Faith Mysterious and Practical: Fourth Sermon on St Paul’s Letters


Sermon preached by Dr Peter McCullough on Ephesians 3.14-4.6, the fourth of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Today we reach the midpoint of our tour through the seven early churches ministered to by St Paul – we have already stopped at Rome, and Corinth, and Galatia; next, after a pause for two glorious August feast days, we will travel on to Philippi, Colossia, and Thessolonika – and today we stop at Ephesus. Or do we? Because in fact, most New Testament scholars now doubt whether this letter was originally addressed to the church there, since early copies of it lack the opening salutation ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus’. More than that, scholars also point out that in both its style and its content, Ephesians is very unlike Paul’s other letters – the author here doesn’t address any problems or arguments troubling a specific congregation, he uses language and imagery used nowhere else by Paul, and is even silent on some of Paul’s most insistently addressed topics, like the doctrine of justification. So what many believe that we have in Ephesians is in fact a letter written by a later follower of Paul who was inspired to model his own letter on Paul’s.

But the most uncharacteristic thing about Ephesians if it was indeed written by Paul is what some have called its ‘verbose rhetorical style’ (a bit unfair!), or, more putting it more kindly, its ‘powerful poetic language’. Now, as someone who teaches literature, I have to try hard to avoid letting a sermon become a lecture or a tutorial – so I wonder if Fr Phil was testing me by giving me Ephesians Sunday – but I still can’t resist suggesting that it might help if you have your texts open in front of you. For even this small passage of Ephesians is, it has to be said, beautiful writing – something captured so well, without me even asking, by Soo Tian setting part of it on the front of the service sheet in a beautiful font, and even in the traditional language of the King James Bible (something that has its own aesthetic charge, but that’s something for another time).

But if writing like this is truly beautiful, truly good, it isn’t enough just to pause and appreciate its formal aesthetic qualities, like a picture in a gallery, but to go on and think about why it has been written so beautifully. The author – and let’s just call him Paul – Paul writes with such powerful rhetoric here not for its own sake, or to show off his skill, but because he wants words to match the urgency and importance of his message.

Our reading begins with ‘For this reason’. Now you have to be careful with lectionary excerpts, especially from a book as rhetorically elaborate as Ephesians. The ‘reason’ that Paul ‘bows his knees’ isn’t to be found in what follows in our reading; instead, he’s referring to something he said earlier, and to find it you have to go all the way back to chapter 2, to that great summary of our faith itself: that ‘through the cross’, Christ ‘came and proclaimed peace’, and ‘you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.’ And ‘For [that] reason’, in our reading, ‘I bow my knees before the Father’.

No wonder Paul strains every rhetorical, even poetical, nerve here – because his prayer (which must now be our prayer) is that the universal church, our national church, our parish churches of St Alban and St Mary and St John, may live up to nothing less than our destiny, our obligation, our joy, that, as Paul says, ‘Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith . . . rooted and grounded in love’. [I can’t help but think here of all the effort that goes in to finding catchy mission statement slogans for churches and dioceses – which are almost never Scriptural and almost always banal; why not ‘Christ in our hearts through faith’, or, ‘Rooted and grounded in love’. It works for me.]

But if we’re honest, I think, we have to ask ourselves, just what – exactly – do even purely Scriptural tags like ‘Christ in our hearts’ or ‘grounded in love’ really mean? The original recipients of Paul’s letter, for whom the faith was so new, must have asked it. And we, for whom formulae like ‘Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith’ are dangerously familiar, probably need to ask it as well. And Paul (and the Holy Spirit that inspired him) knows that then and now we need explanations, for the very next next intercession in our reading is to ‘pray that you may have the power to comprehend’.

But what I love most here is that Paul doesn’t give an answer, at least not a direct one, to the question of what the in-dwelling of Christ means. And he doesn’t, as a human being, because he can’t really, any more than we can. If that was something we could comprehend, at least in any recitable, factual way, would it really be something worth knowing? Put another way, would it really be ‘faith’? Here we have one of the central mysteries, the central paradoxes of our lives as Christians – that we pray and we struggle to and know something that is real but impossible to know fully, since, as Paul puts it here, because ‘the love of Christ’ is, wonderfully, something that ‘surpasses knowledge’. But rather than that being a source of discouragement, it is in fact an encouragement, because there is ‘a power’, the Spirit, ‘at work within us able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine’.

Still, that can all sound very abstract, a bit of a mental, philosophical, or mystical puzzle played out in the mind with words. But that is what the ‘therefore’ in the next paragraph of our reading is there for. ‘I therefore’, Paul says, ‘beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called’. ‘Beg you’. Those are strong words, and should be powerfully felt – because this is where faith in the abstract (praying for knowledge that we rightly desire and rightly strive for, but can never completely have, nor comprehend it if we could) that intangible faith has its counterpart, its compensation, perhaps even its fulfilment, in the material reality of faith lived in what we do and how we should do it: ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’

Paul’s language here works hard because the work of living faithfully is hard, but worth the struggle. And in this life we come closest to comprehension and knowledge not by talking or thinking only, but by doing, by ‘making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. So it should be no surprise that as we journey through these early churches some patterns begin to emerge. We encounter here what Fr Phil showed us in Romans, that as church we come together not to avoid, but to live with difference and diversity; and as Petronella showed us last week in Galatians, we do so by nurturing the gifts of the spirit that are repeated for us here in Ephesians; and the whole of Ephesians is a perfect blueprint for the church that Bp Stephen reminded us is always under construction.

And in our parishes the place where we must regularly, because most fundamentally, come together as the messy but loving family that is the church, where we meet and make our faith a living and incarnate one, is in the sacrament of the altar – where not just words, but nothing less than The Word, Christ, is made flesh and dwells among us, through him receiving ‘one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’ AMEN.


“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free”: Third Sermon on St Paul’s Letters

Sermon preached by Petronella Spivey, one of our Licensed Lay Ministers, on Galatians 5.13-6.2. It is the third of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities.


One of the very few bible verses I know by heart is in this reading. It must appeal to my love of lists, because, aided by a dreadful tune that I have been unable to find music for (so you are spared that), I can recite all nine gifts of the spirit for you.

Not that I can actually demonstrate them very well in real life, which is maybe part of the point of Paul’s letter.

But being able to remember them in a list gave me an interesting exercise on a recent nine day break — namely to take one gift for each day, and look for opportunities to practice it, spot it in others, and notice its absence in myself.

But that’s not really quite I wanted to talk about.

Phil’s 3 Questions and Paul’s First Answer

Father Phil has been challenging us to discover for ourselves, as individuals, and as a community, the answer to three questions.

Why does the church exist?

What is the church to be?

What is the church to do?

Is there anything new in this letter to the Galatians to help us with our investigations?. Phil has shown us how Paul’s letter to the Romans, encourages to live alongside people we don’t like: and Bishop Steven has found in the letters to the Church in Corinth, an encouragement to nurture and teach new believers. Is there anything new in this letter to the Galatians to help us with our investigations?. Here is a group of churches founded by Paul, living ,as the church in Rome did in a multi-cultural community; wrestling like others, with the tensions between believers of a Jewish heritage, and believers with other backgrounds. What then does Paul’s letter to the churches (and he uses the plural) have to add to this? In Galatians we read that:

The church exists because people have heard Paul’s message.

The church is to be people who have a relationship with Jesus.

What is the church to do?: She must live the message and pass it on.

What is the message?

The message Paul is talking about is the very heart of the Christian gospel: he wants the churches to hear that message, cherish it, stick with it and live it, and pass it on. The main difficulty the Galatian churches are facing is pressure in some quarters to move back to Jewish practice. Paul is against this, and he goes on to contrast a life lived by law (and he means here Jewish law) and the new Christian life lived by faith. This is the message Paul is talking about is the very heart of the Christian gospel: he wants the churches to hear that message, cherish it, stick with it and live it, and pass it on.

What does Paul mean by living according to the law?

Human nature

Firstly, he means the law of human nature: to put self first and others second. We see it in children when they snatch a toy saying “I want it: it’s mine”. We see it in the teenager who expects parents to drop everything and ferry them to a social engagement. We see it at work when a colleague’s urgent project must be done immediately. We see it when we want the last parking space. We see it in a world that prioritise tax breaks for the rich over fair pay for all We see it at the school- leavers; assembly when every parent wants to sit in the front row . We hear it when we want our neighbours to share our preference for silence or our taste in loud music. We see it in a country that turns away the refugee because they are not one of us.. All this selfishness, this “me first” is a sign that to Paul that humans are no longer in right relationship with the creator God. He describes this as is a sort of slavery — to be in thrall to our own selfishness and animal nature

These are the bars that keep us apart from one another. These are the bars that separate us from the perfect love of God. This is why we know in our heart of hearts that the love relationships we have between parent and child: married partners, are so special — they are a sign of how the world was meant to be.

The mosaic law

Secondly, Paul means by law the set of rules God provided to Moses to try and control this human nature. The Jewish law did this in part by ritual ( there is much in Galatians about circumcision that feels alien and incomprehensible to us.) But Paul also means the law that includes guidelines for right living, like the 10 commandments. But this law doesn’t work. Or as Paul says, “no one will ever be justified by works of the law” (Gal 2 v 16) Having the rules doesn’t help: it just labels what we are doing wrong!

Humans want, says Paul, to be reunited with God. Both the law of human nature, and the Mosaic law stand between them. Humans want, says Paul to know how it would feel to be free. Free of sin, and free of the burden of failure.

A life of faith is a life united with Jesus

Such a life of freedom, says Paul, is a life of faith, and it is this he sets up in comparison to a life lived by law. But not blind faith, abstract faith — but faith and trust in the person of Jesus. This is the core of his message: and he urges his readers to live this life of freedom, to put Jesus and not the law, at the very centre of their lives.

Jesus taught how to live in relationship with God

We all know that Jesus taught how to live in relationship with God when he summarised all the law (the ritual and the rules, the ethical and the practical, all the words and words and words) in , “‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Galatians 5:14)

Jesus showed us how to live in relationship with God

But much more Jesus showed us how to live in relationship with God. I think that this was the aspect of Jesus character that was so attractive to people. People clearly came from all over to hear him, and many stayed to follow him., leaving behind families and work. The gospels don’t really make clear what people saw and why they would do this.

Some of us at St Alban’s have been reading (and for nearly everyone except me re-reading) Gerald Hughes book called the God of Surprises. It’s about prayer, but in this case prayer as knowing yourself in the light of the life of Jesus. And it’s made sense to me as I reflect on how people make me feel and how I treat them as a result of that that maybe Jesus was able to live without a sense of his own importance, without ego, and so able to see people as God sees them, without them being influenced by the effect they had on him. And in the same way, to be able to glimpse what it wd be to have a relationship with God like that too — not one distorted by our imperfections, but based on the very best of us.

Christ’s life showed us what it would feel to be free.

Jesus fulfilled the law

Paul says, here and elsewhere, that Jesus fulfilled the law. In mysterious way, the crucifixion and resurrection stories stand for the end of one kind of world-order and the beginning of another. While this is a huge element of Paul’s theology, to the Galatians he emphasises that we are to imitate Jesus in our life.

We are to imitate Jesus

Paul explains how this new life of faith is to be. Finally we can live like we’re longing to live. We are to have a relationship with Jesus, and just as dogs and owners grow to look alike, so we too, shall grow to be more like Jesus. Paul writes I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. Galatians 2:19.

This doesn’t mean that we can now steal or murder at will. Rather Paul writes that we believe now that it is truly possible to live in a way that unites us to the purpose God had for us from creation. We are to embrace what God arranges. Finally, we can show all the love in our heart. This is the fruitful life Paul is writing about, and it is this that describes what we as individuals and as a church are called to be and do.

We can live like we’re longing to live it would feel to be free. For Paul, the church was a group of people who knew Jesus like this. The reason the church exists is Jesus. Christ was in the heart of every member, and at the heart of their communal existence. His picture of this community of free people is a picture of a fruitful orchard bring forth great gifts of love, of joy of peace; patience kindness, goodness,; of faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

May we all have Christ at the centre of your day today, and every day: and may we all show forth the fruits of his Spirit in our lives.



The Church as a Half-Finished Building: Second Sermon on St Paul’s Letters


Sermon preached by the Rt Revd Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, at our Confirmation Service on 16th July, on 1 Cor. 3.1-15. It is the second of our sermon series on Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities. Bishop Steven’s original title for the sermon is “Christian Nurture.”

Thank you for your welcome and it is very good to be with you this evening.

I spent this morning at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Aylesbury. I was invited many months ago to bless their new building project. The project ran into some problems and is only half finished. But they wanted me to bless it anyway and to baptise and confirm candidates just like this evening.

As part of blessing the Church I had to climb up ladders onto the roof. The builder gave me a screwdriver and I had to fix in two screws as my contribution to the building project. I did warn the congregation afterwards that most of my DIY projects end in failure.

Nobody planned it that way but it seemed to me a very good thing to bless a half finished building. It’s a very good picture of the Church. What are we if not a Church under construction: a half finished community made up of imperfect and half finished people.

Paul would have recognised the picture all too well. He was a founder and builder of churches. He preferred to take the gospel where no-one had been before him.

In Acts 18, we read that he came to Corinth, a sea port on the narrow strip of land joining mainland Greece to the Pelopponese. Corinth is a crossroads of the world. Paul preaches there and founds a church. There is persecution but he is able to hold on and stay in the city for 18 months.

Then Paul travels on his way. But the life of the Church has only just begun. All kinds of people have come together in this new Christian community. They have very little to guide them. Even the gospels have not yet been written down. There are travelling preachers, like Paul, coming through, but some of them say different things. Who are they to believe? They have a huge amount still to learn and understand. Like Christians everywhere, it doesn’t take long before they start to quarrel and fight among themselves.

The tiny church meets in houses all over the city. Before long those houses have divided into factions. Some of the elders get together. They write to Paul and ask him for help. What they want most of all is for him to come and visit them and set things write. But Paul can’t do that.

And so Paul writes to the Church in Corinth these two very beautiful and very honest and at times very painful letters. He is writing, remember, to a church under construction: a half finished, half formed community.

The Letter to the Romans is like a manifesto. It’s written to people Paul has never met and it sets out his gospel from beginning to end.

The Letters to the Corinthians are like a manual for the life of the Church. The letters deal with real every day problems. How do we deal with division? With immorality? With spiritual gifts? How should we worship together? What’s the right way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Is it right to get married? Should we eat food offered to idols? Who gets to speak in a Church meeting? How should we handle our money? What do we say to those who mock the resurrection of the dead?

1 Corinthians answers all of these questions and more. Along the way Paul sets out some clear and wise principles for the life of any Church. I want to look at some of them this evening (not from the passage chosen but a chapter or so later from 1 Corinthians 3).

1 Corinthians 3 is headed divisions in the Church and it is partly about that. But 1 Corinthians 3 is also central to what is happening in our midst this evening as these candidates come to be confirmed.

In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul is trying to teach the Church in Corinth and every Church how to share our faith in Jesus Christ with those who want to know more. The Corinthians, like many of us, have become Christians in the recent past. They can remember what it is like not to have faith. But all too quickly they have forgotten what new Christians need if they are to come to faith and grow in faith.

Paul sets out to tell them and he does that by painting three beautiful and vivid word pictures to teach them how they are to be with younger sisters and brothers.

Every healthy church will have people who want to find out more about the church. If we are living as salt and light in the world and living out our faith, then people around us will be stirred up and want to know more.

What happens at that point is very, very important. Many churches, sadly, are really not very interested in helping enquirers and new Christians. There is very little teaching and special provision. People who enquire and ask questions in those churches don’t get very far. Very few people come to faith and in the end those churches decline.

Paul sets out a vision in 1 Corinthians 3 for every church to be a place where enquirers and new Christians find help. That vision is in these three pictures. I hope it’s a vision you can own as a Church this evening.

Each of the three pictures is very, very simple.

The first is a picture of parenting. Looking after new Christians, seeing them come to baptism, is like being a mum and dad.

I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food and now you are still not ready.

Paul looks back to his own days with the Corinthians. He reminds them that when he was with them, he created a special diet for them: milk not solid food. He fed them carefully. They couldn’t take mature teaching and some of them still can’t.

It is one of the most common misunderstandings about the life of the church: that someone can learn the faith simply by coming to our normal services. They can’t. People may find it helpful to come to church. Coming to church may raise questions. But all of us at that point in our journey need special provision, milk not solid food, and lots and lots of patient love.

If we want to help enquirers come to faith, to make disciples and to grow the church we have to become like parents to those who are enquiring and want to know more.

The second picture is also very homely. It’s a picture of farming or gardening. It’s a picture taken from the field or the allotment. It’s a picture of partnership. Listen.

I planted, Apollos watered but God gave the growth. So neither is the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything but only God who gives the growth.

There is partnership first of all between Christians in this work. It’s not something we can do alone. We all have a part to play. Paul will go on to talk about the body in 1 Corinthians and the way we all have different gifts.

But even more there is a partnership between Christians and Almighty God in this work. It’s more than a human task and understaking. In every life represented here this evening, I guess people will be able to point to people who have been helpful. But in every life here this evening, I guess people will be able to point to moments when God was at work in deeper ways than anyone can understand for that is what God does.

This work of nurturing faith and brining people to baptism is the task of the whole church, it’s a partnership, like farming.

The third picture is the one I started with. For you are God’s field, God’s building says Paul.

Again it’s a picture of partnership. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation and someone else is building on it.

But there is even more going on that this. This time Paul is not just building with others. He is teaching the disciples how to build. The ones who build on the foundation here are not simply other teachers and ministers. They are the Christians themselves who take responsibility for their own Christian lives and for their growth to maturity. Together they are building the temple of the Holy Spirit, an enormous and beautiful building, a dwelling place for God.

We don’t build with God in the lives of others so they become dependent on us. We build people who grow to maturity, who are interdependent in the life of the Church, who become fellow builders with us of the kingdom of God.

These three pictures are unfolding before our very eyes this evening as these candidates come to baptism and confirmation.

As a church there are those who have helped them and parented them in faith. There are those who have sown the good seed of the gospel and watered it and seen it grow. There are those who are watching over them and teaching them how to build.

I hope this Church will be a place where many, many people find there way home to God. God said to Paul in Corinth according to Acts 18: “Do not be afraid but speak and do not be silent for I am with you…for there are many in this city who are my people”.

I pray you will set yourselves a vision to be a place where many find faith: where you are like parents; like farmers in partnership with God; a place where people build good and strong lives and that these candidates and many who come after them will be richly blessed.



Writing Home: Sermon Series on Paul’s Letters to the First Christian Communities

NOTE: Sermons from this series will be posted on the sermons page.



Confirmation Service, Sunday 16th July 2017, 6.30pm


Bishop Steven will be coming to our parish to preside at a joint Sung Eucharist with Confirmation service at St Mary and St John Church on Sunday 16th July 2017. We will gather for this joint service at 6.30pm in the evening, and so there will not be a 9.15am service at St Alban’s nor a 10.45am service at St Mary and St John that morning. There will, however, be an 8am Said Eucharist at St Mary and St John, as usual.

We will be joined by candidates and supporters from the neighbouring parish of Cowley St James. Bishop Steven will also preach the second sermon in our series exploring the nature and purpose of the church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities.

Following the service, we will have a bring-and-share supper in the Richard Benson Hall next door. Do join us to witness and celebrate the step of faith which our candidates are taking, to go deeper into the life of God through Christ our Saviour and by the power of the Holy Spirit.


What to Do When We Hate Each Other: First Sermon on St Paul’s Letters

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Sermon Preached by Fr Phil on Romans 15.1-14, the first of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities


When Paul writes the letter to the Romans he is staying in Corinth, he is probably in his early 50s, he has already written a lot of letters. Paul, is turning his energy to a city which is the centre of a world super power. This isn’t Trump’s America, its Nero’s Rome and in many ways it’s a frightening place for Christians. Paul has always tried to focus on starting new communities of Christians in some of the big urban centres but here he is writing to a church which he didn’t found and which is not under his authority.

This is a letter which tries to explain a lot of complex stuff – justification, salvation, reconciliation, atonement, redemption, sanctification. A lot of people love it because it tackles these big theological issues. But the bit we chose to read this morning is all about everyday living, about living together in the midst of our difference.

In the Greco-Roman world letters were important. Just as we still struggle with e-mail etiquette, the Romans thought carefully about the form of letters. You can see the influence of Rhetoric in Roman letters, many having the structure or style of a speech, with an exhortation to get the attention, a statement of the facts, a proposition to be proved by a list of proofs and refutations and an epilogue summarizing the arguments. But letters were also about sustaining or deepening relationships. Christian letters drew on all this but they were also rooted in faith, they began and ended by invoking the blessing of God or of Christ. And although the writer often wrote from a position of authority he also recognised his equality with the Christian Brothers and sisters he is writing to.

Romans is an exciting letter NOT because it’s a timeless compendium of Christian teaching but because Paul writes into a maelstrom of difference and disagreement about what it means to be a Christian in a huge and important city which doesn’t really care either way about Christianity – sound familiar? A Church tearing itself apart in the midst of a huge and powerful non-Christian culture that isn’t interested – welcome to 21st century Britain, welcome to Romans.

In some ways Christianity maybe felt safer when it was still part of a Jewish religious world view, and still lived out in a place and a community where it had roots and from which it gained inspiration. But how does one live as Christians in Rome. in the diaspora – circumcision, Sabbath observance, food Laws – how do we live by these rules in a place which doesn’t understand them. And you might think, wow that must be what it is like for Muslims in East Oxford or for Hindus or Sikhs – having to live by religious rules others ignore or don’t understand, but increasingly this is our situation. Christians in a society which is confidently post Christian. And if you look at the church in Oxford – divided between Liberal, Catholic or Evangelical, fundamentally divided on the position of women in ministry, LGBT rights, Biblical inerrancy, the nature of conversion and of salvation, then you see a mirror image of what Paul saw when he wrote Romans. A tiny community which society as a whole didn’t really rate as important – many people had never heard of this new religion and it had all the down sides of being vulgarly nouveau. The Roman Christian community – if you could call it that – didn’t think lets work together, they thought instead – he’s in and he’s out.

The big division in Romans is between the Jewish and Gentile Church but there were also lots of other smaller divisions. In particular there was the division between what Paul refers to as the weak and the strong. The weak, mostly from the Jewish Christian community abstained from meet and wine and saw some days as more important than others. The Strong were meat eating, wine drinking all days are the same to me kind of people. Some think that Paul is merely re-running his argument at Corinth about whether Christians can eat meat that Pagans have sacrificed – Paul would see himself on the side of the gentile Christian community who felt they could eat most meat put in front of them.

This might seem a rather unimportant argument to be having and you might be wondering how relevant this is today. Well, firstly, we’re not sure this was the big division and most likely it was just different house churches arguing with each other about who was best but secondly, and more importantly, Paul is not about taking sides but about mutual flourishing. The point for Paul is that one group must not judge or belittle the other. God has welcomed both groups into Christ’s house. Paul wants people to live in harmony with one another but this does not mean a single solution to a problem but a single ‘mind set’. If we want to grow as a community following Christ we need renewal – this isn’t the avoidance of conflict at all costs but it is a focus on Christ not on our petty divisions.

In some ways the translation we heard lacks power. It says ‘We who are strong should put up with the failings of the weak’. A better translation is ‘the strong must support the weakness of the weak’. Weakness is not to be tolerated but rather supported and even celebrated. Weakness is not an added annoyance that we bear in order ‘to be nice’ it is the whole Gospel, revealed to us in Christ.

God welcomes Jews and Gentiles, those who abstain from meat and those who don’t – inclusion is doubly emphasised. We might say at this point that we can pat ourselves on the back – we are a church which has a particular desire to reach out to those in distress or need and we consider ourselves inclusive. But Paul seems to want to push us further: to be a community that not only acts inclusively in favour of the weak but which defines itself, in Christ as a community of the weak. That means putting the voice of the weak at the heart of community.

The real scandal of the Christian life is that it passes through, and has to pass through our relations with other human beings. The first properly Christian attitude when we arrive at church is not to turn inward focusing on ourselves and God (that comes later), the first thing is a kind of de-centration – a deliberate taking cognisance of others, recognising them as our brothers and sisters (Chauvet).

Why does the Church exist? To be the place where we meet Christ in each other no despite but because of our differences.

How can we ‘be’ the Church? By living with fundamental disagreements and deep divisions about religious practice in a way which still points to the love of God

What are we to ‘do’ as Church? Support the weak not because we are better than them but because the heart of the Gospel about weakness. Weakness, hope, perseverance and love.

Other people won’t receive the Church if we can’t ourselves; receive the community of the Church as Grace. And in looking for the heart of the church seek out those who fall short of your vision for this church, those who you dislike or disapprove of for whatever reason and find Christ in them. A renewed vision of church life based on Paul’s letter to the Romans is a call to be not passengers but participants, it is not just about what we believe but rather about how we live out that belief in our relationships with others. Not avoiding conflict but living together in love so that all can flourish in a Church which lives like Christ for the weak and those in need.

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