Friday, 21 July 2017

We Belong To One Another

This is an edited version of  a sermon delivered by President Stuart McMillan at St Andrew's Longueville Uniting Church in Sydney on Sunday 16 July.

The peace of the Lord be with you.

I am delighted to be with you today. My friend Rev Krikor Youmshajekian with some other ministers of Middle Eastern heritage have been helping me and the Uniting Church to grow in our understanding of Eastern Christianity and Middle Eastern history.

In January this year, I travelled to Beirut in Lebanon with Krikor, Rev Gaby Kobrossi, Rev Emmanuel Audisho and Rob Floyd who was then the National Director of Uniting World.

In Lebanon we were very conscious of the long history and tradition of the Christian church in the Middle East, right back to the first century.

Australia is an ancient land whose First Nation Peoples are one of the oldest living cultures on earth.

Our national Constitution however only dates back to 1901 and the Uniting Church in Australia was only formed in 1977.

This year we are celebrating our 40th anniversary. We are a young Church, part of a young nation, in an ancient land.

In Beirut we stayed at the Near East School of Theology (NEST).

Dr Sabra, the School President, said that students from NEST don’t have to travel  to engage in the rich global and ecumenical context for: “the world and other contexts and cultures come to them.”

The School has become a rich “multicultural, multi-linguistic and ecumenical locus of theological learning.”

Friends, the Uniting Church in Australia is also a rich culturally and linguistically diverse community.

We have just under 200 different culturally specific congregations who worship in 26 different languages.

There are people from the South Sudan, Korea, Indonesia, Armenia, Lebanon, Tonga, Fiji and many other nations.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress are the First Nation Peoples of the Uniting Church. They worship in their languages in some parts of the country were language has not been lost and in English in other places.

We have expressed our relationship within the Church between the First Peoples, and later arrivals, Second Peoples through formally entering into a covenant together.

We travelled to Lebanon in covenantal solidarity, to learn from the people, and to express the love of God as sisters and brothers of Christ.

When our Church was formed 40 years ago a visionary and inspiring document was written titled The Basis of Union.

This Statement has become foundational for us as we seek to authentically witness in the world to God’s love, and understand God’s purposes.

In Paragraph 2 the Basis speaks about the reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation. This is Christ’s unfinished work which he calls us to be co-workers in.

In the Romans passage we are reminded as one body: “Each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5).

We belong to one another and as Paul wrote in his first letter to the Church in Corinth: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12-26). 

We were in Lebanon to share as sisters and brothers compassionately.

Romans goes even further by saying: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).

We were profoundly impacted in Lebanon by the statement: “We practise a theology of impact, not of survival.”

This was made by one of the Protestant leaders but reinforced by all leaders. A theology of impact!

You might think in a nation which has conflict on all sides, which has been attacked many times in the past, and had its own civil war in recent history, with the concrete shells of buildings a stark reminder to the people of this terrible time, you might think that “survival” would be foremost in people’s minds.

But no, the different traditions see themselves together as the Christian community of the Middle East, salt and light.

They don’t see the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Protestant traditions separating them. Rather Christ unites them as one, for they belong to one another.

Does God not challenge us here in comfortable Australia, we who sometimes might characterise our congregational life as one of survival?

Where Census data and NCLS data remind us of the shrinking Christian community and the aging UCA?

Where denominational difference divides rather than allowing Christ to unite?

I believe a gift to us from the Middle East is their witness to a theology of Impact.

In Lebanon they also refuse to accept the label Christian minority, for it is demeaning.

Do you know the saying: "One and God make a majority”  by Frederick Douglass?

They are rebuilding and reopening schools in Aleppo and other parts of Syria and Iraq, they are building schools and facilities to support hundreds of thousands of displaced children.

We are the followers of Jesus called to walk in his ways, in the ways of love. After all, the greatest commandment after loving the Lord our God is to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Hans Küng the Swiss theologian and author said:

“There will be no peace among the nations without peace among religions. There will be no peace among religions without dialogue among religions.”

The dialogue Küng speaks of begins with us the people of God and then because of the divinisation of humanity and the charge to love our neighbours the dialogue is with people of other faiths. This we saw as critical to our friends in Lebanon. Both the Theological School and the Christian University teach courses and have sabbaticals with a significant part of the programs being about living harmoniously together with different faith traditions. Even the Nation’s President, Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, spoke of this to me in our meeting.

In our love of neighbour we stand in counter cultural action against powers and principalities of evil and for the renewal and reconciliation of the whole creation. This is what our friends in Lebanon are doing.

I co-hosted an Iftar dinner for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan in Parramatta.

There were also dinners hosted by the UCA in Brisbane and Melbourne.

Our guest speaker in Sydney was the Grand Mufti of Australia Dr Ibrahim Mohammed. He chose the first epistle of John Chapter 4, the passage on love for the theme of his address.

People of faith know that love will always triumph over fear and hate.

We belong to one another, we are called to witness to the love of Christ shared among us in this community and beyond, to practise a theology of impact, knowing God plus one is a majority.

So my sisters and brothers in Christ:

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly……. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:15-17)

“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in them, and love is made complete among us.” (1 John 4:11,16,17).