"Following our calling - naturally" - contemporary reflection by Michael Player,  JUC/Tawa Union service 26 Feb 2014 at JUC


Bible readings:

Matthew 4 verses 12 - 23

1 Corinthians 1:  10 - 18  

When I read today’s readings, I immediately knew there was a good sermon in them.  I’ve probably preached at least three or four sermons on the Matthew reading during my time as a lay preacher, but the combo of Matthew and first letter of Paul to the Corinthians is what got my brain and my heart stimulated, because they produce a number of thoughts which draw upon both the historical and mission messaging aspects of the bible. 

 In church year terms we are still in the season of epiphany, that is the season after Christmas, the  story immediately after birth of the baby Jesus, the early years of Jesus life and the beginning of his ministry in adulthood. 

 For the third time in his short life, Matthew tells us that Jesus has a new hometown… Capernaum…. 

 He was born in Bethlehem which his family had to flee to avoid Herod’s death threats.  He grew up in Nazareth and learned his trade as a carpenter there.  Now, in emulation of the life of Moses, Jesus was on the move again to the fishing town of Capernaum: Not that he settled there; rather he embarked on the life of a travelling preacher and healer, constantly wandering the countryside not opting for the comforts of a single home but embracing God’s call to bring His word to Jew and Gentile alike. 

 The district of Capenaum was known as the “Galilee of the Gentiles”, an ethnically diverse place. Right from the beginning of his ministry Jesus mixed and lived with people of many races and backgrounds. New surroundings can provide us with a new start, providing an opportunity for us to reflect and ask the question “Who am I?”  “How am I perceived by those around me?”  “Do I want to recalibrate how I present myself to the world or am I happy with my persona and content with the way others view me and relate with me”. 

 Even a small thing such as attending another church, as the people of Tawa Union are doing this morning, provides us with an opportunity to be in a strangely familiar yet different place…. who knows you may see something in one of the banners on the wall, on the noticeboards, or may be hear something in the words of a person from JUC whom you’ve never met before that strikes a chord or prompts a thought that leads on to insight and different actions than might otherwise have been the case. 

 In preparing this service, I’ve thought a lot about one of the prominent members of this congregation from years gone by, a lovely man, a secondary school teacher, who made such an impression on this place that we named a room after him - the Halliday room. 

 George Halliday grew up in this part of Wellington.  And the reason I have thought about him a lot is that he used to tell stories from his early childhood when he would accompany his father, who would regularly preach not only in the Methodist Church on the main road in Johnsonville, but in Tawa in the afternoon and Porirua in the early evening… before walking back to Johnsonville,arriving back in the dark.  In the summer time young George would accompany his father on some of these trips around the northern Methodist circuit.  

 I’m thinking that George’s father must have been a very special person.  Imagine these days saying to your son or daughter, “It would be good if you could come with me not only to the 10am church service but I want you to come to the 3pm and 7pm services as well… and by the way we’re not going by car… we’re walking from Johnsonville to Tawa and Porirua and back.”  

 Most kids these days would see it as a punishment to go to 3 services in the one day (probably three services identical in their content) and walking all that way would be seen as exhausting and the waste of a day away from the computer or tv. 

 The fact that more than 60 years on from those trips, George still talked about them so enthusiastically, suggests to me that his Dad, like Jesus, had the gift of making the actions of a wandering preacher a true adventure.  George’s trips gave him not only a great knowledge and love of the countryside of the Porirua stream valley but it instilled in him a love of people and a depth of faith that made him a man of whom everyone who met him could see, hear and feel was special… a true disciple of Christ….

 I use the term “disciple”, advisedly.  All four Gospels and the book of Acts use the term “disciples”  but in Matthew the term doesn’t imply the individual has a distinctive office or role but rather is an ordinary follower of Christ.  

 While Matthew identifies Peter as a disciple who was given special authority by Jesus, there is little reference to any of the other disciples being singled out for a special role or function.  

 Strangely, for many centuries right up to the present day, the Church seemed to choose to ignore the Gospel of Matthew version of followers of Christ having equal status and increasingly relied on those in ordained ministry to be leaders. 

It’s a pattern that has remained in most denominations right through to now.  The great question, of course, is how will the Church of the 21st century be known and defined… by its ordained leaders or the discipleship of its ordinary members?

 In Matthew, Christ commands his disciples and by virtue of the term, ourselves, to become fishers of people - to seek to bring those whom we come into contact with into the great net of the Kingdom of God, so that they might experience salvation, redemption and everlasting peace. 

 Well, I’ve had trouble with this concept all my adult life. In my student days I would inwardly cringe whenever I met some enthusiastic Christian, who often belonged to one of the more charismatic church denominations, and they would openly ask…. how many people have you brought to the Lord?    It always made me uncomfortable…. for in my view people should become followers of Christ through their own enquiry and free will. 

 By all means, the church and disciples within it should provide information and insights and be role models to encourage and help individuals in their new faith journey, but somehow designating people as “fish to be caught” or worse still “sheep” to be rounded up into the flock, are analogies that have never really appealed to me. 

 I guess a consequence is that my aversion to “press ganging” people to becoming Christians and church members, is that I have all my adult years been a member of a church that doesn’t actively “fish” for people and that doesn’t require of its members to stand on street corners handing out leaflets or to bring peer pressure to bear to convert friends, neighbours and work colleagues.

 As a result denominations' such as ours - Methodists and Presbyterians - are in free fall when it comes to numbers and regrettably none of us seems to have a workable plan to reverse the decline. In fact for Union or Uniting churches such as ours, our parent churches have signalled that they don’t really envisage combined denomination churches as being the way of the future!  Incredibly head in the sand stuff… in my view…

 So, might Paul’s letter to the Corinthians give us any clues to solving the predicament we are in?

 When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians there were a lot of problems in the congregation. 

There was arrogance, pride, indifference.  There was gluttony and laziness, intolerance, depression, anger and despair.  

 The church at Corinth’s problems boiled down to the fact that they had fixed their focus on themselves and one another rather than on Christ. 

 That’s not to say that they didn’t pay attention to God or totally ignored Jesus’ message but rather that too much of their attention went elsewhere. 

 To put it another way, the Corinthians became creatures of routine.   They began to rely upon the teachings of others for their understanding of the gospel.  They formed unhealthy loyalties and started to quarrel, with some saying Paul was the true voice, others Apollos and still others Cephas. 

 In so doing they lost the plot… instead of experiencing the joy and peace that comes with the community of the faithful and of being vibrant and engaging with the wider community, their congregational life collapsed and their sense of well-being evaporated. 

 People complained about each other and about their leadership, they became confused as to what was right and what was wrong, they had fights over issues that made no sense to have fights over. 

 Through misplaced loyalty they missed the point of the gospel, they became more like a minor political party, they were in cliques and split into factions. 

 They could have avoided this situation had they held fast to the three undeniable facts of Christian life… 

  • that God loves us unconditionally
  • that apart from God we can do nothing that is worthwhile
  • and that God will work through us if we allow him to but he will work around us if we do not. 

 The congregation of Corinth was torn, just like we are to follow the natural human path than the godly path. 

The human path tells us we prefer our friends to our enemies, we will do anything for comfort rather than discomfort, we want to fit in rather than stand out, to be praised rather than be criticised and to be served rather than serve. 

The godly path tips the human perspective on its head… it sees enemies as potential friends, absorbs pain while focussing on the gain, speaks up for what is right, shrugs off criticism but takes on board constructive comment and has more of a sense of fulfilment from serving than being served. 

 The challenge before us as individuals, as congregations, as the embodiment of a “united” church is not only to learn the lessons of Corinth but to embrace some of the elements that made them, for Paul, a congregation worth putting back on the right track… In the words of Pastor Chuck Warnock, of the Chatham Baptist Church in Virginia here’s why the Corinthians may be our best role model for a church today:

  • they were brand new believers…. they didn’t have a transfer member among them…. they had no preconceived ideas, not “we’ve always done it this way” notions. 
  • they participated ….  they may have been a bit exuberant but they all participated.  They were going for participation first and order second, probably the opposite of what we have today. 
  • they made mistakes, but out of enthusiasm …. they did communion wrong, worship wrong, flaunted their spiritual gifts, tried to outdo each other in worship… but they were generally the most enthusiastic church around.  Better to curb enthusiasm than struggle to generate it..
  • they practiced their faith while still growing in it… they were drunks, sexually debauched, self promoters and shopped at the pagan meat markets.. what a crowd…. but Paul never suggested they weren’t Christian… they just needed instruction and direction… a healthy church should contain people of all sorts and types that are reflective of the community in which it sits.
  • their faith was relevant to their world…  The temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love was in Corinth so Paul wrote to them about real Christian love.  The temple of the God of Healing was also in Corinth so it was not a stretch for them to believe that their new God was more powerful than their old God in this regard.  With Paul’s help they connected the dots between the world they lived in and their new Christian faith. 
  •  and  they were a “real” church…. despite all their problems no-one was in any doubt that first and foremost they were a religious organisation, they were a church in trouble but their core brand of being a church was clear for all to see. 

So good people of Tawa and JUC, to coin an old phrase, here endeth the sermon.  May God bless you individually and as congregations. As you contemplate life in 2014 may The Lord Our Saviour speak to you in ways that not only resonate with you but give you the cause, the motivation, creativity and energy to put ideas into action.