Today it was my task to preach for the Commencement Service, in our college. My text was 1 Corinthians 11.verse 1, ‘Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ.’
The following is an excerpt from my address, drawing upon a statement by a person I knew some time ago, whom I referred to as ‘St Clare’.
"We are called to be communities who are working out, in our own place and time, what it means to know and live with God, following Jesus.
And that is where I have always found great help in the wisdom of Saint Clare.
Now Clare is not the wonderful woman who assisted the great Francis of Assisi. She too was a wise woman; but I am speaking of a different Clare, a woman I knew and who actually often came to this college, in decades past.
Clare has now gone to her rest with God, but when she was with us she was married to a pastor, and later in her life she was a member of a church I pastored here in Melbourne. Indeed her husband had been pastor before me in that church. One day I was having coffee with her, and she told me several very interesting things.
She was an unusual lady: very practical and sensible, and sometimes deeply insightful.
We talked one day about the church, our local church, and about what it is like to be the pastor there.
Then Clare gave me this pearl of wisdom, which has guided me through many years.
She said: ‘Well you see, Frank, in Baptist churches you either get freedom or you get commitment.’
In some churches there is a very high level of commitment: the
rosters are always filled; the budget is met and the missions support
is strong; there is fervour, people attend regularly, there is strong
bible teaching, there is titheing, and growth, and a strong sense of
commitment to whatever the Pastor says: but with all that commitment,
there is not much freedom.
Then, she said, there are other churches where there is a focus on
inclusion; they accept people as they are, they will say. In these
churches, many people find healing; some even come there as refugees
from the other kind of church. Women often find healing and hope in
these churches, and an opportunity to discover and use their gifts in
ministry. The church emphasises family life, in the sense of staying at
home sometimes, rather than always going to meetings. Here there is
freedom, but there are also the problems I was struggling with: it’s so
hard to get people to do anything; to go on the roster, even to take up
the offering, or hand our the service sheets, or get anything decided.
In Baptist churches, she said, you either get freedom or commitment.
She meant, of course, that what we really need is freedom with commitment.
And that I think is what Paul is advocating in these difficult
chapters of Corinthians. There has to be freedom, the freedom that
comes through deep commitment to Jesus Christ.
Imitate me, says Paul, in a free commitment to Jesus Christ and his way.
Jesus says: Follow me: by choice, yet with clear commitment.
And it is this kind of discipleship which will characterise our life as
pastors and leaders. Our goal and our task is to evoke communities of
responsible freedom—people who are both free and committed.
That means that we must be people who affirm constantly each
other’s freedom. This is the central goal of pastoral care: to affirm
and nurture the freedom of our people. That means we resist those
things which enslave people, and we uphold those things which set them
free. And notice this: in the church there are any number of people who
will gladly surrender their freedom to you. They will gladly let you be
responsible for their lives. Don’t do it. Affirm and uphold each
other’s freedom, in Christ, and the freedom of all people as children
But also we must be people who affirm constantly each other’s
commitment. This too is the goal of pastoral care: to assure and
encourage and envision the disciples of Jesus: so that they may be
fishers of people. And to affirm each other’s commitment is to expect
something of each other, a level of accountability and responsibility.
This is the way of Jesus: come, follow me into a community which evokes both freedom and commitment.
This can only happen in community. We cannot achieve this alone, as
individuals. We cannot achieve this by ourselves: only the Spirit of
God can bring this unity of purpose and will: freedom and commitment.