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TREASURE  IN  CLAY  POTS

The Rt Rev’d Richard Randerson, Dean and Assistant Bishop of Auckland

One of my favourite parables is that where Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to someone who happens across treasure in a field and for sheer joy sells everything to buy the field (Matthew 13.44). It is an evocative image about the unexpected discovery of God’s love, and the immediate recognition that here is something that transcends any other reality in life.

 Then in 2 Corinthians 4.7 Paul tells us that the treasure of God is something we hold in clay pots. Paul is referring to himself and all followers of Jesus as clay pots, so that the light that shines in us may never be confused with the frail human vessels through whom that light shines.

 The clay pots image may also refer to the many humanly constructed vessels designed to be agents of God’s light – the Church, creeds, Christian tradition, liturgy, and even the Scriptures themselves. We worship God but, however much we love the Church and its formularies, we should never make the mistake of seeing them as objects of worship alongside of God.

 Clay pots are essential vehicles to transmit God’s love to us, but God is mystery that always transcends the clay pots in which that love is contained. 

This distinction, or the failure to make it, lies at the heart of many of the issues that divide the Church around the world today. The issue of the ordination of women is long since agreed on in this country, but still not in others. The issue of same-sex relationships will be a source of controversy for years to come, as will the way we relate to people of other faiths. Contrary positions on all these issues are taken by many who find in Scripture supportive evidence they regard as incontrovertible.

 Jesus displayed profound respect for Scripture and tradition, yet at the same time was willing to go beyond the tradition when the love of God required it. He caused great offence, for example, to the guardians of the Jewish law by healing people on the Sabbath. And when his disciples plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath, Jesus reminded his critics that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. Tradition is a clay pot; the love of God is the real treasure we allow to shape our lives and our decisions.

 Jesus also said that the whole of the law is summed up in two great commandments : you should love God with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself. This, I believe, is the touchstone for separating divine treasure from clay containers : we should allow the love of God experienced in relationship with each one of us, and between ourselves and our neighbours, to guide us to the truth.

 This dynamic of relationship with God over-riding tradition was seen also in tonight’s reading from Acts 10. Peter had been requested by Cornelius, the Gentile centurion from Caesarea, to come to see him. Peter said to Cornelius that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile, but he had come without objection because the vision of the great white sheet with all manner of creatures in it had taught him he should not regard as profane any creature that God had made.

 Peter went on to say (vv 34,35) that he now understood that God showed no partiality but that in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. As Peter proclaimed the Gospel to Cornelius and his friends, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, and they were baptised.

 The same dynamic of relationship with God over-riding tradition was seen very clearly with regard to the ordination of women. Synod after synod in the 1960s and 1970s debated the issue, at times hotly and divisively. On one side of the debate were impassioned appeals to the clear teachings of scripture and tradition to oppose such a move. On the other were equally strong appeals to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

 Yet both during the debate and after the decision you would hear people saying : “You know, I’m totally opposed to women in the priesthood in principle, but I’d be quite happy for our Rachel/Jane/Barbara to be priested because she’s such a wonderful minister of the love of God”. Here was a clear example that what the rule-book was saying to people in their head was being over-ridden by the love and gifts of God they saw in women they knew who felt called to the priesthood.

 In retrospect we can see that with total clarity, but the Church has not yet reached the position where we can say the same with regard to homosexual people in ministry. There are significant numbers of such people in ministry in this country and around the world. It is not my desire tonight to argue for a particular conclusion on this topic. Rather let me share some thoughts that might help us to handle the ongoing debate.

 In my experience exactly the same dynamic is operative as in the debate over the ordination of women. It’s a case of rule-books versus relationships, or clay pots versus divine treasure. People say : “I’m totally opposed to homosexuality, but I have to admit that Dave/Jill/Bruce is such a good priest to us that I wouldn’t want to see him/her leave this parish.”

 Following the Lambeth Conference of 1998 I was the first bishop back to Canberra and it fell to me to report on the difficult Lambeth debate on same-sex relationships. In an article I  mentioned that all our three children had a gay godfather. Two were Anglican priests, and two were living in stable same-sex relationships, one of more than 30 years’ duration. We had not known that any of them were gay at the time we asked them to be godfathers to our children. Our choice was made on the basis of their Christian faith, not their orientation. Knowing what we now know we would still ask them to be godparents.

 Predictably I took some flak for this revelation, but there were also some astonishing things shared with me. One 75-year old woman took me aside at a parish event and told me she had been a member of the Anglican Church all her life and this was the first time she had felt welcome within it.

 But what was even more astonishing was a few weeks later when I went out to do a confirmation service in a parish where the priest would have been one of the strongest opponents of homosexuality. He was telling me about two of the candidates he was presenting for confirmation. One was 58 and had recently married a woman of 28 who had been his daughter-in-law. When her marriage to his son had failed he had taken the young woman into his house because she had nowhere else to live, and the relationship had developed from there. At that point in the story the priest kind of looked into the sky and said “You know, Bishop, I have to say this relationship doesn’t fit my view of what is right, but there are some things I think you just have to leave in the hands of God”. I was so moved I could hardly speak and, refraining from drawing the obvious parallel, I went with him into church to worship.

 What all these situations seem to me to be saying – Jesus and the Law, Peter and Cornelius, the ordination of women, and now the issue of same-sex relationships – is that the treasure we hold from God is in clay pots. The pots are important vehicles whereby to transmit the faith but in the final analysis the relationship we have with God and with each other is the true treasure we seek.

 The issue of same-sex relationships is not one we should force a decision on. As the Australian priest said : there are some things we ought to leave in the hands of God, and this I believe to be one of them. At the previous Lambeth Conference in 1988 one of the most insightful speakers was Elizabeth Templeton, a lay theologian from the Church of Scotland, who was speaking in the ecumenical debate. 

She said that ecumenism could best be pursued by attending to the process rather than the content. The process she recommended was that instead of constructing some uncomfortable amalgam of different church formularies, we should rather be willing to travel together trusting that God would lead us to a truth that lay ahead of where any of us had yet got to.

 In order to take that journey, however, she said we have to be able to acknowledge that our current positions are merely provisional points along the way. When she spoke of provisionality at an ecumenical summit in London, however, Cardinal Ratzinger rose up and said: “Madam, if I were to accept that the formularies of my church were merely provisional, the whole enterprise of catholic truth would be at risk”. “And many a good Calvinist would agree with him,” said Elizabeth, “but I do not”.

 That too is a story about treasure in clay pots. For us as Christians our treasure is experienced just as it was by Jesus’ disciples, and has been by followers ever since. In a recent Sunday’s Gospel (John 6. 56-69) Jesus said that he was the bread of life, and that the words he spoke were spirit and life. Many of his hearers found the words too hard to believe, and went away. So Jesus asked the twelve : “Will you also go away?”, to which Peter replied : “Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.”

 That is the central treasure of our faith. When we find that treasure in Christ, and put everything else aside to attain it, then life is changed, our relationships with others are changed, and things that divide us are seen afresh through the eyes of God’s love.