Category Archives: Uniting Church in Australia

Baptism: a beginning

A short off-Lectionary message for the baptism of an infant

Readings
Isaiah 55.1–9
1 Corinthians 10.1–13

Baptism is Christ’s gift.
It is the sign by which the Spirit of God
joins people to Jesus Christ
and incorporates them into his body, the Church.
In his own baptism in the Jordan by John,
Jesus identified himself with humanity
in its brokenness and sin;
that baptism was completed in his death and resurrection. 

By God’s grace,
baptism plunges us into the faith of Jesus Christ,
so that whatever is his may be called ours.
By water and the Spirit we are claimed as God’s own
and set free from the power of sin and death.

Thus, claimed by God
we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit
that we may live as witnesses to Jesus Christ,
share his ministry in the world and grow to maturity,
awaiting with hope the day of our Lord Jesus. — ‘The Meaning of Baptism’, from Uniting in Worship 2 

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Twice in C’s baptism today, I addressed her directly. The first time, I said these words from Mark 7.34, words traditionally used at baptisms:

C,
may the Lord open your ears to hear his word
and your mouth to proclaim his praise.

This echoes what Jesus said as he healed a deaf man with a speech impediment. It also reflects that without God’s grace, our ears are closed to God’s Word and our mouths utter imperfect praise. We need to be brought into relationship with God to become people of God’s grace. 

The second time I spoke directly to C was in these beautiful words derived from the Baptismal Liturgy of the French Reformed Church:

C,
for you Jesus Christ has come,
has lived, has suffered;
for you he endured the agony of Gethsemane
and the darkness of Calvary;
for you he uttered the cry, ‘It is accomplished!’
For you he triumphed over death;
for you he prays at God’s right hand;
for you,
long before you were born.

It’s traditional to address an infant who is about to be baptised. Now, S and B, I know C is really clever, but—she really didn’t understand what I was saying to her. (I’m sorry to break it to you like this…) 

But you know, we all talk to babies and we don’t mind that they just look at us and smile. We do that because one day, they will understand. And one day, C will talk back to you. 

And that of course is why we do so many things with children before they are quite ready for them: we want them to learn.

So, we let them practise sitting up. We sit them on the floor with plenty of cushions around them so if they fall, they don’t hurt themselves. 

We give them a spoon to eat food with, even though it ends up on their clothes, their face, and on the floor.

We teach our children by doing things with them. We don’t give them a lecture on table etiquette, and expect them straightaway to use the soup spoon instead of the dessert spoon. 

It’s the same in every area of life, including the spiritual. So we do things that open the spiritual world to our children. We make sure they aren’t strangers to the church. We bring them to the  Eucharist. We pray with them, perhaps at meals and the end of the day. We teach them values, like fairness and sharing. 

One day, they’ll grow up and call fairness and sharing ‘justice’ and ‘compassion’. They will make the link with caring for the earth in a time of climate change, and with welcoming those who have a different culture or faith or sexuality, resisting the forces that try to entrench division and hatred in Australian society. 

We’ve seen something of this lately; we have seen what extremist nationalism can do when it is unleashed. As people of faith, we stand against this, and for a peaceful and multicultural society.

One day, we all realise that life is far bigger than we are, and that we need to be plugged in to something bigger than we are in order to flourish.

We Christians name that something bigger as ‘God’. We plug in to God through faith, hope and love. 

Baptism is the public beginning of a walk with God, with Jesus as our companion and the Holy Spirit strengthening our hearts. 

Today, C has started that public walk. We all have a responsibility in her spiritual care. The congregation has promised to provide a secure base; parents and godparents have also promised to teach her the Way of Jesus Christ. 

To do that, we all need to pay attention to our own life of love, faith and hope, of prayer, sharing in the life of the church and serving others. 

So we give thanks for C, and for the triune God who has received her as a member of God’s family. And we pledge ourselves to help C and all the other children here towards a mature Christian faith.

West End Uniting Church, 24 March 2019

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Filed under Baptism, Liturgy, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia, Uniting in Worship 2

The throne of Jesus

Reading
Mark 10.35–45

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.… 

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock. 

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, DBW 4, Kindle ed’n, pp.44–45

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Has anyone ever said to you, ‘Be careful what you wish for?’

A couple had been married for thirty five years and was celebrating the wife’s sixtieth birthday. 

During the party, a fairy appeared and said that because they had been such a loving couple all those years, she would give them one wish each. 

The wife said, ‘We’ve been so poor all these years, and I’ve never seen the world. 

‘I wish we could travel all over the world.’ 

The fairy waved her wand and ZAP! The wife had the tickets in her hand. 

Next, it was the husband’s turn. 

He paused for a moment and then said, ‘Well, I’d like to be married to a woman thirty years younger than me.’

The fairy waved her wand and ZAP! Now, the husband was ninety years old.

Be very careful what you wish for.

Jesus said something very like that to James and John. They had a question for him, a favour to be granted:

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

That’s nice, eh? You can imagine sitting on either side of Jesus when his true glory is revealed. I wonder what the two Zebedee brothers thought it would be like, sitting one either side of Jesus on his throne? Continue reading

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Walls fall

Compassionate Shepherd,
your love flows from the heart of God,
and touches us in our points of pain;
hearing your voice,
may we find healing in your word
now and for ever. Amen.

Reading
Ephesians 2.11–22

 

Eliminating boundaries does not in itself create peace. Peace comes only by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls. God does not merely tear down walls, but unites people in the One who is our peace, creating one new humanity. — Karen Chakoian, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, Kindle ed’n, loc. 9130

______________________

There’s a saying: Good fences make good neighbours. And I can believe it.

But I’m not so sure about walls.

History is filled with stories of walls, and littered by the remains of walls. Perhaps the earliest walls we know about were around the city of Jericho. We know what happened to them.

Walls fall.

Or if they don’t fall, they are remnants of an earlier time. Perhaps you’ve walked along the top of the walls of York or Jerusalem, as I have. Or along the Great Wall of China, or Hadrian’s Wall across the North of England, as I’d like to. 

Once, these walls served to keep undesirable people out. They were walls of separation. They have a very different purpose now. They’re tourist traps, bringing the outsiders in rather than keeping them out.

Walls fall, whether literally or not.  

I don’t remember the Berlin Wall being built, but as a child I expected it to last forever. I recall watching tv news reports of people escaping over or under it to the West, or dying in the attempt.

But in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. 

Walls fall. 

 Walls may fall because their day is done, because they crumble to dust; but walls fall too because people cry out against them. We saw that very clearly in Berlin in 1989. The Wall could not withstand the weight of protest.

Walls may have their time, but that time ends.  

About 500 years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. When they returned to Jerusalem, one of the first things they did was build a wall and throw all the foreigners out. 

In an age of technological sophistication, walls are less useful.

But we still build them.

When I visited the Holy Land a few years ago, I was saddened to see the wall that separates Jerusalem  from Bethlehem. 

Wall at Bethlehem

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Why read the Bible?

God our refuge and strength,
you call us to give ourselves to Christ,
whether life is long or brief;
ground us in your love
and anchor us in your grace,
that we may find peace and joy
in knowing you;
this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Readings
2 Samuel 6.1–5, 12b–19
Mark 6.14–29

 

The biblical scholars I love to read don’t go to the holy text looking for ammunition with which to win an argument or trite truisms with which to escape the day’s sorrows; they go looking for a blessing, a better way of engaging life and the world, and they don’t expect to escape that search unscathed. — Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Kindle Ed., p.28

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I want to ask a deceptively simple question today: 

Why do we read the Bible?

I’m reading a wonderful book by Rachel Held Evans, called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. In her book, Rachel speaks of her rediscovery of the Bible after losing her love for it for awhile. 

She was brought up in the American Bible Belt, which has a fairly intense relationship with the Bible. I have had a similar experience, and I know some of you have too.

You see, after I became a Christian in 1968 at a Billy Graham rally, my best friend at school invited me to his church. So I went. His church was a Brethren congregation, which I only found out once I got there. I’d heard bad news of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’, but I was assured my friend’s church was part of the ‘Open Brethren’. I soon settled in, because I was hungry for teaching. 

If you don’t know much about the Brethren, think of them as ‘Baptists on Steroids’. In particular, they are fundamentalists who generally believe the Bible is inerrant and that it cannot contradict itself. The Brethren are really heavy duty. Yet they helped me to gain an excellent Bible knowledge.

But why did I read the Bible?

Back then, my answer would be to gain knowledge. I would have said that the Bible is the only source of knowledge about God.

I soon learned that there were people who were in error, people like Anglicans and Catholics, not to mention Methodists and Presbyterians. So I read the Bible to marshal arguments against such people. The Bible became a ‘blunt instrument’ for me to whack them about the head with. I loved to win arguments against those who were just plain wrong. It could be very satisfying.

In time, I became a little tired of this, especially as I began to see how much I could hurt people. But I didn’t know what else to do. 

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The sea so wide, the boat so small

Maker and Sustainer of creation,
you bring order out of chaos
and calm in the discord of our lives;
help us to trust in you,
even when all around seems to be giving way;
this we ask in our Saviour’s name. Amen.

Reading
Mark 4.35–41

 

Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real but fear is a choice. — Will Smith, After Earth (2013)

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There are a number of ways of picturing the Christian church—the church is the Body of Christ, we are living stones, or a royal priesthood. Or that perennial favourite: a peculiar people. 

There are other pictures too. For example, we can see the church as a boat, sailing over the waters of chaos. There are two places in the Bible where we are encouraged to see this image:

Firstly, in the story of the Flood in which Noah and his family are delivered from death through the ark;  and secondly, in today’s Gospel story, in which Jesus stills the storm that threatens to send the disciples to a watery grave.

Here are two examples of nautical logos for church bodies, the National Council of Churches in Australia, and the World Council of Churches: 

IMG_0132

IMG_0133

 

The inside of a traditional church building may also remind us of a boat:

 IMG_0135

Just over five years ago, Karen and I were on a boat in the Holy Land. One of our favourite parts of Israel was Lake Galilee and the surrounding areas. Our guide would take us places and say things like This is the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount, or the Feeding of the Five Thousand—and he always said that it might well not be ‘the’ place. But there’s only ever been one Sea of Galilee, and when you looked at the water and the shore and the sky you knew that Jesus himself had seen that same sea, that same shoreline, that same blue expanse of sky. There was something very special in that. 

We went across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, and had Holy Communion as we went across. They say storms blow up very quickly there, and it was certainly true for us that day. We began in a calm, glassy sea and ended up in rolling waves. Our guide said he wouldn’t have allowed us to go out if the weather had been like that when we started out.

Today, we find the disciples sailing a boat across Lake Galilee, when

Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.

Yes indeed, storms blow up quickly there all right.

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‘I am about to do a new thing’

Reading
Acts 10.44–48 

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. 

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Isaiah 43.1–2, 19

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Last week, we heard of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. We heard that the Spirit of Jesus led Philip to him; we heard that there was no reason for a eunuch not to be baptised. In other words, there was every reason for him to be baptised! 

Today, we have heard the final act of another very important story in the Book of Acts. It’s the climax of the story of the conversion of Cornelius and his household.

The Ethiopian eunuch had an important position in his country, but he was also considered an inferior. Cornelius also had an important position; he was in charge of 100 Roman soldiers. But no one considered Cornelius to be at all inferior, because he was a Roman. 

Luke wrote the Book of Acts with an eye towards Rome, and so he spends a lot more time on Cornelius than he did on the Ethiopian eunuch, whose name we don’t even know. (Have you noticed that?)

Cornelius was a seeker. He was searching for truth, and that search had led him to become a ‘God fearer’. God fearers were Gentiles who found the Jewish belief in one God and the Jewish ethical code to be very attractive, but they did not take the step of actually becoming Jews, with all the demands of the Jewish law that entailed. 

So Acts tells us that Cornelius 

was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.

It was while he was praying one day that God told him to fetch Peter to his house. Listen to what happened to Peter the very next day: Continue reading

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Reading

Isaiah 61.1–4, 8–11

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. — Augustine, On Christian Theology

The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour. — First Helvetic Confession, 1536

You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … — Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought down its final report on Friday, after 4.5 years. The life of the churches has changed for good in the light of the Commission.

One survivor of child abuse said on Friday:

Care and compassion has already lifted tenfold. We need to make sure we keep people alive and in a good place, by making sure they’ve got the counselling care they need.

It has taken a royal commission to bring this care and compassion to this man, and no doubt to many others.

In our reading from Isaiah today, we heard these words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;…

I think we can see who are the oppressed, brokenhearted ones are in this situation. It is the children who have become adults with burdens that were never lifted from their backs.

Jesus once placed a child in the midst of his disciples. The story is in Matthew 18:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”

The disciples hanker after greatness; Jesus shows them what greatness is in God’s eyes.

To be great is to take the place of a child, to embrace humility, to serve others. There is no other way; this is the way of the cross.

Time and time again, we have seen that the way church leaders took is another way altogether. It has been to protect their church’s good name, to keep their mouths closed, to disbelieve what they were told. Or they can’t remember anything about it.

The end result has been to deny care and compassion to the children in their care.

Perhaps I should read the next verse in Matthew18:

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

It’s a grim warning.

The consequences for the churches are also grim. Many non-churchgoing Aussies have lost any faith they had in the church as a community in which the love of God is to be found. Our moral authority is at record lows.

What should be our response?

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