Archbishop Peter Comensoli
We can be reasonably confident that the Apostle Paul’s determination to get to Rome was not for the spaghetti and coffee. St Paul’s extraordinary missionary journey of faith took him from Jerusalem, and the Semitic world of the one true God, through Athens and the Greek world of the intellectual gods, to Rome and the cultural world of the political gods. Paul always saw it as God’s intention to get him to Rome. For it would be from Rome that he could bring the name of Jesus Christ from the peripheries into the centre of the world. He was certainly determined, even driven, to proclaiming Christ with gospel boldness; there was a deep intentionality about all he did. Paul was unfailingly open and accountable for what he had been given in Christ.
He was a man who boldly carried the yoke of the crucified Christ, both as a burden and a joy, but was also a man of deep sensitivity, being gratefully encouraged, as we heard, from the Christian community he was soon to live and die among. For its part, the Church in Rome had known of Paul for some time and were eager for his coming. They were a community of many languages and faces: Jews, Gentiles, Asiatic, Middle Eastern, African, European – citizens and immigrants from all over the empire. The Church in Rome was young and vibrant, though somewhat messy and not without its struggles.
They had found in Christ a way of living a common life in friendship, amid the disorienting and fragmenting commotion of a world – and worldly – city. Here were a people who had been found by God, and worthy to be considered a pearl of great price. These were the faithful to whom Paul had been anointed and sent by God. His final missionary journey to them, made as a ‘prisoner in the Lord,’ passed from Israel, through the Mediterranean, and on to Italy. He survived starvation, shipwreck and a deadly snake bite (on Malta, of all places!), until, around the year 60AD, as St Luke rather casually observed: And so we came to Rome. In our own way, and in this time and place, we are at a Pauline/Roman moment, you and me.
This particular successor of the Apostles, who began his missionary journey in Wollongong, having travelled via Broken Bay, has come to Melbourne. I am a sinner, who has been found by God, and now sent to you. And you? You are God’s own people, living in this metropolis of the south. You carry the wounds and grief of a shameful past, yet you have stood up tonight to be counted as friends of God.
As the Romans gathered from the far reaches of that great city, so you have gathered from up north beyond Mount Macedon, over into the east past the Dandenong Ranges, out west from Geelong and Port Philip Bay, down south along the Mornington Peninsula, and everywhere in between. You are the living Church in Melbourne, who have also been found by God, and are now welcoming me. Like Luke before us, now we might say: And so we come to Melbourne. But how do we proclaim a Gospel from the peripheries into the centre? How do we speak of grace and mercy in a diverse society? How do we become signs of hope and joy in a culture of rival visions?
Though we need accountable structures to do this, the Church is not an institution; though we strive to do good works, we are not an NGO; though we have things of beauty to show, we are not a museum. The Church we belong to is a ‘she’, not an ‘it’; a living person, not a lifeless thing. We are a pilgrim People of God, called to be missionary disciples. We are the Body of Christ, where the weakest and most vulnerable have the places of honour. We are the Temple of the Holy Spirit and stewards of God’s grace.
Our common task, then, is a missionary one. We have been anointed and sent with the gospel of Jesus Christ into our families, our local neighbourhoods, and the wider society. How do we do this? Well, a good start might be to get the soil of our culture under our fingernails as we plant seeds of grace and peace. Pray for one another; befriend each other. Forgive, and seek forgiveness. Barrack for Gospel Joy, not just your footy team. Make mercy is our calling card and healing our gift. Be open, warm and honest in the way we attend to others. Nurture a faith that trusts, a hope that encourages, and a love that is tender. This is what it means to proclaim Jesus Christ, because it is what Jesus Christ proclaimed.
We need only to take a first step. Here, in Melbourne, we have a home-grown example of one such first-stepper, Mary of the Cross MacKillop. Just up on Brunswick St, in the ACU quadrangle you will pass on the way to the reception this evening, there is a statue of a young Mary on the threshold of saintliness. She is sitting on a bench looking out, poised for her future, about to get on the move. I’ve come from the city where Mary completed her missionary journey, to the city where she began it. You are the Church that produced Australia’s first saint. And as Mary sits eager and expectant to what lies before her, I now join you on this threshold, poised in anticipation of what we are to do in Christ Jesus.
So, Church of Melbourne, may I claim a newbie’s boldness and remind you of what I already know about you? You are a Church that can produce great fruits. You have it in you already to do this, for you – we – are saint whisperers here! As you pass Mary’s statue tonight, or on some other occasion, go and sit with her. Look out with her. Get up with her. Our time has come to see the gospel need, and do something about it. Yes, we carry great wounds and griefs, and faith can be such a struggle, but we – the Church in Melbourne – can be young again, in Jesus Christ. May we prefer nothing to Him, for He prefers nothing to us.