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Forward with the saints

[This sermon was prepared for a special celebration in a local congregation, Wandin-Seville Church Anniversary 29 October 2000, but it is being published also as resource for All Saints Day. It is based in part on Do Christians believe in progress? and Bringing an outsider into the family: Membership in the Communion of Saints.]

On special anniversary days, we naturally recall the past and especially in the church those of our number in the past whom we remember as the faithful departed. Today we recalled some of them and a little of what they did, though we cannot now know the half of it. It is all known to God, with whom we believe they now live. Yet though they are in the fellowship of Christ and the company of heaven, they are not entirely separated from us. We all belong to the one great church of God, those of us living now, those who have gone before us, and we even look forward in hope to the fellowship we will have those yet unborn in the universal fellowship of all who belong to God in Christ. So as we now come to look forward, we do it in the company of the saints of old who continue in the one fellowship with us.

It just so happens that we celebrate this anniversary on the Sunday before All Saints Day, which in the 1st of November. It is important to see things in perspective. Otherwise we may well be discouraged as we look to the future with only a limited vision, inclined to think we are on our own, and that too much depends on us. But as we go forward in the fellowship of Christ, we are not alone as we go in faith, remembering the communion of saints to which we belong.

All Saints Day reminds us of the great host of people in the universal communion to which we belong. The Uniting Church and any other church is a particular expression of that fellowship. When we join in the fellowship of Christ, we join with an enormous range of people of all places and all times. When we are baptised we join the universal church. When we meet at the Lord's table, we meet in the communion of saints with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, not only do we find there, Zacchaeus, Matthew and the other sinners who were tax collectors, obvious sinners like ourselves, and not only Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, and Peter and Paul and Augustine and Luther and Wesley, and holy women like Hilda, Teresa and Julian, but we meet also with ordinary common believers like ourselves from all walks of life in all sorts of different cultures with different languages and traditions, ancient and modern, we are all there together with the martyrs, the faithful witnesses and the great examples of devotion. We who are the church militant, alive today, engaging out of love in evangelism and service to the world, are joined in the same fellowship with those who have lived and died before us. That is the communion of saints. It does not consist only of the great examples of people who are especially good, but includes all who have been changed through meeting with Jesus, the Messiah, our common Lord and Saviour.

The call to evangelism

Did you notice that I mentioned evangelism? There is no question about it. If we go forward in faith with those who have been faithful in the past and who are continuing to be faithful across all nations and different cultures in the world today, often under conditions of hardship and persecution that we have never known, we can only go in faith if we have that confidence in Christ that empowers us to tell others about him. If you want to look forward, remember the commission with which Jesus sent out his disciples to the ends the earth, in the words with which Matthew concludes his account of the Gospel:

Evangelism is about presenting the challenge of meeting Jesus and responding to him personally and socially. It is an essential part of the life of a Christian fellowship. Sadly many people today, both within the Church and outside, think of evangelism as a distasteful sectarian activity. Rather than sharing good news and accepting people into a fellowship that is open to all humanity. The sectarian view of conversion is more like sheep steeling, taking from one flock and adding to another. That is proselytizing not evangelism. When we engage in evangelism we are not taking scalps, and we should not be seeking especially to build up our own group. There should be no need for pressure tactics, making people conform to our way. A faithful witness to Jesus as the Christ, will be a challenge in itself. If we truly represent him anyone who sees our witness is really confronted by Christ himself. We should not be afraid to urge a response, but people make their own response, and we must allow them freedom to express their faith in their own way. But you can expect a faithful response to involve relationships with others. It is not an individual matter. Joining with Christ joins people with a fellowship of believers and changes their relationships with others in the wider community.

If you think of evangelism in relation to membership in the universal fellowship of changed people who are all different, you will not try to make others like yourself. You will not say to anyone, 'If you have not had my kind of experience of God, you do not belong', or, 'If you do not think of God in the same way as I think you cannot be a child of God'. Evangelism is not about conformity. It is about sharing the good news of the love of God that was shown to the whole world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The saints in heaven

Why in such evangelism as we have do we refrain from talk of heaven? Why do we allow the secularists to put us and our message down with cynical barbs of "pie in the sky when you die" and imagine that we must offer hope for this life only. Did not Paul write that

That is because the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of the hope we share in the good news.

Christian have always celebrated that hope of fellowship with God in the life of a risen community of faith in the communion of saints. So we have hymns like Holy, holy, holy. How do you feel singing the second verse?

Holy, holy, holy! all the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
God everlasting through eternity.

And you know where it comes from - that great vision of hope in the book of Revelation:

Now, really, if we are talking seriously about evangelism in the modern world do you think images such as casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea are going to be taken seriously, let alone understood? Yet it is a strange thing: how often we find otherworldly images in modern fiction, in the sort of writing that so-called secular people are actually reading and which win major literary awards. Angles and people flying are quite common in contemporary literature. Perhaps the most famous is The Satanic Verses which opens with a character falling and falling and flying through the air and goes on to extraordinary dreamlike heavenly visions. Or take some modern Australian novels, like Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino which is about an angel who looks like an ordinary woman and has a baby and then in all seriousness actually leaps into the air and flies away. How about Rodney Hall's The Grisly Wife where the main character wins his wife by cooly and calmly levitating, and she can never let go of man she knows secretly can fly. Or what of the ending to Peter Carey's popular and much acclaimed Oscar and Lucinda which concludes after much strange religious talk with a crystal church being floated up a tropical river. These writers Garner, Hall and Carey, with a few others, are at the top of the Australian literary tree in a supposedly secular society. Who says casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea is such a strange idea? I remember Helen Garner saying that she did know whether she believed in angels but she wanted to live in a world where it was at least possible.

If that sort of thing comes to the fore in serious literature should it be surprising if what you might call more popular culture is full of it. Look at any book shop, there is "New Age" and other such alternative material on prominent display. It has to be taken seriously in Christian evangelism. [On Friday night (in October 2000) I was present for the conferring of an honorary doctorate on Harold Taylor who is here this morning. The citation for his high academic distinction made reference to his recent contributions to the ways in which Christians can relate effectively to the New Age movement without compromising the gospel.] My plea today is to be unafraid of the other worldly ways of thinking in which the Christian hope has often been expressed. We might learn to put it in new ways, but there are important truths in those old pictures, not the least of which is that we do not go forward alone but in a great company from every time and place. Lets look back again at that strange book of Revelation and see them in the vision of John the Divine:

That is one picture of the future. It is not the only one, even in Revelation, where images of peace and justice are also strong. My point here is that seeing ourselves among a great cloud of witnesses is not an image of the past but of the future.

The promise of fulfilment

So as we look to the future, we do expect change. Indeed we deeply desire change if we trust God to bring in the Kingdom in which that great fellowship of all sorts of people will celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death. There must be change if the vision of the end in the Bible that we read about today in the book of Revelation is to be realized in which we see not only individual salvation among the blessed but a whole changed world in the symbol of the new Jerusalem:

There can be no doubt about it: change should be expected. The Lord will make all things new:

Well then, do you believe it? Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. ...... I will be their God and they will be my children. Do you believe that God will indeed fulfil the promise with which John the Evangelist introduced the Gospel:

Is that communion with God and the fellowship of all sorts of people really going to come about? If that vision is to become a reality, you have to believe that things will change and eventually accord with the will of God,. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; {4} he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

Paul put it another way:

Do we believe in progress?

Those ancient images with their otherworldy character link the communion of saints as part of our tradition with themes of change and renewal. In the modern world it naturally raises the question of whether we believe in progress, looking to the future, and how much we hold onto those precious gifts inherited for the past.

In Christ, there is a new creation ... everything has become new! Does it mean that in Christ there is progress? Can we score a point here against those in modern society who will not listen to anything the church says because they have a prejudice that we are all conservative? Most of us in the church today have, in fact, lived through a time when the majority of church members believed that Christian faith is progressive, that we are in favour of change, and indeed some would believe that everything is moving towards perfection in the kingdom of God. So it is thought we can fit into a progressive society and live a normal life as we adjust to inevitable changes. Is that right? Is there a basic belief in progress that is part of the Christian faith?

The answer is something like "Yes, but ..." Of course a good deal depends on what you think counts as progress; and obviously not all change is good. And what is more, Christians do not believe in progress as an inevitable natural process that will happen automatically, nor is it part of the Gospel that we can bring these things about by human effort alone. We believe the vision of scripture that God will accomplish these great things for us in the future, just as he has already accomplished great things for us in Christ.

A little parable of change for life or death

If you go for a walk in the forest you will see evidence of change all around you. Now in Springtime especially, you will see new shoots appearing, seedlings coming up and young plants growing and struggling for a place in the sun: all of that is one kind of change, the kind that make for life. But there are also other kinds of change in the natural world of the forest. Besides growth and development in many forms of life, you will see trees fallen over, rotting logs and sticks on the floor of the forest, and if you look closely there will be myriads of insects, worms and other organisms aiding the breakdown of organic matter that is being returned to the soil. These signs of corruption are the changes associated with death. Both kinds of change are necessary parts of the natural order of this created world. It is like that in the church today. The next time someone exhorts you to be ready to change, ask yourself what kind of change you are being asked to make: is it a change to do with life or with death. Is it a way of growth and development into the light, or is it a change of decay, disintegration and death. Modern doctrines of progress do not make this distinction clear. Much as it may be unpopular ever to say 'No' to change, it is necessary to discriminate between changes that make for life and those that make for death.

Then, even if you can distinguish between changes that make for growth, which you might call progressive, and those that tend to decay, there is the problem that what is popularly regarded as progressive at one time might not be at all popular at another. Forty or fifty years ago some aspect of socialism, such as public ownership, the rights of workers or support for the Soviet Union, would have been a sign of a progressive attitude among many of the younger generation. Now socialism has largely been discredited. Then came a time of greatly increased spending on health, education and welfare as attempts were made to transfer benefits to the less well off and lay foundations for social development. Now there are different ideas about what makes for progress and these programs are being wound back. Today an emphasis on personal freedoms, such as the rights of the individual person in economic matters, sexual freedoms, the rights of the child, etc., are considered progressive. Who knows what might be regarded as progressive in a few years! Perhaps social responsibility might be reconsidered, and our grandchildren might look back in horror on some of the things people are doing today. People forget how ideas of progress change, but a basic belief in progress, whatever it is, remains deeply embedded in our Western way of thinking.

If we are to look to the future expecting change and presenting Christ in the hope of seeing the world transformed, we are doing a great deal more than simply conforming to whatever might be regarded as progressive in our time. Paul put it clearly in Romans in a way that sets it off sharply in contrast to modern pressures to conform to what the world regards as progressive:

It should be obvious that Christians are not called upon to conform to whatever is thought progressive by opinion leaders at any particular time or in any society. It is easy to be bullied and deceived into conformity with what others call progress when we should be prepared to take a stand against the stream. So do not take Paul's great affirmation In Christ, there is a new creation ... everything has become new! as an endorsement of shallow and deceptive modern beliefs in progress. At the same time, that belief in a new creation is obviously not the opposite of progress. You can hardly mount a defence of the status quo on this celebration of everything becoming new. Tradition is important in Christian life and teaching, but not so as to prevent new developments, and the tradition of the apostles handed on to us includes this major emphasis on renewal: In Christ, there is a new creation.

The great tradition of hope

The call to evangelism and going forward in hope, expecting change but not conforming to fashionable ideas, is a call to go forward in the company of those who have gone before us. To remember the great tradition of the gospel even as we work for change. It is appropriate to recall here some of the words of the founders of the Uniting Church at an early stage in the negotiations for union. When the first report on the negotiations for union was written in 1959, a strong commitment was made to recall people to the faith of the church which had been received from ancient times:-

We wish to recall the members of our Churches to the great tradition in which they stand. We are debtors not only to the writers of Holy Scripture but also to the Fathers of the Church who through creed, confession, commentary and hymn of praise have sought to keep men [and women] in a relationship of faith and trust, of love and hope in the worship of God as He has made Himself made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. We are grateful for these pledges of the work of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church. In his power men [and women] have been enabled to confess and praise God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. We in our day neglect at our peril these great words of believing men [and women] of other ages. If we in Australia are to avoid an idiosyncratic faith, we must give careful consideration to the Faith of the Church of the ages.

Here then for this modern "progressive" church, as many would have it, the communion of saints is recalled at the very point when the most important commitment to change in the future was being made. Tradition was to be important for us, but it was tradition founded on scripture which saw a dynamic process of change in which old customs and human tradition were to pass away. In terms of the central teaching, the nature of the gospel, we have the same conception of handing on a tradition as Paul wrote about:

The tradition is one of hope, one of belief in the resurrection. The hope in which we go forward into the vision of the new Jerusalem is a resurrection hope, founded on what God has already done for us when he raised Jesus from the dead, the first born of many brothers and sisters. The hope we hold is that we too will be raised up to meet with Jesus and all the saints, just as we also hope for peace and justice and that end to mourning and crying and pain in his victory over both sin and death.

Let us then go forward in faith and in good company - forward with all the saints who will be there at the end when the one who was seated on the throne {says}, "See, I am making all things new." .... I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.. Glory to him, the beginning and the end. Amen.

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