Mt Hawthorn Community Church, 12 September 2010
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are the people of God;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy
– 1 Peter 2:9-10
I’ve been asked this morning to talk about what church means to me. So I’m going to talk about the hopes I have for what church could be, and some of the problems we face when we try to live it out. I will be using this idea of the church as a people, and three of the practices which mark us out as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. They are strong images, concerning ones for some of us, and I will be returning to them.
Loneliness: Once You Were Not a People
My sense of our city is that for many people it’s a lonely place. I think contemporary life is fragmented and isolated. We don’t live near our families and we don’t live near our friends. Often we don’t live near our work. The car has given us the freedom to live a long way from each other and from work. It has enabled the suburbs to stretch so far. It’s now 110km from Quinns Rock in the North to Cape Bouvard in the South. One hundred years ago, North Perth was the first suburb of Perth. It was the sticks, 3km from the GPO. Thirty-five years ago, my parents bought a house at the edge of suburbia as it was then – Karrinyup.
I’m not saying there’s a golden age we’ve fallen from. Every age has its challenges, its benefits and its drawbacks. But I want to name two of the drawbacks of this age as fragmentation and isolation. It’s not true for everyone, and the stories of the people who have defied this trend and are well connected cause us to feel either inspired or envious or both. But for many people in Perth today, life is too busy. The people they know are all in different spheres of life and never touch. They don’t feel a strong enough connection to other people, to their neighbours and their community.
The closest we have to town centres, community hubs are shopping centres. Many of us have lots of money but no time.
This isn’t the situation that faced the first Christians centuries ago. But Peter’s words still speak to our different situation, ‘Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God.’ For me, this verse speaks powerfully about what church means. It is a word of comfort to us in this isolated society. ‘Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God.’
So many people in our city don’t belong. They are not a people. Or what belonging they have is tenuous, unsatisfying. It’s the surface tribalism of supporting a football team, or the belonging that facebook can bring.
Once you did not belong, but now you do. I had a powerful experience of belonging to a church, and since its end, I’ve felt adrift and isolated. Up until three years ago, I was a part of a house church called Perth Anabaptist Fellowship. We met in each other’s homes, we ate together and worshipped together, and we were involved in each others’ lives. We did some good and we tried, with earnestness and naivety on my part, to follow closely in Jesus’ footsteps. In the end, we were defeated by things so many churches are – differences of opinion and personality, as well as geography.
At its best, church gives people the sense of belonging they need. But it’s difficult. Churches struggle to be a community because so often their people come from all over the city and don’t live close enough to see each other outside Sunday. What are we to do? We should go to the church nearest us. But for many of us, that’s impossible. We don’t fit, we don’t agree, we can’t. We could find a church which suits us and move near it. Perhaps some of us have, but what if it’s in a suburb where houses cost $800,000? What’s more, there’s not many of us for whom church is the first priority – there’s many other things which will decide where we should live. Partly because of these things, it’s hard for churches to break down the isolation of our society.
Instead, I think too often churches reinforce isolation. Why aren’t Christians friendlier? Why every week do new people turn up to churches with high hopes and often high anxiety, only to come home disappointed? Often they’re not disappointed by the service they watched. Often they’re disappointed that they didn’t connect to anyone, that no-one cared very much that they were there.
I’m sure this isn’t a new problem. About seventy-five years ago, my grandfather sensed God calling him, and he went to his local Baptist church. It was unfriendly and the next week he went across the road to the Anglicans. He never left; he ended up an Anglican minister for sixty years until he died. The way he told the story, and even though he was mad when my dad became a Baptist years later, there was no more to his initial decision than the friendlier people at the Anglican church.
But all this talk about isolation and its cure in the church, I’ve only been picking the smallest, lowest hanging fruit. If the church is only a cure for isolation, it is not nearly enough and it is not true to Jesus. When we look at the meaning of the church, there are bigger, juicier fruits.
Being a people of God
When we think of the church as the people of God, we place ourselves in the big story the Bible tells. With good reason, at this church some of you will be allergic to this language in 1 Peter – ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.’
‘Chosen’ – why should anyone be chosen ahead of anyone else? ‘A chosen race’ – isn’t that what’s got us into trouble in the Middle East? ‘A holy nation’ – is that like the USA or like Afghanistan under the Taliban?
These images come from Exodus 19:6, addressed to the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness. In Israel’s case, God set free a nation of slaves and brought them together as his people, not to exclude or condemn the rest of the world, but to be a light for the world. The Israelites were meant to show the rest of the world what it was to live as God’s people, as a foretaste of the hope of the whole world one day joining them. They were chosen not for their own sake, but to bless the rest of the world.
In the new covenant brought about in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, membership was thrown open to the whole world, to people who were not a people. The ‘holy nation’ which Peter talks about is the opposite of nationalism. The good news of the church is that there is a new humanity – the church – where different races and different classes, people who were once enemies, are now brothers and sisters, are now worshipping together and eating around the same table.
Our new first loyalty is no longer to our country, our party or our race. Our new loyalty is to Christ and his people who gather to love each other, worship God and bless the world.
What happened to this vision? Through history, it’s often not been people’s experience of the church. Australia has only recently come out of a sectarian divide where people’s identity as Catholic or Protestant divided them.
Anabaptists like me see the problem tied up to a shift in the church that is symbolised by Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century. He painted the cross on his shield and led the first ‘Christian’ nation to war. The church was no longer a minority people reconciling the differences within society. Instead, to be born into a particular country was to be born into Christianity. Loyalty to the emperor and loyalty to God became the same thing. When there was such a thing as a Christian nation, it became possible for Christian nations to go to war against each other.
We are coming out of this long phase of history and we are now in a post-Christendom society. It is a chance to recover what it means to be church, what it means for the church to be different to the world, for the church to be salty, for the church to be light for the world.
Our life together as the church is to be attractive, it is to be good news for the world. Our way of arranging our common life – our processes and structures, our politics as a group – is to show Jesus’ influence and the work of the Holy Spirit. I want to discuss three practices which do this – servant leadership, multi-voiced churches and discernment. They are not the only three or necessarily the most important three, but all three are different to the way most churches behave, and all three are at least partially practiced at Mt Hawthorn.
1. Servant leadership
One of the things that marks us as the people of God is the practice of servant leadership. Servant leadership means that those who lead must also wash feet. We recall the story in John’s gospel chapter 13, where Jesus gets out the towel and basin and washes the feet of his disciples.
We recall Jesus’ words in Luke 22:25, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves.’
There is a disturbing trend among evangelical churches for CEO style leadership, which risks being the leadership of the world which Jesus spoke against. Too often it is driven by numbers, prestige, dollars and results – a travesty of the gospel.
In contrast, at Mt Hawthorn I see servant leadership and I applaud you for it. In appointing Ken from among you as a pastoral support worker, you are maintaining the idea of the pastor as one of you. It reminds me of a sentence from an employment contract for an Anabaptist pastor who quoted it in a book he wrote. In paying a pastor, ‘we are not purchasing a commodity of ministry but are freeing a brother from the need to work additionally to support his family in order that he might be free to give himself to the work of ministry’.
2. Multi-voiced Churches
If we are a royal priesthood, we are all priests. In every culture and religion, there is a tendency to concentrate power and influence into the hands of a religious specialist. The new covenant reverses this. The early churches we read about in the letters of Paul were multi-voiced churches – ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.’ (1 Cor. 14:26)
It denies the good news to have congregations full of people remaining silent. It is a small but significant thing that at Mt Hawthorn you have an open mike at announcements time, and anyone can come forward to share news. In this and other ways you give a voice to everyone.
Yet as much as I passionately believe in multi-voiced churches in theory, why do they so often fall down in practice? House churches, that most democratic form of church, too often reach stalemate and just pool ignorance week after week, because no-one has done the hard work of learning theology, and everyone values their own opinion so much. Pentecostal churches sometimes let anyone with a prophecy speak. But who is to say what is prophecy and what is delusion or madness? What does someone whom God doesn’t speak directly to say in such a church?
All I can say is that we have to walk the tightrope of respecting, recognising and discerning people’s different gifts. We should listen carefully but not slavishly, for example, to someone with a teaching gift. And we should make sure that we are not just listening to the loudest voices.
Another way the common life of the church shows the kingdom to the world is in our discerning together. Both times Jesus is recorded as talking about the church is in connection with this. We read in Matthew 18:19-20
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
‘Bind’ and ‘loose’ were two words with special meaning for the Jews. They were used to describe the process of trying to work out how the Law applied to a particular situation. If a rabbi decided a law did apply to a particular situation, he was ‘binding’ it. Jews were obligated to apply it. If he decided it did not apply to a particular situation, he was ‘loosing’ this law. Jews were ‘loosed’ from the obligation to apply it.
Throughout Matthew’s gospel, we have examples of Jesus binding and loosing.
- 5:21-23: ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.’ Jesus is binding the law prohibiting murder as applicable to anger and insults as well.
- In 12:1-8, Jesus looses the ban on working on the sabbath to get food when you’re hungry. He says that the way Pharisees bind the law in the same situation ‘condemns the innocent’.
- In 15:3-9, Jesus binds the command to “Honour your father and mother” as applicable to caring for your parents in old age.
We are given authority by Jesus to carry on this process in the church, to work out what the Scriptures call us to do in particular situation. Some of the questions we decide by binding and loosing will be personal ones; others will be practical and moral decisions for the church.
When we do this, we are finally using the Bible as it was meant to be used – 2 Tim 3:16: ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ The theologian John Yoder comments:
One of the most enduring subjects of unfruitful controversy over the centuries has been whether the words of Scripture, when looked at purely as words, isolated from the context in which certain people read them at a certain time and place, have both the clear meaning and the absolute authority of revelation.
To speak of the Bible apart from the people reading it and apart from the specific questions that those people need to answer is to do violence to the very purpose for which we have been given the Holy Scriptures… [The] most complete framework in which to affirm the authority of Scripture is in the context of its being read and applied by a believing people that uses its guidance to respond to concrete issues in their witness and obedience. (353)
The complicated ways we define the Bible objectively begin to lose their importance as we try to apply it, as we work out whether it applies to a particular situation or not.
To different extents, every church is at work in this task of discernment, even when it is not conscious of it. The challenge is to understand it as part of our calling as the church. We need to see the spiritual importance of decision making. As we make decisions, we should try to work out what light Jesus’ teaching can shed on it. Does he say anything that we can ‘bind’ to this situation? What about the rest of the Bible?
You can see from what church means to me that I have high hopes for church. The things I’ve been talking about come out of an attempt to take seriously what the New Testament says about church. It seems to me that if we do have the power of the Holy Spirit and we are walking in Jesus’ resurrection, then these practices of the people of God should be practiced and attempted in every culture.
But there are so many reasons we fall short of them. To an extent, we should expect that. But if these things that I’ve talked about are true, then it seems strange to me that they’re not more common and my experience of them hasn’t been stronger. As I get older, I feel myself having less confidence that church ever ‘works’. Yet I still feel convicted that what God calls us to as a people looks something like what I’ve talked about. For better and worse, I’m learning patience and compromise, while still trying to hold onto some of this idealism. And I’m looking forward to belonging with Mt Hawthorn and being a part of your practice of church.