Chris Budden’s sermon delivered at the service marking the opening of the UTC academic year, February 24, 2014. Readings were Genesis 2: 4-7, Colossians 1: 19-23, Mark 8: 27-38
Let me begin by acknowledging the Baramattagul people, part of the Darrug nation, the traditional custodians of this land, and their elders past and present – people who existed within the care of God and God’s earth.
Welcome to the beginning or continuation of your studies, or to the beginning of your year as faculty or members of the wider UME community, or to the start of a new stage in your vocation of Ministry.
I want to suggest and impress on you one simple thing: the most important question to explore, wrestle with, argue with your friends about, pour over books looking for an answer to is: who is Jesus Christ for us today, and how does Jesus change/ impact on/ make a difference to life? That is, what is the good news and why does it matter?
This is a theological college of the Uniting Church, and it is part of the school of theology of Charles Sturt University. For that reason you will be surrounded by a culture of the pursuit of academic excellence. And I, for one, would expect nothing less of any of you.
But remember, those among whom you will be called to minister will not care less if you have topped your class or read and understood all the books you could lay your hands on. They will want to know one thing – how has your understanding of the Scripture and your reading of the traditions of the church helped you to better share with them the life-giving story of Jesus in a world of skepticism about God, individualism, constant war and consumerism.
The real test of your understanding of the New Testament or of Jesus will not be your capacity to explain the thought of the dozens of theologians and commentators you will read in the next few years. It will be what you have to say on Good Friday or Easter Sunday or when standing beside the grave of a small child or at the bed of a mother torn by cancer.
The test of your Old Testament class will be whether you can speak about the God who is revealed and yet hidden there in ways that point to where God is in the world today.
The test of your Church history is whether the faith, actions and practices of the church in those past periods can help the people live faithfully with Jesus in a world that is profoundly different.
The test of these subjects and others will be how you will help a local community locate itself within the faith and story of the whole people of God so that they can better be the church in their place.
You have fine teachers in this place; wonderful academics and committed Christians. At the end of your time here, though, the issue will be: how have they and this experience strengthened your faith in Christ and enabled you to learn practices and habits of life that sustain a radical, committed following of Jesus lived in the hope of the resurrection.
For candidates – this may be hard to understand within our culture – this period of time is not all about you; it is about Christ and his Church. This period is not simply about formation for your ministry. It is about the formation of a ministry that will enable the Church to be faithful to Christ and to be his body.
For members of the resource team the challenge is to sustain and enrich people’s faith and Christ’s church, not just sustain an institution.
Duncan, you begin a new journey today. Among the demands of the role and the pressures within the institution, never forget that your task is to help people be faithful followers of the crucified one.
To get you thinking, let me suggest one way in which we can understand Jesus as good news. It is based on the assumption that the heart of the Christian life is discipleship; following and conforming our life to Jesus. It is about the everyday and ordinary practices and habits of life that arise as we seek to reflect Christ’s life in the world. It is never simply about belief.
It is also based on the assumption that people seek a full and flourishing life, a life of well-being – often in the face of experiences and pressures that stop them finding that life. People want to make sense of family, marriage, sex, work, money, suffering and mortality.
So for me, the starting point is the claim that the account of a good and flourishing life that is offered by Jesus is worth engaging with, is worth a try. And central to that life is Jesus’ claim that we are to ‘love God with our whole being, and love our neighbour as we love ourselves’.
Of course if that is all we are saying there isn’t much point in Jesus. That just seems like trying to live well, and be kind and nice.
The difference is what Jesus says about loving God and our neighbours – which means loving enemies, welcoming strangers, offering hospitality to the marginalized, seeking justice, being peace-makers, giving absolute loyalty to God, caring for the weak, and being wary of the seductive power of wealth.
More than that, though, is the promise that this is not a way of life that we have to strive after by our own effort. We are offered God’s Spirit to enable us to live that life. Part of the good news is that we can love God, we can change, we can set out on new journeys, we can built new relationships.
Jesus opens up for us the chance to again love God. He ushers and accompanies us into the presence of God. We can actually live with the One in whose image and likeness we are made. In that presence we can learn to love our neighbours.
As well as the Spirit we are encouraged and cared for by the community of Jesus’ followers. It is a community called by Jesus to be a sign and foretaste of what God desires for the whole world; a community that holds faithfully to the story of Jesus in the face of many pressures to conform to other more destructive stories.
The story of Jesus is good news because it says that the life we live now is not the complete story. This is not all there is. Pain and destruction and death do not have the last word. There is resurrection, which is proof that nothing can pervert and destroy the will of God for life. Resurrection is proof that Jesus really does offer life, and is an assurance of God’s presence and activity in a world where it does not look like God is present at all.
This is not about salvation by works. I am far too deeply embedded in a Reformed tradition to fall for that. I know life is a gift from God, and that I am loved and cared for and surrounded by God because God is committed to care for the whole creation. And in that is the wonderful freedom to live with courage and hope, relatively free of the obsession to prove ourselves or compare ourselves to others or buy into the consumerist culture that shapes our lives.
But the response to that gift is not simply ‘I confess that Jesus is Lord.’ It is not enough to mouth the right words. As Jesus says, it is those who actually do the will of the father who discover life (Matthew 7:21).
Jesus is good news because he gives us a glimpse of what it means to be truly human and to live well as part of God’s whole creation, and he offers us the relationship and Spirit needed to actually claim that life. In his resurrection he offers us the hope that this present story is not the whole story, and that God can be trusted to bring about the reconciliation and renewal of the whole earth.
There is one other thing you will need to wrestle with in your time here. We are a people who live on Aboriginal land. We live in invaded space among a people who still suffer deep injustice and racism. We live among a people who knew God before we came, and whose telling of the story of God raises serious questions for those who speak about Jesus.
How does your speaking about ‘good news’ take account of the earth, and God’s presence in that earth, not just for individuals but the whole of life? What do we learn from Aboriginal people about who Jesus is, and how Jesus can be a symbol of God that includes men and women, and people of all colours? What traditional wisdom about God and life sits alongside what we learn from Jesus?
That is my conclusion and my naming of that good news. That is why Jesus matters to me.
Your task is to be very clear about why he matters to you, and to commit yourself to following him.