The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:  

s035g11 Sunday 2  16/1/2011  Presbyterian Church Mt Pleasant.

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

‘What are you looking for?’   John 1.38

Mary tells me, a longer than usual sermon :-)

Jesus question makes me ask: ‘What are we looking for?’ - when we come to church, either to the Presbyterian Church here or the Anglican Church.   I guess we most often come because we are looking for love or have found love.   Somehow we have perceived that God loves us and that here in these congregations others love us too.   And, of course, we want more and more people to experience this love of God and the fellowship of these congregations - that’s what ‘christian’ mission and ministry is all about.   And I guess one of the reasons we have come together from our two different congregations this morning is because we are finding it more than our present numbers can reasonably support continuing to try to do this on our own.

We all here know that Jesus loves us.   We all know that Jesus was incarnated into humanity to show us how much we are loved, and we know that Jesus died on the Cross in an ultimate act of love for each and every one of us.

But the trouble is that there is a catch.   Jesus said to those who would follow him: ‘If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?   Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?   And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?   Do not even the Gentiles do the same?’  (Matthew 5.46-47)   So if we love Jesus because we know he loves us, what reward will we have?  It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference how often we sing our praises to God or invoke the name of Jesus.

But before we all quietly switch off and think that here’s another impossible demand being laid upon us, let me assure you that I do not want to do that.   You and countless Presbyterians and Anglicans before you have given of yourself, your time, your money, your energy, and mostly you are burnt out.   The last thing you need is another half-assed preacher to whip you into action.   But the game is up.   There are precious little resources left to spend.   That’s why we’re worshipping together here this January.

But, as I say, there is this catch.   We love Jesus because we know he loves us.   We love the church because we have found an amenable fellowship in which to worship.  We love Pastor Neil and Vicar Mary because we know that, with the best of their ability, they will be with us in our time of need.

But if we love only Jesus, because we know Jesus loves us - what reward do we have?   Others love Jesus in such a variety of ways that are completely astonishing and if they only love Jesus because they know Jesus loves them, their reward will be no more, and no less, than ours.   If we love the members of the congregation with whom we worship, because we know that they love us, what reward will we have?   There are a multitude of other congregations whose worship is completely different to ours, and they love the other members just as much as us, and their reward will be no more, and no less, than ours.   If we love Pastor Neil or Vicar Mary because we know that they love us, then know that there are a multitude of other pastors, vicars, priests, imams, leaders of synagogues and spiritual guides who similarly love their congregations and followers, and the members of those congregations will receive no more, and no less, reward than us.

If we love others because they measure up to our expectations of doctrine, worship or lifestyle, what reward have we? - the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah loved those who toed their line - and expelled others.

On Tuesday the 4th of January the governor of Punjab, Mr Salman Taseer was assassinated in Pakistan by one of his bodyguards - it is presumed because of his criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws.   If so, the culprit acted out of his love for Allah.

Let us turn this around.   If God only loves those who love God, is God any more righteous than a tax-collector and a Gentile?   If Jesus only loves those who love him, is Jesus any more righteous that a tax-collector and a Gentile either?

If Jesus opens the gate of heaven just to white, straight, male Anglicans, can Jesus actually ask us to love wider than this?

What are we looking for?   Someone to love us?  Yes, well we’ve found that person, but that person loves others too, and not just those who love Jesus in return.

And this is not a liberal secularist plot - these are the words from the bible, the words of Jesus.

In the history of the Church, we are slowly extracting ourselves from a latent neo-colonial spirituality that infects all religions.   The extraction of Christianity has been particularly difficult because it has been so successful in extending their various tentacles and has become so politically powerful.  The invasion of Australia and New Zealand and the forcible appropriation of the land was done by good upright ‘christians’ who knew full well that it is against one of the ten commandments not to steal.  I acknowledge that New Zealand is doing somewhat better in righting this wrong than is Australia.   But in those days others didn’t really matter!

So what am I asking you to do this morning?   Well, nothing really!   I don’t know what form the church will take in the future, so there’s little point in trying to prepare for it.   Indeed I suspect and sincerely hope that the church of the future will have more input from the divine and less from humanity anyway.   I invite you to not get too fussed with the continuing existence of this or that congregation, world without end, Amen.   Be open, not just to those who might wander in through our doors, but also be open to the spirituality, devotion and the sincerity of others - who are not white, straight, male Presbyterians or Anglicans (as the case may be :-), those who don’t wonder through our doors.   God loves people who do not call the divine by the name we give, who worship in different ways to us, indeed people who do not love him or her at all; but try their best to get on with other people indiscriminately - which is not an especially visible characteristic of the church.

What are we looking for?   A spiritual bouncer at the heavenly gate ready to admit us who love God and have all the right credentials - baptism, confirmation, communion, read the Bible properly (especially the bit about ‘no one comes to the Father but by me’), give to the Church and to others as we have been able - and damn the rest?   Well, in those lovely words of Jesus, which can be taken two ways but most only hear them as a blessing: ‘Give, and it will be given to you.   A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’  (Luke 6.38)  If we give nothing to anyone other than those who love us, we will get nothing in return!

For me the importance of this is illustrated by some other words of Jesus: ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14.26)   If our love of those who love us in return becomes a substitute for loving those who don’t love us, then the first has to go!

And I was reminded recently of some more familiar words of St Paul: ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.’  (Philippians 2:5-7)  The ‘church’ encourages us to take this personally and submit ourselves to their rules and regulations, when if the church does not take this upon herself, nothing you or I do will make the slightest bit of difference in the the wider community.   The church has to be reborn in human likeness.  Perhaps to illustrate this by contrast, G. K. Chesterton once said: 'The .. church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age'.   The ‘church’ that does this denies the incarnation and denies the love of God for others.

We are doing well this morning, even if begrudgingly, we are extracting ourselves from Anglican and Presbyterian neo-colonial aspirations, even if we are doing it because we have no other choice.   God has given each and every one of us a brain to use, and the problem with giving everyone a brain is that we are surely meant to use it.   And using it we will inevitably come up with different answers to others.   We will come up with different names for the divine, we will come up with different ways to worship.   We may choose to share our intimate affections with someone of whom others don’t approve.   The suggestion that others have to comply with my standards is no different from the inhabitants of Sodom and Gommorah, and the man who shot the governor of Punjab.   I ask you to use your brains and reason if a ‘god’ who demanded I kill others to protect that ‘god’ is worth worshipping anyway.   That ‘god’ sounds more like a demon to me.

What are we looking for?   Well, what we have found is plain, for God hasn’t ever changed.  

And I would invite you to celebrate that God is bringing this about, that the kingdom is more than the continuing existence of the Presbyterian and Anglican congregations here, but whose mercy is far, far wider than this.   Celebrate that God is indeed bringing this about, even as we lament the passing of this little outpost of christendom that we have loved so much for so long.

And finally a plea: don’t look to Pastor Neil or Vicar Mary to rescue this or that congregation by getting more people to come and prop up the ageing institution, to admire the contribution of the past and present members rather than make their own unique contribution.   The world has changed, those who are already a part of God’s church (even if they are not here this morning) are far too precious to be made to conform to the old verities and thanks be to God it is so.   If what I say is indeed true, it is to try to get Pastor Neil or Vicar Mary to resist what God is doing, not assist what God is doing.

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