In this passage, Luke reports that Jesus attends synagogues in his home region, Galilee (Luke 4:14) and especially in his hometown of Nazareth (4:16). As a faithful Jew, in the synagogue on the sabbath day, Jesus would expect to hear scripture read and interpreted. In fact, this is the task which he himself undertakes on this sabbath day in Nazareth.
Luke expands the Markan account of the incident (Mark 6:1–6) by noting that Jesus unrolled the scroll and read a passage from the prophets; he then provides a direct quote from the passage, which we recognise as being found in Isaiah 61:1–2a, with the additional insertion of a line from Isaiah 58:6b, “to let the oppressed go free”.
Luke also adds the firm declaration of Jesus, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In these brief put potent additions, Luke signals another of the themes which will recur throughout his story of Jesus: the inter-relation of scripture and experience.
An explicit citation of scripture, with an associated comment that it could be understood to explain events that were taking place, is moved to the very start of Luke’s description of the activities of the adult John the baptiser (3:4–6, quoting Isa 40:3–5).
The same pattern of interpreting an event by reference to scripture is followed by Jesus when he comments on the people’s misunderstanding of parables at 8:9–10; then when he criticises the practices being carried out in the temple courtyard at 19:45–46. Luke inserts a similar comment into his account of the passion of Jesus, at 22:37.
In his final appearance in Luke’s Gospel, the risen Jesus articulates the principle which undergirds these instances: “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, must be fulfilled” (24:44). That is to say, inherent in scripture is the potential for shedding light on the meaning of any event associated with Jesus.
These passages are the tip of the iceberg, where the link is explicitly noted; at many other points in Luke’s story of Jesus, there are scriptural allusions or suggestions that scriptural passages lie just below the surface of the narrative.
This particular hermeneutic is not unique to Luke; it is also to be found in other early Christian texts: in the good news told by Mark, in the book of signs attributed to the beloved disciple (John), and in certain of the letters of the apostle Paul. It saturates the sermon which we know as the epistle to the Hebrews, and recurs with a particular intensity throughout the book of origins, attributed to Matthew. It is also to be found, in a variant but related form, in the so-called pesher scrolls amongst the library discovered in the caves near Qumran. Such a hermeneutic was widespread throughout the Jewish world in the late hellenistic period.
In Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, the same dynamic inter- relation between experience and scripture is to be found. This is most conspicuous at the start of Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost, when he interprets the portentous events of the day by relating them to Joel 2:28–32, “God declares, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:14–21).
It is also highlighted quite firmly at the conclusion of Paul’s defence speech in Caesarea. Paul declares to King Agrippa, Queen Bernice, and Governor Festus that the prophets and Moses have all pointed to the suffering of the Messiah as well as to the proclamation of light to the people and the Gentiles (26:23). This same perspective recurs on the lips of others who preach in the Acts of the Apostles: Peter (2:25–35), Stephen (7:2–50), Philip (8:32–35), James (15:16–18) and Paul (13:27–37; 28:23–27).
The perspective which the Lukan Jesus exemplifies in the hometown incident at Luke 4 is thus replicated throughout both volumes of Luke’s work. In this perspective, scripture and experience are brought into an intimate relationship—the one interprets the other. The experiences of faith are informed by scriptural passages which resonate with those experiences; and the passages which are read in scripture resound with the experiences of people of faith.
The Gospel for this coming Sunday recounts the teaching activity of Jesus in the synagogues of Galilee, and particularly his visit to his hometown, Nazareth, where he enters the synagogue on the sabbath day and teaches the people (Luke 4:14–21). The scene continues in next week’s Gospel selection (Luke 4:22–30).
This scene is not unique to Luke’s orderly account of the things being fulfilled among us; it appears both in Mark 6:1–6 and Matt 13:54–58. In all three accounts, as this same incident is reported, it is introduced in a very similar way, and runs a rather similar route towards its conclusion. Yet, in reporting this incident, Luke reshapes, expands, and highlights a number of aspects which, as we shall see, are of fundamental significance in Luke’s distinctive portrayal of Jesus and those who follow him.
What Luke but hints at in this passage is made explicit in more detailed ways throughout the rest of his account of the public activities of Jesus in Galilee, as he journeys towards Jerusalem, and then as he teaches in the Temple precincts. As he signals some of the main features of his portrayal of Jesus, he also gives clear indications of what it means to follow Jesus.
The incident in Nazareth takes place in the synagogue, a commonly found place of worship for Jews outside of Jerusalem. It takes place on the sabbath —the seventh day of the week, long devoted by Jews to prayers and the study of the Law. Jesus takes a scroll, from which he reads words of scripture, drawn from the prophet Isaiah. The passage speaks of the work of the Spirit of the Lord, the figure within Jewish history who has often implemented the will of the Lord God amongst the people of God. Each of these elements in the story is fundamentally and unequivocally Jewish.
These factors signal the inescapable fact that Jesus is intensely Jewish in Luke’s Gospel. His story is set in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6). The man, Zechariah, 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).
Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate 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), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). The children who are born—Jesus and John—bear the weight of these traditional hopes and expectations as they come into being.
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 (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24), and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).
In recounting the events of his adult years, Luke notes that Jesus 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). Luke emphasises that 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). Like other Jewish teachers of the day, Jesus taught in parables (8:4–8; etc.); Luke reports a number of especially well-known parables of Jesus (10:29–37; 15:3–32; 16:19–31).
Indeed, as Luke narrates 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).
He 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 is one vision within Second Temple Judaism—it was not shared by all, but it draws on 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, calling for change from within.
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— will provide no basis for a rejection of Judaism as no longer in keeping with God’s will. On the contrary, the story which Luke tells is about the way 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.
This motif continues in the second volume of Luke’s orderly account. The earliest followers of Jesus remain involved in Judaism. They participate in the Temple rituals in Jerusalem (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:12) and attend the synagogues of the Diaspora (Acts 9:20; 13:5,14; etc.).
At the close of his missionary activity, Paul is to be found participating in a ritual in the Temple (21:26). When he is brought to trial, Paul insists that he has remained faithful to Judaism (23:1, 6; 24:14–16; 25:8, 10; 26:22–23; 28:17). Even in the final scenes of the book, in Rome, Paul is engaged with Jewish leaders, debating with them the identity of Jesus (28:17–28). There is no point at which Luke has in mind a decisive, irrevocable and universal split between church and synagogue.
As we have noted, Luke portrays Jesus as a pious Jew, devoted to the Law of Moses, loyal to the people of Israel. Yet Luke was also aware that Jesus was not uncritical of his religion. This is crystal clear in the “hometown incident” which Luke reports. At first, the people in the synagogue in Nazareth marvel at the “gracious words” he speaks to them (Luke 4:22). But as they listen to more of what he says, they gradually sense the challenge that is being placed before them.
This incident sounds the first indication of the tragedy of the story of Jesus; the actions of the people in Nazareth foreshadow his ultimate rejection in Jerusalem. Eventually, they become ‘enraged’ at Jesus and seek to kill him (4:28–29). The cost of taking a stance is clearly articulated.
Jesus acknowledges the difficulty that people in the synagogue will have in accepting his words, in the terse proverb, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (4:24). He stands firm for what he believes in— whatever the ultimate cost.
The same saying about the unacceptable prophet is quoted in the report of this incident—the hometown rejection—by Mark (6:4) and Matthew (13:57), and is inserted into another context in John’s Gospel (4:44). It is likewise attributed to Jesus in a scrap of Gospel-like material on one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (1:6) as well as in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas (31). It seems sure that it is an authentic saying of Jesus. The cost of standing up for what one believes in is a thread running through many of the early Christian documents relating the life or sayings of Jesus.
What is it that leads the Nazareth crowd away from marvelling at the gracious words to wanting to kill out of blind fury? Jesus has presented a provocative challenge to his audience. The models of faithfulness which he puts forward in 4:25–27 contain a certain element of shock. His statements are implicitly critical of an exclusivist understanding of faith which is attested in some strands of Jewish religion in the Second Temple period. Jesus functions as an agent provocateur here, and indeed elsewhere in the Gospel.
Today, the calendar of the church year marks the Feast of the Ascension. It’s a day that is celebrated within Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, but not so much in Protestant churches.
Of course, the story of the ascension of Jesus is premised on the ancient worldview, which saw heaven “in there” and earth “down here”; as Jesus leaves his earthly followers to return to his Heavenly Father, then of course, he was ascending, rising upwards!
The ascension is an event in the story of Jesus that is referred to only in one Gospel—that of Luke. This Gospel reports the ascension of Jesus into heaven (24:50–53) as the climax of the whole Gospel. This brings the whole Jesus saga to a head. Yet it’s not narrated in John’s Gospel (although there appears to be a hint of it in the words of Jesus in John 20:17).
Nor is it told in Matthew’s Gospel where the ending explicitly affirms “I am with you always” (Matt 28:20). And no sign, of course, in Mark, whose account ends at the empty tomb, even before the resurrection (Mark 16:8). And Paul (who barely refers to any of the key moments in the life of Jesus) may well be alluding to it in his letter to the Romans (Rom 10:5–13), but not in a direct and unequivocal way.
For Luke, it is also an important pivotal event, for it is repeated at the start of the second volume (Acts 1:6–11). This second version provides more details; it fills out the story in narrative form, and appears to incorporate details that have significance for the author of the work.
Also crucial is to note Luke’s version of the commission which the risen Jesus gives as a parting word to his disciples: in the Gospel, he declares that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, “beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47).
Another version of this commission introduces the second volume (Acts 1:8): “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This verse sets out the programme for the rest of this volume.
Immediately after this, Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:9-11). This is the pivot from the earthly period of Jesus into the time when the movement of those who followed Jesus in that time will begin to form the customs and practices that led to the creation of the church.
Luke presents the whole sequence of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as both the climax to his earthly life and the foundation for the time of the church.
That final point is what we really ought to take from this doubly-offered story: the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left.
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).
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 city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.
The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.
That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.
So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)
Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.
But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.
Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.
And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.
And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.
SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.
Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.
Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!
Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.
Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?
I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?
In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?
If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?
The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.
Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).
Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?
The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).
I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?
We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.
So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.
The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)
Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.
Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?
And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.
That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).
We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?
Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.
Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.
What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.
Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)
When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.
It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.
Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?
This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?
For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.
This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.
Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)
So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.
So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).
To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).
And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??
It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. How will hope be found, in what lies ahead?
Now my mind is thinking about what the future might look like. People are struggling with number of matters. These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church.
As we consider these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the second in a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this. The first was focussed on “where” people are wanting to be in that future time.
This post reflects on the “when” of our hopes for the future. How often have you heard someone refer, longingly, to “the way things used to be”? How often have you heard people lament that they would really like things to be “just like they used to be”?
This is a refrain in society—let’s get back to when life was simpler, people were friendlier, choices were easier. It is also a refrain in the church—let’s get back to when buildings were filled on Sundays, Friday night youth groups were thriving, Sunday Schools were overflowing. Ah, the good old days …
It is still a struggle for some people to try to move beyond this yearning for the past. When they try to imagine what it will be like when we get back to meeting in person, such people simply have in mind that things will be “just like they used to be”. The natural human urge is for us to move out of a time of upheaval, right back into the comfort zone of what is familiar, what is predictable, what has been the comforting routine of “life as usual”.
That is no less the case in the present period of COVID-19 restrictions. Back to church worship on a Sunday morning, seeking the much-loved group of friends once again, sitting in the usual spot, singing the favourite hymns, sharing the chit-chat over morning tea—church as usual, just if nothing had happened!
We can’t, of course, go back to the old familiar patterns. COVID-19 has ensured that this will be the case. We will need to clean and disinfect buildings regularly, maintain contact lists of all people attending any event, ensure that all physical touch elements in worship are modified, and, for the moment, ensure that there is adherence to social distancing and the limits on numbers in the building. And we would be well-advised not to sing when we gather for worship, for that is a high risk activity. Things will be different.
“Behold, I am about to do a new thing”, the prophet of old long ago declared to the people of Israel (Isa 43:19). To the people of Israel who had been decades in exile in Babylon, the word of the Lord spoke of hope and promise, of a new initiative, stepping out in a new way. The people journey back across the wilderness, heading back to the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.
Without the “new thing” of the Lord, the people of Israel would have remained in exile and, presumably, have diminished in their distinctiveness, threatening the existence of the people of God as a nation called to be “a holy priesthood”. Finding the “new thing” that is happening in our own time is important.
So the question for us could well be: what is the “new thing” that God is doing, that the Spirit is calling to us to take part in, as public society begins to reactivate, as church begins to regather, in the weeks ahead?
I have read a number of pointers about how about society will need to be structured differently after the current restrictions have been eased and then lifted. In what I have read, there are a number of things that point directly at how things will need to change when we gather as a church.
Both of those factors place church gatherings, worship services, morning teas, and other group gatherings, into the high risk category. They are usually indoors, inviting people into close personal contact with others. And singing—we always sing when we gather, for grace, for praise, for communion, for benedictions. All high risk.
The same commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Time matters. A short time is probably ok. Hours probably not.” That might please some people, if we apply it to church—short is better, no more long droning sermons!
But short worship services will be hard to monitor—even a short time for worship sees many people on site for quite some time, first while setting up, then in social mingling afterwards (and even the occasional “car park conversations” that prolong the time together even more!).
How we gather, what we do when we gather, cannot simply be stepping back into what we used to do. We are entering a time when things must be different. How will we engage with that challenge? How will we ensure that we don’t just step back into the past and settle into the well-worn routines? What will church look like, for us, in the future? That is the challenging question that sits before us, now, as we consider our future as the church in post-COVID times.
Thanks again to Elizabeth for the conversations that have shaped these ideas as we talk about future hopes for the church.
It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The full set of restrictions that were put into place are beginning to be eased, with more changes still to come. Governments across the country are making announcements, indicating timetables, looking with hope to the future.
As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. Some are anxious about moving too rapidly to lift current restrictions. Some are hopeful that we can start meeting again in person very, very soon. And some are angry about the intrusion of governments into our lives, the measures in place seen as unwarranted restrictions on our freedoms.
I want now to offer some reflections from my own perspective on what the future might look like. I am aware of a number of matters which remain a struggle for people, and I offer these thoughts with particular reference to the struggles that people in my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) are dealing with.
These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church. From within these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the first of a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this.
First, lets think about Sundays. It is still a struggle for many people to imagine anything other than “Sunday morning” when they speak about “church”. The dominance of the Sunday morning worship service, in the minds of so many people, is abundantly clear. Ministers have known this forever—how many times have we heard the half-joking, half-serious comment, “well, you really only work for one hour on one day each week, don’t you?” Grrrrr!
Church, of course, is far more than Sunday morning worship. And people do make the connection from “church” as worship, to visiting hospitals, running a youth group, feeding the hungry, lobbying the local member, providing shelter to homeless people, or doing the shopping for the shut-in down the street. These are seen great things to do—but for many, they are viewed as a kind of optional extra beyond the Sunday morning worship gathering.
Somehow, over the centuries of history that the church has existed, the Sunday morning worship gathering has come to be seen as the very heart, the essential centre, of being church. The importance of gathering to worship has taken over all other elements in being church. In our own time, the dominance of the Sunday morning worship gathering is clear.
We talk about “going to church”—meaning worship in the church building. We ask, “what time is church?”—meaning the time for Sunday worship. We say, “see you in church”—often meaning next Sunday morning. Sunday morning worship has taken over our sense of what it means to be church.
In this view, “church” is really all about hymns and prayers, sermons and morning teas, rosters, and rosters, and more rosters! So the Sunday gathering has become an end in itself. Many people look to Sunday worship in the church building as the time and place for them to carry out their Christian duty. Church has been completely conflated to worship.
A fuller understanding of worship is required. Worship should not be the END. Worship should not be what is always in view, when we think about “church”. Worship should actually be a MEANS to fostering a sense of missional activity in which we share the good news of Jesus in order to build up the body of Christ. The end, from this perspective, is not the time of worship. The end is missional engagement in the world. One of the means to strengthen that end (and only one, amongst a number of things) is worship, as a gathered community.
We need to struggle some more with the implications of this way of seeing things. “Church” is much more than Sunday morning. But so much frenetic activity over the past two months, when gathering in person has not been possible, has been devoted to ensuring that, even if we can’t meet together in person, there is still some “church” happening on Sunday morning—online, on Facebook, on YouTube, on ZOOM. Because, you know, “church” means “worship”.
Let’s struggle to live beyond this blinkered and limited view. Let’s work to foster a strong sense of “church” being a seven-day-a-week enterprise. Let’s talk much more about being disciples, following the risky way of Jesus, and let’s be more active in the world amidst all the diversity of humanity that we encounter. Let’s talk much less about being members, settled into a comfortable club, and let’s not be bound by the traditional customs and practices of our own little clique.
Certainly, scripture contains an encouragement to meet regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), and there are passages that provide specific guidelines and instructions relating to worship in various places (1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 12-14, Col 3:16, Eph 5:18-20). But worship is not all that there is to being church.
Paul uses the language of worship when he writes to the Romans, appealing to them “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). The letter continues with a string of exhortations, injunctions, and instructions, which point very clearly to the view that “spiritual worship” entails living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way, not simply focussed on the worship gathering. That outward orientation is something that we could do well to hold to. Church is more than just Sunday worship.