Toorak Uniting Church

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A Light to the Nations: Mission and Unity

John 17: 21
Rev. Robin Boyd
27 January 2008

John 17:21 That they all may be one, that the world may believe.

1. I expect many of us have spent more hours than we would care to admit this past week watching tennis. One of the most remarkable things about the tennis these days is its increasingly varied multicultural nature - Spain, Russia, Serbia, Poland, China, Slovakia, Argentina, as well as the more traditional places. I wish there were more from Africa, and from Asia. All honour then to Sania Mirza, who put up such a gutsy fight against Venus Williams, and who is not only Indian but also Muslim. She is a true breaker down of barriers.

2. Yesterday it was 220 years since Capt Arthur Phillip took formal possession of the colony of NSW and became its first Governor. And every year since then people in Australia have celebrated 26 January - first as Anniversary Day, then as Foundation Day, and since 1946 as Australia Day. In recent years people have come to acknowledge that it’s not such a happy day for Aboriginal Australians, and have tried to ensure that their unique contribution to the history of the continent is properly recognised. It’s a day when many new citizens of Australia make a pledge of commitment -

I affirm my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I uphold and obey.

Yes, it’s good to be part of this nation, this multicultural body of people. I’m one of a vast number of Australians who weren’t born here, but who chose to become Australians: who chose it because it is a good place to be; a place where people of any race or culture can belong. All members of the same body. Yes, that sort of language makes sense. It’s a language which points beyond itself to something even greater, something truly global.

3. Our lectionary readings today deal with two distinct themes – Mission, and Unity. The Gospel reading from Matthew told us about the beginning of Jesus’ Mission. Matthew has just told the story of Jesus’ birth; of the coming of the wise men: of John the Baptist; of the Temptation in the wilderness. And now the Mission gets under way. Jesus moves out of the home of Mary and Joseph in Nazareth and makes his own home in Capernaum, on the shore of the Lake of Galilee. That area, Matthew tells us, is an unusual place. And he quotes the passage we heard from the 8th century prophet Isaiah, who called this part of the world – where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali once lived – "Galilee of the nations", multicultural Galilee. And in Jesus’ time it was still that sort of place – full of foreigners, Romans , Greeks and many others. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light", said Isaiah. And that, says Matthew, is what Jesus is all about - Light in the darkness. So it is in multicultural Galilee that Jesus the Jew starts his Mission. And his message is "Turn round, repent, do a U-turn, because God’s new way of life, God’s Reign, has begun". And off Jesus goes, along the shore of the lake, to pick his team, to call his first followers – Peter and Andrew, James and John. They were the nucleus of what would become the Christian Church. But right from the start Matthew makes it clear that this new movement isn’t just for Jewish people: it’s a movement to bring God’s way of life, God’s way of love , to people of every culture. And although Jesus goes first of all to his own Jewish people, he sometimes finds a warmer response from outsiders – a Roman army officer, a Syro-Phoenician woman, a woman of Samaria, a freedom fighter whom many people regarded as a terrorist. When Jesus told his fishermen disciples that from now on they’d be catching people and not fish, they didn’t realise just how wide he’d be flinging his net.

That was how Jesus’ Mission started: loving people, healing them, forgiving them, helping them to live a better life. Showing them God’s way of life, God’s Reign - the Kingdom of God.

4. So now let’s fast forward about 20 years to the big multicultural Greek city of Corinth. Meantime Jesus has been killed in a judicial execution, but his friends are convinced that – in a strange but real way - he is still alive and still - in the power of his Spirit – right there with them. By now there is quite a big group of his followers in Corinth. And they are continuing Jesus’ Mission. But there’s a problem. Divisions have entered the little group which has already started calling itself Church, ekklesia. And St Paul, who is far away but loves these people, writes a letter to them and calls on them to end their divisions and be united (1 Cor 1:10). Some of them have been claiming to follow Paul, and some Peter, and some – in a very superior way – say "we simply follow Christ". Paul says, "No: Christ can’t be divided. If we want to carry out God’s Mission, we must do it together".

There, at the very beginning of the Church’s story, there are two clear directives to Christ’s people: the call to Mission; and the call to Unity. Those two can’t be separated. It’s still the same today.

5. So what’s our situation, in our multifaith world? How are we, as Christians, to relate to people who follow a different faith? (a) One thing is certain: we must always, at the very minimum, act with justice. Religious and racial vilification should have no place in our society. The ninth commandment - Thou shalt not bear false witness - is a very important commandment still: and if we make sweeping condemnations of people of another faith; if we allow suspicion to blight our relationship with our Muslim neighbours, we are breaking that commandment. The Crusades did great harm: and what sometimes appears to be their near explicit re-enactment today is doing great harm - not just to Muslims but to Christians, some of whom are already suffering persecution in Pakistan because of what is happening to Muslims in Iraq. Christians must – at the very least - act with justice towards people of other faiths.

(b) We must also seek to understand them. I imagine that in the years since 9/11 most of us have learnt a good deal about Islam that we didn’t know before, and that is good. We are learning how much we share with our brothers and sisters of the three faiths, which look back to Abraham – Jewish, Christian and Muslim. When I lived in Gujarat State in India, which has quite a large minority Muslim population, I found it strangely moving to meet people called Ayub (Job) or Ibrahim or Yakub or Yusuf or Daud or Suleman: some were Christians; most were Muslims. We all worship the God of Abraham. And when we try to understand people of other faiths, we find that we can learn from them. When I was teaching theology in India, I was involved, with many others, in what we called inculturation - trying to communicate the Christian faith without being tied to an English or Latin vocabulary, especially because we had at our disposal the vast linguistic resources of the Sanskrit-derived Indian languages. We did not want people in India to go on thinking that Christianity is a European religion - which of course it is not. Christianity can and should be at home in every culture.

But these days a great many Indian Christians want to move away altogether from philosophical language - be it Greek, Latin, English or Sanskrit, and speak of the gospel rather in the language of liberation for the oppressed, food for the hungry, healing for the sick. Hans Küng, the Swiss Roman Catholic theologian, speaks about a "global ethic" with that kind of agenda, and believes that it could go far to resolve many of the conflicts in our multifaith society. I’m sure he’s right. Make poverty history! We’re committed to that! And it’s good to know that for Kevin Rudd here in Australia, as for Gordon Brown in Britain, this is a matter high on the national agenda.

6. But we also need to look at what for many people is the major problem about interfaith relations: do we Christians have the right to evangelize, to proclaim the Gospel, to hope that people of other faiths may be attracted to Christ? Should the word "conversion" be part of our vocabulary? A lot of our contemporaries would say that it should not. Evangelism in the past has often been associated with proselytism: using pressure - physical, psychological or financial - to induce people to change their religion.

Let me simply point to a source of great wisdom - that truly wonderful but today sadly undervalued enterprise, the World Council of Churches. I want to quote just three sentences from a couple of WCC documents about Mission and Evangelism, one dating from 1982 and the other from 2000. The first one condemns proselytism, but then says that "each person is entitled to hear the Good News" (para 10). And it goes on to say that Christians "owe the message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ to every person and every people" (para 41).

And in the second document comes the splendid sentence, "We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ: at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God" (para 58).

* * * * *

7. And what about Christian Unity? Two days ago, last Friday, the General Secretary of the WCC, the Rev Sam Kobia of Kenya – a Methodist – met Pope Benedict XVI in Rome at a joint celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which in the Northern hemisphere is always celebrated in this week. That’s good news. People talk about an "ecumenical winter", but since I first came to this church 34 years ago a great many good things gave happened. The Uniting Church has happened. The 1980 ecumenical agreement here in Toorak was, I think, the first of its kind in Australia, but it has been followed by many others. The Roman Catholic Church has become part of the official ecumenical movement in Australia (the National Council of Churches in Australia). And today I would ask you specially to remember in your prayers David Richardson, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral here in Melbourne, who very soon takes up a highly significant appointment in Rome as official representative to the Vatican of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But there are difficulties too, because a whole new series of problems has arisen in the world-wide church, some arising out of the ordination of women – which we strongly affirm - and some because many churches, including our own, are not prepared to introduce legislation discriminating against homosexual people – legislation which has never had a place in the regulations of our Church. Christian unity needs to have room for a wide variety of people. Our church, in company with others, has sought to be at the leading edge of Christ’s inclusive love. We seek to include, not to exclude: but always in the love of Christ, as we see it in the witness of the Bible, through whose study and exposition Christ himself becomes present to us.

8. Early on Easter Day last year Anne and I stood with many others, from different churches, at the edge of the lake at Paynesville – Lake Victoria. We had driven from Bairnsdale in the dark, and it was still dark as we huddled together in the cold. There were swans on the water, and large pelicans sailing majestically over their heads. A fire was burning, and there was bread, and fish, and we waited for the sun to rise over the water. And then the sun rose. We sang an Easter hymn, and shouted "The Lord is risen indeed: Hallelujah!" The Light had come….. There was a stranger there. We asked where he came from: and he said "Iran". And somehow that didn’t seem at all strange: it just seemed right. A Light to the Nations.

It was on such a lake shore that the risen Christ said to his friends, "As the Father has sent me so I send you. Receive the Spirit" And so it happened. That was Mission. That was Unity. It still is. And we are part of it.

© Rev. Robin Boyd, 2008

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