A fellowship of reconciliation. A pilgrim people.

This one’s long. More a bloooog than a blog. It’s my address to the 2013 Synod of NSW and the ACT during it’s opening worship. The readings were Nehemiah 2:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11. But, if you read on, you’ll see there’s a lot of comment on the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union too.

The 2013 Synod of NSW & ACT begins its work
The 2013 Synod of NSW & ACT begins its work

The depth of spiritual resources required

What did you think when you read this comment from the General Secretary in his Standing Committee report?

“…I have been amazed at the depth of spiritual resources required to do this job. And at times, making the “hard call” has a very personal feel about it, so that people’s anger and frustration is reflected back at the one making the call. Yes, we are at a point of making hard decisions. Yes, things around us are moving at a much greater pace than ever before. And yes, we are being called to do more with less, but more than ever it is time to keep moving forward and pressing on.” (Synod Standing Committee Report to the Synod of NSW & ACT, 2013, C01, C.1.1)

What did you think of that? How did it make you feel? For me it was a sense of real resonance – I recognize that! I know about that! …And I’ll name it here as a recipe for depression and burn out unless the people involved are deeply reliant on a personal relationship with God and the constant use of the Means of Grace:

  • the reading and preaching of the Word,
  • prayer and fasting,
  • the sacraments,
  • Christian fellowship,
  • and what John Wesley liked to call “works of mercy”.

Andrew said “I have been amazed at the depth of spiritual resources required to do this job”. Amen. Exactly. And we should be just as amazed at the depth of that well of spiritual resources God has given us. The Means of Grace are just the well-head – the invitation. Come here. Use these practices and you’ll be amazed at the depth of spiritual resources that God has given you in this challenging time – for just that reason, for just this season.

And this isn’t just about the ministries of General Secretaries. As I move around the church I hear similar themes emerging in conversations with all kinds of people:

  • an elder in a rural congregation that’s now lay-led telling me how she found the courage to extend pastoral care to people in acute need in her town; her eyes welling with tears of amazement and gratitude at the difficulty of what God had asked her to do and the spiritual resources God gave her to do it;
  • a young adult explaining the fruitless search that she and her friends had been on to find a congregation that made sense to them; barely ready to say out loud what we were both thinking, that maybe God was calling them to be some sort of new congregation themselves;
  • a minister following through on a Presbytery-recommended change management process in a large, multi-staff congregation while personality issues were making the leadership team increasingly dysfunctional; partly energised, partly hurt and disappointed, telling me how much prayer matters in her day to day discipleship;
  • a Christian couple concerned by some of the choices their teenage kids were making as they disconnected and drifted away from the congregation they’d known as children and while the witness of that congregation made it increasingly unlikely that they’d ever have an opportunity to make their own commitment to Christ; now the couple were wondering whether God might be calling them to be change leaders in their congregation.

We’re now well into the new era in which being Christian in Australia is almost never a matter of habit or culture. Being Christian in Australia today is almost entirely about

  • a conscious choice to be a follower of Jesus,
  • based on personal experience of the grace of God,
  • and discovering that our inherited ways of being church are largely untenable.

The depth of spiritual resources required to be a disciple of Jesus in this era is amazing. But as I move around the church I’m just as amazed at the depth of that well of spiritual resources God has given us – for just that reason, for just this season.

Nehemiah: You see the trouble we’re in. Let’s start building!

When I read that comment from the General Secretary I recognized a theme that I have heard in conversations throughout the Uniting Church. It’s to the soundtrack of all those wonderful conversations that I heard that brief lesson from Nehemiah read:

“2:17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” 18 I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.”

You see the trouble we’re in. Let’s sort it out. We can rely on the grace and providence of God. “Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.”

Nehemiah was quite content with his privileged status in exile as the king’s cupbearer. But when God called him he gave up his place at the centre of things and went to the very edge of things – to be with the returning exiles who were defenceless, poor, at odds with each other, and sliding into a new period of slavery. Little by little, relying on the grace and blessing of God, he drew out the best in the people who were there, in and around the ruined Jerusalem – their skills, their sense of fair play, their memory of being the people of God. Together they rebuilt Jerusalem and their society.

Explaining the point of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, biblical scholar Mark Thronveit said:

A word of encouragement was needed by a community that desperately needed to hear of its ties with the past. Though the life of Israel that emerged from the crucible of exile was not the same as the nation that had gone before, the institutions that were slowly developing sought to mediate the same promise and heritage that had nurtured Israel of old. (Mark A Thronveit, Ezra-Nehemiah. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992, p.11)

The story of Nehemiah can speak to us as we move out of our own Babylonian captivity and set out on our own journey towards what God promises. As we reflect on the end of our old church institutions and the emergence of new ones I want to identify two essential elements of the “promise and heritage” that nurtured our forebears in the Uniting Church: the vision of the church as “a fellowship of reconciliation”, and the vision of the church as “a pilgrim people”.

A fellowship of reconciliation

The lesson we heard read from 1 Corinthians is the beginning of an astonishingly rich reflection on the character of the ekklesia – the people who had been assembled, or gathered, or made to congregate by God – as a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It begins in chapter 12 and continues through to the end of chapter 14.

  • This community of the Holy Spirit is richly diverse in gifts and ministries, but is one community in the one Spirit who gives them these gifts to build one another up (12:1-11).
  • It’s like a body which is one, but has many members each with their own contribution to make to the whole – arms, eyes, feet, mouth…you get the idea. The ekklesia is the body of Christ – one with every member having a particular part to play in the health of the whole (12:12-31).
  • This fellowship of the Holy Spirit is a community that practices love – the greatest gift of the Spirit. They really practice real love in the way they treat each other in this community (13:1-13).
  • And as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, people who really love each other, it is oriented to constantly discerning what God is up to among them and through them. What are your gifts? What are mine? What’s the best way to use those gifts so that our community is strengthened, built up, healed and continually renewed in the Spirit? (14:1-40)

That vision of the church in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is vividly reflected in the Basis of Union. It’s not just a series of helpful metaphors or uplifting images to be deployed once in awhile. It’s not a few good texts to preach on when they come up in the lectionary. No, it’s the central organizing theme in the Basis’ vision of the church: the church as a “fellowship of reconciliation”.

It’s there in paragraph 3:

“God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.”

The church is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit: a sign, foretaste and instrument of “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.” So at the heart of its life – in every congregation and faith community – is the constant practice of discerning gifts among the members and encouraging and equipping people to use those gifts in building up the body of Christ for mission. That’s the vision we inherit.

It’s even more in-your-face in paragraph 13:

“The Uniting Church affirms that every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant. It acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ… [The Uniting Church will] provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them, and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission.”

This is fundamental. It comes before considerations of specified ministries (paragraph 14), before descriptions of our system of church government (paragraph 15), before affirmations about church law (paragraph 17). Everything else is there to support and resource this fundamental reality: the church is a fellowship of the Spirit, whose members have received a diversity of gifts for the building up of the body of Christ for mission – all the gifts needed. All the rest of our ecclesiastical apparatus is there for the sake of that – to “provide for the exercise of the gifts God bestows upon them…”

And now, a generation on from church union, we’re ready to really be a body of Christ – a community constituted by the Spirit with as many gifts as we have members, and with a corresponding service for every gift.

Biblical scholar James Dunn once said famously that if the definition of “mission” is discerning what God is doing and joining in, then the first task of mission in discernment. And while that missional discernment is partly directed to what might be going on in the neighbourhood, or society, or the wider world it is primarily oriented to what’s going on in the lives of my sisters and brothers in the family of God – my local congregation. Want to know what God is up to in the world? Look to one another to see what gifts and passions the Spirit is giving us to build us up as the body of Christ in our time and place. Discernment isn’t navel gazing. It’s doing the work that keeps the body of Christ healthy and engaged in the ministry of Christ in the world today. It’s the daily work of loving one another.

Every member present, valued, contributing the gift they’ve been given by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the body Even if I don’t like them or don’t get them or they irritate me or frighten me, my job is to discern their gift with them and help them share it with us all – and to allow myself to be loved by them in the same way. A “fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself” – that’s what every congregation and faith community is called to be. That’s the vision we inherit.

A pilgrim people

Seeing a couple of German backpackers in the Adelaide Central Markets had me remembering my own experience of that particular rite of passage into adulthood. In my case it was backpacking around Europe with Heather – rail passes safely stored with our passports, following the backpackers’ “ant trail” with who knows how many thousands of other twenty-somethings, and carrying Frommer’s house-brick-sized travel guide Europe on $20 a Day. (That’s how long ago it was. Last time I looked the current edition was called Europe on $85 a Day!)

The particular thing I was remembering when I noticed those contemporary German backpackers was the almost universal habit of backpackers in 1982 of tearing out the chapter that related to the particular city you were in at the time. It shocked me when I first saw it. I’d grown up in a family that loved books and reading. I learned to respect and appreciate books as objects – we almost revered them at our place. So I was deeply offended by the backpackers’ deliberate acts of vandalism. It seemed like sacrilege to me.

At first, anyway. I soon saw the good sense in what was going on. Why carry around 500 bound pages on the whole of Western Europe all day when you really only need the 20 pages on Antwerp? What’s more, most backpackers would then simply leave that chapter behind when they moved on to Brussels or Amsterdam or wherever. No point in carrying it with you. It’s just extra weight on your shoulders. In any case, the memories of the sights and experiences of a Belgian port city are carried more effectively in the stories that you swap with other travellers on the next train than in a few printed pages that you won’t have the need or inclination to consult again. So as you moved around the continent that massive guide book shrank and shrank until eventually, like your money, there was nothing left of it at all.

Guide books were one thing. Real books were another matter – from pulp fiction to classics. My bookish eyes were agog as I watched my backpacking peers apply the same principles to the rest of their reading. Finished novels were left behind in hostels, cafes and trains for other backpackers to pick up and read. I saw incredible shrinking versions of “big books” like War and Peace or Bleak House. A chapter finished, it was torn out and left behind. I actually saw some European editions that were designed that way – with a perforated line close to the binding to allow pages to be neatly removed once they’d been read. (At least, I think I did. Heather doesn’t recall that and I’ve been known to “remember” things that never happened.)

The survival of the printed book didn’t matter – the important stuff was already absorbed into the imagination and stories of the backpacker anyway. The vehicle for that entertainment or enrichment, the book itself, was redundant once read. Worse than redundant, it was heavy. Of course you got rid of it. It wasn’t disrespecting Tolstoy or Dickens, or even Frommer. If anything it was a mark of respect. Allow the book to do what it was always meant to do – to initiate you into the great world of European culture and history. Love it for that. But don’t let sentimentality or misplaced principle turn it into a pointless burden.

Backpackers would pick things up too – whatever you needed when you needed it. A presentable shirt and a pair of strides in Paris. A corkscrew in Bordeaux. A sun hat in the Algarve. A scarf in Geneva. And pamphlets, maps and tourist information sheets in every place you stopped along the way. But the principle was always the same. If you need it to really make the most of that stage of the journey, get it – buy it, borrow it, or accept it as a hand me down from a fellow backpacker on their way to the next city. And once you don’t need it in your pack, get rid of it – leave it behind, give it away, sell it, swap it, or post it home. It’s all about the journey, not the various odds and ends that you need at different stages on the journey. It’s all about the journey.

The dominant image of life in the UnitingChurch has always been “pilgrimage”. It’s used in the Basis of Union in paragraph 3:

“The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.”

There are three things said about the church as “a pilgrim people here”.

  • A pilgrim people is “always on the way towards a common goal”. It is oriented entirely towards that “reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation”. They measure everything they do by how well it expresses their commitment to reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation.
  • A pilgrim people “does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come”. Everything it has is provisional – it’s institutions, its property, its practices, its reputation. None of that is so valuable that a pilgrim people would end the journey prematurely, giving up on participating in God’s mission of “reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation”.
  • A pilgrim people is constantly nourished “with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.” The depth of spiritual resources required to be a pilgrim people is amazing. But just as amazing is the depth of the well of spiritual resources that God has given us for the journey.

It’s all about the journey, not the various odds and ends we need at different stages on the way towards the “promised goal”. It’s all about the journey. So, in paragraph 18,

“The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

We explicitly pray that God will change us along the way – correct us, improve us, keep us useful within the mission of God. And we pray that God will do this through the gift of the Spirit. So here we are again, confronted by our core business as the body of Christ: the task of discerning what God would have us be and do by discerning what gifts the Spirit is giving to the members of our fellowship.

A by-product of that discernment is recognizing what practices and institutions have served their purpose but now are just extra baggage – slowing us down, holding us back. And that’s hard. It sometimes involves making those “hard calls” that the General Secretary mentioned in his report. And you know what? “Hard calls” are being made in every Synod, and in the Assembly, and in every Presbytery and Congregation – or they should be. As we discern together where the Spirit would lead us next in this pilgrimage to “the promised end” we need to check our baggage, work out what we’ll need, and lay down the rest at the roadside – with a prayer of thanksgiving for what it has meant to us and how it has served us in the past, and a heart full of joy at the privilege of being invited and resourced afresh to share in God’s mission today.

The General Secretary said, “I have been amazed at the depth of spiritual resources required to do this job”. Amen. I hear you brother Andrew. And I pray that you, and all of us gathered for this Synod, will be just as amazed at the depth of that well of spiritual resources that God has given us – for just that reason, for just this season.

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7 comments

  1. Hi Andrew. Thank you for sending us this – another of your wonderful and inspiring contributions to our church. I’m not sure who your target is – Maureen or me – but I appreciate it either way. With your permission I would love to circulate this to our Church Council – who are in the middle of preparing the Profile document and in any case struggling a bit to work out what our “mission” is. I think we would find this helpful.

    Thanks again. Max.

  2. The ‘Pilgrim People’ really resonated with me – the lessing go. Once, I was a lass that chronicled and stored piles of paper, writings, works, pictures, trinkets – things that I suppose in some way were proof of where I had been, who I’d been with, what I had walked through (light and dark)… But one day, I started to no longer need that proof – for me or others. My living and my memories were all I needed. All but the most special were given away, burned or shredded or recycled… And as a result, my house and mind are clearer and I am less weighed down by my pack of the past. So liberating, so fabulous to be able to walk more lightly. Now, as I continue to live I feel more like those German backpackers… Where once my packs got heavier the more I travelled, now they get only lighter!

  3. As you can see, Max doesn’t frequent the blogosphere!
    Great stuff, especially the pilgrim/backpacker analogy. I don’t think i could bring myself to tearing pages out of books though, I’m too much a book lover. A reflection of how hard it is to leave some things behind, even when maybe we should?
    I have in the past left books behind for others to find and read – there’s a website called Book Crossing that encourages you to “release books into the wild” which includes the fascinating possibility of tracking where they go. See http://www.bookcrossing.com

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