For Luke alone tells us about Zacchæus of Jericho—a man short of stature, but undoubtedly rich in money and possessions, if I read the text accurately. And an agile character, too—how many of us would be able to shimmy up the nearest syacamore tree so that we could see easily over the heads of the taller people standing in front of us?
At any rate, it is not the appearance, or wealth, or agility of Zacchæus that draws my attention as I hear again this story. It is, rather, in the words that he speaks, after he has seen, and interacted with, Jesus of Nazareth. Not only does Jesus stop and talk to Zacchæus, clinging bravely to the tree trunk, but he invites himself and his retinue to the house of Zacchæus, where they share a meal together.
And the words which Zacchæus speaks are words which should be ringing in our ears, today. “ I am a man of possessions”, he declares; and yet, “half of my possessions I will give to the poor”. He takes seriously what Jesus has just told the rich man a few verses back: sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (18:22)—and, indeed, what he had instructed all who would follow him, in an earlier chapter: sell your possessions, and give alms; make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys (12:33).
In this regard, Jesus is being utterly faithful to his Jewish tradition, following the command of the lawgiver Moses, in Deut 15:7, if there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour; and the words attributed to prophet Isaiah, in Isa 58:6-8, is this not the fast that I have chosen: … to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? ; and again, in words attributed to King Lemuel, in Proverbs 31:7, speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor.
Zacchaeus commits to acting with integrity. He follows a central teaching of his tradition. He will give to the poor.
But then, Zacchaeus commits to still more: “I am a man of means, wealth gained through my profession as a collector of taxes”, he affirms; and yet, “to those I have defrauded, I will repay fourfold”—going far beyond what had been commanded in the Law, according to Leviticus 6:2-5, when any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbour … you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. Zacchaeus goes way beyond paying back 120%; he pledges to pay 400% to those he has defrauded. That is the radical economics of Jesus, and of Zacchaeus!
I will give my possessions to the poor; I will repay those I have defrauded. Serious words, signalling serious intent. And what are we to make of the fact that the story of Zacchæus was told and retold, remembered and written down, passed on through the early communities who followed Jesus, and retained in one of the key books of sacred scripture in the Christian church?
For myself, this surely indicates that Zacchæus was a man of his word, that Zacchæus carried out the intentions that he had signalled around that table in Jericho, with the man of Nazareth and his rag tag collection of Galilee fishermen and farmers, along with the women of means and capacity that Luke especially tells us were accompanying Jesus on this journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Zacchæus is worth remembering for various reasons, no doubt; a rather colourful character, in the midst of a whole host of followers of Jesus who blur together into a homogenous whole, who fade into obscurity as anonymous figures in the background as Jesus and his disciples, make and female, make their way to Jerusalem. Zacchæus, this colourful character, is remembered, his story is retold, his encounter with Jesus is remembered, and inscribed in scripture, because: he was willing to change his mind.
In Christian tradition, Zacchaeus is sometimes remembered as the patron saint of stewardship, teaching us how to look after our money, or the patron saint of humility, because he was prepared to come down from his vantage point up the tree. For myself, I want to follow the lead that the evangelist who wrote this Gospel offers us, and claim that Zacchæus is the patron saint of change and transition; or if you are not really into saints, then think of Zacchaeus as the role model supreme for being willing to change his mind.
Zacchaeus reminds us that an encounter with Jesus, an engagement with the Gospel, invites us—indeed, presses hard upon us—to change our minds, and our behaviour. Just think about what Zacchaeus does, in this story:
He comes down from his tree. He reaches out to a person passing by, whom he has just encountered. He was willing to be challenged, and accepted the invitation to deeper fellowship with the stranger from Nazareth.
He held his mind open to new possibilities and looked for the ways that he could transition into the kind of person God wanted him to be. He was willing to help those in desperate, destitute situations, and prepared to repay what he had falsely taken and to set forth in a new way of being.
So he looked to the road ahead, where the man of Nazareth was walking onwards, and stepped out in faith on the journey ahead. That’s what it took for Zacchaeus, the patron saint of change and transition!
NAIDOC WEEK is an Australian observance lasting from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. This year, it starts today (3 July) and goes until 10 July.
The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its roots in the 1938 Day of Mourning which became a week- long event in 1975.
Aboriginal and Islander people have a proud history of getting up, standing up, and showing up. They have therefore chosen this as their 2022 theme of Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!
The NAIDOC Week Committee wants Aboriginal and Islander people to continue to Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! for systemic change and to keep rallying around their mob, their Elders and their communities. Whether it’s seeking proper environmental, cultural and heritage protections, Constitutional change, a comprehensive process of truth-telling, working towards treaties, or calling out racism – they must do it together.
The Committee also says that the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non Indigenous Australians needs to be based on justice, equity, and the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights.
This theme has many resonances with the theological commitments of the Uniting Church, for whom standing against racism, recognising the sovereignty of the First Peoples, standing up for the environment, working to strengthen reconciliation, and supporting the call for makaratta, treaty, are all central commitments as we stand for justice and advocate for justice.
I’ll post more during the week about the ways that the NAIDOC WEEK themes of the past decade resonate with Uniting Church commitments.
My posts on NAIDOC WEEK themes prior to 2014 can be found at
The passage offered by the lectionary contains one of Paul’s best-loved and well-known sayings: “so whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). In this blog, I want to set that verse in its context within the flow of the letter.
The first section of 2 Corinthians (1:1–7:16) is really a letter in its own right. In this letter, Paul offers the believers in Corinth consolation through a message of hope. Instead of a thanksgiving section, this letter opens with a traditional Jewish-style blessing, in which God is praised for being “the God of all consolation” (1:3). In the five verses of this blessing, the terms “consolation” or “console” appear ten times, whilst “suffering” and “affliction” combined appear seven times.
The same terms cluster towards the end of this section of 2 Corinthians: in 7:2–16, we find “consolation” or “console” seven times (including twice in 7:13), “affliction” twice, and the term “grief” is also used seven times. The orientation of the letter is very clear; Paul’s hope for the Corinthians is that they might attain consolation (1:3–7; 7:2–4).
At the start of the letter, then, Paul has provided a strong identification between himself and the Corinthians; rather than calling the Corinthians to imitate him (as in 1 Corinthians), in this letter Paul wishes to empathise with them in order to strengthen their sense of identity with him. He affirms that “the one who raised the Lord Jesus…will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake” (4:14–15) and concludes, “you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (7:3).
The central similarity between his situation and that of the Corinthians is that they suffer, like he suffers (1:6). And this suffering, in turn, he relates to the passion of Christ (1:5; 4:10–12). So the theological insights which Paul offers in this section of the letter emerge out of the tension, struggle, and difficulty of his own situation, as well as his awareness of the pain being experienced by the Corinthians. (This has always been the way that good theology is developed—thrashing out the issues in honest, robust debate ensures that the heart of God is unveiled in the process.)
A tense interpersonal encounter is then noted, which Paul characterises as a “painful visit” (2:1) which appears to lie behind this letter. He writes, not to intensify this pain (2:3–4), but to test the obedience of the Corinthians (2:9). However, he advances his argument always with reference to his own actions in relation to the Corinthians.
Fundamental to his argument throughout this section of the letter is Paul’s attempt to validate his activity as a “minister of a new covenant” (3:6). He describes his activity as being a “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18), which is characterised by numerous afflictions and sufferings (4:7–10; 6:4–10) in order to bring consolation and hope to others. This is the process by which the signs of the “new creation” (5:17) emerge.
Paul also argues that his own life demonstrates how God has been able to work through suffering to bring hope (4:7–12). The afflictions and persecutions which Paul has experienced manifest the death of Jesus in his (Paul’s) own body, “so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (4:11). What Paul writes both emerges out of his personal experience, and is consistent with his developed self-understanding as an apostle, called by God, commissioned to serve.
In the course of presenting his self-validation (“are we beginning to commend ourselves again?”, 3:1), Paul launches into a somewhat tortured criticism of his Jewish heritage (3:1–4:15). Can it be that the judaising opponents of chapters 10–13 are already somewhat active in Corinth? As he does in Gal 3:1–5:1, when he wishes to engage seriously with a so-called judaising point of view, he undertakes his own interpretation of Hebrew scripture texts in order to support his more inclusive viewpoint.
Referring to the biblical account of Exodus 34, Paul infers that the letters written on “tablets of stone” (the Law) lead to a “ministry of death” (3:7). He depicts Moses as having undertaken a “ministry of condemnation” (3:9) and declares that he was veiled in order to keep God’s glory from the people of Israel (3:13). Of that people, he says “their minds were hardened” (3:14), “to this very day…that same veil lies over their minds” (3:15), and “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (4:3).
This is difficult language; it is strikingly different from the way that he speaks of his hopes and prayers for Israel in Rom 9:1–11:32, a passage which culminates with the assertion that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) and the declaration that God will be “merciful to all” (Rom 11:32). Had he perhaps been more afflicted in his sufferings than he wanted to admit?
The vehemence of his language in 2 Cor 3–4 sits oddly in his overarching purpose, to bring consolation and hope to the Corinthians. The subtle interplay of suffering and hope which he poses in much of this letter appear to have deserted him at this point; the rhetorical structure of this part of the argument juxtaposition of two apparently opposed entities. So tablets of stone are contrasted with tablets of human hearts; while the letter kills, the Spirit gives life. Moses’ ministry of death and condemnation is contrasted with the ministry of the Spirit and of justification; the veil which lies over the minds of his people can now be removed.
Most strikingly, Paul juxtaposes these two acts: “whenever Moses is read” there is a veiling of understanding; “when one turns to the Lord” (3:15), there is an unveiling. The central problem in this argument is that Paul, a Jew, is contrasting Moses with the Lord, since the widespread Jewish understanding would have been that the Lord (that is, Yahweh) would be present and revealed when the Law of Moses was read. The polemical intention is thus clear.
We can see this rhetorical structure in 1 Cor 1–2 and 1 Cor 15; it was a technique familiar to Paul from his Pharisaic training. Here, the rhetorical structure of contrasting entities appears to be made for the ultimate purpose of drawing a clear distinction between the freedom which he asserts comes through the Spirit (3:17), and the condemnation and death which is a result of the Law of Moses. Can it be that Paul’s rhetorical purpose has led him far from his initial Pharisaic understanding of scripture? Certainly, this scriptural interpretation shows no nuances in the manner that Paul elsewhere conveys.
Within a few verses, he has recaptured his fundamental theological intention, which is to relate present afflictions to the promise of resurrection hope (4:7–12; see also 4:17–18; 5:4; 5:14–15). This hope is most clearly seen in “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6), and is to be lived out by the followers of Jesus through their offering of the ministry of reconciliation (5:16–21). It is this promise, this hope, which is fully manifest in “the new creation” in which “the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (5:17).
Although Paul concludes his argument in this letter with an even longer list of his tribulations as a “servant of God” (6:4–10), some additional emotive pleas to the Corinthians (6:11–13; 7:2–4) and a recapitulation of the basic theme of consolation (7:5–16), he finally closes this letter on a note of joy (7:13) and confidence: “I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you” (7:16). In Corinth, he believes, there are those who have become that “new creation” in Christ.
The above blog was adapted from my contribution to Witness the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, a Festschrift in honour of Dean Drayton (edited by Christopher C. Walker; Mediacom, SA, 2014), pages 112-122).
Today (26 May) is National Sorry Day. It sits at the head of Reconciliation Week 2021, which runs from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, until 3 June, the day in 1992 that Eddie (Koiki) Mabo won and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.
In 2014, Elizabeth and I wrote this sermon for the Wauchope Congregation for Reconciliation Week. There, we had an active youth group that comprised about 90% Indigenous young peoples. We were able to develop a very good relationship with Biripi elders there.
We preached the sermon in May 2014, and Elizabeth adapted the sermon for the Star Street Congregation (in Perth) in May 2018, then we repeated the sermon in Queanbeyan in May 2019.
The sermon, which connects themes between Trinity Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday, greatly spoke to Covenanting and International Mission Officer Tarlee Leondaris in the South Australian Synod of the Uniting Church. She adapted the sermon for the annual Reconciliation Week resources, fitting it with the 2021 lectionary, and linked it as well with the theme for the 2021 National Reconciliation Week—in doing so, reflecting on current covenanting relationships.
Today, we also celebrate both Trinity Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday. Trinity Sunday is a celebration of who God is for us: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Reconciliation is an important issue in the Australian context. The Uniting Church in Australia remains on a journey of reconciliation with First Peoples.
So, because the Trinity evokes the theme of community and relationships and restoring human relationships as a part of God’s reconciling mission in our world, the two do belong together. And through forgiveness, God’s grace works to provide all with hope and a new way of living.
One God, yet a community of persons. The Trinitarian doctrine insists that the nature of God is closer to a loving community than to a lofty individual. The trinity expresses the notion that the highest form of existence is communal. God is communal, so therefore we should find the true meaning of being as a person in fellowship with other people.
Because of this, the church community should reflect God far better than a lone person, no matter how gifted that person may happen to be. By insisting on being individuals over being community, we limit and diminish ourselves. Growth in faith really only takes place when we give to others and receive from others; when we know we need them and they need us.
What kind of wonderful creatures might we become if, in the fellowship of the church, we begin to model ourselves not on individualism but on God’s community, as symbolised by the Trinity?
David Unaiapon, a Ngarrindjeri man and preacher and the man on our $50 note, recognised this many years prior to Union. He said:
“We, as Aboriginal people, need you and you, as non-Aboriginal people, need us. You, as non-Aboriginal people who have come to Australia, have played a large part in making this society what it is, so you can’t just leave us Aboriginal people and expect us to fend for ourselves. You can’t leave us now because it’s like us taking you out in the bush and leaving you there. Most of you wouldn’t survive in the wilderness on your own.
“For many Aboriginal people, white society is like a wilderness. We need to be shown the way through what is, for many of us, very much uncharted waters; an unknown territory. However, it is inappropriate for you to insist that we become like you in order to succeed in society. This is what has happened so often in the past and Aboriginal people have been disempowered by this approach.
“Our society can encompass people who are quite different, and so can the Church. We can work together to fulfil God’s purpose for us all. Your relationship with God as expressed through the Trinity is the key to building loving relationships with those who are different. The love we are able share comes from God’s love for us and we have Christ’s example to follow, but we need the Spirit to guide us on our way.
“Loving one another means forgiving, trusting and sacrificing. It means opening our hearts to others; it means transforming your attitudes toward others.”
David Unaiapon raised important points here about culture, community and the work of Holy Spirit in our lives. In a very familiar Gospel reading (John 3:1-17), Nicodemus came to Jesus personally. He wanted to examine Jesus for himself and separate fact from rumour.
The passage reads that Nicodemus came at night or after dark. Possibly this was because he was worried about what his peers, the Pharisees would say about his visit to Jesus. Nicodemus himself was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling high council or Sanhedrin.
During Jesus’s time, the Pharisees were a group of religious leaders. Jesus and John the Baptist often criticised the Pharisees for being hypocrites. Many Pharisees were resentful of Jesus because he undermined their authority and challenged their perspectives.
Contrarily, Nicodemus was inquisitive and he believed Jesus had some answers. An educator himself, Nicodemus came on this occasion to learn from Jesus. It is a reminder to each of us no matter how well educated we are, we must come to Jesus with an open mind and heart to be lifelong learners.
Jesus revealed to Nicodemus that the kingdom would come to the whole world, not just to the Jews, and that to be part of the kingdom we must be born again. This was a radical concept: Jesus’ kingdom is personal not pertaining to a particular race, and entrance requirements are repentance and spiritual rebirth.
David Unaiapon spoke to this point well by stating, “The love we are able share comes from God’s love for us and we have Christ’s example to follow, but we need the Spirit to guide us on our way.”
It is this same understanding of God’s love and presence of the Holy Spirit that bonds the Uniting Church in Australia into a covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. On Sunday 10 July 1994 the then President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Dr Jill Tabart,mread the Covenanting Statement. In doing so, the church was lamenting historical wrongs and systemic failings—whilst at the same time committing the Uniting Church in Australia and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to journey together in the true spirit of Christ.
Further, Dr Tabart stated: “We acknowledge that no matter how great our intentions, however, we will not succeed in our efforts for reconciliation without Christ’s redeeming grace and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit at work in both your people and ours.”
Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus informs the Covenanting Statement. That spiritual renewal transcends race and that no one is beyond the touch of God’s Spirit. Towards the end of today’s Scripture reading in John 3:16 the entire gospel comes into focus. God’s love is not stationary or self-centred. It reaches out and draws others in. Here God sets out the pattern of true love, the basis of reconciliation for all relationships. Our challenge as Christians is to adhere to the words of the Covenanting Statement. By journeying together in the spirit of Christ and discover what it means to be bound as First and Second Peoples in a covenant.
On that same day in 1994, the Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Pastor Bill Hollingsworth responded to the Covenanting Statement. He set out a roadmap to practical reconciliation. Pastor Hollingsworth stated:
“Your commitment to be practical in seeking to be united in this relationship will be assessed by your decisions to resource the Congress ministry and to be actively involved in ministry alongside and with Aboriginal and Islander people to change the present disadvantage … We pray that God will guide you together with us in developing a covenant to walk together practically so that the words of your statement may become a tangible expression of His justice and love for all creation. We ask you to remember this covenant by remembering that our land is now also sustaining your people by God’s grace.”
Nearly 27 years have passed since the formalisation of the Covenant. During this time, there have been many wonderful achievements in covenanting and reconciliation. Yet this year’s National Reconciliation Week theme ‘More than a word. Reconciliation takes action’, urges the reconciliation movement towards braver and more impactful action.
Although 27 years later, this year’s theme is reminiscent of Pastor Hollingsworth’s response. That commitment to covenanting must be practical. It is in this moment that we should truly take a moment to assess our practical commitments towards covenanting.
To reflect upon our own individual commitment but more importantly our collective commitment as a community of called by Christ. In this moment, it is right to ask ourselves as a Christian community, is this where wewant to be on our covenanting journey? Are we satisfied with reconciliation between First and Second Peoples within the life of our congregation?
This Reconciliation Sunday, can we as Christians take the risk like Nicodemus and bring our questions to the Lord? By asking where, might the Trinity Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer be calling us into commitment to covenanting? How can our Christian community continue or start to make our contributions to covenanting be more than words and put into action?
National Reconciliation Week (NRW) started as the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation in 1993 (the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples) and was supported by Australia’s major faith communities. In 1996, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation launched Australia’s first National Reconciliation Week. The theme for 2021 is ‘More than a Word – Reconciliation takes Action’.
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!
Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice (William W. Emilsen, 2019, MediaCom)
In August 1983, a National Conference within the Uniting Church was held from 22-26 August at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, in the Northern Territory. The Conference inaugurated the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress within the UCA. It built on the work that had taken place in 1982, as a series of meetings brought together Aboriginal and Islander members of the Church and other interested people in a conference at Crystal Creek, near Townsville.
The UAICC, or “Congress”, as it is more commonly called, has remained a significant feature of the UCA nationally, as well as in a number of Synods. Two Synods have contained Presbyteries composed entirely of Congress Congregations.
The Northern Regional Council of Congress (NRCC) functions as one of two Presbyteries in the Northern Synod. Representatives of more than 28 Aboriginal congregations from East Arnhem Land, West Arnhem Land, the West Kimberley region of Western Australia, Alice Springs, Aputula and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, make up the Council.
For many decades, Calvary Presbytery served as the regional Queensland body of Congress, a Presbytery in the Synod of Queensland. It oversees Indigenous congregations in the Cape York and Gulf region (Mapoon, Napranum, Aurukun and Mornington Island), as well as Congress congregations at Gordonvale (south of Cairns), Townsville, and Zillmere (in northern Brisbane). Since 2016, Calvary Presbytery and North Queensland Presbytery have worked together as Carpentaria Presbytery, one of seven Presbyteries in the Queensland Synod.
This unique ecclesial arrangement, of a Congress body functioning within the denominational structures of the UCA, but having the authority to make decisions in all matters relating to ministry with Aboriginal and Islander peoples, had been the vision of the Rev. Charles Harris, an Aboriginal community worker and pastor who was ordained a UCA minister in November 1980.
Charles was the first President of the national body of Congress when it was formed in 1985. This was a role that, over the ensuing decades, has come to be seen as equal and complementary to the position of President of the national Assembly.
Charles Harris would later describe the 1983 conference as a time “of discovery, of one another, of culture, and of common faithfulness. It was a conference dedicated to searching for the will and purpose of God.”
The passion and vision birthed at these historic meetings for First Nations Peoples has not subsided in hearts and minds of members of the UAICC.
William Emilsen has written much on the work of Charles Harris; after a series of articles published over some decades, he has now published a book-length account of the whole of the life and work of Harris, entitled Charles Harris: A Struggle for Justice.
At the end of his life, the activist and public servant Charles Perkins, a long-time friend, described Harris as one who helped set ‘the moral and ethical standards for relationships between Aboriginal, Islander and white Australians. A man of principle, whose impact will never be forgotten’ (Foster 1993, 5, quoted in https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-charles-enoch-18183)
The book by Emilsen provides multiple examples of how Harris lived and worked by his ethical principles, grounded in the understanding that God’s justice is the heart of the Gospel, and our discipleship is to be focussed on seeking that justice in all of life.
The vision of an Aboriginal Congress was central to Charles Harris’ church ministry and community leadership. He toured the country, encouraging, urging, negotiating, to bring this vision to reality. In 1985 the National Assembly welcomed the formation of Congress, and in 1994 the Uniting Church in Australia formally entered into a Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to work together for a more just church and nation.
That work arose out of his work with local Aboriginal communities in Queensland, where Charles offered an integrated ministry that attended to material and spiritual needs, whilst building networks and undertaking advocacy for his people.
And the creation of the Congress formed the springboard for the work that Charles Harris undertook among nest Aboriginal communities across Australia, preparing the converge on Sydney in January 1988 for the BiCentenary celebrations. Charles was the driving force behind the creation of the Day of Mourning, with a march through Sydney and a rally at Hyde Park, which attended by 40,000 people, on 26 January.
It is a legacy continues in the current marches and protests organised each January to fight for rights and justice for Aboriginal and Islander peoples.
In telling the story of the role that Charles Harris played in 1988, and in other key events in his life and ministry, William Emilsen had access to the history that Harris himself had begun to sketch, before his health issues predominated, and which led to his early death in 1991.
This makes for a rich account, with a proliferation of material enabling the reader to enter into a deep appreciation of the values and commitments of Charles Harris: pastor, community worker, evangelist, student, orator, organiser, visionary, and prophet. It’s a work that is well worth reading.
#BlackLivesMatter. The importance of this hashtag has been highlighted in recent weeks.
First, it gained attention in the USA, where yet another incident of the unwarranted treatment of a black man and the resulting unjust death of that man, George Floyd, led to widespread protests, resistance, and riots across the country.
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter originated in 2013, after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, was killed in an argument in Florida. The man charged with his order was acquitted, resulting in the community response that saw #BlackLivesMatter gain traction.
The hashtag has also had prominence in Australia, especially in recent weeks. After the death in America of George Floyd, a black man killed while in police custody in Minneapolis in early June, the BLM movement became active once again. The widespread unrest in the USA was clearly evident.
Around the same time, reports in Australia were indicating that there were 434 people—black men and women, indigenous Australians—who have died whilst in police custody, since 1991. (That was the year when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended.) And there had been no conviction of anyone responsible for any of those deaths over all that time.
So #BlackLivesMatter. We know this now, in our own time. This movement has generated widespread public support. The Pew Research Centre in the USA has reported their recent findings, noting that “two-thirds of U.S. adults say they support the movement, with 38% saying they strongly support it”.
All of this points to the need for ongoing, continuing, relentless lobbying, advocating for First Peoples, protesting injustices and working towards a more just situation in our society, today. Without question, this is a critical priority.
Alongside that, let me suggest the importance of remembering that #BlackLivesMatter when we turn to scripture, when we listen to the Bible being read in church or in Bible study groups, or when we open its pages ourselves and read the stories it contains. Do we imagine the skin colour of the people who are in these stories? Do we remember that the vast majority of them are dark-skinned?
Some years back, an enterprising forensic artist, Richard Neave, created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, “Son of God”. Neave took an actual skull found in the region (not claiming that it was actually the face of Jesus) and built a model of what the person might have looked like.
The end result was not the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of traditional Sunday School storytelling. The darker colouring of the skin (historically accurate) caused controversy at the time (and still does, whenever I use it with groups). The aim was to prompt people to consider how Jesus was a man of his time and place—a darker-skinned Middle Eastern man.
Just this week I came across a fascinating art project, seeking to depict the well-known characters of the Bible as the black-skinned Middle Easterners that they were. You can see the full gallery of art created by photographer James C. Lewis in the “Icons of the Bible” gallery at
Take some time to explore these images. As you do, remember that just as we know that #BlackLivesMatter now, today, so as we travel back in time, in our imaginations, into the world of the Bible, #BlackLivesMatter in those stories. We learn from these tales about these ancient black people. We gain guidance for living as faithful disciples today from these dark-skinned people of these ancient stories.
A sermon on the anniversary of the Uniting Church (for the Project Reconnect resource)
On 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. Today, rather than address the passages set in the lectionary, I want to turn to a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.
It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.
In Galatians, those who advocated Circumcision came under criticism. In that place, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.
The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was created in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection.
Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!
And yet, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, we come across comments that provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.
One of these passages is just two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).
Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.
The vision of the church for Paul is one of harmony, concord, unity. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the reality failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.
In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person — male or female – would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to took place all those centuries ago.
Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.
The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.
The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.
And the western church from the later part of the 20th century has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.
In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. May it be a reality for you, in your community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).
Some questions to consider:
What did you find to be the most significant idea in this message?
Can you describe a time when you experienced the “unity in Christ” that Paul wrote about?
In what way does your congregation today model the vision of inclusive acceptance for all that Paul wrote about?
In what way might you be able to show that vision to the people where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest?
“I can’t breathe.” Three short words. Three words that shot around the world. “I can’t breathe.”
We all know who said that, and the circumstances that drew these words from his mouth. We all know that soon after he said this, George Floyd died. Another black man, dead, at the hands of a white police officer.
“Ah well, that was in America”, you might think. Yes, it was. And many other Afro-American people have died in similar circumstances, victims of what appears to be, quite simply racism. A shameful story. A shameful record. But in America. Not here. Not in Australia.
Except—not so fast! Because here, in Australia, we have recently been reminded, there are 434 people—black men and women, indigenous Australians—who have died whilst in police custody, since 1991. (That was the year when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended.)
And one of the more recent people to die in such circumstances in Australia also uttered those words: “I can’t breathe.” (David Dungay, in 2015. And he said this phrase twelve times, before he died.)
So we Australians are not exempt from the shame of this racist record. Our very own nation has not yet found a way to address the systemic bias, the systematic persecution, of indigenous Australians. They are only 3% of our population, but they are represented amongst the prison population in numbers out of proportion to their presence in society.
And from all of those 434 deaths, after multiple enquiries, there have been—how many convictions? The sum total remains at zero.
What does this have to do with our faith? How does this impact on us as we go about our lives as followers of Jesus?
Last week, Dr Deidre Palmer, the President of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church, wrote:
“In the Bible, our sacred text, we hear God’s cry for justice for those who are living in poverty, those who are oppressed by unjust systems, those who are excluded and discriminated against.”
She went on to say:
“The Jesus we know from the Gospel stories, calls leaders to use their power in service to others, to call forth in others compassion, justice and kindness, unity and community. These are the leaders, we are called to be and that we need in the world today.”
Pastor Mark Kickett, the Interim National Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, joined his voice on this issue, saying:
“It boggles the mind as to how such inhumanity continues to exist in the modern world in which we live, yet it still does.” He quoted the Prophet Amos: “Amos speaks very clearly in relation to this matter where he says; ‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’” (Amos 5:24).
Our faith includes a clear call, for us to work so that we avoid perpetuating such injustices in our society. Our President said, in her Pastoral Letter for National Reconciliation week:
“We need to strengthen our actions for justice, healing and reconciliation. This is not an abstract call – it is seen expressed daily in our relationships with one another in this country.
It is seen when we:
• call out racism;
• tell the truth about the history of colonisation, dispossession and the undermining of First People’s culture, language and spirituality;
• advocate for First People’s voice to be heard in determining their future;
• respect and appreciate the culture and stories of First Peoples, and work together to deepen our relationships based on reconciliation that arises from justice, and leads to healing; and.
• live in harmony with the sacred land that we share.”
That is the challenge that sounds forth from our church leaders. That is the challenge that sits at the heart of the Gospel. As we live our lives by faith, following the way of Jesus, might we know also the claim that these words have on us.
We are called to stand firm for justice, to stand firm against injustice. We have a charge to call out racism, to call for reconciliation.
If that means that no black person in custody will then have to utter those tragic words, “I can’t breathe”—it will be worth taking that stand, making that call.
Today is National Sorry Day. It stands at the head of National Reconciliation Week, which runs from 27 May to 3 June each year. This week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation.
The dates of National Reconciliation Week hold special historical significance. On 26 May 1997, the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament. This report addressed them impacts of the fact that in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, Australian government policies resulted in many Stolen Generations, in which thousands of Indigenous children were separated, often forcibly, from their families, with the aim of removing them from their culture and turning them into “white Australians”.
Because of this, the date 26 May carries great significance for the Stolen Generations, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and its supporters among non-indigenous Australians. So Sorry Day is an annual event that has been held around the continent on 26 May since 1998, to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.
27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum in Australia, which gave the vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while 3 June marks the anniversary of the 1992 judgement by the High Court on the Mabo v Queensland case.
Sorry Day (26 May) and the National Apology (made in Federal Parliament on 13 February 2008), the 1967 referendum, the 1992 Mabo decision, along with the Wik decision on native title (delivered by the High Court on 23 December 1996), are considered to be key events in addressing the historic mistreatment of indigenous Australians, and in taking steps towards reconciliation and restorative justice.
But these were only steps. The path still lies ahead. We need to take more steps, walking together, to foster deeper relationships, advocate for a more embedded restoration of justice, work for wider and more lasting reconciliation within our communities. We are in this together. May we tread that pathway with compassion and intent.
The picture montage shows a Sorry Day poster, celebrations after the 1967 referendum, Eddie Mabo who brought the High Court case that was resolved in 1992, Gladys Tybingoompa dancing outside the high court in Canberra on 23 December 1996 following the Wik people’s native title win, and the front page of a national newspaper reporting the National Apology in 2008.