Today Tara led our service. I was not able to be present but I have read the full text and have been overwhelmed by the power of the message carried in each section of the service. Rather than tamper with the message of all the parts to reduce the blog to the usual two pages, I have simply copied the sermon. Let your imagination colour in the missing parts - declarations, prayers of praise and confession, words of assurance and all the hymns, which convey God's voice as effectively as the sermon.
Readings: Ephesians 2: 19-22, Matthew 28: 16 - 20
Sermon: Pilgrims on a Journey
Our first reading is set down to be read in this year on the anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church the gospel however comes from the first Assembly of the UCA, the first President, Davis McCaughey, used this as his text for the inaugural address.
Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… and I am with you always, to the close of the age". Jesus' last statement recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew became the basis of the first sermon preached in the Uniting Church. In this remarkable sermon, Dr McCaughey began by speaking of the authority of Jesus. To quote,
"This is a claim not simply for your allegiance and mine. It is an assertion about the nature and manner of the God who reigns in human history."
What a good reminder that is to not get too caught up in our local circumstances. There is a big picture - we have been charged by Jesus to “Go Forth” and make disciples. To be people in the world.
The inauguration sermon goes on to discuss the way Matthew links the Exalted Christ with the mission of the church. It states,
"… the first thing … is that we should hear the word of the risen Christ about himself, the second is that we should hear afresh the call [to] the church to go out into the world on his distinctive mission.
McCaughey then considers that part of Christ's command which says, "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." He comments:
"To say what it means for our day requires intellectual discipline and spiritual vigour. In this Uniting Church in Australia we enter into a tradition, catholic, reformed, evangelical, in which those who have gone before have not been afraid to confront the world with rigorous thought and spiritual commitment."
It has been said that in that statement alone there are all sorts of implications. Just one of the implications is that surely we are commanded to ground people firmly in the faith. We can never be content with a vague, wishy-washy feel-good spirituality. Our task is not to be nice to people in the hope that they might accept our invitation to "come to church"; our task is nothing less than to initiate people in the kingdom of God. We proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit in making disciples, not because we are concerned about institutional decline, not because we are nostalgic for the great days of the 1950s, not because it would be nice to have more young people in the church, but simply because Christ commands it - and we dare do nothing less. That is both a serious task, and a joyous responsibility.
For our forebears the road to Union was long they prayed and pondered and wrestled and reflected on just what basis Christ was calling his church together and how the church would articulate and reflect this calling. At the time of Union there was excitement joy and an expectation that God was doing a new thing in the church.
There was a boldness in this church - at its inaugural assembly we made a statement to the nation and in part it read:
“We, who are members of the First Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia address the people of Australia in this historic moment. The path to unity has been long and at times difficult, but we believe unity is a sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race….
We affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgment the policy and action of all nations must pass….
We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere - the family of One God - the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth the One who gave his life for others".
There was a boldness and a definite view of who we are and the direction in which God was calling. This boldness is found in that tremendous document the Basis of Union.
We are revisiting part of it today as a reminder of who we are in the Uniting Church.
At the very beginning it recognises that the three uniting denominations are seeking to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and his will for the Church, hereby enter into union under the name of the Uniting Church in Australia.
They pray that this act may be to the glory of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
They praise God for his gifts of grace to each of them in years past; they acknowledge that none of them has responded to God’s love with a full obedience; they look for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people.
To this end they declare their readiness to go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church; they remain open to constant reform under his Word;
This first paragraph is not something trapped into a time of the past it is as meaningful today as it ever was. It continues to say that our precedents commit their members to acknowledge one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, to hear anew the commission of the Risen Lord to make disciples of all nations, and daily to seek to obey his will.
And then that the church of God is committed to serve the world for which Christ died, and that she awaits with hope the day of the Lord Jesus Christ on which it will be clear that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.
So there we have it as the church we have a large task ahead of us to serve the world for which Christ died and to await with hope the day of the Lord Jesus.
This week I have completed the Resource Ministry training where we explored what church looks like today and how we might fulfil that calling. Today the church is in a very different place to what it was 38 years ago. Like other denominations we struggle to attract younger members and resourcing is diminished.
The church of today needs to explore better equipping of lay people enabling them to identify and use their gifts. As we relate to the wider community we look for partnerships to engage with people so together we can connect with areas of need.
This may sound difficult but the wider society needs the church just as much as we need them.
The Basis of Union reminds us – “Why the church exists?”
This is not a simple answer it is two fold one relating to the being of the church and the other to its function.
The being of the church: Identity in the action of God the church only exists because God through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit calls it into being. Our forbears put it this way in the fourth paragraph:
“the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because her Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work.”
Then they further affirmed in the fourteenth paragraph:
“Since the Church lives by the power of the Word, she is assured that God, who has never left himself without witness to that Word, will, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, call and set apart members of the Church to be ministers of the Word.”[para 14a]
And succinctly answering “why the church exists?” “Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way he constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.” [para 4]
We exist as a church because we are a New Testament people who with the apostles and all the saints know ourselves to be living between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.
We are a pilgrim people, on a journey not alone but with God and each other. As pilgrims in the Uniting church we have a commitment not just to walking the path but also to living out our faith we uphold reconciliation between peoples and with God.
As pilgrims disciples we also reach out to the needy, lift up the broken hearted and seek to reflect God’s love and grace in the world.
I don’t know this congregation but I have no doubt that you are keen to be faithful disciples. I can see that you are pilgrims who look to the nourishment that comes from God’s word. Margaret (and Joan) puts together a blog from the service each week so that those who are not physically present may be fed too.
On the anniversary there is much more that could be said, for me what will remain at the heart of our celebrating is to remember to walk with others so that we never walk alone. I hope that all who follow us in this church will look to us and find that we were faithful disciples and pilgrims adapting to a new age. May we not loose site of the command to go into the world, to make disciples … remembering that Jesus is with us to the end of the age.