Sunday Night Live Sermons
THE REASON BEHIND UNITING
Who He Really Is
This weekend and throughout next week, Wesley Mission has fourteen delegates at the Annual N.S.W. Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. Those delegates will be making a constructive contribution to the governance of our denomination. I grew up in an era that took Church union seriously. Throughout the twentieth century many denominations planned to unite. By 1980 137 denominations had united into 39 denominations found in six continents, with a further 123 denominations negotiating in 29 countries on six continents. However optimistic the 1960’s and 1970’s were, the last twenty years have seen a worldwide slowdown in church union. If the union of the three denominations to form our church had not occurred by the end of the 1970’s I doubt if it would now occur. Furthermore, the experience of union was so traumatic, that any further union between our denomination and others has been shelved.
Sociologists like Dr Robert Guthrie explain that the union was painful because it was initiated by theologians and administrators who were not the people to implement the policy in the parishes. Union came and did not allow local structures to emerge from a process of socialisation. I did not drift into the Uniting Church because of my parents choice or any accident of growing up. I chose the Uniting Church in Australia. Thirty years ago I thought the choice of this name was nothing short of inspired because the word “Uniting” was in the present continuous tense. We were not a united church like “The United Church of Canada”, or “The United Church of North India”, the past tense that spoke presumptuously of something already accomplished.
We came from different traditions: Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational. Two other denominations were officially observers to the formation of Union, but they voted not to join: the Anglicans and the Churches of Christ. Had they done so, it would have been a stronger union. With greater numbers of evangelical members and greater choice of leadership they could have saved the Uniting Church from two decades of pain.
This week I addressed the National Council of Churches of Christ in Australia, composed of people from every area of the nation. I had spoken at a Federal Conference of Churches of Christ thirty years ago, urging they vote to join the Uniting Church. They voted not to, and alone with my wife, we decided to do so. This week I reminded them of their traditional commitment to the Unity of the Church, though no other such Union is likely to occur. The main motivation towards uniting is of prime importance. Many saw sense in uniting people of similar beliefs. Others saw economic sense of rationalising properties. That has become a painful issue as denominational bean-counters look with envy upon local churches and try to make small congregations close down to give them the assets. Five heart broken members of one church came to me this week, to see what they can do to stop outsiders forcing them to sell up their property. Others saw a powerful witness to the community in Christians demonstrating that they really were one by their worshipping together. That hope blew up in our face when parts of the church took other parts of the church to court to settle property disputes and schools and hospitals decided they wanted their autonomy.
Significant numbers of members voted to remain separate from the union. The Pentecostal churches now include in their numbers tens of thousands of former Uniting Church members. These Churches, now called the Australian Christian Churches, have passed the Uniting Church and have become the third largest denomination in Australia after the Catholic and Anglican Churches.
But our motivation for uniting was neither pragmatic nor economic. It was theological. We were convinced that in uniting we were obeying the expressed will of Christ, recorded in Scripture. We became a Uniting Church because it is His will. In John’s Gospel we overhear Jesus praying for us. His prayer was a passionate plea that His followers should come together and stay together. Jesus devoted Himself to prayer. When Jesus faced the final crisis in His life during those events that lead to His death, Jesus prayed. He prayed alone. He prayed with His disciples. He prayed in the Upper Room. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed on the Cross. That is where we are different. We would have argued with Judas to stop his betrayal, motivated the disciples to arouse popular support, confronted the High Priest, issued press statements, organised protests, demanded political action, built up public opinion and blocked the way to the Cross. But Jesus prayed. He discovered through His prayers a way of redemption and positive achievement. We moderns would have collapsed through exhaustion and despair. We do not understand that prayer is also potent opposition. “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of”, as Tennyson said.
Jesus, in an olive orchard prayed the greatest prayer in history. John 17 is precious, because it is the anguished prayer of our Lord, overheard by John who was also praying nearby. Here is the last prayer of the best man who had ever lived, overheard in the stillness of the night. Like the Lord’s prayer there is a pattern, for He starts with God and His concerns, then for His own concerns, and finally, His intercessions for others. He speaks of God as “Father”, John 17:1 then “Holy Father” John 17:11 then “righteous Father” John 17:25 in three concentric circles of concerns, each wider than the one before. The first circle of concern is with Jesus Himself; the second is with His friends and followers; and the third is with those who will believe in Him through the witness of the disciples. What was it that Jesus asked?
1. IN A SEGREGATED WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR UNITY. Our world is divided by race, religion, colour, class, creed, status, sex, economic circumstance, age, employment, social standing, family ties, town of origin, place of education and so on. Australians like to think we are all mates, with no barriers against anyone. But scratch us and old antagonisms, prejudices, snobberies and divisions come out. Jesus prays that in a segregated society the church may be one. I am proud of the great diversity of this congregation in that regard. Jesus in his last hours prays: “I do not pray only for them, but also for those who believe in Me because of their message. I pray that they may all be one.” John 17:20 We usually take this to mean that Christians should be united instead of denominationally divided.
But Jesus is not advocating some ecclesiastical carpentry tacking one denomination onto another. Nor is He talking of a union based upon compromise where beliefs do not matter. Nor is He talking about a marriage of convenience between churches with falling memberships. “Being one” is a spiritual conviction that binds us together over all worldly segregations that divide. Jesus prays that in a world of segregation we might be one.
2. IN A SINFUL WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR HOLINESS. “Father. May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you.” John 17:21 That is the nature of our unity together, a unity of spiritual conviction, harmony, and integration like that of the Father and the Son. They possessed separate identities, yet one nature, separate functions yet one purpose. It is that spiritual oneness which holds us together in a world that is falling apart. It is that spiritual nature which holds us in holiness into a world that is sunk in sinfulness. In this prayer, Jesus uses two phrases: “in the world” and “in the Father”. Jesus had been “in the world” but as the Cross approaches, He leaves the world to be wholly identified “in the Father”: “And now I am coming to you; I am no longer in the world.” John 17:11 Christians live in the world, but our destiny lies in our Father. At this stage in our spiritual progress, like Jesus during His time in Jerusalem, we live in the world, yet we shall live in the Father. To live in the world means to live in a society that is apart from God. It is the world that is perishing as opposed to the world of God that abides forever. It is the natural order of humanistic man, where man is the measure of all things, and where our hedonistic satisfaction is our end.
Yet God so loved this world that He sent His only Son into the world to redeem it. Those of us who have been redeemed now live in the world, but we live in God who transcends this world. We are in this world but our destiny is not here. Jesus never tried to escape the sinful world in which He lived. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, forgave adulterers, enjoyed wedding feasts and died between two thieves. He was in the world, totally involved with sinners. He said, “I am come to call sinners to repentance.” Like Jesus, we live in the world where every temptation makes holy living difficult for us. Yet He was not of the world. He lived a life of transparent holiness. No one could accuse Him of any sin. He was utterly untouched by any scandal. His enemies were silenced by His purity of thought and deed, even upon the Cross. He was in the world but not of the world. So are we who believe in Him. The Uniting Church has allowed itself to be too influenced by the moral standards of this world. That is why I demanded the Church stand down a Moderator and a General Secretary of Synod for committing adultery and those in homosexual and lesbian relationships who were leaders of the church. Jesus prayed we would live in holiness. Nothing can so shame dirt as cleanliness, nor put darkness to flight better than light. So He prays for His disciples: “Holy Father! I gave them your message and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the Evil One. Just as I do not belong to the world, they do not belong to the world. Dedicate them, to yourself by means of the truth; your Word is truth.” John 17:14-17 Jesus prayed we will be holy.
3. IN A SCEPTICAL WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR WITNESS. Christians must live to shine as light in the darkness so that others will reach for the light themselves. The world is self centred. The Christian is other centred, not turning from sinners, but seeking to win sinners to Christ. No evasion from the world, but evangelism in the world. As Jesus prayed: “I send them into the world, just as you sent me into the world. And for their sake I dedicate myself to you, in order that they too may be truly dedicated to you.” John 17:19 Jesus prays: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who believe in me because of their message. I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” John 17:21 Evangelism is the primary task of the church. What Christ made primary we dare not make secondary. We are a “Mission” because the church is only the church when it is in mission, seeking to win people to Jesus.
Every member should be united with each other believer in Christ, living a life of holiness, being kept safe from the Evil One, so that the world might believe that God sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world. So every Sunday, on radio and television, in chapel and in theatre, in worship and in service, we offer people Christ! Jesus prays for our unity that the world might believe. He prays for holiness in our living by the study of His word, that we might be a witness to His truth that others may also believe.
- ‘THE UNITING CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA: The First TwentyFive Years.” Susan and William W Emilsen. Circa Melbourne 2003.