The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s026a05 Lockleys Third Sunday of Easter 10/4/2005
'three thousand persons ...' Acts 2.41
We are often astonished, if not a little skeptical when we read of such numbers coming to faith. In our post-Christian world, the only places where this is happening are places we would often have great differences in theology.
So, and I hope I'm not doing a disservice to the Diocese of Sydney, and Moore College, where the ordination of women, and opposition to 'liberal' tendencies is most strident; that there is a perception that their strength and numbers is a sign of God's blessing. They believe that the relatively weaker liberal dioceses and fewer liberal candidates for ordination is a sign of their apostasy from the Biblical faith.
But before I am accused of being anti Sydney, it is also certainly true that the more high Church tradition often is more content with correct ritual than how many are actually in the congregation. There is a good deal of scriptural evidence for this 'faithful remnant' theology. However the formalism and ritual seems only suited to those who appreciate that sort of thing, and they are content with this. This seems a denial of God's plan of salvation for humanity. Nero fiddling while Rome burned, seems similar.
It is clear that numbers are important. God certainly wants as many people as possible to know the divine presence in their lives. However both the 'evangelical' and the 'catholic' traditions are self-limiting. The 'evangelical' is limited to those with a particular conversion experience, view of scriptural interpretation, or reformed theology. The high-church limit themselves to those who appreciate ritual and theatre.
There is no actual logical difference between these two positions, they are simply different criterion; both for acceptance and the alternative, rejection. In the final analysis, others must appreciate our way of seeing things. We hope that: Provided we do our bit faithfully God will bless us with enough others to carry on. And perhaps God might.
I have been recently reflecting on the old "over the fence", "out of sight, out of mind" thinking on pollution. As long as pollution is somewhere else it's someone else's problem. We pour chemicals down drain and hope for the best. Nowadays we pay a levy on our car services to pay for the appropriate disposal of our old oil, and a good thing too. Another modern concept is NIMBY; not in my back yard. So we don't mind alcoholics as long as they live in some other suburb. We don't have to worry, as long as nothing reflects adversely on our neat and tidy front and back yard. And I thought of the old joke about how many Anglicans does it take to change a light globe. What, change something! Do you realize that that light globe was given by my grandfather, and they don't make light globes like that any more! Change, yes of course, the Anglican Church must change, but Not In My Back Yard!
We all fervently believe that I'm alright, it is just everyone else that has to move. This is I suspect what we actually mean by "faith" and "blessed assurance", and I am not at all sure that it is correct.
For again this is self-limiting; we betray the fact that we are not actually interested in other people except and insofar as they agree with me. Now with the best will in the world, we might be able to attract 3000 followers, but we would be stretching credibility to suggest one person could have many more.
The fact that the Risen Christ continues to attract generation after generation of people testifies to the reality that God loves us as we are. The risen Christ inspires all of the great women and men who have influenced the thinking in their own generations and beyond.
This surely testifies to the fact that God loves people other than just those who think like me and believe in my terms. I would hardly suggest that Luther, Wesley and St Paul all think like I do; Lutherans, Presbyterians, even most Anglicans would consider the proposition laughable. This is plainly silly, yet how often do we think of the true faith once delivered to the saints, coming down to us in scripture and creed is something that we espouse most accurately. I do!
Three thousand Anglican are hardly likely to agree on much at all, yet God loves each and every one of them equally. God loves people who address the Almighty using a different name; such is the wideness of God's mercy.
The fact that there was an initial rush to join this "new" movement should suggest to us that there is actually a fair amount of good will out there for things that are "of God". If we do not find a similar good will towards our message, perhaps it is because it is hidden behind a whole lot of extraneous clutter that we dignify as our tradition. People cannot see beyond the fairly staid, old hat, exterior that we project.
I have been reflecting on one of the things that we in the Anglican Church rather pride ourselves in: our respectability. The "old school tie" syndrome is still alive and well here in South Australia. We hope and pray that our "respectability" will be something that attracts others. But if we have not learned anything from the revelations of sexual abuse over the past several years, we must surely acknowledge that that respectability has served to mask abuse and even sought to deny it. We no longer have any credible respectability. We, in Adelaide, are waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the extradition and trial of the former chaplain in the most respectable, even prestigious, of our Anglican Schools.
If we are actually expecting God to raise up a new Archbishop for us who will restore the former respectability that we as the Anglican Church previously enjoyed, then this is hardly likely if this also means that children will continue to be abused.
For there is abuse in the "initiation" ceremonies which we accept as "normal". Only recently my attention was drawn to the story related by the "English Catholic theologian James Alison during his recent visit to Australia, where he lectured on his theology of salvation and the death of Jesus. .. In this lecture, he explored that idea by recounting a story related to him by a friend who was reflecting on his schooldays in Venezuela. .. He (said), 'I can remember now something about our class that we used to have a class fairy. There was the class faggot we used to pick on.' And this is why I call it Fernando's story; I'm going to call his name Fernando, I don't know what in fact the name of this guy was, so I call him Fernando. 'He was the guy everyone used to pick on and we used to make his life hell, and eventually after a few months, well maybe it was years, this guy obviously managed to persuade his parents to take him away to somewhere else, to another part of Venezuela, another school. So off he went.' And he said, 'What I haven't understood at the time was why it was that we were so completely bereft when he went. We didn't know what to do, we didn't know how to play any more. We didn't have our sort of friendly bouncing rugby ball in human form, who we could kick. We didn't know what to do. And this lasted for about three weeks until we managed to find another class fairy in another class and start up all over again.'"
God does not want us to revisit this sort of system, in the name of the Almighty. God is not going to bring 3 let alone 3000 to this sort of institution.
So the story of the initial success of the early church in attracting people tells us that there are people out there who would really would like to be part of us, but are very likely to be scared of being used or scared by past abuse. Until we deal with this, then we simply cannot expect God to bless us with 3 let alone 3000 new members.
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