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Homily by Dr. Miriam Pepper

Epiphany 1, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 12, 2014

Acts 10:34-43 (Matthew 3: 13-17)

Our short passage from Acts today, we hear Peter proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a brief summary of what Luke understood the Christian gospel to be. That Jesus Christ is Lord at all. That this was revealed at his baptism by John in the river Jordan, where he received the Holy Spirit. That the Spirit was with him so that he could do good and heal the people. That he was killed, but raised by God. That all who believe in him are forgiven. That God shows no favour to any race - but that all who fear God and do what is right are acceptable. And that his witnesses are to preach this good news.

The passage takes on greater significance in the context of what comes before and what follows. Immediately prior to it, a Gentile, a Centurion called Cornelius, an upright and generous man, had a vision from God that he should send for Peter, and so he sent some slaves and soldiers to fetch him. In the meantime, Peter has that vision of the sheet descending from heaven with creatures that by Jewish law are "treyf" (unclean, profane, not kosher), being told to kill them, because God has made them clean. Peter is perplexed by this vision, but when he learns that Cornelius the Gentile has sent for him and wants to hear what he has to say, he understands the vision to mean that the Gentiles are not unclean - the old barriers between Jews and Gentiles have broken down. The gospel of Christ is for all, not only for Jews. He transgresses the law that forbids Jews from associating with Gentiles and meets with Cornelius.

So the gathered people to whom he then preaches the gospel - the good news of Christ - are a group of Gentiles - Cornelius's family and friends. Upon hearing the gospel, the Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit. For the early church (and for Christians today), baptism was as much about the gift of the Spirit as it was about immersion in water. So Peter then goes on to say, who can withhold baptism by water from those who have received the Spirit, and so the Gentiles are baptised.

As it happens, I preached on this Sunday a year ago - the first Sunday in epiphany, the baptism of Jesus, where Christ is revealed to the world as the Beloved Son, who has been given the Spirit and on whom God’s favour rests, and which we read this year from Matthew’s gospel. I invited us to reflect on these question for what purpose Jesus was revealed as the Beloved Son, and what does this mean for our own baptisms?

In preparation for today, I was reading some material from the Uniting Church Assembly’s doctrine working group about the meaning of baptism. What struck me particularly was the twin aspects of baptism. God’s love freely given to us, and our response to that love through service to God.

The document that I read, called “How do we understand baptism?” says:

Baptism offers us the life of Christ through the sign of water. Baptism tells the story of God’s love and embraces us in that love. In baptism we rediscover that God is active in the world and loves the world. Baptism signifies God’s life-giving renewal given freely and abundantly. Christ acts through baptism to form the church. It thus establishes our identity as Christian people.

So on the one hand, baptism is God’s gift to us as Christians and as a church. This is also why we baptise babies because God’s love is a gift to us before we can ever make a conscious response.

On the other hand, the baptized person aligns their life to God’s purpose for the world. The document says:

The baptised person responds to God’s freely-given love by turning from rebelliousness to trust in God and dependence on God’s goodness. Baptism entails a life-long commitment to serving God. It thus redirects our lives to the life of God’s reign (kingdom).

It was this second aspect lives lived in generosity, compassion, and love towards others, of naming injustices and working for healing and wholeness that I was particularly thinking about this time last year in thinking about for what purpose we are baptised.

The document then goes on to emphasise the importance of both of these aspects of baptism:

It is important to keep together the initiative and grace of God on the one hand and the human response on the other. Emphasising one, at the expense of the other, leads to extreme positions which distort the meaning of baptism.

It is both of these aspects of baptism that I have been reflecting on as I’ve been preparing for today at the same time as I’ve been processing my experiences at the National Christian Youth Convention (NCYC). My thoughts are only half formed at this stage so I offer this to you as a tentative reflection.

NCYC ran from Tuesday to Friday. It is the most multicultural gathering I have been to in some time. With large numbers of aboriginal delegates (speaking in their own languages), Pacific Islands peoples, and also Africans, Koreans and others, I was more conscious of my whiteness (and of my age!) than I tend to be at Christian gatherings.

The cultural diversity that was present was a manifestation of the ecumenism that we have in the Uniting Church. The gift of baptism for us as a church is for the first and second peoples of this land alike. And our response to our baptism to lead lives directed towards God’s kingdom is God’s calling for all of us, in all our great diversity.

But when it becomes difficult, is when different parts of the church have different ideas about how we should live kingdom values. At a Q&A session with five of seven UCA Moderators, a delegate asked what the church’s position is on marriage equality. The Assembly’s Doctrine Working Group is actually currently preparing a discussion paper on the Uniting Church’s theology of marriage, and including consideration of same-sex marriage. One of the Moderators, Stuart MacMillan, from the Northern Synod and who is also President-elect, gave an interesting response to this question at the same time as he also responded to a question about whether the Uniting Church is Spirit-led or whether the Spirit has moved elsewhere. Stuart has journeyed alongside Aboriginal people for three decades. He has been initiated under aboriginal law, and I think he may speak Yolngu as well but I’m not sure.

He commented that at the 1997 National Assembly gathering in Perth, where there was blood on the floor over debates about the ordination of gay clergy, the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress was one part of the church that was particularly against ordination of gay clergy. The hurt in the room was palpable, on all sides of the debate. And yet at the Assembly that followed, the welcome by Congress, after all the hurt that had occurred, was gracious and Spirit-led.

He then said a couple of things about marriage for aboriginal communities in the Top End with whom he has ministered. Aboriginal marriage rites did not survive the missions. And aboriginal men who wanted to become Christian ministers and were polygamists were told that they had to choose one of their wives and leave the others.

So discussions about marriage need to be sensitive to the context of the disintegration of aboriginal laws around marriage, and the role that the church played in that disintegration.

My question is then: What do justice and compassion look like when discussing with Congress issues concerning sexuality? I speak from a place of very partial knowledge and understanding, and I don't want to suggest that aboriginal communities are monolithic, but it seems to me that to simplistically proclaim liberation through Christ from the strictures of the law (in a context of sexuality or really any other moral context), to peoples whose identity has been so entwined with law and in this they have had more in common with the Jews of antiquity than European Christians has the potential to be oppressive.

I don’t know what the answers are. But maybe reflecting on our common baptism is a place to start. People on opposite sides of debates in the church are recipients of God’s freely given love alike, have received the gift of the Spirit. Maybe when we hold the initiative and grace of God on the one hand and way that we try to respond to God’s love through our actions we can together discern a way forward.

Question: I invite you to share about a time when you may have come to a new appreciation of a person or group with whom you have disagreed.

Or to offer your thoughts about where might an appreciation of this spirit of unity in baptism help us in our churches?

Dr. Miriam Pepper