Posts Tagged ‘respect’

Unity not uniformity

June 1, 2019

Easter 7 – 2019

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into union with Godself and with one another. Amen.

Ten days ago Archbishop Phillip shared with us the letter sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion. The letter urged all Anglican Bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020. Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged the differences of opinion that led a number of conservative Bishops to organize their own conference in 2008, but encouraged them to attend the next Lambeth Conference to ensure that their point of view was heard. Already four Primates of the Anglican Church have announced their intention not to attend. Last Sunday the ABC news reported that a large proportion of the Uniting Church was planning to secede from the Uniting Church Conference citing in particular the Conference’s making same sex marriage a matter of conscience for individual ministers. During the same time period in New Zealand a group of Anglicans formed their own, separate Diocese under the umbrella of the GAFCON and for at least a decade, Anglican Bishops have been ordaining clergy in Dioceses that are not their own, and parishes have been aligning themselves with Dioceses to which they do not geographically belong.

All over the world, and in a number of denominations, the church is being torn apart by differences of opinion – primarily over the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage but also in relation to the role of women and the interpretation of the bible. Claiming the high moral ground, the conservatives argue that the liberals have compromised the gospel, a gospel that they believe demands that we adhere to clear, unchanging moral guidelines. Liberals, on the other hand, claim that the gospel demonstrates God’s inclusive love and point to Jesus’ willingness to break the rules to make that love a reality in the lives of those who were marginalized, excluded or limited by those rules.

The issues on which we differ are not always clear cut, but are complicated by such things as local culture, history and the ownership of property. The world wide Anglican communion, which has held together since the Reformation, is now straining at the seams.

Today’s gospel comes towards the end of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prays for the disciples who must carry on in his absence. Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected from the ‘evil one’ but more importantly he prays that the disciples might be one, as he and the Father are one: ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:20,23). Unity among the disciples, in fact among believers generally, is so important that Jesus repeats the prayer within six verses.

‘May they be one as you and I are one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ In Jesus’ mind unity is a prerequisite of mission. A unified community is itself a witness to Jesus and Jesus’ union with God. A unified community does away with the need to proclaim dogmas, to demand adherence to a code of behaviour or to insist on one or another interpretation of scripture. Unity among believers is sufficient evidence of the presence of Jesus among them and of the union between Jesus and God. According to this point of view, creative outreach programmes, exciting, modern music and Bill Graham style evangelism campaigns would all be redundant if those who profess to believe in Jesus could only live in unity with one another.

The question then becomes: “what is unity?” Is it uniformity or is it mutual respect? My money is on the latter. It seems to me that scripture is anything but prescriptive and, even if it were, none of us are able to travel in time back to the first century to learn exactly what Jesus said or what the various writers of the New Testament meant when they recorded Jesus’ sayings. We can’t ask Paul to explain his ideas, nor can we really get an accurate sense of what it was like to be a believer in first century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean.

Unity is not related to the minutiae of Christian practice but to the broader picture of faith. What Christians have in common is our absolute confidence in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in the risen Jesus who is present with us and in the Holy Spirit who directs and inspires us. It is our relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – that unites us. This being the case, we do not have to force others to think in exactly the same way as we do rather we, and they, could learn to trust that we are all doing our very best to submit our lives to the God who revealed Godself in Jesus and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who is the perfect example of obedience and faithfulness.

If the different parts of Christendom learned to trust and respect each other, to believe that we are all in our own way striving to develop our relationship with the risen Christ, trying to be open to the presence of God and anxious to align ourselves with the direction of the Holy Spirit, the antagonism between the warring factions would diminish and even disappear.

No one truly knows the mind of God and it is the utmost arrogance for any of us to presume that it is we, not someone else who has the first claim on God’s truth. Instead of trying to prove that we are right and that others are wrong, perhaps it is time that we started to mind our own business, to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ and to allow others to do the same. If our primary focus was our relationship with God -Earth-maker, Pain-bearer and Life-giver – we might stop worrying abut what others do and do not believe and use the time and effort to concentrate on ourselves – on our own behaviour, our own attitudes and our own weaknesses. If our central concern was the building up of our own faith, we would not be obsessively concerned with externals – who can marry whom or who can be ordained – but with the deeper issues of vulnerability, humility and our dependence on God.

Jesus prayed that we might be one so that the world might believe through us. If we seek to draw others to the faith we must find a way to end factionalism, to cease competing as to who is right and who is wrong, and to seek, not uniformity, but the unity that comes from our shared faith in the Triune God revealed by our Saviour and Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Mission as mutual enrichment

May 25, 2019

St Augustine’s Day (Easter 6) – 2019

(John 14:23-29, Acts 16:9-15)

Marian Free

In the name of God who goes before us into the world. Amen.

“Dear Bishop, …Suddenly I feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible.”

In the mid 70s a young Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan, was sent to a missionary post in Kenya. The Jesuits had been in the nation for over 100 years, but had not managed to convert even one member of proud Masai people. The mission station boasted a hospital and a school. Children came to the mission school to be educated the the Masai brought the sick to be treated. The Jesuits were welcome guests at significant events, but had long since given up any real attempt to bring the Masai to faith. Vincent was young and enthusiastic. He had not come to this far away land to sit and wait for people to come to him. He had become a missionary so that he could share the faith that was so important to him. The Bishop gave his approval for Vincent to carry out his experiment. What happened next was truly remarkable.

In order to begin Vincent sought the permission of the elders of the various Masai communities. They were willing to hear him but, being herders who woke early to take their flocks to pasture, they could only spare the hour before dawn. Undeterred, Vincent rose early and met with the communities before they left with their flocks for the day. His method was to tell the story of Jesus through the gospel of Mark. Each morning Vincent would meet with the people and explain the gospel to them. Along the way he learnt about the culture he was interacting and adapted his teaching to fit. For example, parables that were meaningful in the agricultural society of first century Palestine did not not speak to the pastoral society of the Masai who competed for land with the agriculturalists to the south. Jesus’ teaching had to be shared in another way.

Not only was Vincent sensitive to the surroundings in which he found himself, he was also open to the wisdom that preceded him. He did not assume that the Masai had no culture or spiritual life and was therefore able to learn more about himself and his faith from those with whom spoke. It was clear to one of the tribal elders that at times Vincent appeared to be lost. He took Vincent aside and explained to him that the Masai understood God to be like a prowling lion and he observed that the lion was following Vincent and he challenged Vincent to stop and take stock and to ask himself what it was that he was running away from! Instead of rejecting this advice Vincent took it to heart

Vincent had come to Kenya share the gospel that he loved with those who had not heard it, but he was respectful of their culture and their experiences and willing to learn from those around him. He did not assume, as many have, that he was interacting with heathen savages but recognized that the Masai belonged an ancient culture that had its own beliefs and wisdom. He spoke to their situation and in turn was willing to learn from their experience.

To me the most stunning aspect of Vincent’s story is this. At the end of the process, after endless mornings of pre-dawn discussions, Vincent asked the villagers whether or not they would like to be baptized. Some said ‘yes’ and others said ‘no’. He did not try to persuade those who said ‘no’ to change their minds nor did he use the fear of hell. He had shared the faith, but he was not willing to impose it. The choice was theirs to make.

Centuries before Vincent stepped foot in Kenya, Augustine landed in Kent from Rome. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Angles. In Kent Augustine and his band of monks received a cordial welcome. The gospel had in fact preceded them and the Queen, Bertha, was already a Christian. Just as Vincent had a base from which to work, so too did Augustine. In both cases there was a small Christian presence, but most of the people remained unchanged, their culture and their customs untouched by the gospel. We know little about Augustine’s methodology, but from a letter to the Pope, we know that he was unsure what he should do with regard to local practices and holy shrines. In his wisdom the Pope suggested that the holy places be retained and put to use, thereby adapting earlier practices for use by those who now professed Jesus as Lord. Instead of destroying that which preexisted Christianity, Gregory encouraged engagement with it.

The approach of Augustine and Vincent differ markedly from that of many of the colonial missionaries who often sought to conquer and suppress the cultures they encountered, who failed to listen to and understand the peoples whom they desired to change and who, in their arrogance and ignorance, failed to see that God was already at work in the ancient cultures they encountered.

The association of mission with colonialism has given mission a bad name. So much damage has been done in the name of Jesus that we are cautious and timid, anxious not to be seen as those who impose our will on others. Yet we have a great treasure that cries out to be shared – not by tramping rough shod over ancient traditions and wisdom, not by arrogantly assuming that those whose lives are different from our own are necessarily impoverished, not by imposing our will or ourculture on others but by starting where people are, by showing respect for and interest in those whom we meet, by being willing to learn and to have our own lives and faith deepened and enriched as a result. In the end, the gospel belongs to God and God will speak to the hearts of others as God has spoken to us and God will use us if we make ourselves ready and available, humble and willing to learn.


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