s108g97 27/4/97 Somerton Park Fifth Sunday of Easter
"Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5).
This saying of Jesus strikes us, as good egalitarian Australians, to be rather exclusive. Is Jesus saying here that unless we are part of the Church, his body, we will not do his will? Then comes the obvious question: which Church? Which particular denomination? For certainly this particular quotation has been used by all sorts of religious groups to say: "We are right and true - all the rest are wrong and false. Unless you belong to us you cannot please God." Our own Anglican Church has been as guilty as any other in saying this, overtly or surreptitiously. I think that this generation has seen that there is a break in the logic somewhere.
My use of the word "egalitarian" prompts me to say something about my thinking about the republican debate. I don't know that I have come to a decision whether we should have a local head of state rather than the Queen in England. But I really don't want Australia to become a "republic". The word "republic" for me conjures up negative and separatist notions. I actually really like the word "commonwealth" - for it expresses a positive ideal. Something we could worthily aspire to. The trouble is - I suppose we will have to change the name if we move away from England in the way proposed. Whatever the political changes, can we at least call ourselves something other than a "republic" - something more positive, something to aspire to? If the word "catholic" didn't have such religious overtones that would be good. Something that expresses our egalitarian nature - giving another person "a fair go".
But to return to my text, let me say clearly, I personally do believe that unless one is a part of Christ's body, the Church, one can indeed do nothing. I have seen too much of life and spoken to too many people not to see that for all the facade of modern life, supposedly without any reference to God, people are not in any way better off, happier or more loving individuals. They are not. While we as Christians are generally a shy and retiring lot, I still see the presence and power of God in the lives of many Christians I meet.
However I want to say equally as forcefully that I do see the presence and power of God in the lives of those who do not count themselves as Christians, but who are seeking to respect and honour others. So when I say the "Church" I mean that part of the visible Church which expresses respect and honour for all, and the invisible church who hold very similar ethics.
Neither politics nor medicine nor education, wonderful as the strides that have been taken in these fields, have proved to be capable of bringing about lasting changes to society, in comparison to the death and resurrection of just one man so long ago. It is sad that the Church has often been destructive and excluding of people in the name of Christ, and have ceased to be "the Church" as a result.
Jesus talks about "abiding in him", and so we must ask where is Jesus raised? Not just to sit on God's right hand (giving him pins and needles). The risen Jesus will be found in precisely the same places as Jesus during his earthly ministry - out and about - in the house of Simon the Pharisee and accepting the small offerings he received there as well as in the house of Simon the leper and accepting the overflowing offerings he received there. So the true faith community is the community which loves beyond its own borders, indeed ideally one which has no borders at all. So if we are to "abide in him" - we should at least be where he is, and that is not just "in Church". He has been resurrected and cannot be entombed in any sort of building.
The title "Church of England", from which we are derived, means all British persons are a part of the Church, baptised or not, attenders or not. There has been some debate in England where some Members of Parliament believe "that they are far more representative of the "man in the pew", let alone of Englishmen in general, than any member of Synod ..." (The Church in Crisis Moore, Wilson & Stamp Hodder and Stoughton 1986 p23) Christ died for all, baptised or not, attenders or not. Viewed in this light, the translation of the Church of England to Australia makes little sense at all. I hasten to add I would not want to be anything other than Anglican.
So it is in this context that the words: "cut off from me you can do nothing" start to make some sense. The love and grace of God are given in order that firstly we are enabled to love ourselves. Secondly - to reach out in love towards all others by accepting the contributions all would make. Thirdly - that we are also enabled to respond in love back to God himself.
In all this, it is our perception of God's love for us that enables our love for the rest. If we do not see God's love impinge on our own lives, then God certainly can't, and in fact doesn't, expect us to be even able to love ourselves, let alone others or himself. The sphere of God's love, for better or for worse, is the Church, where his word is proclaimed and his sacraments administered. In this context then we would indeed wither if we cut ourselves off from the Church. And it is beholden on the Church to first and foremost proclaim that love of God, not just in "words or mere talk, but something real and active."
I am reminded of the time when the recently converted Saul tries to join the disciples, "but they were afraid of him." (Acts 9.26) So frequently, it is our fears that cause us to question the motives of people. Perhaps the disciples were fearful that St Paul might revert to his past ways and resume persecuting Christians. More likely it was simply he was such an unknown quantity, he could change things and so threaten their positions of authority. He was recognised as a powerful personality and feared.
I have been constantly surprised, right throughout my ministry, how frequently members of a congregation do not know other members, even over a period of years. It is good that here at Somerton Park we use name tags, which is a start. I have however sometimes wondered if they can serve to delineate just who is "in" and who is not.
Recently I have been pondering about the difference between weeds and plants. Weeds are just ordinary plants that have become so prolific and aggressive that they take over and squeeze out everything else. Similarly the difference between cancerous and normal cells is the same. Cancer cells are so prolific and aggressive that they take over and squeeze out everything else. I am reminded of the words of St Paul: "The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." (1 Corinthians 12:21).
The essence of the Church is not that we are right, but that we are open to the contributions everyone can make to our fellowship, even if they eclipse the contribution we have been enabled to make in the past. As we do this, we do bear the fruit that God wishes for us, and so be "his disciples". It is when we are open to accept the contributions others will offer that we will find the truth in Jesus' words "what ever you wish ... will be done for you". John 15.7
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