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

s133g12   August 26th 2012   Sunday 21

'You have the words of eternal life'  John 6.68

Recently I have been thinking about baptism and holy communion.    And the thought came to me was not that the act of being baptised or receiving the holy communion that is the important thing, but the coming.

Crowds flocked to Jesus and what could Jesus do to acknowledge this coming, coming together with others, coming out of their holy huddles, coming out of the selfishness of natural and spiritual families into the real world?   He instituted a sign of forgiveness that resulted from this entry into the world.

Similarly the crowds flocked to Jesus to hear his teaching and what could he do to acknowledge this coming together with others, coming out of their holy huddles, coming out of the selfishness of natural and spiritual families, entry into the real world?   He fed them.

The incarnation, and the resurrection that guarantees the continuance of that incarnation, sanctifies becoming truly human.   It labels retreat into holy huddles of sanctified selfishness as evil.   We are re-born into real life, not swapping one brand of sanctified selfishness for another.

So the person who is fully occupied in real life, treating others as he or she would want to be treated, whether those others conformed to their particular religious practice or not - is already baptised, is already in communion.

Recently I have had a couple of conversations with newcomers to Christchurch, commenting on how invariably accepting and welcoming Cantabrians are, yet the people with whom they socialise are also newcomers to Christchurch.   Recently we enjoyed a meal with people from Europe, South America, NZ, and us from USA and Australia.   There were only five of us!   I have no doubt whatsoever that the same comment would be made in every small city.   In big cities the ratio of newcomers to 3rd, 4th 5th or 6th generation families is very different.   When I spent a month in New York in 2002, I recall someone saying to me that those who 'made it' in New York came from elsewhere.  I am a fifth generation South Australian, and so I guess I know this from the others side.  And I recall people going to remote communities in Australia, appreciating the local community because they have had to make new relationships rather than ever relying on family and past friends.   And I reflect that this is a part of my own journey as I have come to New Zealand.

Last night Mary and I thoroughly 'enjoyed' a hard-hitting play at the Court Theatre 'Man in a Suitcase' by Lynda Chanwai-Earle (1) and the plaintive cry from someone of Chinese ethnicity in New Zealand was: 'When will we be accepted as part of society?'   It is a 'must see' production - up with 'To Kill a Mockingbird', and of course this same plaintive cry is echoed by new-comers in every land strange to them.

Blessings come as we move out of our family and childhood relationships and have to relate to those who are around us NOW.

And I suppose, as a member of the clergy, inevitably I have been somewhat oblivious to this.   When I count them up I have lived (for extended periods) in ten communities in my 40 years since I have left my family home and entered theological training and ministry.   So I have moved communities every four years on average.   I recall a funeral director once saying of a particular country town in South Australia - that it took them 15 years to forgive a newcomer for coming to live in 'their' town - except if they were the bank manager or the minister!   I have come into a ready made community.

One of the ways new arrivals in a place seek to become part of a community is to join a church congregation.   Yet if that congregation is only concerned with dictating to newcomers how others have to live up to their expectations to be acceptable, are those congregations acting any different to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah when Lot and his family came into their midst?

And it is easy to point to others, yet if the church is ever concerned to keep the flock from straying, is it not denying eternal life to others?   If we keep people so busy, reading the bible, praying, maintaining the church building, caring for fellow parishioners, being involved in this, that or the other social group or new initiative – are we not denying them the opportunity to stop, to think, and to appreciate the insights of others?   And people who are kept busy, seen and not heard, particularly out of fear, won’t question the institution.   It is no wonder that Lot's wife looked back wistfully as they were fleeing, and that we breed ‘wannabe’ clergy!

We have just become grandparents for the first time, and I know that many new grandparents have similar reflections at this stage of life.   As one generation makes way for a younger one, we cannot keep our children safely to ourselves.   We want the best for them, which inevitably means they need to relate to others.   And the Church is no different.   The church of my youth is vastly different today, just as the Britain of my youth is vastly different from today.   It would have been inconceivable when I was a young lad to portray Her Majesty the Queen parachuting into the Olympic Stadium to open the Games!   The church needs to realise that we are to enable and equip people to live in society, a society that is constantly changing, not get people to retreat from it.   The questions that society asks today, questions like the equality of woman, the dignity of GLBT folk, the sacredness of all life regardless of faith, were not even contemplated in the Reformation, so why would the reformation answers to long dead issues be relevant, let alone determinative for an 'eternal life' little different from 'pie in the sky when you die', which everyone outside the church thinks everyone inside the church believes and lives for!

When people are marginalised, alienated and condemned, their sin of being different is never forgiven.   Where is the Biblical justification for condemning people for not believing in 'pie in the sky when you die', for not believing Mary was a virgin after she gave birth to Jesus, and who don't believe in a God who prefers the gullible?   Others are starved of acceptance.   If we (as the church) do this in the name of Jesus, where is eternal life for anyone?

So no matter how frequently we receive the Holy Communion, no matter how religiously we confess our sins, while we remain in our holy huddle our sin remains and our communion is fleeting.   It is when our community includes all that our sins are forgiven, it is by the community that we are fed, in both body and soul and the words of eternal life given by Jesus come to fruition, not just for us but for all.


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