Toorak Uniting Church

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Ecumenical Pentecost Service

Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14,     John 14: 15 – 16, 23 – 26
Rev. Brendan Hayes
7 pm, 27 May 2007
at St John’s Toorak

"If anyone loves me he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him." John 14:23

A question I have been asked frequently lately, and a question that is very much part of the current climate in the Church where many have moved away from old traditional images and ways of addressing God, but have difficulty finding new and helpful images that correspond with the new insight they have gained on their faith journey.

Manning Clark, the doyen of writers of Australian history and the son of a highly intelligent Anglican clergyman and brother of a good-natured and pastoral Anglican clergyman, has been much praised and loudly condemned for his approach to the multi-volumed History of Australia. From many sides praised for the great sweep and literary skill of the narrative and from other sides derided for the Old Testament prophet’s approach to the interpretation of events, Manning Clark’s breadth of vision in the recording of the history of European exploration and settlement of this country as well as the ongoing encounter with the indigenous population continues to fire the imagination of any reader who will take up his pages and read them.

I say all this because today is the culmination of National Reconciliation Week. It is forty years today since European Australians voted that the Indigenous population should be included in the census of the country and allowed to vote in elections. It is Pentecost Sunday which celebrates the birthday of the Church and provides a fitting conclusion to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The vision and method of Manning Clark’s History of Australia ought to capture the imagination of the Christian reader even more than the general reader or student because he understands that the unfolding of human life in all its complexity, variety, success and failure falls under the providence of God.

I draw your attention to Manning Clark because on Sunday 27th May, a mere 237 years ago, Captain James Cook was sailing up the east coast of today’s Australia between Botany Bay and Endeavour River. Easter in 1770 had fallen a week later than in 2007; so it was the Sunday after Ascension Day, not Pentecost.

Sailing further north Cook and his crew found themselves in the dangerous shoals of the Great Barrier Reef, sounding the depths as they went and often preceded by the long boat as they searched the coast for fresh water. On 11th June his ship the "Endeavour" stuck fast at high tide on the coral. All excess cargo was ditched and after three days the ship was beached in the Endeavour River for repairs. There they stayed for seven weeks until the ship was repaired and the weather cleared before they sailed away up to the northern tip of the land and claimed possession of "New South Wales" in the name of the King. The rest of the story is the subject of a history lesson.

Once again however, I mention all this because these events help us to understand ourselves in relation to God, the country we inhabit as Christian people and the pressing need for true Reconciliation in society and a greater measure of Christian Unity among ourselves.

Cook was not an avowedly religious man even though he had spent his youth at Whitby in Yorkshire in the shadow of the ruins of St Hilda’s great double monastery of the seventh century. He never spoke of religion on board ship and, in contrast to the Spanish and French explorers, would not have a priest on board. Very seldom did he observe Sunday with prayer. But in other ways he was that type of man or woman that we often encounter in this society: he was naturally decent and clean living. He never cursed, insisted that his men wear clean clothes on Sunday, never drank to excess and kept himself chaste amidst the wantonness of his crew on the earlier part of the voyage in Tahiti.

So it is interesting to note that this man should have named the section of the Great Barrier Reef through which he sailed, the Whitsunday Passage, and Trinity Bay near the present city of Cairns. Trinity Sunday fell on 10th June in 1770 and, as we have already noted, the "Endeavour" was stranded the day after. At least Cook knew the great season of the Church’s year and named his points of reference accordingly. The earlier Portuguese explorers, working for Spain, were obsessed about finding not just the Great South Land of speculation but the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. They too had a vision of the reason for their arduous work.

So, I would like to state emphatically that the beginnings of European possession or settlement of this land may have been more fortunate than we are often asked to believe. I say this from a theological or spiritual point of view rather than a strictly historical one. We have to acknowledge the historicity of massacres, the slow death of enforced re-settlement and the lower standard of living and life expectancy of our indigenous brothers and sisters, many of whom are Christians like ourselves.

The words of Cook, the righteous man, recorded in his Journal about the indigenous inhabitants are lyrical for the time, more positive than William Dampier’s a century earlier; but they demonstrate how much ground – I use that word deliberately – has to be recovered

"From what I have seen of the Natives of New-Holland, they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &ca, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth &ca to, left it carlessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities."
This quotation is from: CMH Clark: A History of Australia, MUP 1981, vol 1 p51.

It is Pentecost Day. We believe that God’s Holy Spirit formed Christ’s body the Church after his Death and Resurrection and Ascension. Christ is the head, we are the members. So we are inextricably bound to him. Our destiny is fantastic. Our performance here is sometimes marvellous, often woeful, that is, shot through with sin rather than grace. It is difficult to maintain hope in the face of personal failure, the fall in observant membership of the mainline and balanced Churches in Australia, the shifting sands of societal values and the presence of wars and economic inequality. The breath of God must breathe life into dry bones. Let us look at what the word of God has to say to us.

The priest-prophet Ezekiel was fond of visions. Embroiled in the siege and fall of Jerusalem, the holy city of God’s own chosen people, and the mind-shattering experience of exile in Babylon, he needed a lift out of the chaos and despair of the loss of all that was settled, secure and dear to him and his people.

Of course, we have all seen television footage of the mass graves of Muslims in Srebrinica in Bosnia Herzegovina; we have seen images of mass shootings at open graves in concentration camps of the Second World War; and we have seen the films of lines of emaciated Australian soldiers on the Burma railway. They too are the dry bones of Ezekiel’s valley: "There were vast quantities of these bones on the floor of the valley; and they were completely dry." Ez.37:26.

Ezekiel is overwhelmed. He does not know if they can live. "You tell me", he says to God. "Well" says God, "you prophesy over them. You speak to them and tell them that they can live." We are familiar with the great phrase that often occurs in the Old Testament, especially in the Creation Stories of the Book of Genesis as well as the Prophets and the Psalms: "God spoke and it came to be". God’s word is effective. So here God speaks to Ezekiel and the word of the prophet causes the bones to come together, the sinews to attach themselves again to bones (this passage would be truly inspirational for many an AFL footballer and physiotherapist on a Monday morning) and the flesh to grow. (No need for a hyperbaric chamber in God’s plan). But still there is no breath. They are matchstick figures in front of the prophet. Again God speaks and the prophet acts. The breath of God from the four winds comes into them and they stand up. But this is not simply a resurrection of corpses. This word is for Ezekiel’s own people. God reminds him that the people in exile complain of dry bones. They are tired, arthritic, out of joint and in pain. "So", says God, "you speak to them, you tell them that I shall get them going again as well-oiled agents in my service. You will be restored so that you can be effective."

What an encouraging text is this for us who celebrate this Pentecost Day! With Cook we keep the coastline in view because we do not always know where we are going. But more than Cook, and like Ezekiel, we believe that the breath of the Lord has come into us at Baptism. The gifts of the Spirit are strengthened in our Confirmation and we are agents of God’s recreation of the new day.

Hear then the words of Jesus in the Gospel:

"If you love me you will keep my commandments."

What are the commandments? Love of God and one another as he has loved us and as the Father loves him and he the Father.

"If anyone loves me he (she) will keep my word"

It is the effective word: God spoke and it came to be.

"My Father will love him (her) and we shall come to him (her) and make our home with him (her)."

God dwells in us, is present in us. We are the saints. What an awesome privilege and responsibility is this.

"The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you."

Once again God acts in Jesus. The breath of the love of the Father and the Son inspires us to act. Listen to the words of St Basil the Great on the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. I quote him as a Great Doctor of the early and undivided Church:

"Even as bright and shining bodies, once touched by a ray of light falling on them, become even more glorious and themselves cast another light, so too souls that carry the Spirit, and are enlightened by the Spirit, become spiritual themselves and send forth grace upon others.
This grace enables them to foresee the future, to understand mysteries, to grasp hidden things, to receive spiritual blessings, to have their thoughts fixed on heavenly things, and to dance with the angels. So is their joy unending, so is their perseverance in God unfailing, so do they acquire likeness to God, so – most sublime of all – do they themselves become divine."
St. Basil the Great, AD.329-379, On the Holy Spirit, chapter 9:22-23.

We carry the Spirit within us. We can dance with the angels. The virtues of patience, tolerance and respect, the unfailing perseverance in God, will enable us to welcome with joy the Church of Sweden into the Toorak Ecumenical Covenant of Churches. These virtues will enable us to appreciate the necessity for Reconciliation and work for its authentic realization. They will underpin the quest for Christian Unity. We can foresee the future and understand mysteries because, with the Spirit dwelling within us, we ourselves become divine.

Jesus says:

"I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate
To be with you for ever.
If anyone loves me he will keep my word,
And my Father will love him,
And we shall come to him
And make our home with him."

© Rev. Brendan Hayes, 2007

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