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St Clement and What His Letter Says to Churches in Conflict

May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I wonder if anyone knows what saints day it is? I know Nick is famous for his quiz questions, but this is a hard one, but here is a clue, can you finish the rhyme, oranges and lemons… that’s right ring the bells of St Clements. Today is the feast day of St Clement of Rome, who is a fascinating character and I thought today on his feast day, and given that the readings for today are real stinkers, it would be no bad thing to think a little about his ministry and particular to the one surviving authentic letter we have from him, Clements letter to the Corinthians, particularly as the wisdom shares in them is entirely appropriate for the church to hear today just as much as it was for the Corinthian church to hear some 1900 years ago.

What is fascinating about Clement is that he is literally one step away from the apostles. You see Clement was a Christian living in Rome in the second half of the first century. He is very likely to have known both the apostles Peter and Paul and in fact in his letter mentions them as holy men, from his own generation who were martyred. It is even possible that he is mentioned in scripture, when in Philippians 4:3 Paul writes 'Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life', although we cannot be sure it is this Clement Paul is writing about. He was either the 2nd or the 4th Bishop of Rome, the 2nd or 4th Pope, well before the idea of being Pope was thought of as a key leader in the Christian world. Its worth remembering that Peter was the first pope, that is how close Clement is to the pioneers of our faith.

Only one of his letters has survived and it’s a fascinating read, free on the internet and I would encourage you to read it. It could have been written as early as 70AD although most suggest it was likely written around the year 97AD. It is full of scripture for every point he argues from both the Old and New Testament. Within the letter he explains to the Corinthians how we are saved by faith not by works, which Luther made popular again many years later and he even talks about the life cycle of the phoenix of Arabia, which we now know was myth, but to a first century roman would have been considered fact of a faraway land. But it is the reason for the letter being written in the first place that I find fascinating, because it shows that people and Christians never change much, not really. You see Clement is writing because the Corinthian church, the same church Paul wrote to in his 1st and 2nd letters to the Corinthians, is in a state or turmoil, in a state of conflict. Today, at least 1900 years later, much of the wider church is in a state of turmoil and conflict, just as the world is in a state of turmoil and conflict. It’s a bit like the Billy Joel song, ‘we didn’t start the fire, It was always burning, since the world's been turning’. But the wisdom Clement shares, covered in huge amounts of scripture is worth thinking about today as much as it was for the church of Corinth all those years ago.

We can’t be sure of what the conflict was, but it had resulted in a number of people trying to break away and form a new church away from their brothers and sisters. Its really interesting that Clement doesn’t mess around discussing the rights and wrongs of the current conflict, but points people to a number of Christian ideals that always lead us back towards the people we are in conflict with. He always starts with scripture: He writes ‘You are fond of contention, brethren, and full of zeal about things which do not pertain to salvation. Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.’ For Clement, scripture points towards loving each other. What he is trying to tell believers is that their arguing about different things does not lead to salvation. More than that, their arguments and splitting away gives not only their church a bad name among Christians but even non-Christians hear it and think worse of the community, again very much on display at the minute nationally.

He separates those who cause conflict as being full of envy and pride, where the Christian ideal is to be full of humility. Christians are to be full of humility and love and a love that looks out for the other rather than for oneself. For him, and the reason he writes it, one cannot separate from your church community, cause schism and be Christian, one should rather return to the difficult task of what he calls brotherly love. To seperate ourselves away from other believers is to fundamentally fail as a Christian. He points out, that whatever our differing opinions we all have one mission in Christ: ‘Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not all one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ?’. Towards the end of the letter he points to love, and how that love should be foremost in our minds when the church disagrees. He says ‘Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love bears all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the love He bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.’

Here is the thing. When conflict arises in the local church, the national church or the world, we need to truly be Christians by showing humility and love especially for those with whom we disagree. We are to keep scripture at the centre of our faith, which points us more than anything to love God and to love one another. Whatever the disagreement, whenever hot anger burns in our hearts, whenever we are tempted to hate other people despite how much we disagree with their position, if we keep love for them and for God at the centre of what we do in the light of Christ and focused in on salvation, we cannot go very wrong. So, lets take the wisdom of one of the very first Christians who faced the same human way of conflict all those years ago, and be that community of love here and just see how a community full of love in Christ can just transform those around us. Final word to St Clement who ends in prayer of which this is part:

‘We would have You, Lord, to prove our help and succour. Those of us in affliction save, on the lowly take pity; the fallen raise; upon those in need arise; the sick heal; the wandering ones of Your people turn; fill the hungry; redeem those of us in bonds; raise up those that are weak; comfort the faint-hearted; let all the nations know that You are God alone and Jesus Christ Your Son, and we are Your people and the sheep of Your pasture.’


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