At the official opening of Assembly in Perth Concert Hall, Rev Sealin Garlett, on behalf of the local aboriginal people, welcomed us to "their tribal land". It was very fitting and well done.
It was a privilege, during the week of Assembly, to get to know Sealin better, to learn a little of the pain of his life as one of the "stolen generation", to hear of his conversion to the Christian faith, of his call to minister to aboriginal people and of his call to share the Word of God's grace with white as well as black. His first passion had been for his own people. He had thought he would never without bitterness speak to a white man. But he came to a love, not just for his people, but for God's people - a change of outlook which made a radical difference to him.
The Moderator of the Western Australian Synod, Rev. John Dunn, came to the microphone. Before training for the ministry, he had been one of the public servants who went to the settlements to take the aboriginal boys away and he publicly offered his apology.
Too easily we have confused our Christianity with being white and Western. We have thereby become susceptible, on the one hand, to prevailing social prejudices, and, on the other, to changing patterns of behaviour acceptable in so-called Western society.
In today's Bible reading, Paul talks about being God's people - both Jews and Gentiles. As I have reflected on Assembly and some of the more controversial debates, I have become increasingly convinced that, as a Church, we need to return to three key issues in being God's people, in our relationship with God:
Central to the Christian faith is the conviction that there is a God and that he has revealed himself to the human race. The universal quest for God arises because we are made by God, made to know God, made to relate to God It was Augustine who said, "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you."
God has revealed himself. The Bible records the words and experiences of many people. We can trace their interests and personalities in what they have written.
Peter wrote that "no prophetic message ever came just from human will, but people were under the control of the Holy Spirit as they spoke the message that came from God" (2 Pet. 1.21).
In writing to Timothy, Paul says the same - "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed" (2 Tim. 3.16-17).
Jesus held the Old Testament Scriptures in high regard. He said that "We know that what the scripture says is true for ever" (Jn 10.35). Yes, there is progression in divine revelation. Some of the rules for the Hebrew nation no longer apply to us. Some of the practices of the Hebrew religion are no longer relevant under the new covenant. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we hear the Word of God, rather than find ways around it - as the Pharisees did in Jesus' time (note Mt. 15.1-9).
We need to hear the Word of God to begin to know the character of God - as moral Ruler, as seeking and redemptive Saviour, as loving Father We mustn't seek "the god who suits us", but the God who is truly there, with whatever challenge, pain and comfort that may mean for us.
We need to hear the Word to understand the reality of our relationship with God - our wilfulness, our sinfulness, our hopelessness apart from him.
By the Basis of Union, the Uniting Church is committed to hear the Word. The Church's faith and obedience are to be "nourished and regulated" by the testimony of the Old and New Testaments. The Church's message about Jesus Christ is to be "controlled by the Biblical witnesses" (para. 5).
Some want us simply to say that Jesus is the Word of God (which he is) and that the Spirit is given to the Church "in order that she may not lose the way" (Basis, para. 3). But the Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ and the New expounds him. The Holy Spirit confirms the written word and applies it to our lives - always pointing us and leading us in our relationship with Jesus Christ of whom Paul wrote, "the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity" (Col. 2.9).
There is good news. Just as the Scriptures aren't the record of a human quest to discover God, so the good news isn't a cleverly invented tale to make us feel comfortable. The good news centres on what God has done.
Paul has been writing about God's grace - his free gift of salvation made available to us on the sole basis of faith (Eph. 2.8-10).
He now turns to the Gentile Christians. They had not known the promises of God (in the Old Testament). They now share in God's grace on the same basis as Jews. There are not two ways of coming to know God - a Jewish way and a Gentile way. There is only one way to know God - Jesus Christ (Jn 14.6), since all alike are sinners before God (Rom. 3.23).
"At that time you were apart from Christ. You were foreigners and did not belong to God's chosen people. You had no part in the covenants, which were based on God's promises to his people, and you lived in this world without hope and without God. But now, in union with Christ Jesus, you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated them and kept them enemies" (Eph. 2.12-14).
We come into this relationship with God by confessing our sin. The Greek word means, "to say the same thing, to agree with" - we agree with God that we are sinners, that we can't make it by ourselves. We repent. That's not just saying we are sorry - it's a change of mind in which we turn away from sin to God. We believe - we accept salvation as God's gift because of "the blood of Christ".
When we turn away from the Biblical revelation of God and its depiction of sin, we end up changing the gospel of redemption as well, wanting simply to "affirm" people. But the Biblical verdict is that we are sinners - by nature and by practice. To act out our broken sinful nature and to expect God (and the Church) to affirm us is a grave error which leaves us still in our sins. We will face the loving God who has longed to know us - as Judge, not as Redeemer.
The purpose of divine redemption is to make us what God our Creator and Father always meant us to be. This wall separating Jews and Gentiles - and the wall separating us all from God - has come down at great cost - the blood of Christ. The call to all of us, therefore, is to be reconciled to God in Christ - to be reconciled, coming in repentance and faith.
When that happens, we become new creatures with the Holy Spirit as the new driving force within us. Change is not only possible, but necessary.
John the Baptist called on people to repent and to "do those things that will show that you have turned away from your sins" (Lk. 3.8). When Jesus told his critics that "the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you" (Mt. 21.31-32), he was not affirming their way of life, nor preferring them because they were marginalised in Jewish society. Rather, these were the people who were agreeing with God's verdict on their lives. These were the people repenting and believing the good news - as his critics were unwilling to do.
There were many good qualities about Nicodemus, but even such a person needed to be born of the Spirit if he was to see or enter the Kingdom of God (Jn 3.3,5).
There is a great deal of talk in the Church these days about "the Spirit". But we need to recognise that he is the Holy Spirit. The concept of "holiness" is out of fashion these days - we don't want or expect change. But, because of the death of Christ and the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit, change is both possible and required by God.
Paul wrote, "Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5.17). Corinth has been called the sleaze city of the ancient world. Whatever the background, involvement or inclination, Christians were expected by the grace of God to change. Paul wrote, "Surely you know that the wicked will not possess God's Kingdom. Do not fool yourselves; people who are immoral or who worship idols or are adulterers or homosexual perverts or who steal or are greedy or are drunkards or who slander others or are thieves-none of these will possess God's Kingdom. Some of you were like that. But you have been purified from sin; you have been dedicated to God; you have been put right with God by the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6.9-11).
God's grace was given, not just to bring forgiveness, but to bring about radical change. The Holy Spirit (whose gifts were much prized in Corinth) was (and is) given to facilitate and empower that change.
And whatever the origin of the hurts, inclinations and dysfunctions of your life - whatever the causes of your personal sins - you are a new person in Christ. You have a new identity as a child of God. The drive of your new nature, led by the Holy Spirit, is to obey God, to live and act according to his revealed will for all of us and his specific calling for you.
William Barclay recounts this story. In France some soldiers with their sergeant brought the body of a dead comrade to a French cemetery to have him buried. The priest told them gently that he was bound to ask if their comrade had been a baptised adherent of the Roman Catholic Church. They said that they did not know. The priest said that he was very sorry but in that case he could not permit burial in his churchyard. So the soldiers took their comrade sadly and buried him just outside the fence. The next day they came back to see that the grave was all right and to their astonishment could not find it. Search as they might they could find no trace of the freshly dug soil. As they were about to leave in bewilderment the priest came up. He told them that his heart had been troubled because of his refusal to allow their dead comrade to be buried in the churchyard; so, early in the morning, he had risen from his bed and with his own hands had moved the fence to include the body of the soldier who had died for France.
Jesus Christ has removed the wall that separated us. He loves us and invites us to come, putting our trust in him.
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