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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 2, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 16, 2011

Psalm 40: 1-11; John 1: 29-42

‘Come and see’

I think we can read both the Psalm and the Gospel assage from John as invitations to, or celebrations of, the sharing of the Good News which those concerned had
 experienced in relating to their God.

This made me reflect on evangelism in general and to ask myself how we, as members of a radical part of the church, could understand that.

In 1977, the Uniting Church came into being. At that time I was working for the NSW Ecumenical Council in relation to the International Aid and Development Programs of the Australian Churches. I was also representing the Australian Churches on the General Committee of the Christian Conference of Asia. I was a committed feminist and peace and anti-apartheid activist and undoubtedly known as part of the radical arm of the church in terms of theological convictions.

Who was invited to chair the first National Commission on Evangelism of the Uniting Church? Me! Pretty amazing really! If I share this with you, it is to indicate that our church obviously had, from its beginnings, a view of evangelism which is not confined to the conservative “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved” approach.

So, over the years, in various roles, I have sat with people here and around the world and discussed what it means to say, in effect, “Come and see the Christ”.

Around that period, I needed to decide why I was a Christian and who I think that Jesus is. It was a time when I wondered if Jesus was God, or simply a wonderful prophet like those who inspired other great faiths. Who was I introducing to other people?

In the end, the two questions came together for me. I decided that I was a Christian precisely because I believed in the divinity of Christ. Why was this important? I realized that, unless Christ was divine, then the God I served had never walked in our life or entered the human condition. It seemed critical to me that my God would have done that, rather than simply looking from outside. I chose to be a Christian precisely because I loved having a God who had struggled with the things which we experience and had faced the ambiguities and challenges of our journey.

Having said that, I believe that there are many paths to God and that the God we serve has a grander and wider vision of relationship with humankind than confining it to any one faith, or none. This is the God who, as we reflected last Sunday, looks on all people and sees them as the beloved. Often our choices of faith are linked with where we live, which culture we come from and what connects with our own spirituality.

In my working internationally, I saw the truth in the words of a Christ who, when the disciples pointed to others as “not one of us”, said “By their fruits you will know them”. We are invited to look deeply into the lives of others before we make judgments in teams of faith or none. I met so many people who were clearly “of God” even though they were not Christian. They were walking the road of life, adding to its goodness, compassion and justice and often prepared to suffer for others. The Holy Spirit can be “seen” hovering over their heads and they can be found in the place where Jesus stays.

Having said that, I believe that the richest and most profound engagements we have with people of other faiths are those where we share our sharpest differences, rather than what we have in common. The authentic struggle for truth lies in the dialogue about our differences, even though those differences may never be resolved.

But, back to the issue of the nature of evangelism. As a now member of the clergy, my very existence announces that I am a person of faith. This gives me a benefit and a handicap at the same time. The benefit is that I don’t need to find ways of telling people that I am a person of faith. The handicap is that people act in strange ways around clergy, as though we may be other than normal human beings. Then we have to “prove” that we are really just like everyone else.

Once I do that, I am amazed at how often I find people from all walks of life taking me aside and asking me questions about life and faith. I remember this happening after I addressed the police at their academy in Goulburn. I couldn’t believe how many people came up and wanted to discuss faith with me, and I hadn’t even been talking about that when I spoke to them.

In sharing this, I am suggesting that we who are radical may well be those who are less of a threat to those who long to explore some aspect of faith. I have long believed that people, perhaps especially those who live in Sydney, are afraid of the church. This feeling goes a long way back in our history as a culture, I believe. When it was first established here, the church assumed the role of a moral policeperson with its flogging parsons and, sadly I think that is how we are still perceived by many people, with some justification.

So, what do people want to talk about when they “come to see” the Christ? In my experience the predominant questions are related to what sort of God we believe in: Is this a punishing God? Do we believe in hell? Can you really be forgiven for things? How do we understand natural disasters? Is the Bible literally true? Does God love people of different sexualities? What is human suffering about?

In other words, they want to ask the hard questions of us. In recognizing that, I am suggesting that, if we want to be a church which can relate to all sorts of people, we will need to feel free to ask the hard questions aloud ourselves and to admit that no-one has all the answers.

We may need to acknowledge respectfully that people of belief are just that. We do not and cannot “know”. We believe.

Having said that, it is really helpful to share together why we do believe, what that adds to our life and where we “meet” the Christ.

When I have to do that, I say something like this:

If others don’t want or need to relate to this God, that is OK with me. I can only say that this is my faith and my joy.

I am deeply thankful to be part of a church which, I believe, is a safe place for people to enter and explore and, where those who are here, hold onto each other in love as we travel through all sorts of paths in our life journey.

In completing the homily together today:

In the silence, I invite you to reflect on what is important to you about faith. If you wish, come and take a pearl and place it beside the Christ Candle. Or, if you fell more like asking a hard question about life and God, take a little cross and place it there.

By Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon.