Sermon at the Opening Service of the 13th Assembly

Monday, 21 May 2012

from Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney
Delivered Adelaide Entertainment Centre, 15 July 2012

Bible Reading: John 10:10b-16

The passage from John's Gospel uses powerful themes from the Hebrew scriptures that would have been well known to first century Jewish people:

  • God as the true Shepherd of Israel; giving life, security, peace – a future
  • The promise of a leader in the line of David; anointed to be the faithful shepherd of Israel under God
  • Ezekiel 34: a searing critique of the false shepherds of Israel together with a powerful affirmation of God's promise to Israel, God's Flock –
    • "I will feed them with good pasture...they shall lie down in good grazing land. ...I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice." (vv.14, 15)

When Jesus said, I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10b), everyone knew he meant just this:

  • the gathering of scattered, divided people
  • into a community of peace and justice within which everyone can flourish.

It is the kingdom of God, the promise of shalom, the purpose and end of God's long journey in creation, in the calling of a people for the sake of the world, and in the sending of the Son: gathering in the lost, the strayed, the injured, the weak from all the corners of the earth; from every nook and cranny of our fractured world.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father...I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)

I've been introducing the Uniting Church to people for most of my adult life – its history, vision, values and structures. I even wrote a booklet called "Introducing the Uniting Church in Australia". I go to Uniting Church agencies to brief boards. I go to Uniting Church schools to do professional development with teachers. I go to Uniting Church councils and committees to induct new members into the nature of the church they've been elected to lead.

And I don't see this need for introductions slowing up any time soon. For one thing, the church's health, welfare and educational agencies are continuing to grow and employ many people who are committed to the agency's mission but have no affiliation with the Uniting Church. So the agencies are looking for opportunities to introduce their workers and volunteers to the Uniting Church and its ministry in Australia. Or again, as migration patterns continue to develop and change we're delighted to welcome more and more people from Asia, the Pacific, Africa and elsewhere into the Uniting Church. The denominations that they knew and loved in their home countries generally don't have congregations here and so they look to the Uniting Church for ways to build Christian communities appropriate to their needs. And they look for opportunities to get to understand their new denomination – its vision, its ministry, and how they can share in it.

And then there's that very noticeable shift in Australian spirituality which seems to involve an increasing disenchantment, or at least disinterest, with organised religion. Religion in Australia is intensely voluntary. People choose a religion for themselves, what parts they'll adopt or ignore, and what they think of any pronouncements that their religion's official leaders make. People don't take their religious affiliation as "given", but choose it.

This was very obvious to me in my previous ministry as the Principal of a theological college. When I last looked over the list of ordination candidates in Uniting College I found that more than half had found their way into the Uniting Church – and to putting their hand up to be ministers in this denomination – after participating in other Christian denominations, other religious traditions or no religion at all. The last time I taught my course on The Heritage Theology and Polity of the Uniting Church the 18 members of the class identified 19 different denominations with which they'd been affiliated and within which they'd been nurtured in faith – and only two of them mentioned one of the denominations that originally formed the Uniting Church 35 years ago.

This isn't the orderly transmission of a denominational tradition from one generation to the next. It's the wonderfully dis-orderly creation of tradition by a generation that has no clear memory of a shared origin but a strong sense of belonging together through a shared vision. This is post-denominationalism and it is part and parcel of the Uniting Church's life and ministry.

The Uniting Church in Australia was always meant to be like this too. In his address to the second Assembly, as the retiring President, Davis McCaughey said:

In an important sense we in the UCA have no church identity, no distinctive marks – other than belonging with the people of God brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on their way to the consummation of all things in Him... We are embarked on a course in which we ask men and women to forget who they are and remember whose they are.

The Basis of Union had envisaged not a unit-ed church – complete, packaged, distinct – but a unit-ing church – provisional, a continual work in progress, "an interim way of being 'church' on the way to the end of denominationalism as a whole." One of the ways it did this was by insisting that the Church's identity is entirely given in the mission of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit:

God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church's call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. (Paragraph 3)

Another way the Basis of Union encouraged us to see our denomination as an "interim way of being 'church' on the way to the end of denominationalism as a whole" was by describing the church's life in Christ as a journey or pilgrimage:

...the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal. Here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way. (paragraph 3)

And the Basis of Union further anticipated post-denominationalism by insisting that the Uniting Church is only part of this pilgrim people, not the whole: "it is related to other Churches" (Paragraph 2), "it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end" (Paragraph 18).

In 1977, the Uniting Church was formed by people from three strong denominational traditions agreeing to leave their denominations behind to be together: "a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself... a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal". And over the last 35 years the Uniting Church has continued to be formed and reformed by people from many nations, cultures and denominations learning "to forget who they are and remember whose they are."

We heard the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John this evening:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father...I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (10:14-16)

The Uniting Church is a church of "other folds". We don't have "other folds" stuck onto the edges of "this fold". We're "other folds" all the way through. We're all difference, diversity, variety, other. So it's only to be expected that we puzzle each other sometimes and surprise each other in ways that may delight, annoy, frighten or reassure. But we're together not because we're all the same, not because of who we are but whose we are. We have one shepherd. He knows us and we know him. He calls us and we come to him. And because there is one shepherd, incredibly, there is "one flock". The only sense of identity that Uniting Church seeks is to belong to that "one flock", that "fellowship of reconciliation" which is a sign, foretaste and instrument of "that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation."

Every five years, a National Church Life Survey is conducted throughout Australia. In 2011, 23 denominations participated along with some independent churches. This time, the Uniting Church took the opportunity to commission some survey questions of its own. While the results are still being processed, a preliminary report has been produced in time for this Assembly. It only includes raw data from three of the Uniting Church's questions, but I find it very interesting feedback as I look forward to this week and the next three years.

One of the questions included in the NCLS preliminary report was this:

Which of the following aspects do you most like about the Uniting Church as a denomination? (Mark up to THREE options)

The list of options was fairly long. It mentioned just about everything you could think of that we're involved in through our agencies. It included things that we might think of as pretty important aspects of our profile like: commitment to multiculturalism, rural ministry, evangelism, social justice, our partnerships with overseas churches, our openness to new forms of church life and to different Biblical viewpoints. Something for everyone really.

But it turned out that the list was pretty much superfluous. Of the 19,768 Uniting Church attenders who answered that question nearly 71% indicated that the thing they liked most about the UCA as a denomination is its "inclusiveness of all types of people". Just to compare, the next most commonly chosen option was "provision of community services", at just under 25%. No, the votes are in. The message is clear. The thing we like most about our church is its inclusiveness.

So was I surprised at this response? Not really. I was asked recently what the best thing about the Uniting Church is. And without thinking I said that the best thing about the Christian church has always been its capacity to include people regardless of race, gender, culture, social status, health status or anything else – "As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ," the apostle Paul wrote, "all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28). It's the astonishing, contentious, wondrous work of Holy Spirit. It's the miracle of the Gospel. It's always been the best and most in-your-face thing about Christ's church, and it's still the best thing about the UCA.

So I wasn't surprised that the overwhelming majority of respondents in the 2011 NCLS survey said that "inclusiveness of all types of people" was the thing they liked most about the Uniting Church. But I was thrilled. It turns out that our congregations know and like what lies deepest in their DNA as Christian communities and uppermost in the vision of the mission of God which the Uniting Church lives to participate in – "that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation". The emphatically agreed affirmation of "inclusiveness of all types of people" is itself a sign of "that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation" as people attending local congregations report on the "inclusiveness of all types of people" that they are experiencing already.

It is the task of this 13th Assembly not to shore up a denominational identity, not to protect our brand, but to hear what the congregations we serve have said to us through the NCLS report and to lift our eyes to that horizon of "reconciliation and renewal ...for the whole creation" as we attend to our work.

Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father...I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."

"One flock, one shepherd". Amen.