The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s115g09 Sunday 3 25/1/2009
'fish for people' Mark 1.17
After about 30 years I am thoroughly enjoying re-reading Hans Kung's opus 'On Being a Christian'. It is especially good to revisit such a work after a time in ministry, for it serves to both reinforce perspectives that ministry has brought, as well as being a useful corrective when perhaps things have gone awry. And perhaps the perspectives that come from a time in ministry serve to augment the words of such a renowned scholar. It will be interesting to see how much my own thoughts dovetail into his as well as acknowledging the contribution I owe to him as well as to many others.
It is so refreshing to find someone who acknowledges the strengths of other faiths even to what they might teach Christianity as well as acknowledging the failures of the doctrines of the church to bring about a new humanity.
I was particularly inspired by his words: 'We need an oikoumene, no longer in the narrow denominational ecclesiastical, but in a universal Christian sense: no longer based on missionary conquest of the other religions, but listening to their concerns, sharing their needs and at the same time giving a living testimony of its own faith in word and deed. We need a mission which, while fully alert to syncretist indifferentism, includes tolerance: while claiming absolute validity, ready to revise its own standpoint wherever this turns out to be in need of revision.' (p114)
Much of Hans Kung's questioning revolves around what makes Christianity distinctive, different from other faiths. Certainly he is not the only one to question what makes us 'christian', indeed much of the Anglican Church is asking itself what makes one distinctively Anglican? And it is this question of distinctiveness that I want to highlight. In our efforts to discover our distinctiveness, I wonder if we are not trying to bypass or sideline the incarnation? To put this the other way around, the distinctive thing about Christianity is the incarnation, which makes us indistinguishable from all others! :-)
Today's gospel, right at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, he starts to call his disciples, but this following of Jesus doesn't just involve a personal pilgrimage it involves other people. They are to fish for others. Following Jesus means being lead TO other people NOT away from other people. I find it interesting that 'the twelve' were appointed in Mark 3.13. Admittedly Mark's gospel is short but soon afterwards in Mark 6.7 Jesus sends out the twelve to others. Not much instruction!
It was precisely this sending out that is the kingdom and the obverse seclusion from others is the opposite of the kingdom. Luke describes the reaction to the mission of the seventy rather more effusively; they 'returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"' (Luke 10.17)
But it is not simply being 'evangelical' that counts. Those who had Jesus killed were certainly 'evangelical'. Jesus said to them: 'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.' (Matthew 23.15) The difference here is that the convert is made like the evangelist. Indeed it is not unusual to observe that those who find religion later in life or change denominations are often far more rigorous than life long adherents. The convert comes to share in the distinctiveness of the evangelist. The Christian proclamation is one of incarnation that God blesses all regardless of who they are and without expectation that they become like someone else.
How many people regard those like Billy Graham who preaches and bring great numbers to the Lord, as the model for the real 'christian' - an ideal to which, of course, we mere mortals cannot attain. Again others thrill to hear the exploits of overseas missionary work in third world countries, converting the heathen as if this were especially meritorious? Their skills of oratory and pioneering spirit leave us feeling inadequate and we can only contribute to these others with our money and prayers. Far more common and far more tragically - how many marriages have been utterly blighted by the Christian trying all their life to convert their partner trying to make him or her 'different', 'distinctive', like them? and in the name of God! How many childrens' lives ruined because of parents' desire for children to be 'christian' rather than themselves! Each of these examples is about trying to make others different before they can be acceptable and our ideal of unconditional love has evaporated! Instead of being sent to appreciate we are bedevilled by the supposed need to convert. It is more likely that it is this demon - in us - that needs be driven out not any demon in others!
The distinctiveness of the people of God was and is the eternal question for the nation of Israel and the history of the Promised Land still being worked out in Israel and Palestine to this day. Time and again I have cause to say that Jesus was killed precisely because he associated with others. He was killed because he identified with the tax collectors and the prostitutes. It is sad, but not all that surprising that it remains an issue for christians as well.
I was interested to realize that those 'exclusivist' words of Jesus: 'Unless you eat of the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you' (Jn 6.53) are preceded by 'the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh' (Jn 6.51). If the flesh of the son of man and his blood are for me alone and my salvation, then they are not the flesh of the son of man or his blood. It is only that communion which brings us into identity with others that is the real communion of the Lord.
The call of Jesus is a call into community, the community of all people.
I remember when I was young - we often used to go for an early morning swim - my father saying one can't stop at the side of the water and ponder about faith, one has to wade and dive in to find what it's really all about. And I would want to agree, saying that faith can often stop at the side of the water, pondering about others and life. Real faith impels us to wade and dive in - with others.
So paraphrasing Hans Kung I would say: 'We need an oikoumene, in a universal Christian sense: no longer based on missionary conquest of others, but listening to their concerns, sharing their needs, indeed recognising the divine in them - which is the living testimony of its own faith in word and deed.' For me, anything less than this really can't claim to be Christian at all.
One of the 'pipe-dreams' of many an Australian for when they retire is to sell up and buy a 'Winnebago', become a 'grey nomad', explore Australia and fish along the way. One of the great things about this lifestyle is the people they meet. People staying in caravan parks meet one another without pretensions, without distinctions, without barriers. People in caravan parks talk to one another not like the rest of us in our anonymous society! In my aforementioned early morning swims, people on the beach used to greet one another - provided it was before 9am. After 9am you would be looked at strangely if you said anything to anyone else.
These 'grey nomads' and early morning swimmers have glimpsed the kingdom! This is what Christianity should aim to be for anything less means we have nothing to offer anyone who doesn't share our views, our lifestyle, our table except subtle, or less than subtle, pressure to change.
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