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).