Friday, 13 October 2017

Perseverance and Character

Photo: Charles Cowell Photo: Charles Cowell

This sermon was delivered by President Stuart McMillan for the 200th anniversary celebration of Castlereagh Uniting Church in western Sydney on Sunday 8 October 2017.

It is my delight to share this time of worship and celebration with you.

When I was meditating about what to share the words perseverance and character came to mind with the reading from Romans 5. I wondered if the Spirit of God wanted me to acknowledge the journey that was involved in arriving at this place of celebration, 200 years of faithful witness, the people who have contributed along the way and the sustaining presence of God.

Our God stories build upon the God Story we have in Scripture and become the story of God with us - Immanuel.

Recently I was with some of our South Sudanese members at their National Conference in Melbourne. I shared with them how much I have learnt from them and grown in my understanding of the mystery of God and the concepts of the “fellowship of suffering” and the “fellowship of reconciliation”, that the apostle Paul speaks about in various epistles. The Basis of Union in paragraph 4 speaks of Christ calling people into the “fellowship of his suffering”. Paul in today’s passage from Romans speaks about “rejoicing in our suffering, because suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance character and character hope”.

My South Sudanese friends display enormous perseverance. They persevere for peace! Is that not what Jesus the Prince of Peace did on the cross?

In paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union, we read that the Holy Spirit is given in Christ to all people as a foretaste of the coming reconciliation and renewal that is the end in view for the whole creation. It goes on to say that the Church is called to be a “fellowship of reconciliation”.

Together as the followers of Christ, endowed with the promised Holy Spirit are called to be Christ’s co-workers in this unfinished work of reconciliation and renewal. “Shalom” then, in its fullness, is the completion of this unfinished work of Christ - the reconciliation and the renewal of the whole creation.

I find in these sisters and brothers from the South Sudan, women and men of deep faith, a true fellowship of reconciliation, who also know something of the reality of the fellowship of suffering in Christ. In their lives as followers of Jesus the Spirit has grown Christ like character, what we know from Galatians 5 as the fruit of the Spirit.

They are a people of hope, dancing and singing with joy, in the midst of suffering they persevere. Dinka and Nuer tribal groups who in the South Sudan have been at war with one another. Each family or extended family having experienced tragedy they were suspicious of the other; but here in Australia they come together and in Christ are reconciled.

This fellowship of reconciliation is nowhere near as straightforward as I characterise it. However my friends are being made one in Christ and thereby they are a witness to the light and love of Christ in their hearts. They are a witness to the hope which is born of perseverance and character, believing in God’s good and perfect will for peace for the South Sudanese people.

Three weeks ago I delivered a homily at the commissioning of four new leaders in the Assembly team it was titled in terms of the “charge” I gave them: “Go Bear Fruit”.

The Rev. Samuel Leigh may not have given that charge to the early faith community here at Castlereagh but have we not heard this morning of the fruit of ministry over the past 200 years? Is not this the charge to all Christians throughout history? Last year at the World Methodist Conference it was evident that Methodism had born fruit throughout the world and at this time it grows fastest in Africa.

Character I believe is also seen in determination which some might say is another word for perseverance. When I was in Beirut, Lebanon earlier this year, I was struck by the oneness of the Christian leadership and community – Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Protestant, who together understand themselves to be “salt and light” in the Middle East. The differences within their different faith traditions does not separate them, for Christ unites them and they become light in the darkness of the conflict and violence which surrounds them.  

You may be aware because I have written about this previously that the determination in this Christian community, which is a gift to us, is the declaration: “We do not practise a theology of survival no we practise a theology of impact!” A theology of impact!

That is the character that birthed Methodism, it’s the character and hope which I’m sure the early community of Castlereagh had, and it was the hope of the founding three Churches in the union which 40 years ago birthed the Uniting Church in Australia. At this time in our life we need to rediscover the perseverance, character and hope that is required for a theology of impact. Many parts of our Church are in “survival” mode and have lost sight of the mandate to be salt and light.

It was this fact, which I mentioned this morning, that was embodied in the expression of the Joint Commission on Union as: “The Church is in and for the world or it is not the Church” that shifted the Commission from a denominational self-focus to an outward focus towards community. This was fundamental to the foundation of the new movement which was created at union. It is reflected in paragraph 1 of the Basis of Union: “The Church of God is committed to serve the world.” To be salt and light!

My understanding is that at Castlereagh you have reimagined how the presence of the light and love of Jesus might be shared in new ways for this community, to enable you to continue practising a theology of impact.

Just before our passage in Matthew’s gospel about salt and light Jesus has delivered a teaching message and said the blessing of God is present for and with people as they cultivate in their lives certain attitudes.

This is why I refer to the Beatitudes as the “Be”-attitudes i.e. we are to “be” like this in our lives to shine the light of Christ in the world. The attitudes or character qualities of humility, compassion, being teachable, pursuing justice, being loving, having unmixed emotions, and being a person of peace.

Character as described by Christ in this passage in Matthew 5 and by Paul in Galatians 5 comes, the Scripture says, through perseverance, however like my South Sudanese friends perseverance is not a joyless struggle. The Assembly’s new Strategic Plan has as its first strategic direction: “To live out a joyful faith”. Joy is the second fruit of the Spirit, and it is life giving; a deep inner joy in our lives contributes to the life of others. What I’m saying is we enable the Spirit to bear fruit in the lives of others because by the Spirit we bear fruit in our own lives. The quality of peace in your life enhances my sense of peace. The joy of my South Sundanese sisters and brothers calls forth joy in my life.

We mark this celebration of 200 years of faithful witness of the people of God. We remember and give thanks for the saints of old and we rejoice in the fruit that has been born of fruitful lives of perseverance and character. All of this is our story and adds to God’s story and friends it is an eternal story of which we are a part. We are called to be salt and light, to live fruitful lives as Christ’s co-workers. Shalom.

Let me offer a blessing:

“God Waŋarr nhe dhu gurrapan bukmak yolŋu, nhorkala mägaymirri rom ga märrnhamathirri. Marrakupmirri, Garray.”

May God pour out his peace and love upon us all in Jesus name. Amen.