Healthy Churches – attending to the roots
1 John 4:7-21
North Island – Kauri
Silence and Awe
Sharing in Being
But there was a deeply troubling side – Die back
And from something no-one looking up at the tree would notice – the Roots
these majestic trees were dying, from the roots
The oldest – Tane Mahuta – Biosecurity measures, to protect the roots
About 2000 years old?
Which makes me think of the Church . . .
Shortly GSTHW will gather in Hamilton, to discuss . . . anything except the health of the Church – or the Roots of the Church – the parishes, and our Life in Christ. But this is nothing new.
I clearly did something very very wrong in a previous existence for I have sat through somewhere in the region of 70 Synods – And a consistent feature of all of them has been a) their machine like quality, and b) their failure to pay any attention to the roots of the Church. We’ve been so in awe of the Tree, of its manifold branches – its structures and committees and initiatives, and strategies – so in awe of what we have done, that we have paid no attention to the root, or the source of life.
At a simple level, as I have said before this is reflected in the inattention to the life of the parishes. As I told Synod here in Dunedin last year, we shrank numerically by 15% in 2017, but no one seemed to think this worth our attention. For the first time in the history of this Diocese there less than 100,000 attendances at church in a calendar year and the fall away was dramatic . . .
So today’s readings offer us a Gift, a gift that is constantly offered to us, that of Life
Both our Epistle and our Gospel today direct us to our roots, to the true nature of the Church and the Christian, and direct us to Health, to Life
To return for a moment to The Kauri. We had a bit of a Kauri day, for we drove on from Tane MAhuta, to a Kauri grove, where we found possibly an older tree – certainly a fatter one 🙂 Te MAtua Ngahere – Father of the Forest – a breathtaking 54 feet in girth
On the way to visit the Father I stopped for a brief moment by another Kauri – perhaps a ‘mere’ 800 or so years old, based on my observations of the ancient trees and their ages. The boardwalk in going over the roots afforded the one opportunity of the day to place a hand against the trunk of this being . . . and there I spent a few moments Knowing that together we shared in what the theologians call, the First Grace – that of existence, of being, by virtue of being Created. We shared this. It is a perception that it is hard for us to appreciate in our Modern World. I can think about myself. I can thing about the Tree, I can think about the way we are both ‘living things’, I might make some tenuous connection in my mind – but to press my hand against the trunk and to Know Shared existence . . . this is a different type of Knowing. A Knowing that The West has long ago abandoned.
It is a Knowing that has little or nothing to do with mental assent, it is a sharing in Life. it has a strong parallel in Marriage, in which a man Knows his Wife, and in that Knowing the fruit of Children springs forth. It is the Knowing which our beloved patron John speaks when he says ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’ Which bring us to the Second Grace, the Second Gift – that of Redemption, or better perhaps, Theosis – through the Risen Jesus sharing in the very Life of God. Not merely the Life of Creation, but to come to Know within us the Life of the Father. To Know God. A Knowledge which brings forth the Fruit of Divine Love. Not as it were to ‘know about God’, as an idea, or to ‘know about Love’ as an idea – but to Know God and Know Love as His Life in and through us
As we hear the words of John, about Knowing, we need this radically Participative way of Knowing in the foreground – two become One in Marriage and in the fruit of marriage, the One flesh of the Child, so ‘we abide in Him, and He in Us’ and Bear Fruit in the World. This is to Know Him. So The Bridegroom abides in the Bride, Christ in His Church, to Bear fruit for the glory of God
It is we might truly say ‘natural’, in the sense we use the word. It flows naturally as water flows naturally from its source to the ocean. For it is the Divine Life which we See within the persons of the Trinity, every flowing from its Source, back to its Source
It is this simple – bluntly so – ‘If we Know God, we love one another.’ ‘If we don’t love one another, we do not Know God’ So Jesus speaks of this deeply participative Knowledge ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit’ It is in sharing in the Life of God , Knowing the Life of God in Jesus the Risen One, that we bear fruit to eternal Life
But in the same ‘natural’ way, cut off from the Source of this Life – the Life ceases to flow. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’ Like so much dead wood that no longer has the life flowing through it, wood that has lost connection with the Root.
John goes on in his letter – ‘Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ If you do not love, you are not connected to God – to the Source, to the root. John goes on to make it quite clear that this Love is not something we summon up alone from within ourselves, it has a source, a Root ‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.’ The Initiative is Always God’s – He is the Source of this Eternal Life and Love – ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ The Initiative, the Source, the root is God’s Love for us – that we might Share in that Life and Love.
So the absence of Love, is the Absence of God. “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Hatred of a fellow Christian, is failure to recognise the shared Life – it is to say No to our being together Children of the Same Heavenly Father. Hatred of another baptised person is always a sign that we have become cut off from our roots.
Of late I have seen a tendency to speak more and more of the ‘God loves me’, rather than ‘I love God’. This is not unimportant, for all too often it masks, or fails to mask despising other Christians. ‘Those dreadful people, but I am secure in the love god has for me . . .’ well it is quite simple and plain that if we have hatred for our fellow Christians, we are cut off from the Love of God – we are in a prison of our own resentment, often Self satisfied, not troubled by the fact that we cannot abide certain people.
John is having nothing to do with this ‘Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ To Hate and yet to claim to know the love of God is an oxymoronic way of behaviour. Such love is finally only the pitiful love of self, cut off from the source
So finally back to Health, and healthy Churches. I am the Vine and you are the branches says Jesus – to rework the imagery slightly ‘I am the Root of your Life’. Rather like Martha who is distracted by many things, the Church has lost Sight of Her Life, The Bridegroom. She is unlike Mary, not devoted to Him. Mary chooses the One necessary thing – devotion to Jesus the Christ, who is the Source of all Life and Love.
It is not natural for Churches to wither and die, however accustomed we have become to it. For the Bridegroom comes to the Bride, to woo her and to bear fruit to eternal Life.
If the Church is withering and dying it is only possibly for one reason, that we have stopped paying attention to our Roots, to the Fundamental Source of our Life and being, that is our Risen Lord.
So it is that when we attend to The Word made flesh, together wether we are physically together or not, Listening to Him in Scripture – wooing us, ‘I am your Life’ – ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ – ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’
Towards the end of Jesus great prayer he utters these words
‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’
Eternal Life is to Know God, intimately in and through Jesus, The Vine. It is to know his correction, his pruning, his cutting off all that is dead in us, that we might bear much fruit. It is to grow more and more in the way of Love which flows from the very throne room of God. It is to Live because he Lives – it is to Know His Life amongst us
Where this Love, where this Life is Known, The Church flourishes. Let us attend to the Living Word, the True Vine, present amongst us, in Word and Sacrament, and in the Love we have for one another