow in partnership, for then we will be growing in Christ.

27.1.13 – Alastair – 10:30am Joint Service at Scalby Methodists’