Toorak Uniting Church

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Being equipped to build God’s peaceable community

Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20
Rev. John Bottomley
Director – Creative Ministries Network
10.15 am, 8 July 2007

It was a crisis point in my first appointment as a minister when Julie prayed for me. I arrived at my first church thirty-three years ago as their minister, filled with nervous anticipation and a graduate’s enthusiasm to try out what I had learned in my training. But I soon discovered that not everyone in the congregation was as excited by my bright ideas as I was. Nor did I have the maturity necessary to handle the emerging conflict. Tension became a regular part of church life, and small factions developed ‘for’ and ‘against’ various issues. A small group finally decided they could no longer put up with my ministry and stood up one Sunday, their leader made a bitter attack on my ministry, and they all walked out of the service. It was a shattering, humiliating experience.

The following week I decided to visit the one family who had been associated with the views of the group who walked out but who had not been at church when the others walked out the previous Sunday. Julie invited me in to her home and we sat at her kitchen table. But she was furious with me. She told me I had acted unfairly and without charity towards those who had left. In my heart, I felt a failure as a minister. My identity had crumbled around me, and I felt lost and alone. As my sorrow swept over me, I trembled then began to weep.

Julie’s anger evaporated as she listened to my pain and grief. And when I had nothing more to say, she reached across the table, took my hand, and prayed for me. It was the first time in my adult life that somebody had prayed directly for me. The pain of my sorrow eased, and a warm gentle strength filled my heart.

The setting of Julie’s prayer for me is a reversal of the situation Jesus teaches to his 72 missionaries. "Whatever house you go into," Jesus says, "let your first words be, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a person of peace lives there, your peace will go and rest on them’ if not, it will come back to you. (10:5) When I visited Julie’s house, I entered with a troubled heart and was met by resistance and rejection. But when she listened to the depth of my need, Julie offered me the peace of her home. When Julie prayed for me, she asked God to accept me in the midst of my failure and sorrow.

And even as Julie prayed, I knew the grace of God in a personal and intimate way. For God’s love entered my life afresh that day. My sorrow was comforted, and my feeling of failure was healed. Strengthened by God’s acceptance and forgiveness, my ministry with that family and that congregation was renewed. Julie’s prayer for me conferred a blessing of peace upon me, and it rested upon me and entered my heart because my heart knew this was the one word of truth I needed to hear.

No one else in the congregation at that time could have done what Julie did. Others who were concerned about the split rang up to chat, or called in for a coffee. But for them, like me, prayer was something for public worship or the privacy of your own company. Praying for and with another person was what the Baptists or other evangelicals did, but it was not part of a modern Christian faith. So both I and most of my congregation were poorly equipped to deal with the division and pain in our midst. We had grown up in the church, but did not know how to sit and pray with one another in our need.

Jesus seeks to equip his followers for the task ahead of them. "The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest," Jesus says. There is a rich harvest of yearning hearts and souls waiting to hear God’s blessing of peace spoken into their lives, but few people are equipped for the task. Let us ask Christ to equip us and send us out to speak this word of truth the world is hungry to year.

So Jesus equips his followers – but he does this by stripping away from them all unnecessary baggage. My seven years of tertiary education in sociology and theology was so much baggage in the light of the God-given grace shown to me by a woman with only a few years secondary schooling. ‘Carry no social work or theology degrees,’ Jesus teaches. ‘Don’t burden yourself with liturgical costumes or well-practiced small talk and social chit chat. Don’t put on airs of superiority or displays of your status in life.’ Jesus’ instructs you to remove all the little devices you need to bolster your own security and identity.

If you are visiting a Northern Territory Aboriginal community, leave behind your guns, and your military uniforms, and your bureaucratic power to remove welfare benefits. If you are to speak God’s word of peace to another in their need, then you are called to meet them as one who trusts absolutely in God for your own purpose and identity. The prayer Julie prayed for me was the prayer of her heart - a heart stripped bare of pretence, or self importance, or superiority. It was the prayer of a child of God for another child of God. It was the prayer of a vulnerable and open heart at peace with God and at one with her neighbour.

And so it was a prayer that cut straight to the heart of the matter. "Salute no one on the road," Jesus instructs. ‘Don’t waste your time on gossip or distraction’. Understand that you have a rich harvest to reap. Jesus wants you to understand that you are commissioned to speak God’s blessing of peace. Your task is to bring healing to troubled and broken lives, and to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom. There is urgency to this calling which should not be diluted by social niceties or worldly conventions of politeness. There is urgency to this calling which should not be distorted by self righteousness or self aggrandizement.

During Communion Services you are invited to greet one another with the words ‘The peace of the Lord be always with you’, or to respond’ ‘And also with you.’ As you hear these words spoken to you, you are receiving your neighbour’s prayer for the blessing of God’s peace on your life. And that is the one thing you know you most need. You know you cannot find peace on your own – by your own efforts or worry. So you need to know that others are praying for your peace! And as that prayer descends upon you, your heart may be open to God so that God may bless you with the gracious gift of peace.

This is the prayer our Aboriginal sisters and brothers have been waiting over 200 years to hear, and which our governments still need to hear. For without God’s peace at the heart of life, all our human endeavours fall like dust.

As you offer the peace at Communion, you are praying for the blessing of God’s peace on that person’s life on behalf of Christ. And that is the one thing they need – the deep peace of Jesus’ open-hearted forgiveness and acceptance. People here needs to know that you are praying for Christ to be with them at that moment. You are opening your heart to God in prayer so that God may bless them with the Lord’s gift of peace. And you pray for Christ’s peace for your neighbour in the sure knowledge that you need to hear their prayer for you in return. This prayer you share together each Communion Service is also a rehearsal and an equipping for the prayer you may offer to our broken and suffering nation.

Given the urgency of your own need – and our nation’s need - to receive God’s blessing, this time in the Communion Service is no time to be asking after the kids, or ‘how have you been?’ or ‘nice to see you’. The passing of the peace in Communion is not a conversation designed to make us feel more comfortable or friendly with one another. It is your prayer for a blessing from God to meet your neighbour's need for salvation from whatever sin or darkness troubles their heart. And it is a moment of your own unspeakable yearning - to stand before your neighbour and receive their prayer for God’s blessing on the sin and darkness that burden your heart.

This prayer at the heart of the Communion Service then spills over into your everyday life. Jesus instruction is quite clear. When you visit someone’s home or you are about to enter a new situation at work or school, ask God’s blessing of peace on those you are about to meet. Imagine them in your mind’s eye, and see yourself with them before Christ, asking Jesus to bless them with God’s peace. You are not to be preoccupied with your own needs. When you enter a strange home or work or education situation, Christ commands you to focus your intention on the needs of the other for peace. Like the disciples who came back to Jesus rejoicing at what they achieved, you too will rejoice at the blessings you receive.

God’s blessing on my life from the fruit of Julie’s prayer fundamentally changed the ministry I was empowered to exercise from that day to this. And Jesus looks at this same transforming moment, and says "I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven." (10:18) When Julie prayed for me, it was a transforming moment in my ministry, and I knew that by God’s grace I had been renewed with new life and new purpose for my work. But what Christ has seen is something of cosmic proportions. The power of Satan has been spent and evil has been defeated. Not only was my life redeemed - but the whole universe has been redeemed by the power of God’s love. By God’s grace I am related to the whole universe as one who shares for all time in God’s victory over the power of evil. What you know as Christ’ peace in your life, Christ knows as God’s victory over evil in the very cosmos.

Today, Christ invites you to live together in this good news. And so today I rejoice, not because my life was empowered and renewed by God. I rejoice because a woman I feared and had thought was my enemy prayed for me, and asked for me God’s blessing of peace. "Rejoice," Jesus says, because "your names are written in heaven." (10:20) Rejoice because the members of this congregation are praying for you. And rejoice that your name is known to God in heaven, for through Jesus Christ, heaven touches earth and human hearts are blessed with peace, to live in peace. This is Christ’s gift and command. Thanks be to God!

© Rev. John Bottomley, 2007

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