May 17 is IDAHoBiT, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. IDAHoBiT is a day to draw attention to the discrimination experienced by LGBTQI+ people internationally.
The day is marked worldwide in over 130 countries, including 37 countries where same-sex acts are still illegal. The first day was held in 2004 to raise awareness of the violence and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including all people who have diverse gender identities or sexual expressions.
The date of 17 May was chosen for IDAHoBiT as this was the date in 1990 when the World Health Organisation finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Despite this, LGBTQI+ people across the world continue to face hate, discrimination and violence.
The theme for IDAHoBiT 2022, adopted after consultation with LGBTQI+ organisations worldwide, is Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Rights.
The theme claims the rights of sexually- and gender-diverse people to live their sexual identity and to express their gender freely. It also signals a desire for such people to be free from physical violence, free from conversion practices (mislabelled as “therapies”), able to access transition services for Trans people, and free from the forced sterilisation of Intersex people.
The website for this day (https://may17.org/) states that the theme provides a reminder that “many of us around the world live LGBTQI-phobias in their very flesh every day and that our bodies are being abused, ruining our lives. Our bodies are our lives. And we have a right to live free and in dignity!”
For myself, I do not identify with any of the letters in the LGBTIQA+ acronym. I have lived my life as a male who is heterosexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender) and cis-gender (the gender assigned to me at my birth correlates with my sense of personal identity and gender)—in short, I am what is referred to as heteronormative. And, as a white male in the Western world, my life experience has certainly been privileged and sheltered from internal or external disturbances and challenges related to my sexuality or gender identity.
So I have no personal experience of the gender dysmorphia that others experience in their lives; nor have I had any experience of the prejudice or persecution experienced by people identifying as a member of the LGBTIQA+ community. My understanding of what such people have experienced has come through relationships, conversations, readings, and personal thinking through of the issues. It has required empathy and understanding, and I think that it’s clear that I haven’t done this perfectly; but hopefully I have done so at least adequately.
I’m also a person of faith, and thus embedded within a community that, sadly, has demonstrated a collection of failures in the way that sexually and gender diverse people have been seen and treated. The Christian Church has shown a persistent lack of understanding, a continual marginalising (or “othering”), an aggressive assertion about the sinfulness of the particular identity or lifestyle, and undertaking attempts to “change the protestation” or “reverse the gender” of some people. All of these attitudes and actions have been unloving, uncaring, and indeed (in my view) unChristian.
Recent events in a number of churches have indicated that these attitudes and actions remain, tragically, alive and well in churches today. The United Methodist Church has become the Untied Methodist Church, as the so-called Global Methodist Church splits off in schismatic separation from the UMC because of differences of opinion about sexuality issues.
The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, this week, has been debating the definition of marriage, and has shown a continuing need by many within its ranks to condemn (once again) all manner of people living outside the narrow norms that are set up, by some, as being “biblical” requirements.
My own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, has struggled with these issues over decades; more intensely, and intentionally, in the last decade, addressing matters relating to gender identity and sexual attraction. Recently the National Assembly agreed to a proposal “that sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (SOGICE) are harmful to people’s mental health and wellbeing”. The proposal cited the Uniting Church Statement, Dignity in Humanity, which states that “every person is precious and entitled to live with dignity because they are God’s children”.
How are privileged, cis-gender heterosexual people like myself to respond to a day like IDAHoBiT? I think we need to cultivate empathy and develop understanding. I think we need to seek out and develop respectful relationships in which we can hear stories, learn of experiences, articulate our own inadequacies and sorrow for how we have acted or interacted with people in the past. Most importantly, I believe we need to learn ways by which we can support survivors of gender identity change efforts and help prevent harm from the ideology and practices of such gender identity change efforts.
Underlying this is my own firm commitment to an understanding of human beings as intentionally created by God, exactly as we are, to be exactly who we are, without qualification or change. The “doctrine of sin” that the church has promulgated has impressed on us that we are all “fall short of the glory of God”, that we all do wrong things—and who would argue with that?
But this doctrine has also been used to identify and persecute specific sinfulness on the part of identifiable minority groups—gays, lesbians, bisexuals, intersex, and transgender people in particular—not recognising the nuances of differences that actually do exist across the spectrum of humanity. That’s a misuse of the doctrine, in my opinion. It should not be used to persecute someone on the basis of differences that are perceived.
What gender a person believes that they are, and what attraction an individual has to other people, is built into the very DNA of them as a person, wanting to force change in either of those matters is, to my mind, one of the greatest sins. I think it’s important for “allies” such as myself to remind others of this truth, and to stand in solidarity with “rainbow people” each and every day.
On this International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, let us ensure that each and every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual, or otherwise identifying people knows that we accept them, value them, and love them, exactly as they are!
And let us be strong in calling out any sign of homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia, when we hear it expressed or see it enacted.
July 2015 saw the beginning of Rainbow Christian Alliance (RCA) as a joint program run in partnership between Tuggeranong Uniting Church (TUC) and Diversity ACT community services. RCA was initiated to provide a Safe Place for LGBTIQA+ people of faith, their families and friends who wanted to be able to get together in fellowship in an environment away from the judgement, hurt and pain often caused by Christian Churches and other faiths to the LGBTIQA+ community.
RCA gathers on the second Sunday of each month with a dinner church format, meeting with LGBTIQA+ people of faith and their allies; gathering, chatting, eating, then sharing in a variety of worship styles including modified liturgy, readers theatre, discussion groups, guest speakers and the evening is usually wrapped up with dessert and much more chatting!
Initially the RCA project was set up utilising the space in the Erindale Neighbourhood Centre, next door to TUC, but since the arrival of COVID-19 and the requirements for modifications including increased space for those gathered, RCA has been meeting in the TUC auditorium.
Following the commencement of RCA in July 2015, an invitation was extended by Rev Aimee Kent and a partnership was also created with Goulburn Grace Community. Dare Café commenced in Goulburn in February 2016, meeting monthly, and later incorporating a Bible Study group. The Dare Café and Grace Community has been impacted by COVID-19, but Pastor Amy Junor is now keen to work with the Dare Café group and keep things moving where possible.
Over its six years, RCA has provided support to many people, including Ministers or Pastors who lost their congregation or Church because of their own sexuality, as well as people who faced exorcism, conversion therapies or even had lobotomies performed on them to cure their sexuality!
RCA also provided information to other congregations on LGBTIQA+ education and issues, including at the very stressful time of the Marriage Plebiscite. Following the June 2016 Orlando shooting at the Pulse night club in the USA, where 49 patrons were killed and 53 were wounded, RCA partnered with Canberra City Church to hold a Blue service for Orlando which was catered for with heart warming soups and fresh bread rolls by the City Church Congregation.
In more recent times RCA has had increasing support from TUC Congregation members, who provide a core support group to assist with set up, catering and running of RCA, giving more space for the leadership team of Rev. Miriam Parker-Lacey, James Ellis and Rev. Elizabeth Raine to concentrate on working with the group activities.
RCA has provided a safe place for many and has had steady numbers of attendees of approximately 20-22 people at each gathering over the past 6 years. Obviously there has been changes as to who attends, but the numbers have remained steady and in recent months there has been an increase in LGBTIQA+ youthful attendees. These younger attendees may not face some of the issues older generation LGBTIQA+ people faced but there are still many ongoing issues for LGBTIQA+ plus Christians.
Sadly, since the Marriage Plebiscite, there has been an increased push from certain quarters to demonise Transgender or Non-Binary people, and the current Olympics has been used to push fears that Trans people are stealing women’s rights and your children! (The “protect your children” fears was also previously used to push the falsehood that homosexuality equalled paedophilia.)
There are ongoing pushes for legislative changes being introduced by Mark Latham in NSW to prevent even mentioning LGBTIQA+ issues in classrooms. LGBTIQA+ people are also faced with possible legislation to be tabled by the current Federal Government on ‘Religious Freedom’. Initially the Prime Minister promised to look at legislation to keep LGBTIQA+ young people safe, but there is much cynicism as to what may be introduced and many LGBTIQA+ people fear exclusion or even loss of employment because of their sexuality or gender identity
The Rainbow Christian Alliance continues to provide a Safe Space for people who have been hurt or marginalised within society–even by the church–to gather, relax in each other’s company, and share their faith.
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!
The Gospel for the first Sunday in the season of Christmas (Luke 2:22-40) includes stories relating to two striking Jewish figures: Simeon the righteous, who is guided by the Spirit (2:27), and Anna the prophet (2:36). Anna praises God because of what she sees happening in the birth of the child, Jesus, while Simeon speaks of salvation for all people now being offered by God through this child. Both express clear Lukan themes.
Jesus is intensely Jewish in Luke’s Gospel. The story about Jesus that we find in the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us is set in the heart of Jewish piety. The very opening scene of the Gospel, set in Jerusalem in the Temple precincts, reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6). What follows in the ensuing two chapters reinforces, over and over, that Jewish context.
The man in the opening scene, Zechariah the priest, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). They are both described as “righteous before God” (1:6). Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate, bearing a child, with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).
In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55, known as the Magnificat), Zechariah (1:67–79, known as the Benedictus), and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32, known as the Nunc dimittis, or the Song of Simeon). Mary is “overshadowed” by the Spirit (1:35), Zechariah and Elizabeth are both “filled” with the Spirit (1:41, 1:67). Simeon is “righteous and devout” (2:25); the Spirit “rested on him” (2:25), then “revealed to him” the words he then speaks (2:26) before “guiding him … into the temple” (2:27).
The words of Anna, although unreported in detail by Luke (2:38), are likewise spirit-inspired (as are all prophetic utterances). The children who are born—Jesus and John—bear the weight of these traditional hopes and expectations as they come into being. They, too, are “filled with the Spirit” (John, 1:15; Jesus, 4:1, 14). This is the same Spirit which, according to old traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures, has been active since the time of creation (Gen 1:2) and which is still at work in the creation of every living creature (Ps 104:30).
The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we find the information that Jesus was circumcised after eight days (2:21), that his mother was subsequently purified and brought offerings to the Temple (2:22–24), that the family made Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem (2:41) and that Jesus showed an early interest in discussing matters of the Law (2:42-51).
These all reflect typical Jewish activities, mandated by the Law: circumcision at Gen 17:9-14; purification and offerings at Lev 12:1-8; the Passover pilgrimage at Exodus 23:17 and 34:23; and learning the matters of the Law at Deut 6:1-7. Luke ensures that we are aware of this, by noting “it was the time for …” (2:21, 22) and “as usual” (2:41), and by twice referring to the requirement of the Law (2:23, 39).
This continues as the narrative of the orderly account continues, recounting the events of the adult years of Jesus. He regularly attended the synagogue (4:16, 44; 6:6), where he was accorded the status of a teacher (4:20–27; 4:31–33; 13:10). Jesus regularly prayed to God (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; etc.). He knew the importance of the daily prayer, the Shema (10:25–28) and the Ten Commandments (18:18–21).
Jesus engaged in halakhic debates with the scribes of Pharisees, touching on various matters of the Law (5:21-24; 6:6-10; 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-6; 15:1-32; 16:14-18; 17:20-21; 20:1-47). Like other Jewish teachers of the day, Jesus taught in parables (5:36-38; 6:39-42; 8:4–8; 13:6-9; 13:18-21; 19:11-27; 20:9-19; 21:29-30). Luke alone reports a number of the especially well-known parables of Jesus (10:29–37; 12:13–21; 14:7-24; 15:3–32; 16:1-13; 16:19–31; 18:1-8; 18:9-14). Jesus was thoroughly Jewish in his teaching style.
Indeed, as Luke narrates the early sequence of events leading to the birth of Jesus, he indicates that Jesus will seek the renewal of the ancient promises which God made to Israel (1:46–55; 1:67–79; 2:29–35). Thus, the Lukan Jesus insists that the purpose of his mission is to fulfil the hopes once spoken by the prophets (4:18–21; 7:18–23; 24:18–27; 24:44–47).
Jesus begins to fulfil that prophetic vocation in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (4:16-30), where he explicitly reads from the scroll of Isaiah (4:17-19) and clearly affirms that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
In his teachings, Jesus is clear that what he has to offer is a grand vision of the kingdom in which all are invited to share in the Messianic Banquet (13:29; 14:15–24). This was a vision which came to expression within Second Temple Judaism, after the return of many of the people,from their Exile in Babylon.
This vision was not shared by all, but it is clear that it was drawn firmly from Jewish traditions, especially as articulated in the latter sections of the book of Isaiah (Isa 42:1–6; 52:7–10; 55:1–5; 60:1–7; 66:18–24). So the Lukan Jesus functions as a prophetic voice in Israel, holding the people to this inclusive vision.
Luke does not play Jesus off, over against ‘the Jews’, in the way that we find happening in the work of his near-contemporary, in the Gospel according to John. Rather, the Lukan Jesus is immersed in the midst of his religion; he is one of the people of Israel at his birth, and he remains so even up to his death and beyond.
Luke’s Gospel—and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles—provide no basis for a rejection of Judaism as no longer in keeping with God’s will. Not even the occasions when Paul encounters rejection at the hands of his fellow Jews, and he leaves saying “we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) or “from now on I will go to the Gentiles” (18:6) are definitive rejections of the Jews—Paul always returned to them! (Paul is back in the synagogue at 14:1, 17:1, 17:10, 18:19, 19:8, and note also Paul’s farewell speech at 20:21.)
Even the final scenes of Acts offer the possibility of wider Jewish acceptance of the Gospel: the possibility that they might “listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn—and [God] would heal them” (Acts 28:27, citing Isaiah 6:10).
(For a more detailed argument along these lines, see the discussions in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2000.)
So the overall story which Luke tells is that the hopes of Jewish faith are brought to fruition in the life of Jesus, and in those who follow The Way set forth by Jesus—and how this renewed vision spreads across the Mediterranean basin, through many nations. This is already in view as he shapes the beginning of his narrative, with those faithful Jewish characters—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and (very briefly) Joseph, Simeon and Anna.
In Luke’s account of Jesus, then, he sets forth a vision of welcoming community, inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles. In reporting the preaching of John the baptiser, the prophetic vision was already in view: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6, citing Isa 40:5). Before this, at the moment when the spirit-inspired Simeon holds the infant Jesus in his arms, he speaks of God’s salvation as being “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32).
This is surely what Anna perceives to be at work in the infant she sees being dedicated in the temple, and this is why she “praises God” and “speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). Jesus was to fulfil this grand vision.
The universal implications of the Gospel are thus in view from the very earliest stages of Luke’s first volume of his orderly account. They continue through later scenes, as Gentiles come from Tyre and Sidon to listen to Jesus’ teachings (6:17), as Gentile centurions exhibit great faith (7:1–10) and show sympathy for the dying Jesus (23:47).
They come to full flourishing in the second volume of the orderly account, as the faithful followers of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem and Judea, even to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Lukan Jesus has clearly set the course for the ultimate inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. This is clear early on, right from the words of Simeon (2:29-32).
As we consider this passage in the days immediately after the remembering of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we are given encouragement to hold to the inclusive vision for the whole world that commenced with the diligence and openness of faithful Jewish people, as they sensed the way that God was working in their world.
The reading this Sunday contains some very familiar, oft-quoted words attributed to Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). And especially oft-quoted is the next sentence that follows, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b).
That second sentence is frequently used to interpret the first sentence, to give it a sense of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence. Especially amongst more conservative theological elements in the church, this sense of “only one way”, “no other way” is regularly advocated.
But is this the only way to understand “I am the way”? Let me put the verse into context, consider a number if factors, and suggest why we may need to seek other ways of understanding this declaration about “the way”.
The first observation to make is that this statement draws on traditional Jewish terminology used by the people in the movement which Jesus initiated. “The Way” is a term which occurs in various chapters in the second volume of the orderly account, the book of Acts (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). This, according to these references, was the earliest term used to describe these people. (The term which eventually came to dominate, “Christians”, is first referenced at Acts 11:26, and is less-used in Acts.)
Calling the early followers of Jesus “The Way” may owe its origins to scriptural usage in association with God’s activity. The term is used in this way in Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. We might also note the occurrence of the term in Isa 40:3-5, and observe that it is cited in a prominent position at Luke 3:4-6. The return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.
The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17-18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This may reflect competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. The Qumran group, of course, was strongly exclusivist (it kept strong boundaries around the membership of the community) and could also be seen as being somewhat elitist in its theological outlook (some documents reflect the worldview that can be crudely summarised as “we have the truth, everyone else is wrong”).
In subsequent usage (beyond the first century) this term, The Way, has come to be completely overshadowed by a term used less often by Luke, that of “Christian” or “messianist” (11:26; 26:28). The latter term initially referred to the fact that the followers of Jesus, from early on, claimed that he was the anointed one, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ).
So by using the term “the Way”, Luke emphasises the thoroughly Jewish nature of those communities which declared Jesus to be Messiah.
The second observation for understanding the verse in context is that it is one of a number of “I Am” statements that are placed on the lips of Jesus in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. These sayings comprise a verb (“I am”) followed by a predicate (the entity which Jesus claims to be). The predicates in most of these sayings are drawn from traditional Jewish elements.
Jesus presents himself as “the vine” (John 15:1–11), drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).
Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), evoking the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).
When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he is clearly evoking the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.
Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).
Although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the references to the “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).
In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.
Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the Gospel according to John are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis.
A third observation is that the book of signs was written in a context of polarised disputation and growing hostilities. There was deepening conflict between the followers of Jesus, who acclaimed him as Messiah, and the scribes and Pharisees, teaching the traditions of the ancestors in the synagogues of the post-70 period.
After the destruction of the Temple in the Roman—Jewish War of 66-74CE, as there was no need for priests, the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. Synagogues became key places for instruction in the Law, communal worship, and also community hospitality. Those claiming that the Messiah had come (as the followers of Jesus did) were problematic to the Pharisees. Tensions grew. Hostility broke out in some places.
There are three references to being expelled from the synagogue in the book of origins (John 9:22; 12:52; 16:2). These are widely understood to refer, not to the time of Jesus, but to the time when the Gospel came to take its final form—probably around the end of the first century—when the conflict between the synagogue authorities and the followers of Jesus had come to a head.
Biblical scholars have drawn on the insights of sociology in this regard. A group which acted in the way that the followers of Jesus were acting, is described as a sectarian community. Differentiating itself from the parent body by means of distinctive belief claims is typical of sectarian groups.
As it had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus.
Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community. This emerges over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. The messianists are confident about their faith. And they are certain about the absolute importance of following Jesus and believing in him. He is The Way.
Each of the “I am” sayings noted above is reported in this Gospel in this context of dispute and controversy. The sayings function as markers to differentiate Jesus from his Jewish contemporaries—and, by association, the followers of Jesus from their Jewish contemporaries.
Thus, when the Johannine Jesus expresses the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, there is an obvious and (to first-century ears) very clear claim being made about how the community of Jesus’ followers saw themselves, in relation to other groups in Judaism of the day. Like others, they were making claims about their exclusivity as the faithful one, their elitist understanding of what fidelity to the Law meant—and about the singular and central place of Jesus in their faith.
This Gospel consistently sets out a clear claim for Jesus as a distinctive figure, set apart and set higher than other religious leaders. Those who follow him have “the truth”, and are very clear what exactly is “the way” to God. Following Jesus was seen as the way—the only way—to gain “life”, or access directly to God. This is a polemic claim in the context it was first made.
The community in which the Gospel of John was compiled and valued was functioning in precisely the way that sectarian communities operate, holding fast to their exclusivism and elitism.
How do we read such a text in our contemporary situation? We live in a world where retreating into a corner, keeping separate from other people, and treating anyone different from us with suspicion (if not outright hostility) is practised by some, but it really is an untenable and unhelpful way of living.
In the Uniting Church, our Basis of Union advocates that as we live our faith, we seek to be critically informed (as we enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry), ecumenically engaged (as we relate to our partners within the world-wide fellowship of churches), contextually relevant (through contact with contemporary thought), and missionally oriented (as we engage with contemporary societies) (see paragraph 11).
Engaging with contemporary societies and participating in them such that we better come to understand our own nature and mission, is a key commitment of this church. Multicultural societies, such as Australia, offer many opportunities for such engagement and learning. Seeking to understand the cultural practices and commitments of friends and neighbours in our midst, means that we will better understand who we are as Church: what it means to be in relationship with one another, to serve one another, to proclaim the living Word afresh.
I wrote a blog about this last year (after the tragic events in the Mosque in Christchurch), which you can read at
The Uniting Church Assembly has advocated, “Friendship in the presence of difference is regarded as being a central Christian attitude and value. Engagement with those of other faiths is welcomed as a pathway on which we may rediscover the heart of the Christian way while also being enriched by wisdom others have to share.” (Adopted at the Thirteenth Assembly (2012), from a statement prepared by the Working Group onRelations with Other Faiths, entitled Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multifaith Australia.)
So: with this theological commitment to living with those different from us with an attitude of acceptance and friendship, a generous attitude of embracing diversity, an intention to hold to an informed faith, on the one hand; and a biblical text (John 14:6) that recounts how a deepened understanding of Jesus emerged through the process of antagonism, aggressive argumentation, and hostile actions—what do we need to do to hold these two together?
Should a text which originated in conflict, with the intention of carving out a space for a smaller group with a distinctive set of beliefs, still be interpreted in the same way as those first readers and hearers of the Gospel understood it?
Or do we allow the changed context in which we live, and the different perceptions that have developed in our time, to reshape our understanding, to recast our interpretation, to challenge long-held views and to invite fresh appreciations?
Is it the case that we MUST read this biblical text as requiring us to have an attitude of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence?
Or—is there another way to understand “I am the way”?
This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)
The recent Israel Folau controversy has highlighted various issues: freedom of expression in modern society, the place of religion in Australian society, the ethics of professionalism … and questions of biblical interpretation.
For people within the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union provides a foundation for careful and prayerful thinking about scripture. The Basis affirms that the witness of scripture is to be understood through the work undertaken by scholarly interpreters, by insights that have arisen in scientific and medical investigation, by understandings that have developed in society, as we better understand how human beings operate and how they function. All of these are important matters to consider when we think about human sexuality.
A number of passages are regularly cited in relation to matters of human sexuality, and particularly homosexuality. We need to think about those sections of scripture in the light of this way of approaching the biblical texts.
Elizabeth and I have written a brief discussion of the texts most often cited when “homosexuality” is debated by Christian people–especially conservative Christian people. It is an expansion of our earlier blog post (noted below).
LGBTIQ+ people often refer to these passages as the “clobber passages”, since they are regularly (mis)used to “clobber” people who identify as LGBTIQ or other related designations.
These texts were originally written either in Hebrew or in Greek, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. Many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.
A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it.
Scripture does not include anything relating to the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. So we need to take care when we use these “clobber passages” in our discussions. None of them should actually be used to criticise LGBTIQ+ people.
Alongside these passages, there are many sections of scripture which provide a more positive outlook on human sexuality. So we have offered a short reflection on a number of the key affirming and inclusive verses.
The last six months in the Uniting Church has been something of an intense roller-coaster, revolving around the issue of marriage. Our processes are somewhat idiosyncratic and, as events unfolded, matters came down to a rather arcane provision in the UCA Constitution.
I offered An Explainer about this process some months back. In light of more recent events, here is An Updated Explainer.
In the light of the debates and discussions about human sexuality over the past 18 months in Australia society …
and, in particular, in the light of the recent letter from the Assembly General Secretary of the Uniting Church, regarding the decision of the Assembly about marrying people of the same gender …
I want to offer the seven affirmations below to my LGBTIQ friends and colleagues, and to the allies who are seeking to support them at this time.
They aren’t original to me. They simply come from decisions made by the church in council. They were important at the time, and they still stand as guides and standards for who we are, together, as the church, today.
Might all within the Uniting Church reflect on and pray about these affirmations, and each of us seek to live up to them in our personal discipleship and our life as a community.
The church is a community where people of different perspectives and varied commitments gather together in fellowship. It has always been the case, and it is especially evident in the present time, that the church is marked by diversity—a range of cultures, a range of skills, a range of theologies, a range of understandings.
This diversity is in focus in a particular way, in the life of the Uniting Church in Australia. The decision of the recent Assembly, to acknowledge two distinct understandings of marriage, reflects this diversity. The range of views across this diversity has led to some challenges.
I have been doing some further reflection, in recent days, on the decision about marriage made at the 15th Assembly, in July, and the ongoing discussions about this matter that have been taking place within the various Congregations and Presbyteries and Synods around the country.
There has been a lot of discussion that has taken place. There have certainly been some intense conversations about this, over the past few weeks.
I think it is important to note that the decision of the Assembly gave due weight and specifically honoured the position of those who hold to the traditional view that marriage is a relationship involving a male and a female.