The readings that are collected for this coming Sunday seem to gather around the theme of “the voice of the Lord”. This is one of those Sundays when the selection of four readings clearly focusses on a topic found in each of them (in contrast to the many “ordinary” Sundays where each of the four readings follow their own independent lines).
The theme of “the voice of the Lord” is sounded clearly in the psalm (Psalm 29), with a repeated refrain, “the voice of the Lord” through verses 3 to 9. First, the psalmist announces, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders … the voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty” (29:3–4).
Then follows a repeated affirmation, “the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars … the voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire … the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness … the voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (29:5, 7–9). The message declared by the Lord God is conveyed by the natural order of things, in the elements of the creation, made by God (see Gen 1–2; Ps 104; and in this Sunday’s reading, Isaiah 42:5).
The speaking forth of God, made manifest and evident in God’s creation, is a fitting theme for the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany—a season that celebrates the shining forth, the manifestation, of God. However, this Sunday is designated, not only as the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany, but also as the day on which The Baptism of the Lord is recalled.
In the Gospel selection (Matt 3:13–17), the first evangelist reports that the Spirit of God “descended on [Jesus] like a dove” (3:16) as Jesus was baptised by John in the River Jordan. At that event, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:17). The voice of the Lord is clear and prominent in this account of what was likely to have been the commissioning event for Jesus as he started into his public activities in the region of Galilee (Matt 4:12–25, and on until 19:1).
In the reading from Acts, in place of a section of an epistle, we hear Luke’s report of a speech of Peter, given in the house of the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 1:34–43). In this speech, Peter announced how “the message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced; how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).
That message was to be continued by the disciples; Peter says that God “commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). The voice of the Lord that has been heard in the early testimony (see Acts 2, 3, 7) continues through the later apostolic proclamation (see Acts 13, 17, 20).
Linked with this is the first of the four songs found in Second Isaiah (Isa 40–55) that are linked explicitly with the Servant (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). Here, the Servant is designated as the one in whom God delights (42:1); the phrase recurs in the message of the voice from the cloud which speaks at the baptism of Jesus, declaring that he is the one “with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). The Servant has God’s spirit within him (Isa 42:1), something which is directly enacted in the baptism of Jesus when he “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt 3:16).
The work of the Servant is to bring justice to the nations (Isa 42:1, 3, 4); that will be evident in the work of Jesus (Matt 12:18–21, quoting directly these verses from the first Servant Song). Through the Servant, the Lord calls people “in righteousness” (Isa 42:6); that call is echoed by Jesus as he calls his followers to demonstrate righteousness (Matt 5:20) and exhorts them to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33). Indeed, the baptism of Jesus narrated by Matthew is said to have taken place “to fulfil all righteousness” (3:15).
Through the Servant, God establishes God’s people “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6); that charge is repeated by Jesus, who came as light shining in the darkness (Matt 4:15–16) and who equips his followers to be “the light of the world” (5:14–16), whose whole body will be “full of light” (6:23).
Through the Servant, God announces that “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare” (Isa 42:9); this is exemplified, according to Jesus, by “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven [who] is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).
The identity of the Servant was debated in Israel; was this an individual, or a symbolic representation of the whole nation? The many resonances of the Servant Song in the story of Jesus indicate why Christian interpreters have identified Jesus as this servant. The story of his baptism provides a most appropriate occasion for underlining this connection. The shapers of the lectionary have thus linked these two passages on this Sunday, and set them into the context of passages declaring how “the word of the Lord” has been made manifest. It is a compelling start to the season of Epiphany.
The Uniting Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church – we see ourselves as just one part of a much larger whole. We do the things that other denominations within the church do: we gather for worship, preach the Gospel, care for the needy, witness to our faith, and connect with communities.
We have many organisations that cater specifically for pre-schoolers, school students, people with disabilities, theological students, adult learners, Indigenous people and aged and infirm people. We have chaplains in hospitals, schools, industry, and the defence forces. And we have congregations in many places across the continent.
When we worship, we feel connected with the people of God of all denominations across the globe. When we witness, we bear testimony to the faith shared by Christians of many varieties. When we reach out in service, we act in solidarity with people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of goodwill of any stripe, in our communities and across the globe.
We share in the call to be missional, universal, set apart, and unified, as God’s people together. Or in more traditional theological language, we are part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church.
But we believe that we have some distinctive elements to contribute to that larger whole. Our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia is marked by ten distinctive features.
I In Ecumenical Relationship
When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.
Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our identity as a Uniting Church. We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.
Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. Some Congregations share buildings with other denominations; some worship and serve together, especially in rural towns.
We are an ecumenical church.
II In Covenant with First Peoples
A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.
The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel. This gives expression to our commitment to shape a destiny together.
In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. In 2018, we agreed to support a Makarrata process to give a clear national voice to First Peoples, and to support a national Treaty. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians. The Assembly fosters ongoing work in this area through the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle.
We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.
III A Multicultural Church
In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.
The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are at least 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.
Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 languages from cultures beyond Australia, as well as many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church. We have learnt the importance of moving from “enjoying each other’s foods”, to conversing at a deep level about the hopes and expectations we bring from different cultural experiences. We have learnt that we need to be intercultural in our relationships.
Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and the Seeking Common Ground Circle, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We have had a long and fruitful Dialogue with the Jewish Community, and participate in a number of other interfaith Dialogue conversations. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.
We continue to develop as a church in deepening relationships with many cultures and faiths.
IV All the people of God
The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.
Throughout the life of the Uniting Church, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins. We have introduced the Ministry of Pastor to recognise the giftedness of lay people, and that sits alongside the Ministry of Lay Preacher (which we have had since 1977), and the more recent accreditation of Lay Presiders in many locations.
We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.
We are a church which values the ministry of all the people of God.
V Women and Men
The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry. This is a very strong distinctive, especially in the Australian scene.
Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers, Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women in each and every way that we seek to “be church”—as we gather to worship, as we witness to our faith, as we serve the wider community.
Both lay and ordained women have served in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church, from Church Council Chairpersons to Presbytery Chairpersons, to Synod Moderators and Secretaries, to the Assembly General Secretary and President. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our identity.
We are committed to mutuality and gender equality in every part of the church.
Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God. We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.
The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.
We are a church which deliberately seeks to discern the movement of the Spirit in our midst.
VII Professional Standards
Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.
Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and Pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.
Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that our churches are Safe Places, valuing everybody, honouring integrity, avoiding negative and hurtful behaviours.
We are a church which values integrity and clarity about our ethical standards.
VIII Open to explore difficult issues
Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.
In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.
Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. We have worked through difficult decisions about sexuality and leadership, and then about sexuality, gender, and marriage. We continue to learn, explore, and adapt.
In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making.
We seek to be a church that engages in the difficult discussions with honesty, transparency, and hopefulness.
IX Advocating for Justice
The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.
The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. The Assembly Working for JusticeCircle, brings together people who are strongly committed to this avenue of ministry.
A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all. Each federal election, we are provided with resources that encourage us, as people of faith, to consider the implications of our votes in the life of the nation.
We are a church which is strongly committed to justice for all.
X Environmental Sustainability
In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle. Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the identity of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.
Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat. Each year, we experience catastrophic consequences from more regular and more intensified “natural disasters”—fires, floods, drought, cyclones. Just as we provide pastoral support in these situations through Disaster Response Chaplains, so too we maintain advocacy with governments, urging them to set policies which will turn us away from the trajectory of yet more environmental disasters.
Locally, many Congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.
We are a church that lives, acts, and advocates for a sustainable environmental future.
You may have some thoughts about what I have articulated above. You may have thought, “what about …?” – something that I have overlooked, that you see as important. You may have some questions about how I have described some of these elements. I encourage you to talk with others about how you respond. Together, we are the Uniting Church!
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) So Jesus declares at the start of the second volume of the orderly account of the things being fulfilled among us—the work we know as the book of Acts.
After a series of incidents located in Jerusalem (1:4–8:4), the move into Samaria is recounted in two striking stories. The first (8:5-25) tells of the activities of Philip and the subsequent visit from Peter and John. The second, a conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian (8:26-40), serves to moves the narrative still further away from Judaea, where the events of earlier chapters had been located.
The movement into Samaria begins to play out the progression that Jesus set out in his programmatic words at the head of the volume, telling his followers that they would be empowered as “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). Could it be, perhaps, that this encounter with a man from Ethiopia prefigured that eventual move to “the end of the earth”?
On the edge
We certainly are moving to the edges. The scene brings Philip into contact with an Ethiopian: an edgycharacter, who comes from a location on the edge of the world (in ancient Israelite view), with a gender identity on the edge (a eunuch), in a situation not quite the usual, expected manner (in a chariot travelling away from Jerusalem, not in a home or a settled synagogue or a temple forecourt).
The Israelites regarded Ethiopia as the furthest extent of the earth in the south-westerly direction (Isa 11:11-12). Could this passage, offered as the Acts in Easter reading for this coming Sunday (Easter 5), provide a clear Lukan pointer to “the end of the earth”?
Although the man was a Gentile, he was returning from worship in Jerusalem (8:27); he is probably thus the first of a number of prosecutes who appear in the narrative of Acts (10:2; at 13:50; 16:14; 17:4,17; 18:7). However, he would have been barred from entering the temple precincts because he was a eunuch (Deut 23:1). He was not perfect, and thus not able to present himself directly before the Lord.
Philip travels south-west towards the coast, on the wilderness road to Gaza, at the urging of “an angel of the Lord” (8:26), a phenomenon already seen in Jerusalem (5:19). His encounter with the Ethiopian is initiated by the spirit (8:29), another phenomenon already abundantly evident in Jerusalem (2:4; 4:8; 4:31; 6:5; 7:55), as also in Samaria (8:17). The encounter is ended by the spirit, when Philip is snatched away immediately after baptising the Ethiopian (8:39). It is a strange and evocative scene.
In the Scriptures
The content of the conversation is given in some detail; of particular interest is the fact that one of the scriptural prophecies which is fulfilled by Jesus is here identified. As the Ethiopian reads of the “lamb led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7-8), Philip explains that this relates to Jesus, whom Philip then preaches to him (8:32-35). Such fulfilment of prophecy has already been introduced in speeches in Jerusalem (2:16-21,25-31,34-35, 3:18, 4:25-26) as another indicator of God’s sovereignty in the events of history.
The particular scriptural passage quoted is part of the fourth “servant song” (Isa 52:13-53:12); various excerpts from this song are interpreted as applying to Jesus by a range of New Testament writers (Matt 8:17; Luke 22:37; John 12:38; Rom 4:25; 5:18-19; 10:16; 15:21; Heb 9:28; 1 Pet 2:21-25).
Into the community
The scene ends with the baptism of the Ethiopian (8:38; see 2:38). Baptism became a means for incorporating people into the community of the followers of Jesus. Baptism of this Ethiopian enabled a person of another nationality to enter into the extending community of messianic believers.
Baptism had been proclaimed as necessary by Peter, on the day of Pentecost (2:38); this appears to link baptism closely with the gift of the Spirit (2;1-4, 17-21). However, there is no reference to the spirit interacting with the Ethiopian in the scene with Philip. The spirit guided Philip in the encounter (8:29, 39)—but appears to have no direct contact with the Ethiopian himself.
Just prior to this incident, the Samaritans who had already “received the word of God” (8:14) were enabled to “receive the holy spirit” through the laying on of hands by the apostles who visited the region (8:15-18). Although the gift of the spirit (8:17) had been separated from baptism (8:12), as also in Ephesus (19:1-7), Luke does not intend this pattern to be read as prescriptive for all situations, as other accounts of baptisms indicate (2:38-41; 8:38; 10:44-48; 19:1-7).
Baptism is accompanied by the laying-on of hands in Ephesus (19:6) and in Samaria (8:15-16), but not with the Ethiopian. The laying-on of hands results in the holy spirit coming upon those in Ephesus (19:6), a link similar to that made in Samaria (8:15-17,19) and Antioch (13:3-4). The gift of the spirit leads to speaking in tongues in Ephesus (19:7), as in Jerusalem (2:4) and Caesarea (10:45-46), but not for the Ethiopian.
In Acts, baptism may come both prior to (2:38-42; 8:14-17) and after (10:44-48; 11:15-17) the gift of the spirit; further, the gift of the spirit is not necessarily linked with baptism (for instance, at 2:1-4 and 4:31). Yet, whilst the time sequence is found in different patterns, the collation of similar elements implies strong continuity with events in Jerusalem, Samaria, Caesarea, and Ephesus. The baptism of the Ethiopian fits, by inference, within that sequence.
Immediately after this baptism, Philip is removed by the spirit of the Lord (8:39). The language of Philip being “snatched away” (8:39) is striking. But unlike those whom Paul describes as being “snatched away” up into heaven (1 Thess 4:17), Philip returns to Caesarea, continuing to preach “good news” (8:40).
His message has already been defined as concerning “the sovereignty of God” (8:12)—a central message in the Lukan works (Luke 7: 29-30; Acts 2:23, 4:28, 5:38, 20,27). The persistent and continuing activity of God in the story that Luke tells, is a strong element throughout the narrative.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).