Farewell Sermon by Rev’d. Peter McKeague

Sermon for Easter 2, 23rd April 2017                

‘So it’s come to this’; so supposedly said Ned Kelly on the gallows. The end of a colourful and criminal life; the beginning of a legend.  Ned Kelly still lives in the imagination of many; in our Australian, and especially Victorian, consciousness. A controversial figure in life and in death, he nevertheless helped shape our national identity and culture. For some, not least the Police, that is a very unfortunate fact. For others he is truly a folk hero, the quintessential rebel against the establishment.

And so it is with Jesus. People have all sorts of opinions about him and whether his legacy, the Christian Church, is a mainly positive thing or a mainly negative thing. Jesus generally comes off well in the various assessments of his life but the church certainly gets a mixed report card, especially in contemporary Australia. Jesus definitely lives on in the imagination of many; he is an enduring legend, one that retains great influence. His impact on history and culture is immense. More books have been written about him than any other figure in history and there is no end to them in sight.

There are a few crackpots who claim he never existed but the best response to that is one given recently by the Cambridge NT scholar Simon Gathercole:

To be blunt, I regard Jesus mythicism as pure pseudo-historical dogma by a few cranky atheists. Jesus mythicism is an unscholarly conspiracy theory and its adherents should be treated in the same way we treat climate change deniers: A polite chuckle, sip your martini, then avoid eye-contact, and slowly walk away.

Some of you may have been a little perturbed when I mentioned that Jesus is an enduring legend. He is, not as a mythical figure, but in the same way that we speak of the legend of Ned Kelly or, as we will do this week, the legend of Anzac. Legend in this sense is a way of summing up his whole impact on history, culture, art, literature, and in the inspiration it gives to people’s lives and their values.

Yet we can distort the truth when we come to engage with someone who is larger than life. That is why such controversy surrounds the figure of Ned Kelly. Was he a good guy or a bad guy? Truth is, he was a complex character just like the rest of us, only more famous, or infamous.

Our three Scripture readings this morning ground our faith in truth and in reality. That truth and that reality are extraordinary enough without having to embellish the story of Jesus. And what is that grounding? The resurrection; the great, wonderful and earth shattering fact that Jesus who was crucified has risen from the dead. Listen to Peter’s words on Pentecost:

But God raised him up, having freed him from death ….. And a couple of verses later, This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. In our reading from Peter’s 1st Letter he grounds our salvation in the resurrection: By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead ….

And of course John’s Gospel passage not only tells of two appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples, but especially to Thomas so that he will join the others in bearing witness to what they have seen, heard and touched – the living, risen Lord Jesus. It is on the basis of their eyewitness testimony that we believe, that the gospel message has endured over the centuries, that the true legend of Jesus lives on and continues to impact our world.

Ned Kelly died and a legend was born. Jesus died and was raised, and a legend was born. The cycle of life, of change, of endings and new beginnings, is the way of things in this world. Churches go through cycles of change, of growth and of decline. One significant change in the life of a local church or parish is the departure of its priests and the coming of new leadership. We have reached that point today with the closure of Christine and my ministry as your priests. Yet the kingdom of God continues, and ministry continues in this parish – not just the locum ministry starting soon or the eventual arrival of a new Rector, but your ministry; and more importantly, God’s ministry through you.

A new phase will begin even as the situation of the last seven years ends. However, I don’t think a legend will be born. Certainly there are some priests who acquire legendary status but I have low expectations on that score. In the history of this parish and the wider church, there is one person who springs to mind though – Rev’d. Tony Ireland. And that reminds us of the different things that God does among his people and the different gifts that various clergy bring to the ministry. As the Scripture says, for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.

It is our time to depart. But as that great centenarian, Vera Lynn, sings, we’ll meet again some sunny day. That sunny day will be the great and glorious day of the Lord’s return, the day of resurrection for us all. That is the great motivator to go on, that is the wonderful message we have to share, Jesus is risen!

But I’m sure we will meet again before that great day as well – after all, we are not moving across the globe, we are only moving across the river. Thank you and God bless you abundantly. It has been an awesome privilege to serve as your priest, and I know Christine shares with me in affirming that. Amen.