A Sign on the Highway. (Anniversary of the Uniting Church in Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th June 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia

Psalm 127:1-2; Ephesians 2:17-22; John 17:1-11

Without wanting to get overtly political, even if a gathering such as this where the congregation is very much minded of justice and equity in the world, I have something profound to tell you: US President Donald Trump is not the Antichrist. However, in light of reading I have undertaken over the past few weeks leading into today’s service I have come to the conclusion, shared by many others of my spiritual persuasion, that Christ Jesus is the anti-Trump. This is especially true today, in June 2018.

Where the leaders of many nations, including our own, wish to erect fences or walls or enforce strict controls to separate families and isolate the much loved but very unwell, Jesus offers citizenship of the greatest realm of all – the Kingdom of Heaven. Where many flee poverty and corruption, and others flee persecution and genocide, we are brought to thought by today’s readings that each of us in this house have fled sin and tribulation. Make of those words what you will, be they literal fire and brimstone to you or simple metaphors of a life lived outside the love of God; II don’t know your past, but I so know mine and both of those apply, the literal and the metaphorical. Paul says that we are all refugees from the world and that God in Christ offers us not only asylum but citizenship wherever God is king.

With respect to the Kingdom of Heaven as it was proclaimed by Christ “Operation Sovereign Borders” is a series of rescue, recovery, and reuniting manoeuvres; it is about expanding the reach of God to include all, rather than erecting barriers to exclude most. In the homeland of the People of God the resources of compassion are never overwhelmed, the earlier arrivals and previously settled are never envious or afraid of the newest arrivals, and the welcome at the door is as effusive for the last one in as it was for the first.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are no longer strangers to God in danger of deportation, but citizens with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities, of belonging to the realm. In realm of God those rights and responsibilities include shalom (Ephesians 2:17). Shalom; that deep, soulful, healing, energising, forgiving, cleansing, restoring, satisfying, joy-bringing peace that only perfect love can bring. That’s our experience, and that’s our mission as ambassadors of the Kingdom, not cross-armed bouncers but hospitable welcomers and stewards of the message of peace to the world. In Christ’s love, in the Father’s realm, in the Spirit’s fellowship there is no division because God is equally present everywhere and with everyone (Colossians 3:11). Paul told the Ephesians and by our reading this morning he tells us that the realm of shalom is the kingdom of God, built upon the foundations of those who went before. Paul wrote of the apostles and prophets, women and men who are gifts of God to us and charisms, gifts of the Spirit, women and men who were sent by God and therefore are sources of authority and wisdom with Christ as cornerstone. Jesus is the connection holding all together, this temple who we are is a dwelling place for God. It is the congregation which is the temple, not the individual because as Paul wrote we are built together in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22) to form the place which God inhabits in the world. Where God “lives” on Earth is where we gather when we are gathered. An empty chapel or a single Christian is not “the place”, but the congregation gathered where it is gathered.

I have spoken often in the past nine months about shalom, and about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Reign of God in various combinations of those words. So today, today when we celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia and its now 41 years of service to the nation under that name, and close to two hundred in the various forms of Methbytgationalism, I want to touch briefly on the topic of apostles and prophets.

The Uniting Church of itself is not a church of hagiography, the stories of saints. Today’s house at St Luke’s Morwell is named after a first century evangelist, not a twentieth century administrator. We are St Luke’s, not St J. Davis McCaughey. But we do have our cultural heroes in Misters Knox, Wesley, and Brown of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational movements; and we do remember with thanks to God the work of Davis McCaughey and Ronald Wilson. We celebrate the ongoing teaching of Andrew Dutney, Vicky Balabanksi, Chris Budden, Katherine Massam, Geoff Thompson, Deidre Palmer, and foremost, Damien Tann. We are a pilgrim people on the path to salvation on the Way of Christ, and we have been blessed with faithful guides along the way. Today we thank God for the women and men of faith and courage who walk a step or two ahead of us, or who walked a generation ahead of us, and leave us markers.

Turning to today’s set gospel reading in John 17:1 we read Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you. These are the words of Jesus, and since it’s John 17 you already know that these are among the last words of Jesus. “Glorify your Son” said by Jesus on Maundy Thursday seems obvious, but what do those words mean for us? How can we pray this? Well, in many ways this is a prayer only Jesus can say since he is Son in the way that no other man is – and there are no daughters like him either. Jesus alone is worthy of the glory of God, I’m sure I’ll get no argument from you at this point, however I wonder if “glorify” might also mean “shine the light of world attention” on us so that we might “shine the light of world attention” on God through our glorifying. The Church can certainly pray that, we can and indeed should have the courage to pray that God would make us notable such that we can point to God when people are looking at us. Let the Uniting Church in 2018 be another Statement to the Nation as Assembly issued in 1977 and 1988. Again in the steps of those who walk ahead of us let us give thanks for those times when the Australian society has established justice, equality, and mutual respect among people; has placed care for the people who have least above sectional interests; has welcomed new migrants and refugees; has exercised solidarity and friendship in times of crisis in Australia across divisions of race and culture; and has engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker. This is what we told Australia in 1988: let us in Morwell be a sign on the highway, a sign of the compassion, grace, justice, and shalom of God. In words addressed by the newly birthed Uniting Church, to Australia, in 1977 let us continue to challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor. I know this is a passion, a flavour, of St Luke’s Morwell and as you gather over lunch to discuss your way ahead I pray that you would continue to hold the wounded world in your eyes even as you keep Christ central in your heart and mind.

Eternal life, the life of the Kingdom of God is the knowledge of God and Christ whom God sent (John 17:3), so it’s about fullness rather than endlessness. Eternal life is not just chronologically infinite, it is broad and expansive. Eternal life is seeing Jesus for who he always was (John 17:5), the one from before time, the glorious God the Son. In Jesus we see God, God is compassionate and self-giving, generous to death, not wrathful. Eternal life is also responding to the complete revelation of Jesus by making Jesus known in the world (John 17:6), especially in the part of the world to which we have been given and has been given to us. As Gippslanders gathered as a Uniting Church on this 24th June we ask who are our people, where is our country, to whom shall we share the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. When we proclaim Christ what we proclaim is what Christ proclaimed to us, they are his words and we have heard them before because they are the words to which we responded in the first place (John 17:8). Jesus prays for us that God will be with us as God has been with him – since Jesus is no longer in the world in himself but only through us (John 17:11).

The believing community has been formed by Christ’s call to each to follow him, and to whom he has displayed God, and by the receivers of revelation and the responders to call becoming brother-sisters with each other in that coming together.

In the context of Psalm 127:1-2 we are the house built by God, and therefore not built in vain. This reminds us to build only for God and in partnership with God, our being a Church and a Christian organisation does not protect us from foolishness and failure if what we do is not directly informed and partnered with God. (We partner with God first, not asking God to partner with us in projects of our choosing – although we are encouraged to be creative in our response to God’s call to meet the world’s need.) Without God all work is a waste of time, even the work of being church and doing faith stuff. Not only must we rely on God we must make known that God is our source – we don’t take God’s help and then take all the credit, neither do we do the work of the gospel yet hide our light. We do what we do with God, and we do what we do to glorify God. Even if it “works”, if we haven’t made God’s fame public in the doing of it then the whole point is not made. It is good to be compassionate, it is better (fullest) to be compassionate and let God be glorified (the illuminated focus of the world’s attention). We don’t serve the world for credit and our own fame, but we do serve the world for God’s credit and God’s fame: our humility (and especially our fear of embarrassment) must not get in the way of God’s glory. We are God’s advertisement, not our own, but not no one’s either.

What we advertise is that God is dependable, and that we attest to this because we are dependent upon God and God sustains us. The same power that conquered the grave lives in us and can live in others who want what we have – because of God. Because of God we do not strive, we have no need to. We operate in the world out of shalom, out of eternal (fat) life.

So, whether you trekked alongside the followers of Wesley, Knox, or Brown before 1977, and whether you march amidst the followers of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Justin Trudeau, Richard DiNatale, Angela Merkel, Benedict XVI or Francis or Lyle Sheldon today, the call to you is the same. Walk with Christ, walk his Way, share his love, and invite others to join you on the road to God which already traverses the outlands of the realm of God.

Amen.

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Nisi per gratiam per fidem (Lent 4B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 11th March 2018, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; John 6:28-40

Today’s reading from the Jewish tradition is one of those texts that causes me bafflement.  I do not claim to have the full picture on this, and I challenge any of you who think you do to explain it to me later.  So, in this story the Hebrews are in the desert with Moses, somewhere between Egypt and Canaan, and they are sooking again about hunger, thirst, and poor leadership from God and from Moses.  So, God sends snakes, and those snakes bite some people, and some of the bitten people die.  The not dead people catch on that God is upset about their sooking, so they wisely repent of their sookiness, and God responds to their repentance by mandating a means of healing.  In a tick we shall hear how the bronze snake lifted in the desert for healing is an image used by Jesus in John to speak of his own being lifted on the cross as a means of healing: it’s a great image.  But for now, for the Hebrews their specific sin, the lesson that we are supposed to take away is that thing that needs healing even more than the venomous attack is the people’s speaking against God and against God’s appointed leader.  Death by reptilian poison is merely a symptom of the Hebrews’ shoddy attitude toward God their deliverer: once they understand that they repent and ask their embattled leader to intercede for them.  And Moses prays, and the snakes leave, and the people rejoice.

But did God really have to send actual deadly snakes for all that to happen?  Other times when the people complained of hunger God sent manna and quail and water from a rock.  So, what’s with all the bitey vipers?  That’s not very Jesusy of God, even taking consideration for it being 1200 BC at this stage.

Today’s psalm declares that all of God’s healing for the sick and stupid comes by God’s word, literally a diagnosis of “all clear” from the specialist.  The God of steadfast love delivers God’s people, so let them rejoice with sacrifices of praise says this psalm.  The Christian writer Selwyn Hughes once described the sacrifice of praise as “thanksgiving with blood on its hands”, a phrase I like.  This suggests that sometimes praise is hard fought, hard won, and worth hanging on to.  These are the songs of an overcomer sung toward the God who has delivered victory to him or her at long last.   Perhaps this sort of sacrifice of praise is the one sung by the Hebrews who received a harsh lesson in discipleship and who heeded that lesson to now stand and sing with awe of God’s power and deliverance.  Confronted by the one who can destroy, but who chooses instead to deliver, the people understand that God desires praise as a response to grace, but it is not a prerequisite.

Paul picks up the theme of Torah in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus writing in Ephesians 2:4-5 that debt has left them dead, but God has made them alive with Christ by grace.  All who belong to God are saved by grace through faith, not by faith itself he writes in Ephesians 2:8.  In other words you are not saved by what you accept as true about the universe, neither are you saved by what you accept as true about the Bible.  You are not saved by signing your name beneath or reciting every week the Creed of Nicaea; as if by saying “this document details what I agree to be the facts of Christianity” is what will get you into Heaven.  It won’t.  None of those things will.  It doesn’t matter what you accept as true says Paul, it matters only what God has done by grace, and by grace alone.

Salvation in the Christian tradition is by trust in Jesus and that what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross is sufficient.  The Christian tradition teaches that if you don’t trust the sufficiency of Jesus then you are un-saving yourself because you are taking yourself out of the hands of God who only ever saves by grace.  Jesus says this in John 3:17-18.  Every other means of salvation falls short, and salvation that falls short is salvation that doesn’t succeed in saving.  When a method of salvation doesn’t save then the thing is lost, or to use Jesus’ words the thing is left in the dark.

The message of Jesus who brought light to the world is choose not to walk out of the light; stay in the light and be saved.  To think and act as if you must earn your salvation is to walk away from God’s initiative which is the free gift of salvation by grace.  To receive salvation by grace through faith is not about praying a certain way or saying a certain formula, or even by being baptised, or by any other liturgical or traditional thing.  Salvation by grace is a trust exercise, it’s the heart’s acceptance that “Jesus did it” evident in the attitude that “I am safe because Jesus”.  Everything else we do as Christians can be only be because of one of two things: assured discipleship which is living freely within the reign of God, worshipping and serving out of gratitude and loving delight; or anxious despair wherein the cross is insufficient, and one must earn salvation through spiritual disciplines and altar-specific formulas.

In a Jewish devotional work written around the time of Jesus The Wisdom of Solomon 16:5b-7 says that it is not the symbol of the snake or even faith in the symbol that saved the Hebrews back in the day, rather it was God’s activity.  Today we might go on to add that God acted by grace to preserve the people.  When we look at images Jesus crucified, be that a crucifix or a painting, or a mental image since none of us were eyewitnesses, we see the evidence of our salvation.  God has saved us, and by grace alone are we saved.  Look at the cross and see how much you are loved: look at God hanging dying, and don’t doubt that you are overtly and utterly beloved.  But don’t think that hanging a cross on your wall or around your neck will do anything other than remind you of how much you are loved: possessing a renaissance sculpture or a piece of cruciform jewellery won’t save you any more than those formulaic prayers.

Flip over your Bible, if you’ve got one there, and have a look at a conversation Jesus had with the crowds.  In John 6:28 a Jewish crowd is listening to Jesus speak about salvation and they ask Jesus “what must we do?”  Judaism is a religion centred on practice and belonging rather than doctrine and belief: what makes a person a Jew is that he or she behaves like one and is accepted into the group who is behaving like Jews.  In other words, you are a Jew if you do Jewish stuff and other Jews invite you to join in.  You can’t earn salvation as a Jew, you don’t need to: you are saved because you are chosen, saved by grace just by being a descendent of Abraham.  As a saved one, a chosen one, you live that out by doing Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic things.  So, in that framework the crowd asks Jesus “what’s your kosher? your circumcision? your ritual? your psalms?” to which Jesus says in John 6:29 “trust me”.  Nothing else, no instruction for action, just “trust me”.  He doesn’t even say “accept these facts to be true, agree to the following doctrinal statements”, he just says…what does he say?  Trust me.  So, the crowd says in John 6:30-31 “okay, you want us to trust you?  Why should we trust you unless you prove it?  Abraham made us reshape our sex organs, Moses gave us laws, David wrote us songs with theology in them.  Give us something tangible so that we know you are telling us the truth: do something” they say, “or at least ask us to do something for you” they might have added.  And Jesus says in John 6:32-33, 38 “no.  It’s all about God’s generous grace and not about performance, indeed it isn’t even about my (messianic) performance,” and in John 6:40 Jesus says again “trust me and live abundantly and confidently, and I will look after you.”

What if Jesus said that to us?

What if our reasons for believing ourselves to be saved weren’t the reasons Jesus offers?  “But Jesus, I was converted at 27 when I repeated the special prayer line-by-line with Billy Graham-slash-Brian Houston.” Or “but Jesus, I was baptised because of my Christian parents at 3 months of age, confirmed in my local congregation at 12 years of age, hit with the Holy Spirit at a Charismatic Renewal convention at 13 years of age, and I’ve prayed in tongues since I was 35 after specifically asking my Pentecostal megachurch cell group leader to pray for me one night.”  What do you think Jesus would say to that?  My reading of John 3, John 6, and Ephesians 2, is that Jesus would say “doing those things didn’t get you saved, being saved lead you to do those things.”

Huh?  So, how then were we saved if not by a prayer of invitation and confession, or the waters of baptism following vows of obedience and faithfulness?  How were we saved?  How were we saved?  By grace.  Grace alone.  We know we were saved because God has told us, and also because we are actually safe.  If we weren’t saved then we’d be unsafe, wouldn’t we?  But we’re not unsafe, so we know we are saved.

So, here’s a big statement for you.  Don’t let your faith get in the way of your salvation.  By this I mean as soon as you try to work out what it is you did which actually got you saved, which specific belief, which specific action, you’ve missed the point.  It is grace that saved you, God did it all and you did nothing.  That you received the message that you are loved, and that you responded with joy or relief or whatever, and that you accepted the story of grace to be true, made your salvation effective and it put you on the path of growing in discipleship.  But the actual deliverance was all God’s work.

So, remember that.  And make sure that when you share your faith, and you should, that what you share is the free gift of grace given by God because of love.  And nothing less than love.

Amen.