Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19 Oremus Bible Browser

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen

…and in memory of Athol Gill. Athol Gill died in 1992, I believe at the age of 53, which happens to be my age. Maybe that’s what made me think of him when the reading from Acts came up or maybe it’s about my mortality, given the news a couple of weeks ago that Rick Farley had died aged 53 and of course about four years ago my friend John Roffey died, at age 53.

Athol Gill was a lecturer at the Baptist College of Victoria when Alison and I were doing our theological studies all those years ago and he taught us the gospels of Mark and Matthew and Luke and pointed out that of course if you study Luke’s gospel then you have to go on to the second volume, The Acts of the Apostles. So Athol was important in shaping my thinking about the book of Acts in those days. Athol was also the founder and leader of a well-known Christian community in Melbourne called the House of the Gentle Bunyip, which took its name from the book The Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek. The story, as I said to the children, is about becoming who you are and a story about loving who you are, it’s about becoming whole, it’s about becoming holy. And isn’t that what we try to do in our community of faith?

The House of the Gentle Bunyip was all about people becoming whole, becoming real together. It’s a community which sought to live out the life of discipleship, taking seriously the call to follow Jesus as the way to wholeness. You see for Athol the only purpose in reading the gospel was to study and live out what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the one who came in God’s name, saying ‘Follow me’. And such following only happens in community, with others who also respond to that call.

Shaping such a community, whether it’s the one gathered around Jesus in his ministry or one like the Bunyip, as we always referred to it, or one like St Paul’s Beaconsfield, sounds terrific. Let’s all live together and sing scripture choruses all day! Let’s love one another, after all it’s easy, we’re all Christians. By the way, Howard, another thing Athol used to say to us was if you want to change the theology of your communion, start by changing the hymns. It’s very true.

Let’s just pause and look at the Book of Acts. Look at the difficulties that arise in the early Christian community or go to the letters of the New Testament – check out the problems, the fights that they had, the uncertainties. It’s never easy, shaping a community. As the old saying goes:

To dwell above with the saints we love,
Ah, that will be glorious;
To live below with the saints we know
Is another story
!

But that’s the challenge of community. We speak of St Paul’s as a community and it is. Like most church congregations, it’s constantly changing and it’s never the same twice. Today, Peter Humphris isn’t here – no editorialising on that one. You may be sitting next to someone you have never met, you may well be sitting next the same person you sit next to week after week, but you and that other person are different this week to what you were last week.

There is another peculiarity about a church community though and this is touched on in the gospel reading. How much do we choose to belong here and how much are we placed here? Jesus says that God has given the disciples into his care and teaching; he affirms that everything belongs to God and is within God’s love to give the disciples to Him. And of course the giving is for a purpose. These disciples are to be the sharers, the bearers of God’s love, the love that God has given them in Jesus. They are to have a peculiar relationship with the world, even, and to be bearers of God’s glory in Christ. And that’s us – it’s a bit of a job description, but that’s what we’re living out. We are to be the sharers and the bearers of what Jesus did in the world.

That’s what makes us this community, our shared oneness. And how we live that and how we shape that is up to us. Look at the Acts reading again as the disciples work out how to replace Judas. It’s a fascinating story that brings out a whole range of issues. Why is it important to make up the number twelve again? Well, obviously it’s symbolic, it must be. Jesus chose twelve, there were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. Who knows what else is symbolic there – obviously Luke thinks that his audience knows because he doesn’t spell it out. Then it raises the issue that although Jesus chose twelve, there were at least two others who were qualified among the followers, but the key number was twelve, not fourteen, so there were a couple on the bench. And that’s why this conversation amongst the disciples gets a mention – the selection of the replacement was no more automatic than choosing the Dockers’ line-up. And what did they do? Well, they tossed a coin; they drew straws actually, but it’s the same thing. They came to an impasse on how the community would be shaped and they tossed a coin, and by the way, it was Athol Gill who first pointed this out to me. That’s how they reshaped the community post-Easter.

Athol also came to mind because of the whole issue of what a community looks like and how it shapes its life. The House of the Gentle Bunyip lived a life that you might get a sense of if you read Acts chapter two – a common purse from which all members received as they needed and to which all contributed as they were able. They had a rule based on a monastic model – common prayer, meals together, tasks in the household were shared. That’s not a pattern that we have followed at St Paul’s, although I can tell you that when I was in my early twenties I was part of a group that very seriously discussed precisely that sort of model of a Christian community. At St Paul’s though, we haven’t chosen to live together, and some of you are thinking, ‘Thank God for that’!

But we are a community, we hold things in common - our worship life, Sunday by Sunday, our love and care for each other, our commitment to maintaining a witness to God’s presence in this community, generation after generation after generation. Beyond that we enjoy beautiful gardens because of the commitment of some of the people among us; our buildings bear witness to the commitment of generations who have been here before us, and we’ve also gone beyond our generation and started to look at the buildings for the generations to come, as we start grappling with the wall. We’ve already got a name for the group that are looking at that, by the way, they’re ‘The Eastenders’! We get to rejoice with beautiful music because of the commitment of our singing group, who are having a bye this week, just in case you’re wondering how the timetable’s working out.

All these and more are shaped by our sense of community and they shape our sense of community. It’s two way, just as being here is a two way movement – God gives us to the community and we give ourselves to God in this community. That just goes to show that there are mysteries in the Christian life – to be given and to give oneself, in the classic language of the marriage service. One thing about which there is no mystery however, is that each community has to take up the task of shaping itself within God’s love. I know from my wanderings around parishes in the diocese of Perth, that no two places are ever the same, even though they may all be Anglican, all base their worship on the same prayer book, all meet around the altar for Communion and all share in the leadership of the archbishop, no two places are ever alike.

The New Testament shows us how the early church shaped its life: the appointment of the first deacons when problems arose with the distribution of food, the issue of what foods could be eaten – Peter and Paul’s famous ‘food fight in Antioch’, as they say – and that same responsibility lies with us, to shape this community in God’s love and for God’s world. Every decision, every action shapes us, sometimes for better sometimes not; even deciding whether something is for better or for not is difficult. To not decide, however, is to actually make a decision. It takes boldness and courage to live in and shape a community. That was the experience of the early Christians and it was the experience of everyone who lived at the House of the Gentle Bunyip and it’s the experience of many of us here at St Paul’s. But there is a word from Jesus about that – ‘Do not be afraid little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.

Amen

Theo Mackaay

Textweek Easter 7