The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r108.htm
s108a03 Lockleys 18/5/2003 Easter 5
"How can I (understand), unless someone guides me?" Acts 8.31
In a recent issue of "Market Place" (16th April 2003) there was a report on a gathering of theologians in Qatar, at the same time as the war in Iraq was happening. It was financed by the Amir of Qatar, the second in a series of three day conferences between Christian and Moslem leaders. There, the new Archbishop of Canterbury is reported to have said: "Christians are Christians and Muslims are Muslims because they care about truth, and because they believe that truth alone gives life. About the nature of that absolute and life-giving truth, Christians and Muslims are not fully in agreement É" He went on to talk about the shared heritage we have in Abraham &endash; providing a vital bridge between these two great faiths.
But as I read this article it struck me how "fixed" we believe the Christian faith is. For we can conclude from the report of the words of the Archbishop, that all Christians agree amongst themselves about the nature of that absolute and life giving truth. And because the Christian faith is agreed and "fixed" every interfaith exercise is about "bending" something, which, whatever it is, is essentially inflexible. Of course I don't criticise in the least the desire to listen to people of other nations, cultures and faiths &endash; for you will know me well enough by now to realise that I say often enough that if we don't - it will be the whole of humanity that will destroy itself. What I am saying points to the inescapable fact that such "bending" will be seen by some as diminishing the uniqueness of the gospel - if not outright syncretism.
In the very same paper, there is a report on the sermon of the new Dean of Sydney, entitled "Are Anglicans all wilting wimps?" In his sermon Dean Phillip Jensen stated: "Different religions cannot all be right É Some, or all of them, are wrong. And if wrong (they) are monstrous lies and deceits of Satan &endash; devised to destroy the life of believers." (Page 8) So if some find that they do find interfaith exercises compromising, then you are in exalted company!
I was recently at a meeting of the Co-operating Churches of West Adelaide and our local City Council proposes to have a multi-faith service as part of their 150 year celebrations. Some members immediately stated their inability to attend such a service. They could in no way celebrate the diversity of faiths in our community &endash; everyone had to become "Christians" &endash; and it must be said that this implicitly means "Christians" like them &endash; people who would not countenance any recognition of the value of the faith of others.
The reality is that you and I, to a greater or a lesser extent, have all been brought up to believe that Christianity has an absolute truth which others do not have.
I chanced a while back to meet a colleague as I walked along the Glenelg boardwalk and as conversations are want to do when clergy get together, it happened that we talked about matters of faith. I made the statement that when I went through College, I was given to understand that there was one Anglo-Catholic faith which every high church person espoused and would defend to the death against the clear errors of the equally monolithic Evangelical or Charismatic "truths". Well, the issue of the Ordination of Women buried that myth where it belongs! The reality is that there are Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals and Charismatics who hold quite opposite views on the issue of the Ordination of Women even though they answer to the same generic tradition. So there is, in fact, no received Anglo-Catholic faith or Evangelical faith or Charismatic faith, universally subscribed to by all that label themselves by those terms.
The reality is, in my life, as I seek the truth &endash; as I am sure is the case with every other person who seeks the truth - be they Christian or Moslem or whatever - is that the more I think I approach a succinct expression of what truth is &endash; something happens or someone says something which serves to modify that succinct expression! In practical terms, every time I sit down at my keyboard and look at the lessons for the day to write a sermon, I learn something more of what the truth is. And I am sure I am no different from anyone else. Teachers learn more themselves that what they ever impart to their students &endash; that is where the greater part of the joy of teaching comes in.
As this Ethiopian eunuch travels along he is reading the book of the prophet Isaiah. The passage is a familiar one &endash; from Isaiah 53.7-8. Even if he hadn't read Deuteronomy 23.1 which forbids eunuchs entering the Temple, he would no doubt have experienced this preclusion from worship when he was in Jerusalem, if he had made his identity known to the authorities. But Isaiah also says, not so soon after the passage the eunuch had got up to reading, before Philip joined him: "Neither let the eunuch say Behold I am a dry tree!" Isaiah 56.3. (KJV :-))
Philip also is travelling on a journey; his is an evangelical mission. I strongly suspect that he hadn't concerned himself with the question of the admissibility of eunuchs into the worship of God or not. He is lead by the Holy Spirit &endash; this is what the Holy Spirit does - she leads us to others. And these two people, both journeying, meet and from this meeting both the eunuch and Philip are brought to the realisation that nothing prevents anyone from being baptised &endash; and this means nothing prevents anyone from being fully incorporated into the kingdom of Christ. God is not someone who puts barriers in people's way &endash; God is someone who removes barriers from people's paths.
This seems a fairly succinct expression of what God is like. I would not pretend that it is a complete expression, but it will serve our purpose for a time. If nothing else it means that the truth of God is not there to exclude people. God's truth always includes others.
At the ecumenical meeting I attended I felt constrained to say, quietly, that I believed quite as passionately as those who believed precisely the opposite to me &endash; that I was called to recognise and worship with others.
I have to say that this leads me to state that "about the nature of that absolute and life-giving truth, Christians É are not fully in agreement" &endash; let alone Muslims &endash; and it's about time we admitted that this is the case. If we don't honestly admit this then we are being deceptive. And if we are being deceptive, how can we be doing the work of God?
Sometimes I have been accused of being somewhat un-supportive of ecumenical activities, and there is some truth to this. For the difficulty for me is that I don't want to be "tarred with the same brush" as those people who loudly proclaim that Christianity means: "Different religions cannot all be right É Some, or all of them, are wrong. And if wrong (they) are monstrous lies and deceits of Satan &endash; devised to destroy the life of believers." And of course this is an Anglican saying this.
This leads me to state that "about the nature of that absolute and life-giving truth, Anglicans É are not fully in agreement" &endash; let alone Christians or Muslims &endash; and it's about time we admitted that this is the case. If we don't honestly admit this then we are being deceptive. And if we are being deceptive, how can we be doing the work of God?
Scripture itself has two different views about whether eunuchs can or cannot join in the worship of the Temple. Are we honest enough to admit this?
Truth comes as we meet people half way. It is easy to stay in our "Christian corners" pretending that others don't exist, but it is we who miss out if we do. It is easy to say that this or that doctrine that others hold is incorrect. But when we actually meet someone else, as Philip met this Ethiopian eunuch, or Peter was led to the household of Cornelius, the question "What is to prevent me ?" is always answered by one word "Nothing!"
A funeral director I once had lots to do with said wisely: Marriage smoothes off some of the rough edges on us. We all need others to do this lest, unbeknownst to us, we continue to grate and jar others in our less close relationships.
One of the mythological greatest boasts of the dinkum Aussie male is that they are a "self-made man". There is no such creature - for even those who have trampled on others to get where they are, need the others to trample on to give them the illusion of personal success. How much nicer to realise our dependence on others to begin with, to acknowledge and work with others, rather than pretend independence as if no one else really matters. The "self-made man" is actually vitally concerned about what others think of him.
In the "Life of Pi" the amazing Brooker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel, after 227 days floating on a life-raft, feeding and fearing a wild Bengal Tiger, Pi realises that "he couldn't have done it without" the tiger (page 286).
The reality is that we all need others, and sometimes the others that God puts around us are entirely surprising. They will not always agree with us - indeed if they are of the opposite gender they are likely to think entirely differently to ourselves - just like the drivers in America drive on the other side of the road. Now that really is scary! :-)
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