BIBLE READINGS: Acts 2:1-11 John 20:19-23
When was the first time you noticed
that things weren't the way they always have been? The Rev. Dr.
Rob Nash who was the Global Mission Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist
Fellowship, headquartered in Atlanta, USA, tells this story....
[Some time] ago I made my way up to a church in a rural county seat town to deliver the Sunday morning message. As I drove into town, I nearly ran off the road when I saw a sign just in front of a little brick ranch home that said "Laotian Buddhist Temple." It was certainly the first Buddhist temple that I had ever seen in that part of the country. And I scratched my head in wonder and amazement and drove on up to the church.
On entering the pulpit, I said to the congregation, "I notice you have a Buddhist temple here in town. I'm assuming you folks have been out to the temple to welcome the Buddhists to your community." The congregation just stared at me, and an uncomfortable silence filled the sanctuary. I decided to push on. "Well," I said, "I tell you what I'm gonna do. On my way home this afternoon, I'm going to pull up to the temple and meet the monks and tell them that the Church is going to be coming out to see them and to welcome them to town." I saw a few nods around the church that seemed to give me some license to fulfill this crazy mission.
After church I made my way to the temple, knocked on the door, shared a Coke with the monks in front of the image of the Buddha, and told them about the people of the Baptist Church. And the next Sunday morning I crawled back up into the pulpit and reported on my success. "The Buddhists are so excited that you folks are coming to see them," I said.
At the end of my sermon and to their credit, the women of that congregation met me down front and asked me how they ought to approach this significant task. I noticed no men were among their number, and I thought the men ought to be involved on some level, so I said, "Just get your husbands to bake up a batch of chocolate chip cookies and take those out to the temple and give them to the monks as a welcoming gift." I'm glad to report that those women did just that - except for the part where the husbands made the chocolate chip cookies. And when I visited the congregation several months later, they reported to me that they now viewed the monks as friends and not as strangers when they saw them on Main Street downtown.
We live in a new and rapidly shrinking world. We've got Buddhist and Hindu temples in the surrounding suburbs. Our children go to schools with people who come Nepal to Syria, from the Ukraine to Zimbabwe. I can eat a hamburger from MacDonalds here in Rockdale, fly to Malaysia and have a hamburger in MacDonalds in Kuala Lumper. All of this shrinking is terribly exciting and sometimes rather sobering for all of us. But it is certainly a bit of a shock to a faith like Christianity in our context where for 200 years we were the only faith around. Oh, I know there's some exceptions and that our indigenous peoples have struggled to maintain their own identity or the Chinese who have been a part of our community since the Gold Rush in the 1800's, but.... for most of our country for ourselves religious diversity is fairly new. So many of us still continue to struggle with what it all means for me and for my church and my faith.
There's lots of good news in it. A diverse world demands more of us as Christians. It forces us to examine our own motivations and our reasons for engaging otherness and difference in the world. We have a unique opportunity to embrace people from all over the world with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. The challenge of this is a significant one, because I'm convinced that you and I are now living in the century of the local church, the local congregation when it comes to the Christian engagement with the world.
In the past 400 years the protestant church has progressed and changed dramatically. The 18th century was the century of the individual missionary, like William Carey in India and Burma. And the 19th century was the great century of the mission society, and the 20th century was the century of the great denominations. And now we live in the century of the local church. This truly is the century of the church. The church is the place where God is at work in the world. This reality exciting and frightening at the same time. I'm not sure we are ready for it. For a couple of centuries now, we have prayed that congregations would become passionate about sharing the love of Christ with the world in word and deed, and we're finally receiving what we've prayed for.
When I was on the minister's Retreat some time ago I was interested to hear Rev. Neil Reid talk about the reaction some have had to his church's housebuilding programme in Mexico. He mention the anger of some here in Australia who said that they ought to be sharing the gospel, not building homes. His response was we go and build the homes, and the local churches who tell us whom to build the homes for, share the Gospel message. The gospel is more local and more global than it once was.
All of us need to change if we are to seek to engage the world with the love and grace of Christ. And that is going to be painful because of what it means. It means that for us is that we need to relate to our local very pluralistic community here in Rockdale that God has placed us. We've got to bless the nations and peoples that live around us before we can bless the nations and peoples that live way out there. We must engage in loving relationships with people who are radically different from us. Every Christian bears this privilege and this responsibility.
The world is full of hurting and marginalised people who deserve our care and our concern. God needs deeply committed Christian people who understand that their calling is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to bless the world through lifelong commitment to love and service. But we need help in reaching out to the world that God has brought to us, and often we're unsure about how to do it.
We're given a bit of a clue here in the commission of Jesus to the church found in John's Gospel.
"As the Father has sent me," Jesus says, "so I send you. And with that he breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. "
Jesus' sending was an all-encompassing sending. It was a day-in and day-out sort of calling. Ours is no different. Every moment of life is to be lived under the lordship of Christ. We're called to engage the world for the good of the world. We're all called into the world to be the presence of Christ, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to minister in word and deed to those whom we meet. This is not the responsibility of just a few enthusiastic members but all of us. It is the responsibility of the whole church, and thus it is the responsibility of Rockdale Uniting church. And he tells us we will not do it alone that his Holy Spirit will be with us he will be with us his power will be in us to proclaim his love in powerful words and deeds.
But still, it will not be easy, but it will mean there will be more and more Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus move into our community to whom we need to offer a cup of cold water, or a friendly smile and blessing in the name of Jesus. And through the power of the Holy Spirit we will turn strangers into friends.
Let us pray. Lord, we ask for courage to risk. In a day in which far too many of us shy away from difference in the world, help us to celebrate the differences that exist at the very heart of who you have made us to be. Enable us to reach out to others with your love and grace and even as we reach, to receive with openness the love that others desire to share with us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.