Sermon: Joining the church

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Baptism of Sophia Harry, 15th of May 2022

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:35-35

Today we celebrate the baptism of Sophia Grace Gordon Harry, welcoming her into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. Serendipitously, both of today’s scripture readings are about the nature of the strange community that Sophia is joining. Sophia is becoming a member of Jesus’ body, the church, a community formed by God’s love and made up of people who have heard God’s call to live in a new way.

Today’s gospel reading, which comes from the night before Jesus’ death, reminds us of exactly how strange that new way of life is. The reading beings, ‘When he had gone out …’ and the ‘he’ is Judas, who is leaving the meal that Jesus is sharing with his disciples to betray Jesus to the authorities. Now there can be no turning back; with Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ death is sure. And yet Jesus describes his fast-approaching death as glorification: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’. The absolute height and depth and strength of God’s love are revealed in Jesus’ willingness to die. God’s glory will be revealed on the cross. It makes absolutely no sense, but this is how God does things. God’s glory and grandeur are revealed not in success and wealth and status, but in humility and betrayal and compassion. Sophia today is joining an organisation that seeks not to be the biggest and best, but instead to spend time with the last and the least.

Because the journey to God’s glory is through his betrayal and death, because ‘where I am going, you cannot come,’ Jesus now seeks to comfort the disciples who will be left bereft. ‘Little children,’ he addresses them, and then commands that they love one another as he has loved them. In one way there is nothing new about this new commandment; loving one’s neighbour had long been a part of Judaism. (Leviticus 19.18) What is ‘new’ is that this will now be the way in which people will identify Jesus’ followers. As part of the baptismal service we will later recite the Apostles’ Creed together, and that recitation will unite us with every other person throughout time and space who has ever used the Creed in worship. But although the Apostles’ Creed encapsulates the faith into which we are all baptised, it is not belief in the clauses of the Creed that makes a Christian. Christians are not those who believe particular things about Jesus; Christians are those who imitate Jesus by the way we love.

It can be no surprise to you that the church, the community created by Jesus’ love, has not always known how to live out this new command. In the weeks after Easter the church reads through ‘The Acts of the Apostles,’ the biblical book which describes the labour pains of the church. It might comfort us, familiar as we are with all the ways in which we fail to live out our calling as Jesus’ body, to know that the first generation of Christians, who had known Jesus personally, had just as many problems. In today’s reading we hear the Apostle Peter’s defence of his baptism of Gentiles to the Jewish community. Peter’s action is told several times in the Book of Acts because what Peter had done was so scandalous – and so important.

It is interesting that the first question to Peter from the circumcised believers when they hear what has happened is not: ‘why did you baptise Gentiles?’, but: ‘why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ It is almost as though the Jewish Christians thought that there was room for some sort of arrangement in which Jews and Gentiles could both accept Jesus as Lord and be baptised, if they did that separately and did not socialise together. That sort of arrangement has unfortunately been known in Christian history. It was seen in places like South Africa under Apartheid or the United States before the Civil Rights movement. There both Black and White Christians were baptised and became church members, but were separated, legally or culturally, into Black-only and White-only churches. But Peter’s vision of food says otherwise; as he tells Cornelius ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ (Acts 10:28) This is the message he now shares with the circumcised believers in Jerusalem, sneakily calling on the six circumcised brothers who accompanied him as witnesses. He tells them of his vision, and of the work of the Holy Spirit, and he ends with a rhetorical question that silences his hearers: ‘who was I that I could hinder God?’

By the end of Peter’s explanation his hearers are astounded at what God has revealed to and through him. This is one of most important moments in the history of the church, the point at which Christianity becomes available to those who have not been either born Jews or converted to Judaism. This is the moment when, through visions, experience, and the working of the Holy Spirit, Christians learn just how wide and inclusive God’s salvation is.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,’ Jesus told his disciples before his death. But the new commandment was about the way disciples were to love each other, and at that point all Jesus’ disciples were Jewish. It would have been possible for them to obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another while excluding Gentiles, and that was undoubtedly what Jesus’ Jewish followers expected. But Jesus did not just leave his followers with a new commandment, he left them with the Holy Spirit. The role of the Holy Spirit is to continue to lead Christians into new truths, to enable us to discern the implications of Jesus’ message for the world in new ways. The love of God revealed in Jesus is a love without limits, a love that overcomes all divisions between human beings. The greatest division that had to be overcome in Peter’s time was that between Jews and Gentiles, and through Peter’s vision the church overcame it. Peter saw food, and expanded the message from food to people, interpreting the vision as telling him that he shouldn’t call anyone profane or unclean, and the circumcised believers came to agree, praising God and saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

Today’s story had a happy ending. But Peter’s revelation is one that the church has had to repeatedly rediscover. Throughout history Christians have discriminated against each other because of race and sex and gender and class and age and wealth or poverty and sexuality. But as Martin Luther King is quoted as saying: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’ and so, over the centuries, the church has discovered that apartheid is wrong, that women are the equals of men and (at least in the Uniting Church) that LGBTIQ+ people are to be welcomed and celebrated. Each time the church recognises that no one created by God can be called unclean or profane, the church is closer to living in a way that reveals God’s love to the world.

Today Sophia is joining the church, this strange community created by God’s love, in which we seek to love one another as Jesus loved us, and are constantly led by the Holy Spirit into new ways of doing that. This is no easy calling. It will only be possible for Sophia, as it is for all of us, because our love for one another reflects God’s love for us. We love because God first loved us, the author of the letters of John wrote. (1 John 4.19) The love that creates the cosmos and makes the stars shine is the same love that surrounds Sophia and all of us, today and always. Nothing will separate Sophia from God’s love, as nothing can separate us. The God who is love reaches out to us in love and in today’s baptism, as in the way we live, we answer God’s love with joy and celebration. May Sophia, and each of us, always walk in love. Amen.

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