St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Generous Love

Listen!
John 13:31-35 | 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
We ended last week with Paul’s amazing claim that we have been called to share in God’s ministry of reconciliation; as ambassadors, making known the amazing grace, the incredible good fortune that we have experienced – finding ourselves reconciled with God in the person of Jesus Christ. That the Christian life is about living as people who know they are beloved of, and reconciled with, God; and that Christian mission is, at its heart, sharing the truth of that love and that reconciliation with a world desperately in need of it.

And Paul used the image of an ambassador, to make the point that we are messengers of, spokespeople for, witnesses to, that reconciliation. We cannot reconcile anyone with God; our role is simply to let them know that God has already done everything that needs to be done.

But I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that that means that there is room only for words in the sharing – and living – of our faith. For of course that could hardly be further from the truth.

For of course the most important part – the one irreplaceable part – of sharing the good news of reconciliation is by demonstration. The life of the ambassador must reflect the message.

The life of the ambassador for the reconciling love of Jesus must reflect the reconciling love of Jesus.

And so today’s gospel reading gives us that so simple and yet so profound “new commandment” of Jesus. “Love one another”.

Except, of course, that’s not a new commandment.

Love your people, love your tribe, love your team; there’s nothing new in that. It’s right there in the Levitical law – Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord”. And in the sermon on the mount, Jesus pours scorn on idea that loving one another is somehow a great good “don’t even the tax collectors do that? don’t the gentiles?”

Hearing Jesus’ words, “love one another” as spoken – as they were – to a group of his followers, as entreating them to look out for each other, that’s not a new commandment.
You can’t stop at “love one another”. The bit which makes it new is “as I have loved”.

Love one another as I have loved.

So what is it about the way that Jesus loved that makes this commandment something new?

Well, two things, perhaps, come to mind.

The first is that the love of Jesus was (and this was surely on his mind in our gospel reading, the farewell discourse, as Jesus was about to be taken and killed) was that Jesus’ love was sacrificial. Greater love has no one than this; that they lay down their life for their friends. This was not the love of the tax collector that Jesus scorns; the love that loves others when it might be to our advantage – crassly to our financial advantage, or more subtly, to our emotional advantage. This is love that puts the needs of the beloved first.

And the second – well, it’s there in the same breath in the sermon on the mount. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies’.

The new commandment – to love as Jesus loved – is to a love that is both generous and without borders; a love, in fact, which is characterised by reconciliation, reaching out beyond the ‘us’.

The ministry of ambassadors of reconciliation is to be witnesses to the love of God which is generous and without borders, by living, ourselves, a love which is generous and without borders.

Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, is making an appeal that reminds me of those invitations you get, especially at this time of year – “as the financial year draws to a close, there is no better time to make a tax-deductible gift”. He’s appealing to the Corinthians to give generously for the needs of others.

But his appeal is not as if this were a duty, or a responsibility. He names it, instead, as a privilege.

And he draws the attention of the Corinthian Church to the attitude of the Macedonians. Who, despite their severe affliction, had begged Paul to accept their contribution to the needs of others.

Now I can’t help feeling that there is an almost frighteningly strong parallel between this passage, and us, here in Wahroonga, at the end of a tax year, and in the run up to a federal election. I’m reminded of a story Sureka told me (and I’m sure has told others).

About 15 months ago, cyclone Pam devastated many tropical islands, but most especially, Vanuatu. And alongside the generous response of many in Australia, the Church in Fiji (which had itself been effected by the cyclone, though to a much lesser extent) raised funds for their brothers and sisters in Vanuatu, channelling those funds through their partnership with UnitingWorld.

Less than a year later, in February this year, cyclone Winston struck Fiji. And the Church in Vanuatu – still struggling to rebuild their own homes, schools, public spaces – raised money to help the people of Fiji.

This is the spirit of the Macedonian Church, that Paul appeals to: “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity”.

But Paul is not writing to the Macedonian Church, but to the Corinthians; the relatively wealthy Church in a major trading town.
If the Macedonians – those generous even in their hardship, are the Fijian Church, the Church of Vanuatu, then the Corinthians are us. The fellow believers who are, relatively, at least, wealthy.

And Paul appeals to them: if you excel in anything, excel in this: generosity.

He even goes so far as to say that this is the test of their love: not purity of doctrine, not spiritual gifting, not words of profundity; but the extent to which their love finds expression in their generosity towards others.

Why is this the test? Paul goes on: because you know the generosity of God, shown in Jesus, who became poor, that you might be rich.

This, Paul told the Corinthian Church, and, I believe, would tell us, this is the measure of your love, you who are rich; will you imitate the one you follow, the one who became poor that you might be rich?

Not that you should be destitute (he goes on) “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need”

But simply “that there may be a fair balance”

The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little

And so we bring the two together: the call to love beyond boundaries, to love those who are different, those who are frightening, those who are enemy; and the call the generosity, to sharing in, reflecting the generous love of God.

This is the call upon us, in our day to day lives, and as we come to choose the direction of our country for the next few years.

I don’t believe it is the role of the preacher to suggest how people should vote – I’d honestly be very surprised if anyone took any notice of me if I did. People of good faith and good conscience will differ in what they believe to be the best direction, the best policies, the best leadership. And that is how it should be, as we celebrate the messy wonder of living in a liberal democratic state.

My only appeal would be that generous love that knows no boundaries be the standard against which you measure – most of all, against which you measure yourself.

Amen

For Australian Aid

Micah Australia (a coalition of Christian aid & development organisations and church groups) is holding an afternoon tea on Thursday 30th at which representative of local Churches will be able to meet with some of the Bradfield candidates (including Paul Fletcher) to discuss Australia’s overseas aid.

I’ll be attending, as part of the effort to get politicians of all political stripes to return to the bilateral commitment to increasing overseas aid to 0.5% of GNI.

If you’d like to come along, let me know!

Reconciliation

Listen!
2 Corinthians 5:11-21
I think it’s probably fair to say that Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian Church is not one of the best known of all passages of scripture. Until the past few weeks, I don’t think that I’d ever preached on it.

And yet it contains one of my favourite passages in the whole of the Bible. Actually, favourite isn’t quite the right word. It’s more that the passage we heard read today, and in particular the second half of the passage, is one of those lens through which I see, well, the whole of the gospel. One of those places where it feels as if a crucial, central truth of the faith has been captured in a way that one can, if not quite, then almost, grasp hold of.

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.

There is that sense throughout the whole story of the Bible, from the fall in Genesis chapter 3 to the final consummation of the Kingdom of God in the book of Revelation, there is this sense of brokenness. That in the creation poem of Genesis 1 and 2 God walks with humanity and in the coming of the Holy City in Revelation the people will see God once more face to face, but in between – that is, for the whole of human history – there is this rift, this divide, between God and humanity, between the divine and the mortal, between the creator and the creation.

But in Christ, God was reconciling.

The early Church struggled really hard trying to understand just who Jesus was; reconciling the clear evidence of his humanity with the inescapable revelation of his divinity, they wrestled with the words we end up with in the creed and in the traditions of the faith: fully God and fully human. And if you know how that works, exactly what it means, then you are a far more profound theologian than me.

I don’t know how it works. But in this passage I find a way of understanding why it matters.

In Christ, in the person of Jesus, God was reconciling the divine with humanity; bringing back together the two which had been torn apart, reconciling creator and creation.

Now if that were the end of the matter, it would be no more than one incredible moment in history. But if you start looking at this passage at that verse, verse 19, stuck there in the middle of the paragraph, then you can move out from this central truth in two direction – to the verses before, and to the verses that come after.

The words that come before: God reconciled us to himself through Christ. This joining together, this fusing of creator and creation in the person of Jesus is not simply a point at which the two are made one; it is a bridge, a pathway for humanity back into the presence of God. Through Christ – the way, as he named himself – we are able to enter into the presence of God. That is the promise of our faith; that as we enter into Christ, we enter into reconciliation with God.

Keep going back, another verse: if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. If we are in Christ there is a new creation; if, as, to the extent that, we enter into Christ, we are something new, because we are no longer just us, but we are ‘us reconciled with God’. We are no longer just people, but ‘people who stand in the presence of God’.

“But what does it mean, to be in Christ, to enter into Christ?” I hear you ask

Well, I‘m glad you asked that question.

If being in Christ is being in this reconciled relationship with God, God who is wholly good, totally loving, then entering into Christ must surely be a description of that life long process of sanctification; of being changed, slowly but surely, from the inside out, to become more like Jesus, more like God, more like humanity is meant to be: more loving, more generous, more hospitable, more just, more compassionate.

And how much we do that, how much we allow ourselves to change, to be conformed into the image of God, the image in which we were created, is, to a great extent, up to us. That is the life of discipleship, the life of choosing, in all those small moments as well as the big ones, to be the people we ought to be, to live the lives we know we should live.

The pathway is one we walk, guided, strengthened, encouraged by the Spirit of God and the community of faith around us, but that we walk.
The path, the bridge, the way is open; because in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself; the walk is ours.

But important though that process is, that call, that ethical imperative to live as God’s people, as citizens of God’s Kingdom, it is always, secondary to what God has already done: God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Godself.

In the words of Catholic theologian James Alison,

I beg you not to forget this tumbling into the luck of finding ourselves secure on the inside of the adventure of creation

But I said we could move from verse 19 in both directions; for the passage goes on:

and God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us

Not “entrusting reconciliation to us”. That’s really important and, frankly, quite a relief. Reconciliation isn’t something we do. It is, again in the words of James Alison, that amazing good fortune of finding that something has already been done, that our deepest problem has already been solved.

No, we are not entrusted with reconciliation. But with the message of reconciliation. And so Paul uses the image of Ambassadors; who do not speak for themselves, who are not executives taking action, but representatives of a power, a message, a Kingdom, that is far more than themselves.

We have that ministry, God making God’s appeal through us, to others, to the world: be reconciled to God. Become part of the reality of what God has already done.

For that is the tone of the whole passage: “one died for all, so all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him” – that our calling, our ministry, our evangelism, even, is not about getting people saved from hell and into heaven; Christ has done that. He died for all and all have therefore died. That is the amazing good luck, the unimaginable grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

No, our calling, our ministry of reconciliation is less about the next world than it is about this one: that those who live might no longer live for themselves, as Paul writes, but might live for God.

The reconciliation of the world to God is a done deal. God was in Christ, doing that.

Our ministry of reconciliation is to call others into the life that God has already given them; our calling on ourselves is just the same.

The call of the evangelist is the call we hear as disciples of Jesus.

God has saved you. Live as if you believed it.

Amen

10 Questions on Aid

The Australian Council for International Development (the peak body for international development charities, of which UnitingWorld is a member) asked four parties (Liberal, Labor, Green and Family First) ten questions about their policies on Australia’s overseas aid.

You can download a summary of their answers here.

Worth reading as you reflect on who to vote for on July 2nd!

Jacob’s Well

Jacob’s Well is an international Christian Organisation offering prayer for healing. They are having a series of special events over the weekend of July 1st-3rd at St. Stephen’s Uniting Church, Macquarie Street. More details here.

I wouldn’t normally link to events by a healing organisation which I haven’t personally seen in action; but this has come to me from Dean Drayton (former president of the UCA and a good friend) who has recently accepted a leadership role in Jacob’s Well Australia.

It’s a tent

Listen!
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10
I wonder if Paul ever had those moments when he wondered what on earth he was doing?

I mean, we all have them, right? Times when, no matter how clearly we once saw, no matter how absolute and incontrovertible the matter once seemed, we admit to that suspicion lurking in the back of our minds that maybe, just maybe, we’ve backed the wrong horse, followed the wrong path, supported the wrong side in the argument.

Surely, Paul knew that feeling. After all, he was a man who had it all – he was a rising star within his culture: the right birth, the best education, the sharpness of mind; even as a young man he was mixing it with the people at the very top, on first name terms with the High Priest, even though he himself was a Pharisee. In his passionate defence of the purity of the faith, he had found a cause to live for, supressing this small upstart movement of followers of a man executed for blasphemy.

And then, in response to one incredible moment of revelation, he chucked it all away to join that upstart movement.

For years, he was nobody; not, at first, trusted by the early Church (hardly surprising), no longer accepted by the Temple, he had to start again. And when he did take on a prominent role amongst the people of Jesus his reward was a lifetime of hardship, of beatings, of imprisonment, of danger. And on top of that – opposition from others within the faith, perhaps jealous of his influence, perhaps unforgiving of his past.

So I’m pretty sure that for all his faith, Paul must have had his moments when he wondered what it was all for. Whether this was really what he thought he had signed up for.

In the writing of 2 Corinthians we get some hints at just how much Paul’s life of faith had cost him; and how he chose to respond. “Our outer nature,” he writes, is wasting away. But at the same time, the inner nature is being renewed, day by day.

And seems natural, almost inevitable, to take this as the language of dualism, of a body/soul divide. And to declare that Paul is declaring that he cares not what happens to his body, whether it wastes away or what, because it isn’t what matters. And there is clearly some sense of that in what Paul is writing – hardly surprising for a man suffering physically for his faith – that he would rather be “away from the body and at home with the Lord”.

But that sort of clean body-soul divide really wasn’t a Hebrew way of thinking. By the time of Paul, and certainly within a generation or two after, this Greek idea of an eternal soul that was totally other from the body had found its way into the Christian faith as an explanation of the great mystery of our ongoing life beyond death, and Paul was clearly aware of it, but it wasn’t at the heart of his thinking.

He uses, instead, the analogy of the tent.

Now of course, we know from elsewhere that Paul was himself a tentmaker. So I think it’s fair to assume that when Paul uses the description of the present life as ‘in a tent’, he isn’t being derogatory. As a Facebook friend of mine, discussing this passage wrote, “as Paul would have known, just because it’s a tent, it doesn’t have to be a rubbish tent” (actually, she didn’t use the word “rubbish” – but it captures the meaning).

The point, of course, of a tent, is not that it is rubbish, but that it fulfils a particular purpose. It’s temporary, yes, but it is temporary because it is mobile, to be used when you are mobile; not settled in the place you are, not at home.

A tent was what you used when your work, your responsibilities, or your danger, meant that you could not put down roots, not declare “here I am, and here I’ll stay”.

Most famous, of course, within the Hebrew tradition, was the tent of the Tabernacle; the tent built to act as a home for the ark of the covenant, the stones of the ten commandments as the people of Israel travelled for forty years between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance to the promised land. A tent was the home, as they understood it, in that time, of the very presence of God. And indeed, the memory of that time was enshrined in “sukkos”, the festival of tabernacles, one of the great celebrations of the Jewish year, in which for a week Jews will eat, and sometimes sleep, in tents, remembering that time.

The point of a tent isn’t that it’s somehow inferior. It is simply a tool for a purpose. A home for when you cannot be in your true home. A shelter in times of travel.

This is Paul’s description of the mortal body. Not something rubbish, to be disposed of at the earliest possible opportunity, but something to be valued and appreciated for what it is: temporary, yes, but fit for purpose. Designed for the job at hand.

It’s from this perspective that his rather obscure comment comes: we wish not to be unclothed but further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up in life. We do not long to leave, but at the same time, we do not cling to the tent as if it were our final home.

Our mortal life is a precious thing, a tool, an opportunity. We do not long to place it aside, we look forward, instead, to the day when it is swallowed up into the reality of life.

This, of course, is the answer to the wag’s question: “if heaven is so good, why aren’t Christians in more of a hurry to get there?”

So did Paul wonder if he had made the wrong call, walked down the wrong road, in the light of all the hardship and suffering that he underwent? Perhaps. But if he did, he had also found an answer. That whatever occurred to him in his mortal life was not irrelevant, not meaningless, but not ultimately what mattered.

This, I believe, is what is meant by his declaration: we walk by faith, not by sight.

Not, as it is sometimes used, to say that we are to ignore the evidence of our eyes when it seems to contradict our understanding of the Bible – I’ve seen this quote used to justify the rejection of all sorts of research evidence, scientific or otherwise, which challenged the religious views of the listener – but to declare that the things that we see, the things we experience, are not the matters of final importance.

And these two truths – that we are on a journey, and that the things that we see now are not the final reality – are as true for us as a Church, as an institution and as a community, as they are for us an individuals.

The final paragraph of Uniting Church basis of union begins with these words: “The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end.” It’s a description often referred to as “Pilgrim People” – that we, the people of God, are not at our final destination; we have not arrived.

As we approach, in this coming week, the 39th anniversary of the Uniting Church, we might do well to reflect on these two strands in Paul’s letter.

What we have here – this building, this congregational structure, this institution of which we are a part – is our tent. It’s the tabernacle of the people of God in the desert, not the Temple that they built in the promised land. It is made for the journey, not as the destination.

And in the end, it is not what happens to the tent that matters.

Because – and here’s where the second part kicks in – we walk by faith, not sight. So when we see census results showing Church attendance dropping, we don’t ignore them, or cherry pick results we like better – but nor do we despair. Because our faith is not in this institution that we can see – much though we might love and value it – but is in the “One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, the Church, as C.S. Lewis described it, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners”.

It’s a nice tent. We enjoy the shelter it gives us, and the way it equips us for our journey. We look after it, so that it can serve it’s purpose.

But in the end, it’s just a tent.

Amen

For those in peril on the sea

1 Kings 17:8-16 | 2 Corinthians 13:3-10

(Kit Craig)

I bet you’re all expecting a bushwalking story!

It so happens that three of us went on an overnight bushwalk in the Yengo National Park last weekend. We got stuck in quicksand and it was very cold overnight. The end.

Sorry; God hasn’t send me a bushwalking sermon this time. I prayed for one, but I suspect God may be getting bored with my bushwalking stories. This time his answer came in four very different and disturbing ways.

Just before Easter Sue and I agreed to buy a house at Dora Creek on Lake Macquarie, and a few weeks ago we spent a weekend up there to get used to the idea of moving. After church on Sunday we walked past the community hall, where some other worship service was underway. The singing was lovely. I recognised the tune but not the lyrics. I looked it up: the tune is Melita, written in 1861 to accompany a hymn “for those in peril on the sea”. The tune and the phrase stuck with me.

I felt God’s second hint in the news in early May of the young Somali woman named Hodan who set herself alight on Nauru, only a week after the death of 23-year-old Iranian Omid Masoumali, who also self-immolated on Nauru with the words, “This is how tired we are. I cannot take it anymore.”

The third hint was actually a little bunch of things. In late May Peter Dutton made his infamous comment that, “[Many refugees] won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English … these people would be taking Australian jobs and there is no question about that.”

That made me investigate. I found out three things:

  1. Our refugee intake includes people of all educational backgrounds, from those whose education has been seriously disrupted by conflict and persecution to those who come with degrees, masters and doctorates.
  2. Recent research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that, in the longer term, refugees are more likely than other groups of Australians to develop small businesses, creating jobs and building economic opportunities for others.
  3. Australian Government statistics also show that more than 80% of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat have been formally recognised as refugees. That is, they’re not “economic migrants”.

That in turn got me thinking about our refugee intake. I wrote to our local member asking for an update on the special intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees that the Abbott government announced in September 2015. He didn’t reply, but I did find out that in February we had reached 26 of the 12,000 number. By the way, that’s about one quarter of the number New Zealand accepted in the same period. I believe we’re now approaching 200, but that’s still less than 2% of our commitment.

I was getting really uncomfortable with where this was going. Then, God’s final nudge was the news of more than 700 refugees drowning in the Mediterranean last week. It made me remember that tragic photograph from September last year of the drowned 3 year old Kurdish boy, Aylan Kurdi, which was a catalyst for our declaration of a 12,000 special intake.

As Christians, how do we respond to all this? What should we do or say? What CAN we do or say?

Let me emphasise, I’m not taking a political position here: the refugee policies of either party that could possibly form government in July are so similar that I think they’re largely indistinguishable.

These are questions of morality and faith that beset me, and, I hope, you. In the face of the awful conundrum of boats and people smugglers and refugees, what would God have us do? What would Jesus do? I think we must heed today’s New Testament reading: we must put ourselves to the test and judge ourselves, to find out whether we are living in faith.

Let’s consider the story of Elijah and the widow in Zarephath. Zarephath was a city in Zidon (about where Lebanon is today). Therefore she would have been a gentile – shown when she swears to Elijah on “the living Lord your God”. We know that in biblical times widows were very vulnerable because they had no husband to care for them, and we know the widow was the mistress of a household, which implies that her son was still a child.

Put yourself in the place of this widow. Would you put the needs of an alien and stranger before those of your son or yourself? She and her son were dying of starvation and when Elijah found her they had nothing left to eat but “a handful of flour in a bowl and a bit of olive oil in a jar”. Doesn’t she have a moral obligation to give her son food before she gives it to an adult who is a stranger?

Yet she reacts in faith and generosity and takes Elijah in. And God provides.

We are in a much better position than the widow. Can we do less?

Now is the time to act, when our politicians are listening because of the election. Write to them demanding a more humanitarian, indeed a more Christian behaviour. Urge speeding up our intake of refugees. Urge greater generosity in our programs. Urge less hostile language. Refugees are not “illegal immigrants”, they are frightened people fleeing persecution.

The position of the Uniting Church Assembly is that Australia should increase our humanitarian intake to 25,000 for 2016-17 and to at least 60,000 by 2020. The church wants its members – us – to ask our candidates four questions:

  • Will you support efforts to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake?
  • How will you work within your electorate to build a culture of welcome and inclusion for refugees?
  • What plans does your party have for expediting the resettlement of refugees from Syria? Will your party commit to an additional intake of refugees from Syria in 2016-17?
  • What is your party’s plan to take care of the 30,000 people awaiting their asylum claims?

I emphasise again, I am not pushing a political barrow here. In fact, I’m very uncomfortable discussing a subject that many of us feel is outside our worship service scope.

But surely a faith that does not work to shape society is dead or dying, and politics devoid of faith is perilously at risk of corruption and petty self-interest or of short-sighted, self-focused aims and objectives that in the long term are to the detriment of all. As Christians we must enrich, not impoverish, our community life with the values and guiding principles of our faith.

God’s call to justice always moves us outside of our comfort zone, as it did with the widow in Zarephath. I pray we will respond to the call.

(The Uniting Church’s “Flourishing Society” election resources can be found here)