PREACHED AT ST PETERS CATHEDRAL, ADELAIDE
Feast of Saint David 1st March 2002
By the Reverend Canon Peter Wales
Rector of Naracoorte and Rural Dean of Mount Gambier
Diocese of The Murray
I went to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus and there put before the leaders of the Church the Gospel message I proclaim among the gentiles, in order to be sure that I was not running, and had not run, in vain. (Galatians 2)
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Imagine a group of people standing on a hill. In the distance Jesus is preaching the sermon on the mount, but this group is too far away to hear Jesus’ words clearly.
Suddenly one turns to another and says ‘What’s that? What’d he say?’
I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’
‘Blessed are the cheesemakers? Why, what have they done that’s so special then?’
‘Obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. He’s clearly referring to all manufacturers of dairy products.’
They could have resolved this dispute by going and asking Jesus what he meant, or even by asking those who were close to Jesus and had heard clearly. But they didn’t do that. They simply went round and round in a circle, with their own voices and their own opinions their only guide.
Paul did not make that mistake. He went to check with Peter, James and John, that he had the story right, that he was not running his race in vain.
You’ve all the heard the story about the ship’s captain who drew near to a treacherous harbour on a foggy night. He called ahead to the harbourmaster: ‘I’m at the entrance to the harbour, please give me directions.’ But the harbourmaster responded that he should travel according to his own instincts, telling him that whatever seemed right to him would probably get him there safely.
But the captain didn’t want philosophy. There were real rocks, real danger and one safe way through. What he needed were clear directions.
In the same way that there were real objective rocks in the story, there are real spiritual dangers in life, and real objective spiritual truths, and one real and objective way that leads to life. What Paul wanted to be sure of was that he was teaching that way – the way that leads to life. He could only be sure of that if he was to able to say with confidence, as he did in 1 Corinthians 11.23, The message I delivered to you I first received from the Lord. Passing on neither more nor less, but what he had received.
It’s telling that the first and last words Jesus spoke to Peter in the Bible were: Follow me. Our journey in Christ, our journey to life begins and ends with following Jesus. A friend of mine who has just returned from riding 3,000kms around Tasmania on a Harley tells me that the way to steer safely on a motorbike is to look where you want go and you’ll go there. For Christians the message is the same – keep your eyes on Jesus and you’ll get home safely. But we can choose to step outside the way, and when people do, it’s usually for what seems to them to be the best possible reasons.
The Arians, for example, lived at a time when society was rigidly structured. The Emperor, Senators, Tribunes, and so on – a definite hierarchy where everybody knew their place. It was inconceivable to them that God could be a community of love, a co-equal trinity. So, they thought, the Son must be a lesser, created being. Jesus could not be truly God. The Arians didn’t wake up one morning and decide to be heretics. They wanted to be Christians. But they put aside what the Apostles taught for something that made sense to them, that made believing easier because it fit better with their understanding of how the world and nature worked.
The Gnostics, with their roots in Platonism, believed that matter was crude and vulgar. It made no sense to believe that God could become a baby with a messy bottom sitting on his mother’s lap. So Jesus’ human appearance must have been just that – an illusion. Jesus could not have been truly man. The Gnostics didn’t intend to become heretics. They wanted to be Christians. But they turned away from what the Apostles taught, for something that that made believing easier, because it fit with the assumptions of the time.
Surely with all the benefit of hindsight and history we would not be tempted to make the same mistake. But what is the one lesson we learn from history? That no one learns anything from history!
In the contemporary Church people who express the wrong political opinions or concerns about changes to our worship can feel that they are regarded with suspicion. But a visiting bishop can tell us that the virgin birth is bunk, the resurrection never happened, and we’ve moved beyond the need to think of God theistically, that is, as if he actually exists. It’s no wonder people become confused about where to find the Way to life.
In the contemporary Church some parts of our church family deny that the Holy Communion is truly the body and blood of Christ, turning aside the plain meaning of the words of Scripture and the clearest possible teaching of the early Church. So that an astonishing continuing gift of love, a means of sustenance for God’s people, a channel of amazing grace, a foretaste of heaven, becomes no more than an object lesson, an aid to memory. When we so easily turn aside the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Church, it’s no wonder people become confused.
In some parts of the contemporary Church we have turned aside the example of Christ, the words of Scripture, the teaching of the Apostles and the unwavering practice of the Church for the last 2000 years for the extraordinary late twentieth century western notion that equality means interchangeability, that equality of dignity and salvation means identity of function. The entire history of the Old Testament is based on the fact that God can and does choose particular groups of people for particular roles in his plan of salvation for reasons which are not always obvious. When we deny that in our words and actions, it’s no wonder people become confused.
There are two problems that sometimes make it difficult for us to see what is right. The first is that we only see a tiny part of life’s jigsaw puzzle. Only God sees the whole picture – the puzzle complete. It is just plain silliness for us to follow the Arians and the Gnostics in imagining that we know better.
The second problem is that Jesus is an uncomfortable character. He challenges and disturbs us, so it’s always tempting to remake him in our own image, in line with the prejudices and opinions of our own time, to come up with a do-it-yourself Jesus.
For example, we may not like the fact that Jesus talked more about hell than heaven, about our need for repentance, about the separation from God that is the consequence of our sin. That’s all a bit medieval, surely. We don’t need to worry about that.
We may not like the fact that Jesus claimed to be the only way to the Father, that people would be judged by their attitude to him. Well you know, we all believe in freedom of choice, we want to be a bit more inclusive than that.
Or we may not like Jesus’ choice of disciples, or the fact that he talked like a man. We know he didn’t talk like a Melbourne solicitor, but we think he should have, so we’ll just fix that up. No worries.
Or maybe we’d prefer the Jesus described by some modern Bible scholars. What these scholars so helpfully do is to get beyond all that stuff about the Kingdom of God and miracles and people being blessed and all that, to what they call the real Jesus. And the real Jesus they’ve discovered is so bland that he seems like nothing so much as a character from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or maybe Neil from the Young Ones. You can imagine him sloping vaguely around the shores of Galilee telling people, ‘Peace, man. Be cool, you guys. Just be nice to each other, OK?’ You can understand why such a Christ might appeal to those of us who grew up in the sixties, but he is not the Christ who was loved, followed and remembered by the disciples.
These DIY Christs are much easier to get along with, much less disturbing, they don’t offend anyone, they don’t make us uncomfortable. There’s just one problem with them. They cannot deliver us from our sins and save us into God’s heaven.
It’s at the points where Jesus’ words and character and the message of life that is the teaching of the Church rub up, like salt on a wound, against the inclinations and assumptions of our times that we most need to be faithful, because it is at those points we are most tempted to trade in the Christ who alone has the words of eternal life, for familiarity and comfort.
St Theresa of Lisieux, one of the most human of saints, wrote in a letter to her sister that to be faithful servants of Jesus we must be willing to be uncomfortable with ourselves.
Martin Luther put it like this: If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, then I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may claim his name. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all battlefields besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at the point.
Of course, this is not the first time the Church has faced difficulty or controversy. In the mid 1700s, when plans were being made for settlement in Australia, churches in England were virtually empty. The great lawyer Blackstone wrote that he had heard every well-known preacher in London, and could find no more of Christ in their words than in the writings of Cicero. Indeed, he said, it was impossible to tell from their sermons whether the preachers were followers of Christ or Confucius. Lady McCauley wrote that it would be a truer reflection of the faith and practice of the Church of England if the ‘not’s were removed from the Ten Commandments and placed in the Creed. In other words, Thou shalt commit adultery, I do not believe.
Yet just a few short years later, churches were full, there was renewed vigour and vision, and a commitment to missionary work that was taking the Gospel around the world. What made the difference was a rediscovery of the Scriptures as the ultimate authority and guide for Christian faith and practice, and a rediscovery of the fact that being a Christian meant being born again, having a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
What all this has to do with the Venerable Ross Owen Davies, SSC being made a bishop becomes a little clearer when we remember that Fr Ross is to be made a bishop in the Church of God. He is not being made an Anglican bishop. According to our own prayer book and ordinal there is no such thing. The Anglican Church has never claimed to have its own its own doctrine or orders or sacraments, but only those of the Catholic faith. This is one of the things that gives Anglicans confidence that their faith is not something someone has made up, but is the way that leads to life, the Gospel received from the Apostles and handed down faithfully.
Bishops have a special role as guardians and transmitters of the faith. Ireneaus wrote that true knowledge is the teaching of the Apostles, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the church is found everywhere, and the complete tradition of the Scriptures, without addition or deletion. Anyone who teaches anything different, he says, should be asked to produce their roll of bishops, and will be unable to do so, because the succession of faithful bishops ensures that the faith is one and same everywhere.
As well as being a leader and a teacher, one who hands on faithfully what he has received, the bishop will also be a man whose life finds its centre in prayer, and especially in the Eucharist. Hippolytus, in his prayer for one to be consecrated a bishop, wrote ‘grant to this your servant whom you have chosen for the episcopate, to feed your holy flock, and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day before your holy face, and offering the gifts of your holy church’.
He will also be a man of compassion. St Ambrose prayed ‘Above all, give me the grace of compassion. Grant me the ability to have compassion on sinners from the depth of my heart. Let me never arrogantly admonish any person, but let me suffer and weep with him, for anyone who rejoices at the downfall of another is rejoicing at a victory of the devil’.
But now to the crux, to the cross, the one thing necessary. Fr Ross’ commitment to pass on what has been handed down from the Apostles, without addition or deletion, so that his race is not run in vain, his commitment to prayer and especially to faithfulness in celebration of the Eucharist, his compassion for others – all these have their basis in one thing, and that is the grace of God calling Ross to forgiveness, to wholeness, to be a son, and calling forth in Ross’ heart a response of love for Jesus his Saviour.
So as we pray that Fr Ross may, by God’s grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit, fulfil the task God has set before him, let us be reminded that we are called to work with him for Christ’s sake as ministers of the Gospel, and let us pray that we may all be renewed in Christ’s image, that we may be re-consecrated to God’s service, so that God’s name may be praised and his Kingdom advanced.
Let us pray:
O Holy Spirit,
Giver of light and life,
impart to us thoughts higher than our own thoughts,
prayers better than our own prayers,
power beyond our own powers,
that we may spend and be spent
in the ways of love and goodness,
after the perfect image
of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.