Keynote address for the 49th Session of the General Assembly of Australia
12 September 2016. Chinese Presbyterian Church, Sydney
I offer this personal reflection first
Thank you for trusting me with leadership. I’m not worthy of this role, I don’t measure up to those present tonight who have gone before me, I’m not of the caliber of the eminent John Meiklejohn (our first Moderator-General) or of the redoubtably famous Australian Flynn of the Inland … but under God’s grace I will do my absolute best for you.
There is a Wordsworth saying: ‘child is the father of man’, which at least has the appearance of holding true, most of the time.
In that line ‘child is the father of man’ the poet says that we are the product of our habits and behaviour developed in childhood. It’s a reminder that every father was once a son. That we all start out as children, and that experience remains within us.
I’m the product of English parents, 93-year old mum who’s praying for us tonight, greeting you from her home in Melbourne, and dad who passed away three years ago. Dad would’ve so enjoyed tonight. My earliest days, seeing Christian faith in action, saying prayers in the home, reading Scripture round the dinner table, seeing Christ in my parents, practicing humility, learning self control and obedience … yes, Wordsworth’s maxim holds true.
Let me trace back a generation or two. Dad was a PK. During childhood days in the Longditton rectory he watched my grandfather, the so-called peddling parson, ride this way and that through bombed-out London suburbs attending to the well-being of his parishioners. Further, dad saw the mettle of my grandparents’ Christian faith the day two uniformed service members came to the rectory door to notify them that their eldest son, an RAF pilot, was missing, presumed dead.He watched his Dad slip outside to the back lane, still a man full of faith, but weeping.
What would the Reverend Robert Henry Wilson have thought of his grandson, leaving Anglicanism behind – now deeply entrenched in the Scottish church? Well, boundaries are never so absolute. It’s not that I’ve abandoned my family’s English church – for one of my grandfather’s colleagues sits pride of place on my bookshelf and in my hands – the stunningly relevant and discerning writings of Bishop J C Ryle.
Let’s go back one step further. My grandfather was a child of a most enterprising and thoughtful Christian family, the Wilsons of Wandsworth. My grandfather’s grandfather William Wilson founded, owned and managed the largest candle-making factory in the world. Prices Candles by name, it was the candle-supplier for Queen Victoria’s weddingand for every royal engagement since. William Wilson, was a keen evangelical Christian who in his youth supported the London Missionary Society, and keenly supported the gospel pursuits of David Livingstone in Central Africa.
The Wilson candle-making factories on the Thames at Battersea and on the Mersey in Liverpool, were renowned for compassion and care for their workers. My great uncle James P Wilson was factory chaplain at the Battersea plant, and he loved his 2,000 workers as his own parishioners, and cared for the boys who worked there: providing them with reading lessons after work, and with prayers, warm baths, Bibles and cricket on the common for exercise. Chaplain J P Wilson’s reputation of Christian care for factory workers was such that Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) praised him and Elizabeth Gaskell visited the factory before writing her novel. I havea journal article that suggests that Prices Candle factory management inspired Gaskell to write ‘North and South’.
William Wilson’s prayerful conviction was that all of England should have ready access to light, and so he and his genius son George invented a new and cheaper way to make candles for the relief of the poor and the engagement of a better standard of living for all.William Wilson believed: ‘If we can manufacture and control light, many things become possible. It means we’re no longer bound by the seasons, no longer compelled to rise at dawn or sleep out the winter.’
To achieve this they imported palm oil from plantations in West Africa – but never from anywhere that involved slave-trading – rather, providing a healthy alternative trade to the slave market.
So, ‘child is the father of man’ is true, but only to a point. If I have inherited something of Christian value from my parents’ faith, from the Reverend Robert Henry Wilson, from Great Uncle Chaplain J P Wilson and from head of clan William Wilson then fine – but the maxim doesn’t work automatically. Wordsworth is not quite right.
William Wilson worked his candle-making trade for the relief of the poor; Great Uncle George F Wilson applied his genius chemistry intellect for the glory of God; Great Uncle JP Wilson gave himself for the care of factory workersto bring them to know Christ … inspiring examples to have … but they remain just that: inspiration,examples to follow.
All this is preparation of the soul … all of what I’ve said is,at best,grounding in the way of faith, but it’s NOT faith … until it’s personally appropriated.
The grace of God may be prepared for by childhood, but it comes by repentance of one’s own sin and by reaching out in faith to Christ, laying hold of Christ – and through this the supernatural event of new birth.
That’s the key element on which I rely and by which I’m assured that I can proceed:
And, for God’s new birth in Christ I am supremely grateful. It’s because of God’s new birth, I am assured that I’m a Christian, confident that I’m loved of God, and convinced that I can serve the church.
Secondly, l reflect on the church
Maybe the same maxim applies for the church: child is the father of man? How true is it to say: the Presbyterian Church of Australia is the product of our fathers who have gone before?
Our church,in its colonial form, is Scottish in origin. All our earliest ministers were from Scotland. Rev John Dunmore Lang, our 1800s rambunctious and enigmatic church leader and unofficial colonial government immigration agent … energetically recruited as many good-quality Scottish ministers as he could persuade to make the perilous journey down under.
So, if Scottish, then this means we are building on the best foundations laid by that wise and fiery pastor John Knox, whose thunderous preaching and bold leadership changed the face of 16th century Scotland, shaking it from its Roman slumber.
Then, if our foundation is aligned with the Knox-led Scottish Reformation, then we realise also that our reformed patterns of worship and our convictions about the power of Spirit-led preaching is Genevan … that these reformed convictions are built on John Calvin’s Genevan model, where Knox sat for a time, sipping coffee with some of the greatest reformers.
And then, if our foundation is the Reformation, we further realise that we inherit all that is truly inspirational and biblical from great medieval minds such as Archbishop Anselm, Thomas a’Kempis, Bernard of Clairvaux and even Thomas Aquinas, and also everything good from the classical church fathers such as Augustine.
Which means, in the end, our foundation is apostolic and based on the teachings of Jesus and the entire Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
However, child is not automatically the father of man. Which, being interpreted means: our church is not automatically a good church today because of our great heritage. The Presbyterian Church of Australia is not a great church today because we have a staggeringly rich reformed heritage. We can rest too proudly on heritage, sit too quietly with our reputation and satisfy ourselves too easily with maintenance ministry.
We must grasp the gospel with fresh eyes of faith (as if we’re comprehending it for the first time) and apply it, again, today.
Let’s pick up and grasp what is most needful for the church. And, what is that? What is our most needful mission? It’s the original mission. The Presbyterian Church of Australia must know what this is … a church must KNOW what it’s about and where it’s going.
Matthew chapter 12 is a wonderful part of God’s Word. I will go to three places in this chapter.
In Jesus’ day – there were leaders of God’s people who had no idea what they were to do. No idea! The Pharisees were self-appointed custodians of truth in Jesus’ day.
In his response, Jesus gives us three indications as to the church’s true focus. This is what the church ought to know about itself. This is what we must acknowledge for ourselves.
a) Matthew 12:2 says that The Pharisees looked with contempt at the disciples of Jesus, critical of their works of mercy. The Pharisees were so proud of their own record, so pleased with their heritage, so secure in their rule-keeping, that in their blindness they had no room for mercy. Jesus’ answered (v. 7): ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
Later, in his recording of all this, Matthew helpfully reminds us by asking: ‘But what about the bruised reed?’ quoting Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 20.
The essence of Jesus’ ministry can be described in part as:gently supporting the bruised reed and maintaining the smouldering wick. This is part of the church’s core business. Through Christ’s name, we are to be champions of God’s mercy, agents of compassion: to lift-up the downcast, encourage the weak, strengthen the fearful, relieve the oppressed, welcome the refugee.
As Jude says in his letter: ‘being merciful to those who doubt; snatching some from the fire and saving them; to others showing mercy, mixed with fear.’
The PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF AUSTRALIAdelights in all good things that display the care, compassion and mercy of God. As Zechariah reminds us: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.’
b) Matthew 12:24 says that the Pharisees made the audacious claim that Jesus is the agent of the devil – that his power to deal with the spirits is the devil’s power. They were so envious of Jesus’ advancing cause and his endearing popularity, that they saw their own patch shrink and their influence diminish. And in their pettiness, they couldn’t see the lordship of King Jesus.
Matthew records Jesus’ response – v. 28 that he is Lord of the spirit world and was sent from heaven to deliver people from evil and to save them.
Matthew 12 reminds us: that the essence of Jesus’ ministry can be described in part as: deliverance from bondage. This is the essence of being God’s people: we bear a message of great hope: deliverance from bondage. This is part of the church’s core business: to be a beacon of hope. Through Christ’s name, we are champions of God’s Lordship, proclaimers that Jesus is King. This church’s message is that Jesus has come from heaven to bind the binder, to overpower the strong man, to declare that Jesus is Lord of everything. Jesus will set you free.
How do we apply this? Where is hope? Hope is found in:
c) Matthew 12:38 says that they taunted Jesus with the challenge: ‘Show us a sign’, ‘prove yourself’. It was as if to say: ‘IF you show us a sign … we’ll believe.’
Jesus’ response is clear. The only sign we need is the sign of the cross. Did I jump too quickly to that? Or did you see that already? Of course, he didn’t say that in so many words, but that’s where he’s going … vs 39, 40
Some of Christ’s most profound teaching follows to the end of the chapter. It’s such a powerful illustration: Jesus said that what happened to Jonah is a picture of what is to happen to him. As disobedient Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish, and somehow, on the third day was vomited up on the beach … so Jesus will be crucified, dead and buried, but on the third day will be raised to life again.
Sounds like the Apostles’ Creed? ‘… was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again …’
Never mind clever miracles, never mind other distracting remedies … the keyremedy he offers is the cross and the empty tomb.
Then, as a further rebuke to the self-appointed custodians of truth, Jesus says:‘This is how it’s always been’. In fact, he says:
And, all the more, Jesus says, the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba will judge you because they accepted God’s offer long before the coming of Christ – whose coming made the way of salvation so much clearer than it was to them.
PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF AUSTRALIA, I’m not spelling this out any further. You can do that. We are not the Pharisees, true, but … there’s a portion of the pharisaic heart in each of us. There are lots more subtle ways to ask the same Pharisaic question. There are way more refined and more evangelical-sounding ways to make the same challenge: ‘Lord, show us a miracle ….’Show us: … ‘clever things’ … ‘upbeat things’ … ‘cool things’ … that attract lots of people.
You can unpack this yourself by the spirit of God. I won’t probe any further.
eg I won’t take you to Wittenberg where ….the churches free Wi-Fi service, called Godspot, is ‘a strategic move to draw young people back into Germany’s glorious but underutilised churches and cathedrals.’
I won’t take you to England where clergy were told to use Poekemon Go to help boost congregations. ‘The virtual creature-hunt craze provides an unprecedented chance to meet people from their area who might not normally come to church’.
What is our church known for? Clever things? Upbeat things? Cool signs?
The Presbyterian Church of Australia is known for what true Presbyterian churches across the world are known for: the sign of the cross and the empty tomb, and the message that Jesus saves by this … that God’s righteousnessis delivered throughthis. Old paths, but true paths.
In Lusaka, last month, one of the highlights of my life – Paula and I celebrated the goodness of God with Zambian Presbyterians. What was the focus of their General Assembly? What did we rejoice over? We rejoiced over the cross of Christ and his empty tomb. The sign of Jonah.
Through tears I listened to a report from Rev KingstarChipata, Deputy General Secretary of the Zimbabwean Presbyterians. What was his joy andlament for his church?
In a nation with an unemployment rate of 90%, HIV/AIDS devastation, death from fever … the cross of Christ still delivers. The church, world-wide,only needs the sign of Jonah.
Let’s do a cross-check on this (pun intended) – the greatest Christian who’s ever lived – what did he say? Well, among other things:
Galatians 6:14 ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’. The greatest Christian who’s ever lived thinks this of the cross of Christ.
Let’s look one step further:
1 Corinthians 2:2 ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’
WHY?The cross his only boast? The cross his only message?
* because the cross of Christ is the single distinguishing feature of the church
Other faiths have laws and morals, ceremony, rewards and punishment, but NO other religion speaks of a dying Saviour. They never show us the cross. The cross is the crowning glory of the Christian gospel – it’s the cross that provides relief, speaks comfort and gives assurance.
* because the cross of Christ is the strength of every pastor
‘I should feel like a soldier without arms, like an artist without his pencil, like a ship’s captain without a compass – as a pastor: give me the cross of Christ, it is the only lever that has ever turned the world upside down.’ (J C Ryle)
* because the cross of Christ is the secret of all mission work
The cross is the only weapon that has won victories in the hearts of people all over the world – all races, all cultures, all nations have felt its power.
* because the cross of Christ is the glory of every church
We love our churches, we want them to grow, we seek the good of our congregations, we want for them the best biblical teaching, the best fellowship, the best music, we want what is good and honourable … BUT, no church will ever be honoured in which Christ crucified is not the focus and in which the message of the cross is not continually lifted up.
Essential to the church is the sign of Jonah – it’s through the message of the cross that darkened hearts will be given light, lives will change, the grieving will be comforted, the downcast given hopeand the wanderer brought home.
John P Wilson