Toorak Uniting Church

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‘Holding on and letting go’

Rev. Alistair Macrae
125th Anniversary Service of TUC
28 May 2000, 10am

Our family is preparing to move. There is a purge happening of monumental proportions. The growth in the Brunswick economy is in the skip-hire business! A change is coming bringing moments of decision. What has served a useful purpose but now needs to be jettisoned; and what is of abiding value that must be preserved through all the change?

It’s similar in the church. Many of you were part of the Toorak community in the days that the illusion of the church’s strength could be maintained because the numbers were there; or if they declined we could rationalise by talking about cyclical dips.

Towards the end of the ‘50’s society was fundamentally changing and the church was slow to respond. Within a generation many churches would be struggling to survive. Those nurtured through our Sunday Schools, Youth groups and clubs would leave the church never to return. Nor, by and large, would their children. People left ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’

An anniversary like this is a good time to ask: what must we hold onto to be the church of Jesus Christ with integrity? And what need we let go of so that our church may be sufficiently unencumbered that we can embrace the new thing that God is calling us to.

In the great tradition of Presbyterian preachers let me make three points unfortunately not beginning with the same letter! These are big, broad points, not specifics. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest what this particular church should or shouldn’t do.

The greatness of the prologue of John’s gospel includes its majestic prose; but also because it encapsulates some of the great theological themes in such brief compass. Let me extract three which we need to hold onto, and not water down. This is incredibly rich gravy and we do no favours to our spiritually starving world if we thin down the central claims of the faith and offer only thin theological gruel.

My father was very wary of reductionism in the Christian faith. ‘Beware the simplifiers’. I once heard theologians defined as ‘merchants of abstraction’ and that’s a danger. No less so the simplifiers: those who prefer easy either/ors to struggling with the great both/ands - the central paradoxes of the Christian faith which need to be held in creative tension.

First, is God transcendent or immanent? Is God other, beyond, fundamentally different to us? Or is God within and around us? The Christian faith from very early on has said that God is both transcendent and immanent. John opens his gospel with the audacious claim that the divine Word, the creative, eternal Logos became flesh and experienced all the ambivalence of human life in Jesus of Nazareth. The transcendent became human - one of us! That has enormous implications. It means that we are not God. We are made in God’s image and likeness. We are lit, in the words of St. John, like every human being, by the divine spark - and that is enough to secure our dignity and our worth - but we are not God.

Can the church today hold onto a sense of God’s greatness without conveying remoteness? And convey the immanence of God without domesticating the Holy One? Can Jesus be both our Lord and our brother and friend? Presbyterians were strong on God’s transcendence. Maybe the new growing edge spiritually, will be to discover afresh the presence of Christ in our very midst, the indwelling Spirit of the living God. This might even infect and infuse our worship so that a generation hungering and thirsting more to know God than merely to know about God, might experience the swirling, free and lively presence of God in our gatherings. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth’

Second, John’s prologue uses the language of light and darkness. But not in an either/or way. Darkness and light are both realities in the created world, not least in the human heart. But the word of hope, based on the experience of the resurrection, is that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out’. Nor will it.

The Christian church can offer hope to our world; not the facile wishful thinking of the positive thinkers; or the spiritual banalities of much New Age pap. We need not deny sin and suffering, we can name the darkness, know its power and can yet utter the great ‘nevertheless’. Christ is raised! There is nothing in heaven or on earth, in life or death that can frustrate God’s loving purpose for the world in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is light and darkness. Luther developed his anthropology on the basis of this truth. Human beings he said are simul iustus et peccator. We are at the same time justified, put right with God and sinners. Darkness and light coexist within us. Neglect either side of that paradox and we peddle dangerous and unhelpful distortion.

Are human beings fundamentally good or evil? Is God’s first word to us ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? Is it a ‘No’ followed by a conditional ‘Yes’? Many in the church have heard the predominance of ‘No’. And we have communicated that to our culture. God is first and foremost our judge. The doctrine of Original Sin has sent millenia of parents scuttling to the priest with their new-born bundles of sin for washing lest the child dies and goes you know where. Incredible! We need to let that go, send it on its way, wash that right out of our hair and proclaim what the old Methodists called prevenient grace. The first word of God to us in Jesus Christ is YES; and that is also the last word.

One of the first songs I can remember from Sunday School was JOY. Jesus first, Yourself last and Others in between. It took me decades to recover from that song. It wasn’t until I heard about the three dimensions of Jesus’ great commandment that I was able to erase that song as the basis of my theology. Doormat theology. Three parts? I had thought there were only two. Love God and your neighbour. This preacher gave equal focus to the last bit ‘as you love yourself’. There’s a thought. I discovered that when I love myself as God loves me then I can love God and my neighbour better anyway. I could take up my doormat and walk.

We are streaky people capable both of breathtaking meanness of spirit and exhilarating largesse. We are creatures of mingled shame and glory. To this extraordinary mix, claims the gospel, God in Jesus Christ says ‘Yes’. In the immortal words of Desmond Tutu, ‘we are not loved by God not because we are lovable, we are lovable because we are loved’.

And finally can we let go of the deathly dichotomy between prayer and social engagement, between spirituality and politics and all variations of that nonsense! When politicians tell the church to keep out of the political process we should laugh at such an outrageous suggestion. We pray regularly, ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. We are shaped by the values of the gospel; justice, mercy, peace. We are called to view the world from the perspective of the last, the least, the little and the lost - Christ’s vantage point for assessing the health of a society. We are called to pray and to act. Social quietism is not a great danger in a tradition shaped by Presbyterianism, Methodism and Congregationalism. We have a proud heritage, not least this church, of advocacy and care in the name of Christ. Let’s hold on to that.

But I suspect that growth in the UCA will emerge from a renewal of our spiritual life. We have been good at doing good, but we have not been spiritually infectious. We have not effectively given account for the hope that is in us. People today searching for transcendence rarely include the church in their search. What many people miss in the mainstream church ironically, sadly, is a concern for the well-being of their personal, not private, personal relation to God; a concern for the health of their souls.

I was driving through Abbotsford the other day with my 6 year old. A man in a brown habit crossed the road in front of us. Why is he wearing that funny outfit? Fiona asked. He’s a monk, I said. What do these punks do? she asked. That kind of monk, I said, has a special job of praying for the world. He works with the poor but mainly God has asked him to live a life of prayer. Fiona went silent for a minute, a miracle in itself, and she said; ‘I think we should get a few of them for our church’. Amen!

Political engagement without prayer, without being grounded in the worship and theology of the church will inevitably become ideologically captive. A spirituality which disengages us from the struggles for a more just and humane society is ultimately a denial of the incarnation and a betrayal of the example of Jesus.

Finally, on this Sunday in Reconciliation Week, we remember that reconciliation is the very heart of the Christian gospel. Week in week out we gather in response to the outreaching love of God in Christ and confess our sin. We seek forgiveness of God and we ask for the power and will to amend our lives in the direction of love and justice.

Our tradition is full of the language of justice, of truth-telling, of facing up to our mistakes, of confessing where we have hurt others wittingly or unwittingly. We know the language and the practice of ‘sorry’. We belong to a community whose history includes much of which to proud and much of which to be ashamed.

The Pope recently apologised for the sin of the Church against the Jewish people, for the sinful actions of the church in the crusades. Almost every church in Australia has said sorry for our complicity in practices which have caused untold hurt to aboriginal people.

We know that healing and reconciliation come through truth-telling, through careful empathic listening, through admission of hurtful actions and attitudes and the exercise of forgiveness. Can the churches more intentionally offer this wisdom to the wider community to help create a nation in which all of God’s children enjoy abundant life?

In the name of God, utterly Other, utterly close,
whose light shines in the darkness and will never be put out,
who calls to be intruments of peace in the world,
who reconciles us to Godself and engages us as agents of reconciliation,
be all honour and glory. Amen.

© Rev. Alistair Macrae, 2000


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