Slideshow image

I read this the other day and I wonder what you think of it? It’s a quote about unity versus uniformity.  

There has been a huge push toward unity in the church over the past 40 years or so. People are tired of the numerous divisions and splits that seem to occur with increasing frequency . . . . And while some of our divisions involve important issues, such as whether or not Jesus was truly divine . . . and whether or not God loves gays . . . a lot of church division seems to occur over stupid stuff, like what kind of music to play on Sunday morning, whether or not there should be donuts [at coffee hour], and what color the new carpet should be. . . . I fully admit that I have engaged in a fair bit of this myself over the years [writes the author]. And I sometimes still do. . . . But here is what I am trying . . . to recognize: Unity is not the same thing as uniformity. I believe we can have unity within the church without uniformity. In fact, since there can never be true uniformity in all things, the only way to achieve unity is to recognize, accept, and celebrate our diversity.*

A long, long time ago, in a far away land, there was a writer, let’s call him Paul, who wrote a letter to a group of new Christians. He was responding to a letter he had received from them. Some of them were clergy (priests and deacons), others were lay people (non ordained members of the church). They had written to Paul with a laundry list of complaints about their feisty, little church. How could they live in community when they all came from such different backgrounds? How could they keep their little church going when everyone had different ideas about what it meant to be a Christian?

Paul responds to this letter, as he often does in the letters that we have from him in the Bible, with some very practical advice. First, he cautions the clergy and the people of this little church. They should not be uninformed about how God sees differences of opinion, diversity of personality and ideas. God doesn’t think some gifts are more useful than others; it’s not about I can give more money, so my ideas are more important; nor is it about hiding or being bashful about my gifts because I’m afraid I might fail or embarrass myself if I try something new. 

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” Paul says to them.

This is what it’s about. This is why God brings people together in community: so they can work together for the common good.

We get this phrase “the common good” from the Greek word symphero, as in the Vancouver Orchestra Symphony.

That’s a nice image, eh? The word symphero shows up 17 times in the New Testament, including in the Gospel of John (the Gospel of John where we heard that fun story today about the wedding in Cana). The Gospel of John is also where we have this beautiful scene where Jesus sits down with his community, with his neighbourhood, and tells them that he has to go away. 

Political pressure is ramping up and Jesus is about to be crucified. He tells them that he will go away, not for his own benefit, nor to abandon them, or to run away, but for symphero—literally for “the common good.” Jesus, revealing here, what Paul is getting at in his letter to this little church. That to follow Jesus is to offer yourself, to offer your part in the orchestra, in service to the whole. And while Jesus offered himself even unto death, and while there are many Christians around the world who find themselves in a situation where they are persecuted for their faith, we who follow Jesus’ teachings in this day and age do so by offering our gifts—our time, our talent, and our money—sacrificially, meaning we offer them in ways that are of service in the world and not solely for our own benefit.

You’ve maybe heard me refer to St Clement’s as our “sparky” or “plucky little parish”. Here at St Clement’s, like the church who wrote to Paul way back then, we, too, have many different ideas about what it means to be Christian and how we ought to practice our faith in the world. Thankfully, we are not shy about saying or living these different ideas out loud. And that’s a good thing.

And, I give thanks that, for the most part, we are able to agree on some of the big things—Jesus as fully human and fully divine, that God really does love the gays.

Whether or not we have donuts at coffee hour; well, that’s another story.

But lest we become too comfortable or too presumptive of our unity here at St Clement’s, Paul’s caution for the church then is a caution for us today, too. Unity is not the same thing as uniformity. The way that Christians are called to achieve unity is to recognize, accept, and celebrate symphero—to celebrate the unique things and ideas that each of us brings, even when we disagree.

“There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” Paul writes, “there are varieties of services, but the same Lord . . . there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”.

When you come to church, no matter where you come from, no matter what you believe or what gifts you bring, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, please be yourself. Please know that what you bring, with God’s help, will build up the whole. This is Jesus’ promise to his community, to his neighbourhood and this is the promise we seek to hold to in our community today.

I wonder if this week, each of us can spend some time imagining that our gifts were given to us for the common good? What would it look like if that were true? Imagine that the gifts of the person sitting next to you were given to them for the common good. What does that change for you? I reckon this kind of exercise, this is where the Spirit of Christ, the God we know in Jesus is revealed among people today. It’s not terribly flashy or interventionist (this isn’t God coming to earth on a comet); it’s just the slow, symphonic work of human beings working for the common good.


Works cited:

*Jeremy Myers, “Unity vs Uniformity in the Church.” Accessed online at

Special thanks to Melanie A. Howard for “Situating 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 in literary context” accessed online at