Texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78. 1-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32
Last week the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and
met at La Trobe University in Bundoora. The
Synod is a regular gathering of representatives from Uniting Church presbyteries,
schools, hospitals, missions and other agencies from right across Victoria and
Tasmania. According to the regulations
of the Uniting Church, the Synod is responsible for overseeing the mission of
the church in presbyteries, colleges, agencies and schools. It is also responsible for the selection and
training of ministerial candidates and the management of church property and
finances within its bounds. Over the
course of last week, then, the Synod gathered to listen to reports and to make
decisions about all these matters. Tasmania
There is a permanent temptation in a church like ours to make decisions as though we were the Labour Party. Increasingly, the church is organising itself into factions— ‘liberals’, ‘progressives’, ‘neo-orthodox’, ‘evangelicals’—and strong groups have formed to actively lobby the councils of the church on a range of issues. The most organised groups are the ‘Reforming Alliance’ and ‘The Progressive Christian Movement’ but there are others. In my opinion, the church climate has become so factionalised, that it is now almost impossible to turn up to a Synod or Presbytery meeting to participate, simply, as a Christian and member of the Uniting Church who wants to discern the will of Christ in company with others. For now you will find yourself pigeon-holed before you even get there. Several times in the years since I began attending the church’s councils I have seen people assume that I will support or oppose such and such a proposal because I belong to a group that it variously called ‘the theological fascists’ or the ‘intellectual mafia’. No such group exists, as far as I can tell, and if it does, I’ve never been invited to one of its meetings! But the very fact that a person can be so easily dismissed represents a very troubling tendency in the church, a trend in which people decide not to listen to other people on the basis of a whole lot of convenient assumptions about what those other people are likely to believe or do, assumptions that function only to reinforce the ill-conceived prejudice of one’s own position. It is the kind of thing that has, frankly, made me very wary of attending the church’s councils at all.
Now, one only has to read the New Testament to discover that this situation is not a new one for the church to find itself in. The church has apparently been sinning in this way since the beginning! The letter of Paul to the Philippians is a case in point. Why would Paul need to exhort the Philippians to be ‘of one mind and heart, in full accord’ unless that were not the case? The church at Philippi was clearly as factionalised as the
is today. The solution Paul offers for
this disunity is not, however, the one that we are most often encouraged to
adopt in both church and society. It is
not the solution of so-called ‘tolerance’, where each party simply accepts (or
assumes) that the other can never agree with me, and should therefore be
smilingly gazed at across a great distance.
For tolerance assumes that neither party will change. Neither, of course, does Paul recommend the
George Bush kind of solution, that is, ‘I want them to agree with me so I’ll
use my bigger stick to beat them into submission’. No. No
way. Uniting Church
What Paul recommends is what I, also, would recommend to my church this morning. That the way to a unity of mind and purpose in the church has nothing to do with what you desire or what I desire, but with what God desires. Listen to what Paul says:
Let the same mind be in your community as was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was God did not consider equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself instead, taking the form of a slave and being found in human likeness. In that way he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
I could talk about the meanings of this passage all day, but for now I would like you to note two things only. First, that Paul offers up Jesus as a model for what and how we should desire as a church. What we should desire is not our own vision of the world, but God’s vision of the world. And how we should desire it is by emptying ourselves of our own desire. Emptying ourselves. It sounds Buddhist to many modern ears, but it is not. In Buddhism you empty yourself of desire in order to desire either nothing at all, or, as Slavoj Zizek has convincingly argued, to allow your powerful neighbour to make use of you for their own manipulative purposes. In Christianity, by contrast, our desires are put aside in order to make room for the desire of God, who is pure and unadulterated love.
The second thing I would have you note is a consequence of the first. That unity of heart and mind in the Christian community can never be achieved apart from a serious and widespread willingness to listen and look for the desire of God in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It sounds obvious when you put it like that, doesn’t it? But the point is far from obvious to so many of our church councils. In part this is so because of sheer laziness and inertia. Many of us know and believe that the contemplation of Christ’s story is the beginning of everything that has any consequence, that we can never hope to act in the world as God would act unless we contemplate Christ’s story with regularity and devotion. Yet many of us also crowd out this devotion by our devotion to other things. Thus, Christ’s way and will has not had opportunity to sink its roots deep down into our hearts. So much so, that when we come to the point of meeting in community to discern the mind of Christ, we rarely know enough of Christ to make genuinely Christian decisions! But inertia and laziness is not the whole story. The other reason why we are not inclined to contemplate Christ’s story as the source of our knowledge of God is because most of us (whether ‘liberals’ or ‘evangelicals’) have been formed by the culture of ‘modernity’, a culture in which the point of religious faith is certainly not to conform ourselves to the will of God revealed in Christ, but rather to make God’s ways ‘fit’ our own ways, to assume that God must make sense according to what we already think we know about how the world works. I am glad that this culture is crumbling, but its influence is still very powerful in the church. A church that wants God to fit its own agenda is unlikely, it seems to me, to spend a great deal of time contemplating the life of Christ.
So what’s to be done? If Christian unity, a oneness of heart and mind, is a consequence of this contemplatio Christi alone, then clearly we should spend more time doing that, and at the most fundamental levels of the church. We should encourage one another to read the Scriptures and believe in them. We should meet together, in pairs and groups, to discuss the Scriptures and to wait upon the Spirit of Christ in prayer. We should put aside the novels, the magazines, the sociology and the television for a bit, and read a bit of Christian theology. We should put aside even the works of goodness and charity for a while each week. Not because Christ is not present and active in all of these things, but because we shall not be able to recognise how Christ works through all the business of life unless we get to know him in the shape of our gospel tradition. The point of the Christian love of neighbour, you see, is not to become a doormat for someone else’s desire. It is not to serve the other slavishly, at the expense of one’s own desire alone. It is, rather, to serve God first. To recognise that what is best for my neighbour is what God desires for them. Which, in turn, requires that both of us, if we are Christian, contemplate the word of God in Christ together. Only then shall we be able to serve each other truly.
This is true not only for Synods and Assemblies, but also for congregations and small faith communities. I leave these thoughts with you for your consideration. Test what I say against the story of Christ, and if I am wrong, please tell me. Because I too, would rather do Christ’s will than my own.