Giving thanks for Ian Tanner

It was my honour to express gratitude to God on behalf of the Uniting Church for the life and ministry of Ian Tanner t two thanksgiving services: one in Canberra, at Wesley Uniting Church and the other in Adelaide at Scots Church. I was asked to express that gratitude by reflecting briefly on the lesson from Luke’s Gospel that Ian chose for these occasions. This is the address I delivered.

“My eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30)

I first met Ian in 1985 when, as a very young minister, I returned to Australia to take up a placement in Sydney. Ian was the President and I was drafted onto the UCA/Greek Orthodox dialogue that he co-chaired with Archbishop Stylianos. For some reason Ian took an interest in me. He encouraged and guided me as I began to find my bearings within the Uniting Church. And, especially, he made opportunities to talk with me about the Basis of Union – our shared passion. He spent a lot of time with me clarifying the central vision of that remarkable document:

“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.” (Paragraph 3)

Reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation: because of the completed ministry of Jesus Christ that End is secure. The church has been called into being by God to serve that promised End. We are to be a foretaste, sign and instrument of the reconciliation of all things. A foretaste; not the banquet itself. A sign; not the thing signified. An instrument towards the End; but not the End ourselves.

As President, Ian had a privileged opportunity to witness that theological vision working out in practice, as he saw the Uniting Church in all its diversity and ambiguity:
the best seat in the fourth Assembly and its Standing Committee, but virtually no executive authority at all;
a member of every Synod with responsibilities in none;
welcome in every Presbytery and Congregation but without duties in any;
a guest and friend on our behalf in other denominations and other countries, in the public arena with journalists and politicians and community leaders, representing us but also looking back to us with new eyes.

The experience deepened in him that God-given insight he had: on the one hand an irrepressible enthusiasm and confidence for what God was doing and would do through the church with, on the other hand, a droll realism about the church’s frailty and folly. Foretaste, sign and instrument: through us, and often in spite of us, Ian witnessed “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.” He loved us for that, and we loved him in return.

Particularly when I knew him as a past-President, in South Australia – when he was more my colleague and friend than mentor – I realised how often we disappointed and frustrated him; getting ourselves tied up and bogged down in peripheral conflicts and fashions. But in his best moments he forgave us that, seeing through our orneriness the great thing that God has done in Christ still working powerfully under the surface, breaking through here and there (if you paid attention) to reveal “the end in view for the whole creation.”

And so to the lesson from Luke’s Gospel that he chose for this occasion. The prayer of Simeon, a devout man whose life and outlook could be summed up in Luke’s phrase “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (v.25). Simeon had been shown by the Holy Spirit that he would see God’s promised Messiah before he died. One day he was led by the Holy Spirit to go into the temple where he met a poor young couple from Nazareth who’d come to fulfil their obligations under the Law after the birth of a child. Simeon took the child into his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation for the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
(Luke 2:29-32)

The prayer of Simeon crystallises a key aspect of Luke’s message: “my eyes have seen your salvation”.

Luke’s message to his fellow-Christians was that in the mission of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit the salvation promised by God had been fulfilled. They’d seen it. They could still see it. In what is by far the longest work in the New Testament – the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles – this theme is explained and illustrated and highlighted and reiterated and celebrated. Salvation has come!

The ultimate End, the consummation of salvation, still lies in the future, sooner or later – and we wait for it with hope and confidence. But here and now, salvation is already available to us through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Lives are transformed. Enemies are reconciled. New communities of love and fairness are springing up. Even death has lost its power of threat and dread.

So here, at the start of Luke’s two-volume witness, the saintly Simeon holds the infant Jesus in his arms and utters words that crystalize the message: “my eyes have seen your salvation”.

Simeon looked at a baby and saw God’s salvation delivered – a mere baby. Remember, this is long before the modern idealisation of children and childhood. People loved their children in those days too, of course, but with infant mortality rates being what they were you didn’t invest yourself in them. Remember how Jesus shocked his disciples by saying, “let the children come to me” (Mark 10:14-15)? But inspired by the Holy Spirit Simeon looked at this six week old infant, saw past its vulnerability, inadequacy and uncertainty and announced that the Messiah had come: “my eyes have seen your salvation”.

Ian had no illusions about us. He knew our crankiness and cussedness. But he knew the rest of us as well – those breathtaking moments when we are truly “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.”

Ian knew us and he loved us and thanked God for us. And we loved him too, and we thank God for him.

My dear sisters and brothers, I’m no Ian Tanner but I am privileged to see the church from the place that he saw it. And, although it’s not all pretty, as I witness the work of the Holy Spirit among you I can only rejoice at this “pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.”

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation”.

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