Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
23rd of January 2022
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Think back to the last time you injured yourself. Were you surprised by how much an injury to one part of the body affected every other part of it? The human body has 206 bones, 639 muscles, about two square metres of skin, and numerous ligaments, cartilage, veins, arteries, blood cells and fat cells, all working together. Our bodies are among the most complex systems in existence, and it is to our astoundingly complicated bodies that the Apostle Paul compares the church.
Paul was not unique in comparing a community to the body, but the way he did it was profoundly radical. Philosophers who had previously compared society to bodies usually did it along the lines of that verse in ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ that we no longer sing: ‘The rich man in his castle/the poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/and ordered their estate’. But Paul is not describing the church as a body in order to say that the apostles are the head, while the widows are the feet and should behave according to their inferior place. Instead, Paul says that: ‘the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect’. Paul uses the image of many members in one body to argue for the unity and equality of members of the church, despite their diversity.
Today, the Sunday before the 26th of January, is commemorated by the Uniting Church as a Day of Mourning, remembering that while the raising of the Union Jack in Sydney Cove was ultimately wonderful for all the Second Peoples who have been able to live here, it was the beginning of centuries of dispossession, disease, and violence for Australia’s First Peoples. Last year I mentioned those missionaries who saw the spirituality of the First Peoples as something that needed to be defeated and replaced with Christianity, rather than as something from which they could learn; missionaries who did not understand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could be expressed through the Law of this land. The tragedy of the Stolen Generations was that some missionaries thought that Christianity could only be inculcated in children if they were completely separated from their community and culture. One missionary wrote in 1916 that:
The young require not only isolation from the outside world, but what proved still more difficult, separation from their own people. When the latter was possible a marked difference is noted in the manners, ways and point of view, as contrasted with those who were not so fortunate.
This was not true of all missionaries, some of whom became thorns in the side of governments. So did some of their successor Uniting Church ministers. In 1978 the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland was briefed that:
the Aurukun and Mornington Island people are being given quasi political expectations (eg mining litigation – Aurukun, and projected land rights litigation – Mornington Island) which are flatly opposed to this government’s long-standing policies … the [Uniting] church’s overall attitude to state policies continue to be one of outright opposition.
In 1980 four Uniting Church ministers were arrested in the conflict over Amex Petroleum drilling for oil near a sacred site in Noonkanbah in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. So, we have some things of which to be proud, but more to lament.
When the Covenant was signed between the Assembly of the Uniting Church and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in 1994, one of the things for which the then-President of the Assembly, Dr Jill Tabart, apologised to the members of the Congress was that the Second Peoples had ‘confused the Gospel with western ways. As a result you and we are the poorer and the image of God in us all is twisted and blurred, and we are not what God meant us to be’. In response, the Chairperson of the UAICC, Pastor Bill Hollingsworth, replied that: ‘Whilst the church attempted to stem the decimation of our people and culture by providing missions and sanctuaries, in very many instances it did not attempt to understand our ways, our laws or social and economic structures’. He said that many First Peoples had ‘watched the church stand by as our future was slowly being shortened by westernisation, assimilation and policies of prejudice’.
If only more Australian Christians had lived out what Paul was saying here. What unites us is the Spirit. ‘[I]n the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.’ We have all been baptised, but this does not mean that we all need to become clones of one another. Baptism brings unity, not uniformity. ‘If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? … If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.’ If we had heard this as affirming not only individual differences but the differences between cultures as God-given, to be respected and enjoyed, the history of this country could have been very different.
But we have the history that we have, which is why once a year we mourn and acknowledge what has gone wrong in the relationship between the First and Second Peoples of Australia. As members of the one body, we acknowledge what the church has done wrong. Then we commit ourselves to doing better in the future, because the Spirit that unites us in the one body is that same Spirit that was upon Jesus when he preached in the synagogue of his hometown. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke puts this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and names the scroll from which Jesus was reading. It is only in the Gospel according to Luke that we hear the great words from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ This sermon at Nazareth is Jesus’ manifesto. Everything he does is to be seen and interpreted through these words. Since we ‘are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ this is our mission statement, too. We hear Jesus quote the words of Isaiah and know that as Christians we are called to share in this ministry to the world. This is a terrifying responsibility. As today reminds us, it is one the church has often failed to live up to. But it is not impossible.
The body of Christ in the world, the church, is made up of literally billions of Christians. It is these billions, working together, who carry out the mission of Christ. The Apostle Paul reminds us that it is impossible to be a Christian alone, we are all part of the one body. This means that it is the one body who is to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. None of us can do that as individuals. Trying to save the world by ourselves leads to burnout and frustration. Following in Jesus’ footsteps and serving the world for which Christ died can only be done together, as members of the one body, with different, God-given, gifts, using whatever abilities we have for the greater good.
Today we acknowledge and lament that the church was so often actively involved in the dispossession of the First Peoples from their land, and the ways in which their language, cultures, law, and spirituality were despised and suppressed. We acknowledge and lament that in our own time injustice and abuse has continued. Then we commit ourselves to confronting and challenging injustice wherever we see it, because we have been called by the same Spirit who anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour. We commit ourselves to rejoicing in the richness of the diverse cultures in this country, because we are joined together in unity, not uniformity. We commit ourselves to living as one body: all suffering when one suffers; all rejoicing when one rejoices; celebrating and demonstrating that it is Jesus our Lord who unites us. We do all this in the power of the Spirit, who gives us the gifts we need to live up to our calling as the people of God. Through the Spirit, God is always with us; we are never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (1997), p. 74.