The Congregation and THE embodiment of the Church

It’s been interesting to see the recent posts relating to the 45th anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church on 22 June. I saw largely positive commentary, as well as a handful of more negative observations. All in all, it was time to consider and identify some key factors, both positive, and negative.

In the midst of all of this, I am thinking that it must be time for another post about organisation and governance in the Uniting Church in Australia. So this is a blog about the word THE.

Yes, that’s right: THE. Specifically, about the meaning and significance of that little word “the” in one sentence in a church document: the Basis of Union, the founding document for the church that I belong to, the Uniting Church in Australia (formed in 1977).

The particular sentence that I intend to focus on is found in paragraph 15(a) of the Basis. It reads: The Congregation is the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ.

Now, the word “the” actually appears four times in this sentence. However, it is the second of these four occurrences that is in my focus of attention: “the embodiment”.

The, in English grammar, functions as a definitive article; it sits before a noun and gives shape, specificity, definition to the noun that follows. So, “the cat” refers, not just to any old cat, but to that particular cat which I can see before me, sitting on the mat (yes, that particular mat, as opposed to any old mat).

The little word “the” thus has a specifying role, defining a particular thing for our consideration, in distinction from the great mass of other things just like it that we are not considering. “The” can thus place an emphasis on the singularity and particularity of the item that is so qualified.

But “the” can also be a generalising term, placed in front of a noun without any intention to give it concerted specificity. In this instance, the word “the” just has the generalised of kind of smoothing out the sentence. “Cat sat on mat” sounds clunky. “The cat sat on the mat” has a rounder and fuller feel to it, without ever intending to refer to THIS specific cat sitting on THAT particular mat. It’s actually a generic reference to what cats do when they find a mat. ANY cat. ANY mat.

So, when we turn to the section of the Basis of Union that deals with Governance, we first should note that the Congregation is not defined as a council. The Council (that is, the governing body) in a local context is named in the Basis as “the Elders or Leaders Meeting”. In practice, it was often called “the Parish Council”.

Some time after the Basis was written, the Assembly of the UCA determined that this body would be called the Church Council. It consists of “the minister and those who are called to share with the minister in oversight”. That oversight is the governance function of the Church Council, which is clearly identified and defined as being “the council within a congregation or group of congregations”.

There are three other councils which are so identified in paragraph 15 of the Basis: the Presbytery (“the district council”), the Synod (“the regional council”), and the Assembly (“the national council”). Together with the Church Council, these four bodies have responsibility for governance, the oversight of the various matters specified and allocated to each council in turn.

Now, the Congregation is not a Council. But it is an integral part of the Church. The Basis says that it is “the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”.

Does this means that the Congregation, as “the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”, is THE one and only way, THE pre-eminent way, THE most significant way, that the church is made manifest, or embodied, in human society? I have heard and read this claim many times, over the four decades that I have been active within the church. It is a commonly held (mis)belief.

Such a claim places an inordinate amount of emphasis on that little word “the”. It invests it with a priority sense, with an exclusive connotation—this is THE Church, the one and only way that it exists. This is a huge claim.

And it is often spoken in contexts where decisions of the Presbytery, or the Synod, or the Assembly, are in contention. The implication is clear: THEY are not really the Church. THIS, the Congregation, this is the Church!

It is important to note that the Basis does not ever make this claim. It never says only the Congregation is THE church, the Congregation is the WHOLE church, and the Congregation is the NOTHING BUT the Church. Not at all.

Besides, the Basis says that the Congregation is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE of the church. Across the railway line, there is another Congregation that is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE, over there, of the church. And further away, across the river there is another Congregation that is the embodiment IN ONE PLACE, across the river, of the church. They are all embodiments of the church in their own places.

And so, with the other entities mentioned in the Basis. These entities are clearly part of the church, as well. They may well also be understood to embody the church, as each one exercises its responsibilities and carries out its duties in the prescribed areas allocated to it. They give expression to the church as much as the Congregation does.

Indeed, other entities which have developed and evolved since the time that the Basis was written (in the mid-to-late 1960s) are clearly a part of the church as well. We cannot afford to invest that little word “the” with the sum totality of what we understand the church to be. The church is also aged care facilities, preschool centres, meals for the homeless programmes and theological training colleges, chaplains to the Defence Force and chaplains to those ill and in hospital, mental health chaplains and Frontier Service Padres—and much, much more.

And the Basis also notes and defines other elements which are undoubtedly part of the church. Is the Congregation to say to the Synod, you are not part of the Church? Or to the Presbytery, you are not part of the Church? Or to the Assembly? (Yes, I can feel myself channeling Paul via 1 Cor 12!)

So I recoil when I hear or read that the Congregation is THE Church, prioritised, privileged, and exclusively THE Church. It’s not. It is an important, local, expression of what we understand the Church to be.

But the Congregation is governed by a Church Council, which is in relationship with the other Councils of the Church. It’s the Church Council which is the local council of the church, not the Congregation. And we certainly wouldn’t claim that this Council is THE embodiment of the Church, any more than we would say this of a Presbytery, or a Synod, or the Assembly. Nor is the Congregation. Each of these bodies is, in some way, an expression of the Church; and each, by the provisions found in the Constitution, has its own set of responsibilities.

In the end, the Congregation is ONE of the manifestations, or embodiments, if the Church, related to each of the other manifestations and expressions and embodiments of the Church, seen through the various bodies, agencies, gatherings, and councils of the Church.

A personal postscript: I have a clear and firm commitment to the life of the Congregation, having participated actively for over 40 years in the life of seven congregations in Australia (and three more whilst studying in the USA, and in a Methodist Circuit whilst living for a year in the UK). During that time I have been a member of four Church Councils, two times a Treasurer, and once a Church Council chairperson.

Much of the time I have done those roles whilst being engaged in fulltime theological education and presbytery oversight roles. My current position is fully focussed on resourcing, supporting, encouraging, and even challenging Congregations and Church Councils in their life, service, and witness.

I’ve been privileged to have been a member of a Congregation which had a strong Congregational heritage. In fact, it was the home Congregation of the sole Congregationalist lay member of the Joint Commission on Church Union, Maynard Davies. I understand that Mr Davies was the member who pressed for the inclusion of paragraph 11 in the Basis of Union.

That’s the paragraph that affirms that the Uniting Church will remain open to new insights which emerge from scientific thinkers, historical researchers, our encounter with other cultural customs, and our engagement with people from societies different from our own.

This, of course, is a really important element in the theology and practice of the UCA—from this strong Congregational heritage, a progressive and engaged church has developed. The policies and values that have been promulgated by Synods and Assemblies over the decades owe much to this commitment, and to the ongoing work that has been done within “the wider church” in such areas. All from a strong Congregational ethos!

So I think it is entirely possible to value the local expression of church whilst engaging in and supporting broader expressions. All of this is us, as we say.

Liberal losses: counting the cost

Now that all the results have been finalised in the Australian Federal Election 2022, we can see clearly the extent of Liberal losses. It’s been extensive, cutting right to the heart of the party in the so-called “blue-ribbon Liberal” seats.

From early on it was clear that six House of Representatives seats were lost to “teal independents”, standing on a platform of real action to address climate change, and the introduction of a corruption commission to begin to repair the shocking state of integrity in public life.

Three of these seats were in Sydney: Kylea Tink in North Sydney, the seat of former Treasurer Hockey; Sophie Scamps in Mackellar; and Allegra Spender in Wentworth, the seat of former PM Turnbull amd former Opposition Leader Hewson.

Two more were in Melbourne: Monique Ryan in Kooyong, the seat of former Treasuer Frydenberg, as well as former Opposition Leader Andrew Peacock, and foundation Liberal leader and (twice) Prime Minister Robert Menzies; and Zoe Daniel in Goldstein.

The sixth seat to fall to a “ teal independent” was in WA: Kate Chaney in Curtin, the seat of former Deputy Liberal Leader Bishop.

They join existing members Helen Haines in Indi and Zali Steggal in Warringah, both of which were once blue-Liberal seats; the latter was previously held by the former PM, the Abbott of Inequity.

The Liberals also lost to Labor in Bennelong, the seat of former PM Howard, and Robertson in NSW; in Victoria, they lost to Labor in Higgins, the seat of former Treasurer Peter Costello and former Prime Ministers Harold Holt and John Gorton, and Chisholm. In SA, they lost Boothby to Labor, and the Centre Alliance held on to Mayo, which it had taken from the Liberals in 2016; while in QLD, they lost to the Greens in Ryan.

They lost massively in WA, with four seats going to Labor: Hasluck, Swan, Pearce, and Tangney. The map of electorates in the Perth area tells the story quite dramatically!

Lots of Liberal losses in the House.

See https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/where-the-election-was-won-and-lost-and-who-is-next-on-the-chopping-block-20220524-p5ao13

In the Senate, four Liberal seats were lost: to David Pocock in the ACT, to Labor in WA, to the Jacqui Lambie Network in Tasmania, and to “it’s my kinda party” Untied Australia in Victoria.

The Liberals now have only 23 seats in the Senate—but we add to that 5 from the Liberal National Party in QLD, 3 from the Nationals, and 1 from the Country Liberals in NT, to total 32 Senators as the main opposition body.

Labor now has 26 seats in the Senate, and no doubt they will work co-operatively with the 12 Greens and independent David Pocock on much of their legislative agenda. The 2 Jacqui Lambie Network senators may well also figure in these negotiations.

The conservative rump is now irrelevant in the Senate, except for the predictably useless aggravating grunts that they will surely make as often as they can to gain media attention: Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts in QLD, and newcomer Ralph Babet in Victoria.

See https://www.pollbludger.net/category/federal-politics-2019-2022/federal-election-2022/

Lots of Liberal losses overall. And a clear indication that the Liberals are no longer anything like “liberal” in their policies or their practices.

The true cost of the Howard—Abbott—Morrison conservative hegemony is now evident: years of rhetoric about fiscal conservatism masking disastrous social policies, especially amongst the poor; years of dog whistling promoting xenophobia and overt racism, often in cahoots with various rightwingnutjobs; years of resistance to any significant action on climate, signing off on a bleak future for all humanity whilst profiting from the largesse of always-profitable fossil fuel companies; years of resisting real support for renewables; years of offering leftover scraps to the First Peoples of the country, while ignoring Royal Commission recommendations; and years of blithely ignoring the misogynistic culture that tolerated (and generated) many acts of sexist abuse.

Liberal losses: many reason to celebrate!

Perverting and confusing, biting and devouring, bewitched and confused (Gal 5; Pentecost 3C)

The lectionary is currently providing a short series of excerpts from one of Paul’s earliest letters—the one he wrote to the Galatians, possibly in the late 40s, more likely (in my view) by the middle of the 50s.

This letter is distinctive in a couple of ways. The audience is not a gathering of believers in one city (as in Thessalonians, or Philippi, or Corinth, or even Rome), but the various communities of believers across the whole region of Galatia, which was one of the Roman provinces in the area we today call Turkey.

A second distinctive feature is that this letter completely omits any of the “friendly overture” elements that are typically found at the start of the letters widely recognised as the authentic letters of Paul. Many of these letters, after the requisite formalities (Paul, to the believers in X, grace and peace to you), contain a prayer of thanksgiving: “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly …” (1 Thess 1:2–10); “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus …” (1 Cor 1:4–9), “when I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus …” (Phlmn 4–7); “first, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world …” (Rom 1:8-15); and in the letter known as “the friendly letter”, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …” (Phil 1:3–11).

The second letter to the Corinthians replaces this prayer of thanksgiving with an extended blessing: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction …” (2 Cor 1:3–7); that pattern is followed by the anonymous scribe who wrote decades later, modelling his circular letter on earlier Pauline examples, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …” (Eph 1:3–14), just as the unknown person who crafted a letter to Colossae likewise followed the model of the earlier prayers of thanksgiving: “in our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints …” (Col 1:3–14).

The letter to the Galatians has no indication, either of a prayer of thanksgiving, or of a blessing. Instead, this letter cuts right to the chase, in direct words which accuse and denounce: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel … there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ … if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:6–9). The letter continues swiftly, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10).

*****

This opening accusation is reflected in words that we find in the section offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (5:1, 13–25) when, five chapters after this direct opening, Paul rounds back on his audience, declaring that “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:15).

In a striking juxtaposition, however, the letter continues on from this warning, to provide a contrast, which has become well-known, between “the desires of the flesh” (5:16–21) and “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–26).

I have no doubt that most, if not all, sermons that are preached on this lectionary offering will focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the nine qualities identified as the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23).

Swimming against the tide, I intended to reflect here, not on the fruit of the Spirit, but on those earlier words, about “biting and devouring one another”.

(I have written an earlier reflection on one of those fruits, gentleness, at https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/)

To understand the reason for Paul’s direct words, we need to understand the presumed situation in Galatia which he was addressing. We can glean a number of clues about this from references and statements in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

It is evident from Paul’s opening comments that other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught them things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. He derogatively labels them as “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7), and later as those who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1) and, by inference, those who “prevented [them] from obeying the truth” (5:7). As a result, he calls the Galatians “foolish” (3:1) and expresses a wish that “those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (5:12).

These teachers, in Paul’s opinion, proclaim “a gospel contrary to what you received” (1:9)—namely, what Paul himself had taught them, when he had earlier visited the Galatians, a time “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (4:8). The Galatians turned from their gentile faith to adopt faith in Jesus, by which “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (4:9). It is “for freedom [that] Christ has set us free” (5:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/15/for-freedom-christ-has-set-us-free-galatians-pentecost-2c-3c-4c/

*****

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we do not have specific information about the identity of the addressees of this letter or their location.

Acts indicates that Paul had preached in a number of locations in Galatia: initially with Barnabas he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–52), Iconium (14:1–5), Lystra (14:6–20) and Derbe (14:6, 21–23). Subsequently he revisited the area, once passing through swiftly with Timothy, saying nothing (16:6), and later going “from place to place” in the region, “strengthening the disciples” (18:23).

In the first two cities there were Jews who were opposed to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas: they persecuted them in Antioch and attempted to stone them in Iconium. However, such figures are common in Acts, for in almost every place Paul encounters such Jewish opposition. We learn no specifics of the Galatian churches from the Acts accounts.

Paul argues that the gospel he proclaims brings believers into the unity of being “one in Christ” (3:28). This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/19/inclusion-welcome-unity-gal-3-pentecost-2c/

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of these teachers, that true faith requires, first, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are the ones whom Paul blames for the destructive behaviour of the believers in Galatia, as they bite and devour one another, because they have been (in Paul’s view) bewitched and confused. (So much for the wonderful days of the “golden era” of the early church … … …)

Paul has much to say about the teaching of these people, identifying circumcision as the central issue, but actually dealing with a whole set of matters regarding the place of the Jewish Torah, the law, in the communities which recognised Jesus as Messiah. Paul comes back to this is his final chapter of the letter, which is what the lectionary offers us on the Sunday after next … so more musings on that, next week.

Refugee Week 2022: a time to seek Healing

Refugee Week is held each year, providing an opportunity to highlight aspects of the refugee experience and help the broader community to understand what it is like to be a refugee.

This year, Refugee Week runs from Sunday 19 June to Saturday 25 June. Healing is the theme of Refugee Week 2022. This theme builds on a recognition of the importance of human connections, which has been underscored by the current pandemic. 

The website for this year’s Refugee Week says, “Mainstream and refugee communities alike can draw upon shared hardship to heal wounds, to learn from each other and to move forward. Healing can occur through storytelling, through community and also through realisation of our intrinsic interconnectedness as individuals.”

The first Refugee Week events were organised in Sydney in 1986 by Austcare (Australians Caring for Refugees). Austcare’s mission is to assist refugees overseas, displaced people and those affected by landmines to rebuild their lives, through the expert delivery of development programs in partnership with local communitities and other agencies.

In 1987, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) became a co-organiser of the week, and the week became a national event from 1988. RCOA took on responsibility for the national coordination of Refugee Week from 2004.

According to the UNHCR, the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, there are now 89.3 million forcibly displaced people, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order in their countries of origin. (A year ago, the figure was 82.4 million forcibly displaced people.)

35 million of these people are children, aged under 18 years. 1 million of these children were born as refugees; in the years 2018 to 2020, an average of between 290,000 and 340,000 children were born into a refugee life per year.

Over half of these people (53.2 million) are classified as “internally displaced”, meaning that they are homeless within their own country. 27.1 million are officially classified as refugees, meaning that they are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This is the definition in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees—an international agreement which Australia signed in 1951, the year it was published.

These statistics, from the UNHCR, illustrate
the significant rise, globally, of displaced people,
refugees, and asylum seekers in the past decade.

A further 4.6 million people are classified as asylum seekers. Under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. (Terms such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘boat people’ are both inaccurate and unhelpful—even though they appear in the media with saddening regularity, they are terms that should be avoided.)

See https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/1951-refugee-convention.html

More than two thirds of all refugees currently under the UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries: the Syrian Arabic Republic (6.7 million), Venezuela (4.0 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Myanmar (1.1 million).

The countries which are currently hosting the most number of refugees are Turkey (3.6 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Germany (1.1 million), Sudan (just over 1 million), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (just under 1 million). Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, and the Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total.

In the last full year (2020–2021), Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program was set at 13,750 places. We willingly accept this amount of incoming refugees, and recognise the value that such people do bring to the Australian society. we have fallen victim to the fear pedalled by unscrupulous elements in society, and in government, over the past decade, about the “hordes” of people seeking the safety of refuge in ur country.

In Australia, the most enduring myth about people seeking asylum is that most arrive by boat. They don’t. The clear fact is that most people seeking asylum arrive by air. It’s time for us to throw overboard the fear of people who come here seeking refuge and asylum on boats, and recognise that the fear fuelled by right-wing agitators over the past decade has not served us well at all.

Adhering to the provisions of the Refugee Convention, as a,country, would be an excellent step,for us to take this year. That would be a significant step towards Healing in our national life.

See stories and additional statistics at https://www.refugeeweek.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/RCOA-Refugee-Myths-and-Facts-2022-WEB.pdf

Inclusion. Welcome. Unity. (Gal 3; Pentecost 2C)

My sermon for the 45th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia, preached at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 June 2022

*****

On the Sunday closest to 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. And as it happens, today the lectionary offers us a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament, which is quite relevant. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church. It taps into many of those key things that are at the heart of our DNA as the UCA. (You might have read what I wrote about this in the newsletter this week, or on our website; see https://tuc.org.au/conversations/the-dna-of-the-uca/)

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatia, a region in the area we today would call Turkey, the communities of new believers were practising Circumcision as a sign of their faith in Jesus. That was how Jewish people had long signalled their faith, by circumcising their infant males. Jesus himself was circumcised. So it made sense to the believers in Galatia to require that any males who professed faith in Jesus would be circumcised.

This practice came under criticism. In Galatia, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was written in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection on the part of Paul.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he attacks them for biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics! Nevertheless, it is part of the collection of letters that were included, long ago, in the canon of our scriptures. We are called to hear it, read it, and reflect on it.

So it is wonderful to find, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, that we come across comments that do provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

In today’s passage, we find these two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

It is a vision that should resonate with us here at Tuggeranong. In this congregation, we work to ensure that people are welcomed and included. The door is open to all who want to walk through it and gather with us. And such people do walk through the door: people of Anglo heritage, of Islander heritage, of Indian and Asian heritage; people of mature age, those “in their prime” (yes, that’s most of us!), those who participate regularly in Girls’ Brigade, and those in the very early years of their lives.

In the fellowship of this congregation, we have people who identify as heterosexual and those who identify as homosexual; those who have transitioned genders, those who are intersex, those who prefer the pronoun “they” to “he” or “she”. Rainbow Christian Alliance offers a safe place for such folks, as well as this morning worship gathering. We have in our midst people for whom life has been a struggle, and those who have been blessed with good health and happy relationships throughout.

People from this Tuggeranong congregation offer ministry to those at Karralika who are grappling with issues in their life, to those who are finding it hard to make ends meet and value the opportunities to shop at Red Dove, or to collect food parcels, and to those who simply want a weekly time of friendly companionship over a meal. All of these activities, and more, indicate that we are open, welcoming, inclusive. This resonates with the vision of the church that Paul long ago articulated.

And it indicates that we are, as we have prayed earlier, heading towards being a church that “dreams ambitiously, loves with purpose, and dances with danger … that lives the politics of the kingdom and discovers the beauty of humanity, that loves to bless the stranger … and has courage to step out in faith … as God’s companions on this way”. [Prayer by Rocky Hamilton, abbotsford.org.uk]

Paul’s vision of the church is one of harmony, inclusion, unity. Yet some were clinging to the old practices, of circumcision, while others were seeking to move on, through practising baptism. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the people in Galatia had failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person—male or female—would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to take place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century onwards has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. Today in our society, we are pursuing this vision particularly in relation to gender and sexual identity, a conversation which has been to the fore in society in recent years, a conversation in which the Uniting Church has played a key role as a faith organisation.

Inclusion. Welcome. Unity. One in Christ Jesus. May this be a reality for us, in this community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

*****

See also

For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians, Pentecost 2C, 3C, 4C)

As the epistle is the lectionary for this Sunday and the following two Sundays comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, here is an Introduction to Galatians.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes.

Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians (1:6–9). In quick succession, he criticizes their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads. What do we make of this language used by Paul?

Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Graeco-Roman society—which would have included Paul.  

So Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught the Christians there things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings that apparently had been so effective amongst them.

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.

The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatians 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas: he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. (There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter: “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited.)

The key themes of this letter relate to the Law, freedom, and unity.

The gospel that Paul proclaims makes believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions: as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28).

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that these other teachers want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes, they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13).

Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12).

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Philippans 3:5 (a fact that he omits when he rehearses his past at Galatians 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?

He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts.

Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage that lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law.

Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, that secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.

This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law.

The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2) and to “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel, which brings liberation in community (3:28), will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).

Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom that it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?

The Senate, house of review, place of hope

“To fulfil the role the Constitution allows the Senate in relation to the government, the Senate is able to scrutinise and judge the activities, policies and legislation of the government. This is why the Senate is known as a house of review.” So reads a section of the office Parliament of Australia website explaining the nature and function of The Senate. (https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/Senate_Briefs/Brief10)

I have known this principle, and voted in accordance with this principle, for decades. As well as holding as my personal principle to “always vote below the line” (something that has been quite challenging at various times, given the size of the ballot paper!), I have also maintained that the Senate should be a real house of review—not just a rubber stamp, like the House of Lords is in the British Parliament.

The reality is that, at times throughout the past 120 years, the Senate has indeed been simply a “rubber stamp”, acting to endorse the legislation introduced and debated in the lower house. Those times, especially, when the dominant party in the lower house has also had control of the Senate, have been times when the Senate has seemed to have lived up to its most famous description as “unrepresentative swill”. (Take a bow, Paul Keating.)

So in order to ensure that there is at least some measure of review that might occur when a bill is introduced into the Senate, I have held the practice of never voting for the same party in the lower house, as in the Senate. It has been my personal contribution to ensure (vainly, in many instances) that there are at least someone in the Senate who might advocate for a point of view different from what is advocated by the party in Government, and what is (often) blindly expressed as opposition to that point of view by those who, well, are in fact, the Opposition.

So it has been with great pleasure that I have heard the news, today, that in the ACT (the jurisdiction where I currently live), one of the two Senators elected will bring precisely that function of review—not toeing the Government line, not unthinkingly adopting the resistance of the Opposition, but considering each piece of legislation on its merits.

I’m referring, of course, to the election of David Pocock as the second Senator for the ACT. He was elected alongside Katy Gallagher, of the Labor Party—a fine Senator, in my eyes, who has been an excellent representative for the ACT over her term in parliament (as, indeed, is my local member in Bean, David Smith).

Ever since the ACT has elected senators, the second Senate spot has been held by the Liberal Party (John Knight—Margaret Reid—Gary Humphries—Zed Seselja). This year, however, Zed Seselja failed in his bid to return to the Senate. And so it is that Zed has dropped off the end of the alphabet (at least, in the ACT)!

Pocock stood as an Independent, with a platform advocating for real action in relation to climate change; the establishment of a national integrity commission; the adoption of what is advocated by the Statement from the Heart to ensure First Nations people have a voice in shaping our nation;

and measures to improve the safety of women and girls in their homes, schools, and workplaces. (He also had other economic measures and more parochial territory matters in his platform.) All of this augurs well for the next three years in Australia—especially if the Labor Government does act in accordance with its rhetoric about climate, integrity, and First Peoples. See https://www.davidpocock.com.au

Alongside the 12 Green senators (who are committed to similar policies) and the two Jacqui Lambie Network senators (Jacqui Lambie herself has a track record of independent thinking about legislation), the Senate is well-placed to be a real house of review that will consider, debate, and advocate for a range of important matters—holding the Government to account, refining legislation and e surging principles are adopted that are in the best interests of the country.

So I’m pleased that my choice has been elected—and that the Senate has a really good chance, over the next three years, of fulfilling its intended purpose.