Tag Archives: Open Brethren

Living in the tension

Reading
Luke 12.49–56

 

I have often repented of judging too severely, but very seldom of being too merciful. — John Wesley, Letters to John C Brackenbury, #656

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The sermon I’m about to preach had a few false starts. I started it at least four times with different ideas. That happens from time to time. Sometimes, in working out how to approach a difficult sermon, I take a personal approach. Which is what I’m doing today. 

Why was it so hard to write? I didn’t want to avoid difficult verses like this, but I didn’t know quite what to say: 

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!… Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…

Division isn’t easy. 

I’ve been divided from people because of my faith. Let me tell you about one or two times. 

I had a sudden conversion experience; I’ll tell you more about it another time. It was at a Billy Graham rally, and a couple of days afterwards I plucked up the courage to tell my dad. 

Dad was not best pleased. He told me not to post back the study material I’d been given, because all I’d get would be ‘begging letters’. He told me he’d believe what Billy Graham had to say if he rode into town on a donkey rather than flying in on a jet plane. 

That was my first taste of division, and of how complex divisions really can be. Hear again what my dad said: he’d believe what Billy Graham had to say if he rode into town on a donkey rather than flying in on a jet plane. 

Dad was saying that he was prepared to give a hearing to someone who truly followed Jesus. But he wasn’t prepared to listen to a man he believed (wrongly, in my opinion) was only in it for the money. 

This is a story of necessary division. When Jesus is there, we ultimately need to make a choice. Will we follow, or turn away? 

(By the way, my dad eventually listened to the voice of Jesus. But that’s a story for another day.)

The second division came a few years later. I was going to my best friend at school’s church. I mean, why not go to your best friend’s church, right? 

It was an Open Brethren outfit, a fundamentalist group who insisted that there were no errors or contradictions in the Bible; that the earth was 6000 years old; and only men could offer leadership in the church. What’s more, expressing any doubt or having other opinions was questionable or even sinful, and thoroughly discouraged. 

Before long the Vietnam War was getting close to home, and I was studying medicine at uni. The things I was being taught at church seemed very simplistic when I put them next to what I was learning at uni, and next to the problems we were facing as a country. The church’s teachings seemed like kindergarten stuff compared to what I was hearing and discovering elsewhere. 

To relieve the tension I felt, I read widely about the Christian faith. I realised that if I was learning Medicine at a university level I would have to educate myself as much as I could about the faith I believed. 

Problem: the more I read and learned, the more I realised that a fundamentalist way of thinking made very little sense. 

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(A bit of) what you need to know about UC elders…

Reading
Luke 19.1–10

 

Let me tell you about the first time I went to church after I gave my life to Jesus. Some of you will know that it was the church of my best friend at school, and that it was an Open Brethren congregation. He’d invited me, and I was glad to go.

I’d been brought up as a nominal Anglican, rarely setting foot inside a church.

The Brethren have a particular style of worship, which includes a weekly Memorial of the Lord’s Supper. So I’m sitting in church, and the bread and wine (real wine!) were passed around the pews. I receive the Lord’s Supper.

Unbeknown to me, this causes quite a flutter of consternation. Who is this teenager who comes to church for the very first time and partakes of the Lord’s Supper?

After the service, my friend comes to me. ‘The elders’ have taken him aside. They want to know who I am. Is your friend a Christian? they ask him? He says he thinks so. He then tells me I have to go and talk to them.

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Faith looks forward

Ordinary Time 20C; Pentecost 13C; Proper 15C

Readings
Isaiah 5.1–7
Hebrews 11.29—12.2
Luke 12.49–56

Today and last Sunday, the lectionary has directed our thoughts to Hebrews 11, the great ‘Faith Chapter’. Key Old Testament figures of faith are remembered in this chapter: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Samuel, David, and others. Of course, if we were writing this list today we may have included Sarah with Abraham, and named more women than Rahab. Women like Hagar, Ruth, Deborah and Judith would really round the chapter out for many of us.

The stories of people of faith can be a great encouragement to us. The people of faith we ourselves know can also encourage us.

I want to tell you about a time when I wondered if I really was a person of faith after all. A time when I thought my faith may just evaporate.

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I am/not a Progressive Christian

I accepted Christ at a Billy Graham rally in 1968 at the age of 14. I’d had no experience of belonging to a church, so when my best friend at school invited me to his church I was both relieved and delighted to go.

It was an Open Brethren group, full of lovely, uptight people. And lots of girls (so I could safely hover on the edges of friendships with girls for a long time).

I began to see cracks in the fundamentalism I was being taught, in the ways the scriptures had to be twisted to make them ‘inerrant’ and fit oh-so-neatly together. I began to see that taking the Bible seriously meant allowing its internal debate about things. Many things.

At the same time, I began to feel God was maybe calling me into the ordained ministry. Problem: The Brethren don’t ordain anyone. They argue against ‘one man ministry’ (I still do!).

When I plucked up enough courage to say this is what I wanted, and moreover in the Uniting Church, there was a great deal of resistance from some of my brothers and sisters. These people would accept my going to Sydney (nowhere else!) to be an Anglican minister. But Uniting? The word soon got out that Paul Walton may not be a Christian at all, even that he never really was. For a while, I doubted it myself. Leaving fundamentalism can be a scary journey at first.

That was around 30 years ago. A few years past, I went to a gathering of people from my old church. Enough time had gone by for me to be forgiven, and to forgive. I was keen to see how their views had changed over the decades. I was very disappointed to realise that their understanding of the Faith had stayed static.

Recently I read that

At its core, progressive Christianity maintains that there are no easy answers to the questions of faith simply because our understanding of God and Jesus evolves and changes (i.e., “progresses”) enormously over a lifetime. As we move through life, and as our experiences and knowledge shape and alter our view of faith, we come to see that we only have a piece of the truth and that we must be in conversation with others who themselves possess part of that spiritual truth.

It seems that this is one of a number of views on what ‘progressive Christianity’ is. It may be true, but I can’t accept it as an adequate definition.

Of course our understanding changes through life. Surely, no one has precisely the same belief in God in their adult years as they had as a young child. So if I can sense that changing understanding of God in my life, I must be a ‘progressive’ Christian? There is of course a necessary value judgement in the statement I quoted: a ‘progressive’ belief is one that has “come to see that we only have a piece of the truth and that we must be in conversation with others who themselves possess part of that spiritual truth”. There is a real humility here, but I’m not sure all ‘progressive’ Christians are this humble—a trait so many of us share. I’ll have to think some more. Maybe I’ll share again soon.

 

(See the articles in the What is Progressive Christianity? Symposium here.)

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