I am in New Zealand representing the Uniting Church at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is the first time that I have been an ecumenical guest at a meeting of a partner church. The photo is the installation of Rev Richard Dawkins as Moderator. This first post is my address to the Assembly on behalf of the UCA.
Kia Ora and G’day
Moderator and members of the Assembly
I bring you greetings in the name of Jesus Christ and the God who formed us, who calls us, and who transforms us to be part of God’s new creation.
As is our custom in the Uniting Church, I wish to offer my respects to the First People of this land and acknowledge your culture and for your care for Aotearoa for generation after generation. I pray for your well-being as First Peoples and for the continued sharing of your wisdom in this land and in this church.
I bring you greetings from our President of the Uniting Church, Stuart McMillan, our General Secretary, Colleen Geyer, and our national Assembly.
I’m delighted to have the privilege of participating in your Assembly on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia – to share time together in friendship with you, to worship with you, and to listen and learn as you discern what it means to be a people of Hope in our world.
I wanted to let you know that last Monday morning our President called your past-Moderator Andrew to express our deep concern about the earthquake. He also sent a message calling our church to be in prayer for all those affected. I know that he would want me to assure you of our prayers and friendship at this difficult and traumatic time.
I had not expected the gift that it would be to be a guest at this Assembly. It is strange to be at a church council meeting where I have no jobs to do and no decisions to make. I keep having to shift gears into ‘receiving’ mode.
I have been free to meet sisters and brothers in Christ from across the world – from Korea, Vanuatu, Samoa and other places, to begin hear your unique stories from across Aotearoa, to be offered welcome and hospitality, to experience rich cultural differences, and to walk pathways that I haven’t trod (admittedly with an umbrella). In all of that I am experiencing the hospitality of God and a taste of the unity that we share in Christ. And that is a blessing and a privilege.
In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples:
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Jesus speaks repeatedly of his relationship with the Father as exemplifying the love that his followers should have for one another. Yet Jesus’ love for the Father is more than a model for us, Jesus himself abides in us and we in him. He not only calls us to be ‘one’, he lives in us to make it so. And by his life in us, Christ enables us to bear fruit so that others, seeing our life together with God, will believe.
This has been a key text for Christian unity, not only for formal ecumenism, but for Christians in general to seek the kind of unity that gives testimony to the hope that we have in Christ. After all, how could the reconciliation that Christ brings to the world not include his own people?
When the Uniting Church was formed in 1977 from the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches, the catalyst was not institutional survival, but a sense of call to come together in mission to our nation – to be visibly drawn more deeply into community for the sake of the Gospel.
When the people of Vanuatu saw the church in Vanuatu in partnership with your church and with our church assisting in reconstruction after Cyclone Pam last year, they witnessed the unity of the church giving testimony to a Christ who is alive, bringing healing and renewal.
When our President and our Moderators and our Church Secretaries meet across the Tasman, as they do regularly, our churches learn much from one another and pray for one another, and give expression to our unity.
In your Assembly papers, I see many themes that are common to our churches – themes of culture and context, themes of regulation and permission, of structure and flexibility, of justice and mission. And sex. We have that in common too.
Last Wednesday morning I had arranged to meet with Matt Chamberlin in Auckland to hear about your ministry with young people. We arranged to meet in a coffee shop. He arrived and we sat down together and ordered coffee. I thought I’d get the conversation rolling by chatting a bit about what I was doing over here. At first he looked interested, and then puzzled and then perplexed. It turned out that I had sat down for coffee with Ben, not Matt – Ben, who had come to talk to someone about property investment.
We laughed about it and Ben moved to the next table. The waitress came back with two coffees for two guys who were now sitting at different tables. And then the real Matt arrived.
When Matt and I started talking about our ministries, his with young people and mine across all generations, we found ourselves talking about similar convictions and hopes – of the claim of God in Christ on our lives, of the call to lifelong discipleship, of the need to foster practices which deepen our faith, of leaders who equip others to grow as disciples, and of communities who invite others to faith.
I don’t want to suggest to you that unity or partnership is always about people who always think the same. Often it is about bringing our different perspectives to a common purpose, a shared hope. This shared passion for the Gospel and our learning from one another in ministry is also an expression of our unity in Christ.
In Luke 10, we hear of Jesus appointing 70 more disciples, and sending them out two by two ahead of him, saying “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask God to send more workers.” No doubt you’ve thought about why they might have been sent in pairs.
In my imagination, I hear Jesus’ saying today – “You Methodists and Anglicans, I’m sending you out together.” “You Lutherans and Baptists, I want you two to go together.” “You Presbyterians, and who is that standing on the other side of the ditch? Yes, you Uniting Church, you two go together to the harvest.”
I heard Luke 10 as a text about unlikely partners being sent together in to transform lives and our world in Jesus‘ name.
And the Methodists and Anglicans came back to the Lord of the harvest, and the Lutherans and Baptists came back, then the Catholics and Quakers, and the Presbyterians and Unitings came back. They were all astounded and joyful, saying, “Lord, we discovered that you have power over evil. You have the power to change lives. You have the power to heal our world.”
We celebrate our partnership with you beneath the Southern Cross, where in our own places we seek to support and learn from one another as we embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Moderator and members of the Assembly, thank you again for the opportunity to listen and learn with you what it means to be a people of Hope.
Grace and peace to you.