I still smile when someone says that Australia was the only country colonised by people on the basis of their convictions.
As we remembered last year, those who founded the colonies on the east coast of America were indeed motivated by deep conviction; those pilgrims did not only go to escape persecution in Britain for their dissenting beliefs, but they went, like Abraham, seeking a city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God. And they had lost none of that spirit when, a hundred and fifty years later, they agreed that the basis of the independence would be a recognition of a calling from God to that famous threesome ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, three things that had been denied them by Britain.
Not for nothing are those denominations which are neither Catholic nor Anglican nor Orthodox called the Free Churches. I still feel that our denomination was wrong to call us the United Reformed Church – I felt that 50 years ago. It does sound disparaging of other traditions as disunited and unreformed – which some of them are of course. But we are free, free from papal or episcopal authority.
However, as our Bible readings demonstrate, being free is far from the same as being right, or being obedient to God’s Spirit, or being wise in other matters. Those Mayflower pilgrims soon went away from their original high-mindedness, like God’s people a thousand years before. Ezekiel rebuked his contemporaries for hiding from any fresh revelation – as all God’s people tend to do. Jesus rebuked his own compatriots and his family for not recognising him as a fresh prophet, with a wisdom and a power from God. As Mark writes: Jesus was amazed at their unbelief – but really he shouldn’t have been. Sadly God’s people have been known for their hesitation, their defensiveness, their self-righteousness ever since the Lord first called Moses. Every generation of believers, including our own, has to balance the assurances of yesterday and the promises of tomorrow, a confidence in what God has done and a trust that he will not stop loving us and loving the world.
Last Sunday Michael was eloquently pleading with us, as people of God, to have a stronger faith. It is the core message of Mark’s Gospel. Let God be God, Emmanuel, God with us. And to trust in such a God may involve exploring some new ideas, some fresh expressions of being the church, some unexpected insights into what God can ask of us, a Christ-like, loving God. It may even take you on your own journey in a quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Mayflower pilgrims were sent on their way by Pastor john Robinson who told them that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word”. We need to hear that.
Of course what is new is not necessarily true – that is silly and actually rather self-righteous. But to say that nothing new can be true is equally faithless. Does not John’s Gospel have Jesus say “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” I take that to mean ‘more of the same’ as we do our best to follow Jesus and catch the spirit in which he spoke and acted. A Christlike church will never die.
There’s an old saying that “if God had meant us to trust him for the future, he wouldn’t want us living in the past”. There are always new opportunities and choices, new skills to try and learn, new ways of expressing our faith in words and activity, new challenges to sail away to the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And yes, happiness is in the mix. A familiar hymn reminds us of God’s promise: “mornings of joy give for evenings of tearfulness, trust for our trembling and hope for our fear”.
And the key to happiness is being forgiven – not being right all the time. None of us are free from this sin. Both our readings tell of God’s prophets urging humility and hope on their hearers; God the creator is to be trusted. Just have faith. And as Paul would add, have hope and love also. Such things are signs of heaven on earth. Thank God.
And, speaking of signs of heaven on earth, we shall shortly move to sharing what Paul called the Lord’s supper. Thankfully it is now possible for Elders to serve, as is our tradition. Some call this sacrament ‘journeying mercies’ and so it can be, for those willing to set sail in faith – and not in their own strength – to find their life, their liberty and their true happiness.
Thanks be to God.
Revd Peter Brain