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England, Australia and Corinth

A social cricket game in the Close
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 16th February 2014

Sermon by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

(3rd Sunday before Lent)

(I Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37)

I was interviewed for a job once, and was asked what would be different about this more senior role and why I thought I could do it. In answer I said something along these lines: that all through my life I had been taking up roles and responsibilities I hadn't had before, and that for example in captaining a cricket team there is a great deal that can be done in unobtrusive, cultural ways, which enable groups of colleagues to prosper and thrive together. As soon as I'd said it, I realised that this last offering had fallen on that part of the path where the birds immediately gobble it up. To start with, the questioner was a woman, and my answer seemed redolent of an all-male clubby environment; second, she clearly had no interest at all in sport; and third, she took a very box-ticking approach to appointments, and analogies of any kind did not impress her.

Well, you live and learn. Actually, I don't, because I'm about to embark on an analogy taken from cricket. So I begin with an apology to those of you who don't care for sport. But if you are Australian, I don't apologise, because I am about to afford you the pleasure of an Englishman reflecting on his national cricket team.

England and Australia recently played ten test matches against each other in about 6 months, first here, then there. England won 3-0 here, although the scoreline could easily have been less unbalanced if the Australians had had more luck with the weather and if they had been more confident. Then in Australia, England were completely crushed, 5-0; worse than that, members of the team left or were dropped or sacked, and what a year or so earlier had been ranked the world's number one test team looked joyless, incompetent, and bereft of ideas.

There has been much comment on all this, but in my view the difference between the sides, and the ways in which that difference progressively revealed itself, can be quite easily summed up. It's not a question of ability - pretty well all involved are good players who can perform well. It's a question of atmosphere within the team, and in this modern era that atmosphere takes its character largely from the coaching regime. The English coaching regime has been skilful, determined, disciplined, focussed - all characteristics of modern professional sport and of modern working life in general - and it was also rather tired. At the start of this series of ten matches, the Australians sacked a coach who took very much this approach, and brought in a man who could be  caricatured as liking booze and fags, and who encouraged the team to enjoy one another's company. Hence, when things went wrong for his team, he largely stood by his players and showed  he trusted them - and they began to prosper; and by contrast, when England under-performed they practised harder, became introverted and morose, and blamed each other. Above all, throughout these ten matches the English players rarely looked as though they were enjoying what they were doing, and they looked as though there were cliques and outsiders among them.

Those of you who stopped listening when I mentioned sport can pick up again now, because that is the end of my analogy. The point is that, however able a group of individuals may be, their common endeavours will not prosper if they are unhappy in what they do, if they are self-absorbed in their task, if they don't trust one another, and if they divide into factions. Which is the point which St Paul was making to his proteges in Corinth: when they focussed on their allegiance to him or to another evangelist Apollos, they undermined the very thing which both Paul and Apollos had come to set up. They failed to see what was really important, their common purpose in Christ, because they attended to what divided them. As Paul says, when you do this 'are you not merely human?' He also tells them they are babies - and who can disagree with him?

We christians need to follow Paul's advice, and grow up. To develop in our faith we do benefit from some discipline, from regularity in worship and study, from striving to lead morally upright lives. It is to foster just such disciplines within us all that we have the annual season of Lent coming up. But if all this is joyless or self-absorbed or factional, ultimately it will do damage. Because we also need to be demonstrably spiritual beings as well as merely human - we need to attend to atmosphere and common purpose, and not just to our own part of it. Good relationships are not a marginal part of that common purpose, they are of its very essence: so Jesus tells his hearers that if they should be about their religious devotions and suddenly remember that there is a broken relationship in their life, they should abandon the worship and mend the relationship. Life comes before worship, truth before show, others before self. This was no new message; a typical message from God through the Old Testament prophets was 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'.

So we are not followers of Paul or Apollos, we are not Greeks or Jews, we are not Anglo-Catholics or evangelicals, we are not black or white, because we are not merely human. We don't belong to any such thing, because we belong to Christ. And, though I realise that it means that if I applied to you would not give me a job, I nonetheless want to close by saying that belonging to Christ is a team sport, and we are better off if we enjoy it together.