Reflection – Rev Dr Jordan Redding – visiting guest preacher


I.
I remember when I was training to be a minister, one of my lecturers told me his young
preschool daughter had asked him why we go to church. “What would you answer?”, he
asked the class of ordinands. Surely, a group of trainee ministers could articulate why we go
to church. But it’s actually not that easy a question to answer, particularly if you’re trying to
explain it to a young child. Why do we go to church? If you were to sum it up, what would
you say?


We might want to say something profound about Jesus or the Holy Spirit. We might want to
mention the sermon, or communion, or baptism. We might want to use theologically
loaded concepts like “the body of Christ” or the “family of God”. But his answer sounded
somewhat less lofty than that:

We go to church to learn to get on with people we don’t like.
Admittedly, that might not be all that we want to say about the church. The church may be
more than this. But it’s certainly not less than this. It suggests that the church is in the
business of forgiveness. We are in the business of reconciliation. And we’re not just in the
business of forgiveness as one of a number of options or when we need to resolve conflict.
Forgiveness, reconciliation, gets to the heart of what the church is. It’s our daily work:
learning to get on with one another. And it might sound unglamorous and rather ordinary
(and it is!), but it’s also really hard to do!


Isn’t that conveyed in Jesus’ answer to Peter? When someone wrongs us, Peter asks, how
many times should we forgive? Seven? There’s something generous about Peter’s answer,
as I’m sure he thought. You and I might be willing to give someone a second chance. Even a
third chance! We have all the heard the saying, three strikes and you’re out!, which has
been used as a basis in our judicial system in New Zealand. So forgiving someone seven
times is by all accounts generous. Would you forgive someone seven times?


Jesus’ response is well known: not seven but seventy-seven times. In other words, he’s
saying to Peter, there’s no limit to how much you should forgive. Forgive and forgive and
forgive some more. Forgiveness isn’t a means to an end. It is the means and the end.
There’s something thoroughly unpragmatic about Jesus’ answer. Surely, sometimes it’s
easier and more pragmatic to simply admit that Janet is a lost cause or that Bill will never
learn or that Mart will always be Mart.


II.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, distinguished between poiesis and praxis. Poiesis
describes an act of making with the goal of producing something. For example, making a
chair. Or writing this sermon. The end justifies the means as it were. Sure, there was
pleasure in writing the sermon, but I didn’t primarily write the sermon for the sake of
writing a sermon. I wrote it with the purpose of it being delivered to you today.


Praxis is different. A praxis describes an activity in which the end is tied up in the action
itself. Perhaps you can think of a certain activity that you do simply because you enjoy it.
This year, I started to pick up the piano again. I don’t really have an intention of learning
piano for some other goal. I simply enjoy playing the piano. The end, the purpose, for me, is
tied up in the act of playing piano.


Things are often a mix of both poiesis and praxis but hopefully you get the distinction.
The reason I’m dwelling on this is because I think Peter views forgiveness as a kind of
poiesis: a means to an end. From a pragmatic perspective, a community (like the Village)
simply works better when we’re actually talking to each other and getting along.
Forgiveness is the means that enables the church to get on and do the thing it’s “supposed”
to be doing.

But what are we supposed to be doing? We often hear talk in the church these days about
coming up with a mission and a vision statement. Almost like we’re trying to articulate this
“other thing” that the church is supposed to be doing … if only we could get on long enough
to actually do it!


I’m not saying mission and vision statements aren’t important. They help to give
intentionality and focus to our life together. But, in our reading today, Jesus seems to be
suggesting to Peter that learning to get on with one another is precisely what we’re
supposed to be doing. That is the means and the end. Commit to one another when life is
good. Commit to one another when life is bad. Commit to one another when life is ugly.
And then do it again. Because in committing to one another we come to experience
something of God’s deep commitment and love for us.


III.
Next week is te wiki o te reo Māori, Māori language week. In my role as chaplain at the
university, I’ve had to engage a lot more with treaty issues. I’ve been thinking a lot about
how we exercise our ministry in a way that honours te tiriti o Waitangi. What I’m learning
the hard way is that we’re not going to find reconciliation in this country between Pākehā
and Māori if we view our relationship as a means to an end. Often, a Pākehā way of
organising something, will involve organising it and then asking Māori if they can support it.
I’ve had a few uncomfortable conversations, where it’s been stressed to me that if we want
to honour te tiriti, if we really want to work with tangata whenua, then it needs to arise out
of an existing relationship. In other words, true reconciliation isn’t a means to some other
end. The relationship is itself the goal. And that takes time and effort. And it’s hard. And it’s
uncomfortable.


My colleague stressed to me, though, that uncomfortable conversations are actually where
reconciliation begins. If we’re not in a place where we’re having difficult, uncomfortable
conversations with one another, then it means we’re not actually crossing paths. We’re not
exactly sitting with one another. Instead, we’re just tolerating one another. Living a parallel
existence.
Is that enough? Are we content with that?


IV.
It strikes me that the church is just as prone to getting things wrong as anyone else. You
folk are part of a church. So you’ll know how infuriating each other can be! Often it is easier
when the going gets tough to simply stop going to church or to church hop. Ecclesiastical
pornography, Eugene Peterson calls it! We look across at the church over the road and it
seems so glamorous, so easy, so good. And our community seems so hard. I’m happy to
stick it out two, three times, maybe even seven times. But after that, well, can anyone
really blame me for wanting to leave?

And we can maybe understand why so many people in society want nothing to do with th
church anymore!


But I still believe in the church. Not because we have any more answers than anyone else.
Not because we’ve figured out how to live better than anyone else. Not because we get on
any more than anyone else. I believe in the church precisely because we squabble and
argue and disagree and fight and still choose to turn up next Sunday and do it all again. I
believe in the church precisely because we are thoroughly ordinary people with differences
of opinion and tastes and cultures and backgrounds who are learning to get on with one
another. If nothing else keeps us together, that’s it. That’s our modus operandi.


That may all sound rather ordinary. And it is. The church is an unglamorous place but it’s a
real place. It’s a place where we are learning to forgive because we have first been forgiven;
where we are learning to love, because God first loved us; where we are reconciled to God
in Christ and being reconciled to one another in love; where we have crossed the Red Sea
to freedom… and yet now have the long walk in the wilderness ahead of us.


So here’s to learning to be with people we don’t like; here’s to listening to people different
from us; here’s to having uncomfortable conversations; and here’s to doing it all again and
again. Because in doing so, we might just learn to love as the God who loved us first. Amen.