Toorak Uniting Church

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Allowing for growth

Romans 13: 8 – 14   John 15: 1 – 7
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
7 September 2008

To abide in Christ. What picture does that conjure up for you I wonder? I picture of quiet surrender and peace, of pious prayerful devotion? Of going to Church every Sunday and morning and evening devotions every day? Of someone going through life with a heavenly smile and a halo of saintliness shining all around them?

Or is it the picture of someone who passionately and diligently works for justice, stands up for the poor, cares for the weakest in society. Someone who has given away so much that they barely have clothes on their own backs, and only very little food on the table to make sure others don’t go without? Someone always to be found on the barricades with pressure groups fighting for every good cause, determined to bring God’s Kingdom about, if not today, then tomorrow?

When I found myself reflecting on this this week I wondered: Who was Jesus? And, if we say we are followers of Christ, who do we actually think we are following? A man of peace and harmony, of piety and prayer, of saintly goodness and nurturing love and kindness? Or a man who stood up and fought, for righteousness, for justice, for the poor and the weak in society? A man not only determined to bring the Kingdom about but actually living it, no matter what the authorities thought of him, no matter how he would turn those in power against him. Was he a man whose words brought healing and hopefulness, harmony and peace, or were his words sharp like swords, laying bare what polite society would rather have left covered up?
And what about his piety, his faith? Was it the faith steeped in the old traditions, nurtured by regular attendance of worship, feeding on a well educated and mature understanding of scripture? Or was it a deep personal connection with God, independent and often in conflict with the institutions and traditions of his day, opening up completely new ways of connecting to God, of reading scripture, of understanding the faith to his contemporaries?

He was all of the above, wasn’t he? Even if you are no avid bible reader you will know that if you stop to think about it. The gospels don’t show Jesus as a one dimensional figure with a simple, straightforward, one dimensional easy to understand message.
They paint Jesus as a human. A good, peace loving, healing and kind human with a close relationship with God, rooted in the tradition of his father and mother. But they also paint him as a troublesome and unruly customer who called everything that was sacred to many of his contemporaries into question. Who would not shut up when he was told to, who did not back down when it would probably have been more prudent to do so, who called into question much of the religious and social structures and challenged those in power of his time.

So which kind of Jesus are we following? The gentle Jesus meek and mild, or the advocate of the poor and defender of the weak?

In the passage from Romans we read and also in other places Paul seems to indicate he knows exactly what "abiding in Christ" meant for him: To live a life of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, light, kindness, love, patience, and joy. Paul’s Christ being very much the saintly Christ, the Christ with the halo, barely touching the ground. Human through his suffering, but not through the complexity and multiplicity of his character. Paul doesn’t talk about the historical Jesus much at all in his writings, it is as if for Paul he is not that important. For Paul there is only one Christ it seems: God in flesh, love taking the shape of a human being. And the call for us to grow into the likeness of that Christ more and more, further and deeper every day and trying to loose some of our complexity and duplicity along the way.

John’s image is different, but similar. Here following Christ, abiding in Christ, putting on Christ, is pictured as becoming a branch grafted on the true vine, connecting to the life giving saps that will help one bear fruit, that will make one grow, that will make one part of the vine. The branch doesn’t have to do much, just be willing to receive the sap, to be grafted, to be prepared to grow and become part of the vine and share its life and bear fruit. And the fruit for John is the fruit of a healing life, of a parallel creation happening here and now, of the Kingdom taking shape in the lives of people who internalise life eternal in such a way that it becomes part of the here and now. A Kingdom where there is enough for everybody to eat and drink, where enemies become friends and where love and service is the only law worth following.

So, what is our image of what following Christ means? Is it what the picture on the front of the order of service calls us to? To live like Christ, to love like Christ, to serve like Christ?

I can see some of you nod; That sums it up quite neatly doesn’t it?

Are you getting anywhere with it? Or is the coat God provided you with at baptism still too big for you to be comfortable? Is there still too much that doesn’t fit with that picture we have of what it would be like if we really became like Jesus? Of love, of service, of wholeness, of deep faith?

Again I wondered: Did the coat of our imagined Jesus fit the actual historical Jesus? (Or do you think that is an heretic question?)

I believe it isn’t. The Jesus the synoptic gospels especially paint us is not a romantic do good knight in shining armour. He is a human being who is as challenged by what life throws at him as we are, who loves and heals and cares and is a bringer of peace and hope. But who is also someone who loses his temper, who wrestles with misunderstandings, who is frustrated and angry at times, who doesn’t get his message through, even to his closest companions until he has died and who is not a great success in the eyes of the world or particularly popular with those who are in authority.

The difference between him and us as I see it, is that he stayed faithful, stayed true to God’s love and God’s law unto death without compromising himself, or his mission.

That mission was not to build a Church. We forget that sometimes. That getting people to attend worship on a Sunday was not high on Jesus’ priority list. That he didn’t organise his disciples in committees and that he didn’t even start outreach programs or raise money.
He very simply led a life of truth and love and asked others to do the same. A challenge that was taken up by people after his death, because they believed it would make a difference if everybody were to live like he did and take on that same mantle of love and commitment to Kingdom living he had. And the rest is, as they say, history......

Here are we, two thousand years later. People who have decided they think it is worth while to try that mantle on and grow into it. To become like him, to love like him, to serve like him, where we can.

We do that in different ways: We have organised ourselves as an institution which believes we can help each other live that life if we gather together for worship. For the reading of the scriptures, for the praising of God and for prayer. We have committees and wider Church bodies and all sorts of other great and wonderful things Christ would never have dreamt of to help us organise our loving and serving and caring.
We pay people at John Macrae Centre to help us give shape to our caring and serving in the community. We pay people at John Mackenzie Kindergarten to give shape to our dedication to and support of good christian family life. We raise money to help the poor and the weak nearby and far away. And lately we have opened a cafe to make it easier for people to find their way into the Church grounds, to facilitate community in a way contemporary society understand, with cafe latte and focacias and to show in yet another way to the outside world who we are and what we do. People clothed with Christ and inviting others to come and take up his mantle with us.

And so we put on Christ: a robe of many coloured activities and ways of being present in the life of the world in which Christ’s multifaceted presence may make itself felt among us.

Every meeting where warmth and friendship create an atmosphere in which the Kingdom can grow, every worship service where we feel touched by God’s presence, every fellowship event where together we are more than we are on our own, anything we do in the name of Christ that somehow shows God’s multi facetted love in this world is part of that robe. There is no "one way", as there is no one dimensional Christ. There are many ways in which we can grow, in which we can wear that mantle of Christ and show it of to its best advantage, in which God’s Kingdom can take shape among us and the vine can grow and bear fruit.

If we let that happen my inkling is a lot of what we depend on, a lot of what is "stuffing our coat to make it fit" at the moment will fall away. All these things we are afraid of losing at this time where the Church is in crisis for instance: how many of those are really part of us being in Christ and how many are just there to hold on to, to prop us up, to fill out the emptiness where the coat is still too large for us to wear but actually limit us in our growth and prohibit the expansion of our faith? Who knows. The challenges presented to us by the changing landscape of faith and Church in the 21st Century may make us grow into Christ faster and deeper. God knows..... he made the coat we are called to grow into and we may trust that he made it to fit us once have grown up and have become what he wants us to be.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2008

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