13th July 2016
Sermon by Rev Dr Max Champion, Uniting Church Anniversary, 26th June 2016
Lessons: Jonah 1: 1-6; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21; Mark 4: 35-41
‘We believe’ says the Nicene Creed, ‘in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church’
‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘do you not care if we perish?’ (Mk 4:38)
These texts speak to us around the anniversary of the UCA. One is an affirmation of faith in the church; the other a bewildered cry of disciples. On the face of it, they contradict each other. In reality, they express the core of what it means to belong to the Christian community.
The stilling of the storm is a parable of the Church. It symbolises disorder in the world and threats to faith. It exposes our impotence in the face of evil. The ‘sea’ represents chaos in every sphere of life - danger from enemies, abuse by oppressors, persecution.
It speaks particularly of threats to faith. The ‘boat’ is a symbol of the church under attack. The cry of distress represents the despair experienced by Jesus' followers when they suffer ‘the dark night of the soul.’ In a chaotic world, where there is so much conflict and the church’s faith is ridiculed, the disciples’ cry is an admission of their lack of power, courage and faith.
We can certainly identify with them. Today the church is experiencing the silence of God. Despite many attempts to find strategies to renew the church, we are being swamped by the forces of secularism and nihilism. We know what it means to cry-out: ‘Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ (v38) Isn't that how we often feel at the smallness and seeming futility of the church’s witness?
In Matthew and Luke this urgent question is softened by the expectation that Jesus will help. But Mark is more honest! He knows that, when God is silent in the face of overwhelming evil, the proper response is to question God's love. ‘Do you not care?’ Peacefully asleep on a cushion at the height of persecution, don’t you care about your terrified disciples!
This miserable picture of the church - helpless, afraid, self-concerned - seems left behind when we turn to the Nicene Creed. A more confident note is sounded: ‘We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.’ Although credal language seems more remote from daily life than the drama at sea, we shouldn't underestimate the life-and-death issues which led to its formulation.
The four ‘marks of the Church,’ as they are known, are often used as shorthand to describe the vocation of the Christian community. They were formed amid controversy about the nature of the truth revealed in Christ. The descriptions ‘one’ and ‘apostolic’ were added to the Apostles' Creed to strengthen the Church’s identity in the face of powerful, divisive beliefs.
The hallmarks of Christian community, put succinctly, are unity (oneness), holiness (distinctiveness), catholicity (universality) and apostolicity (fidelity). They are not the characteristics of a perfect institution but of a missionary movement involving fallible people.
That is why the Creed says that we ‘believe’ in the Church. We do not believe in the Church as we believe in the triune God but we acknowledge that, in spite of its faults and lack of courage, the Church is the arena in which the Holy Spirit is present and active to form men and women into the body of Christ so that the world might believe.
To this end we acknowledge the unity which transcends denominations and binds all Christians; we acknowledge the holiness which is set apart to be a community of reconciliation in the world; we acknowledge the catholicity (universality) which is both beyond the local congregation and seeks God’s will for the whole creation; and we acknowledge the apostolic tradition within which the truth of Christ is declared and nurtured.
Such unity is not to be confused with conformity; holiness with superiority or retreat; catholicity with one denomination or disregard of local congregations; apostolicity with dead tradition. ...
We are called to believe in the Church because it is the community in which the Holy Spirit forms people to be servants of Christ. It isn't an optional extra for those who believe in God, but a necessary place in which to worship and serve God.
This doesn't mean that the church is exempt from criticism. Far from it! It is a very imperfect community. Any idea that the Creeds are a statement of Christian superiority is quashed by the immediate recognition that the Church lives from the ‘forgiveness of sins.’ That is to say, she has a distinctive vocation in pointing the world to the One who 'has not counted their sins against them' (2 Corinthians 5:19).
This is also the message of the parable. The ‘boat’ doesn't survive the storm because of the disciples' goodness or power, but only by the word of Jesus which brings calm, peace and safety. Apart from his word they are without hope. Before he speaks they are bewildered by God's silence. Afterwards they are terrified at his God-embodied power. ...
Today the ‘little boat’ of the Church is surrounded by fierce storms. In our society, the ill-winds and waves of secularism and nihilism are becoming stronger. Often we are more concerned about our own survival than our calling, forgetting that other Christians, in places like Syria, Iraq, Iran, are suffering terrible persecution. Perhaps they can teach us how to stand-up in the boat while being buffeted by hostile forces?
When all seems futile, we may still live by hope. Christ has ultimate power over all that threatens our life-together. That is why we must boldly affirm our faith in ‘the one holy catholic and apostolic Church’ even as we also cry-out for the presence of the One who speaks into the silence of God!
Such confidence is necessary, not only for the church’s life, but for the sake of the ‘other boats on the lake’ (v36). With this detail, Mark sees the wider significance of this dramatic episode. It isn't only the Church that is in danger of being swamped by evil. Moreover, she does not exist for herself.
Christ doesn't calm the storms so that pious believers can huddle together. This is a word of hope for all nations and every human endeavour. Christ isn't only Lord of the Church but Lord of heaven and earth, as the Uniting Church's Basis of Union says.
The World Council of Churches symbol rightly depicts the storm-tossed church being kept afloat by the empty cross - thus representing the final victory of the One who stilled the storm. Apart from the triumph of the risen-crucified Jesus, this story by itself wouldn’t give us grounds for hope.
As it is, it is a beacon of hope and courage. No matter what may threaten to swamp us in the Church or the world, we may have confidence that God's good purposes for creation uniquely embodied in Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended Lord of all, hasn't abandoned us and will not abandon us or the world.
This is Good News. The ‘peace’ that he brings doesn’t allow us take our ease and loll-about in the boat, but steels us to withstand future storms. And it gives us courage as a Christian community today to stand-up for what is right no matter how powerful are the forces of secularism and nihilism.
When we see that this is what it means to be called into the 'little boat of the Church,' we will see that belonging to the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church' is a succinct and necessary description of a great adventure of faith.
Rev Dr Max Champion is the Convenor of the ACC Theology and Ecumenical Relationships Commission