Saturday, 5 May 2018

Love one another

It seems simple enough, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love... love one another as I have loved you.”   

Seems simple enough to love one another, but what do we think love is.  When I shared about singing a new song one of the things that can become evident very quickly is how we have different tastes and preferences in our music choices.  Churches have split apart on what kind of music they should play.

Just as there is a great diversity of ideas on music so too when it comes to loving one another we have different ideas on what it means to love each other and how we define love seems to change through time.

So to love one another appears simple enough but love is complex in its simplicity.

If you will indulge me I would like to share a short video entitled “What is love?” from one of my favourite websites Soulpancake.


So what does love mean to you.  What does it mean for us to love one another?

Right at the beginning of the video a young boy says that “Love is a complicated thing” and I would agree with that.  And maybe you picked up on some of its complexity in listening to all the different answers.

So when it comes to Jesus commandment to love one another as I have loved you we already have our own ideas and biases about what love is.  I want to pick up on what one of the women in the video said in her answer.

“It is something you do on a day to day basis. Love is active.”

Now many of you would have heard that the word we translate into love from Greek has 4 different forms.  The ancient Greek language had 4 different ways of categorising love.

The word being used in this passage is the word agape.  This is generally understood to mean unconditional love – love that does not expect anything in return.  But I want us to push a little deeper into that idea.

How does God love us?  By sending Jesus into the world.  By Jesus proclaiming the good news of God’s love to us.  By Jesus dying for us.  By Jesus rising for us. By Jesus ascending for us to pray for us forever.  God loves us by doing something.

Love is not a feeling or an emotion love is what God does.  Or as John put in his letter “God is love.”  Love is what God does – so if we are to love one another it cannot stop at an emotion, an interior feeling or thought that I keep to myself.  No, love involves us acting, doing something.

Now in loving like God loves us we cannot make the same sacrifice that Jesus makes on the cross for us – that was a once and for all moment.  But we can act in love towards one another as a sign of this love.

Quite a few years ago a friend recommended a book to me that some of you may have also read.  It was written by a guy called Gary Chapman and was called The Five Languages of Love.  Have any of you read this book?

In the book Chapman outlines these 5 ways we express our love in action and as we think about loving one another in all its simple complexity these 5 ideas can be helpful.  Words of affirmation. Gifts. Physical touch.  Quality time. Acts of service.  I want to go through each of these and give some examples, or maybe more accurately some homework to you because as you listen to them I want you to be thinking about how you might express love to someone this week.

Words of Affirmation

  • Write a letter or card to someone to express your thanks or congratulations.
  • Ring an old friend and reminisce together
  • Be grateful to someone who serves you in a shop 

  • Take your gift of flowers from the church today to someone special
  • Give an extra gift of money to a charity
  • Make a gift or card for a member of your family

 Physical touch

  • Remember to hug a member of your family every day!
  • Embrace a friend when you meet them this week
  • Hold the hand of someone you love more often

 Quality time

  • Put a person you love in your diary this week, listen to them and enjoy their company
  • Take some extra time with God: express gratitude and pray for others
  • Have a technology ‘fast’ and spend more face to face time with friends

 Acts of service

  • Take on an extra chore around the house
  • Commit yourself to do something for the church or a charity
  • Ask a family member, friend or even a stranger what you can do to help them out
Now what is very interesting is that what Chapman emphasises is that each one of respond more strongly to a different expression of the giving and receiving of love.  A good example of this is that for some people a hug is important and for us well it is more like an invasion of their personal space.  We are all unique in what our preferred expression of love is and how we interpret loving actions towards us.  This is why I think we miss the mark so often in trying to love one another – because we are complex and unique individuals.

To jump back then into the passage and think about how Jesus loves his disciples.  His actions towards them which include his choice to call them friends, his choice to teacher them, his choice to entrust them to bear fruit on his behalf is all done in the context of knowing that these men are far from perfect people.  Jesus actions of love towards his disciples is not reliant on them getting everything right or understanding it but on the choice Jesus makes to go on loving them.

For me this is the hardest aspect of love.  To love another person whom we may find difficult to get along with.  To love another person who is not loving us back or not acknowledging our acts of love towards them.  To love others when are not feeling loved ourselves.
For me this is where God steps into the gap between our call to love one another and our ability to love another.  There are days I do not feel loved and also days I do not feel very loving – more often than not these days coincide!

It is in these moments that God’s ultimate action of love in Jesus’ death and resurrection transcends who we are not able to be for ourselves and joins us through God’s grace to Jesus’ very life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Today we will celebrate that in remembering the great act of God’ love as we take bread and wine and receive again through word and action the presence of God into our life.  We share in communion in the faith and hope that as we act so to God will act within us.

So, we return to where we began: It seems simple enough, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love... love one another as I have loved you.” 

Today, we will share in that love of God in bread and wine.  God’s grace.  The fruit that we are given to share from our encounter God this day is to go from this table to act as loving people: through Words of affirmation. Gifts. Physical touch.  Quality time. Or, acts of service. 

Take a few moments of silence.  Consider what is God saying to you this day?  Who are you being called to love and what will you do about it?

Friday, 1 September 2017

Moses, the burning bush & Holy Ground

The story of Moses turning aside to meet God in the burning bush is one that is both well known and well loved by many people.  It is also a story which has great depth of meaning and can challenge us on many levels.

This morning I want to explore with you a number of aspects of the story and how they relate to us today.

First, I want us to consider the concept of Holy Ground.

Second, to think about, where it is that we might meet God.

Third, will be to consider what happens when meet God and how we will most likely respond.

Lastly, we will be looking at the concept of God’s presence through the lens of Jesus.

So, to the concept of Holy Ground!  When Moses turns aside to see the burning bush God instructs him to take off his shoes because he is standing on Holy Ground.  I took off my shoes this morning at the beginning of the worship to get you to think about this idea of reverence in God’s presence.

Why is this ground Holy?  I think that the holiness is not in the earth itself, the dust and grit and grime, but rather the place is made Holy at that moment because God is there in a particular way with Moses.

This is an important distinction to make because I believe that throughout the history of both Judaism and Christianity we do see a tendency towards idolatry of place.

In the story of the healing of Naaman the leper by Elisha, which occurs in the second book of Kings, it is interesting to see Naaman request 2 cartloads of the soil to take home with him so that he might worship Elisha’s God.  It is as if God is located in the soil itself.

This kind of overplaying of the importance of land or ground or Holy Space has long been with us.  It is not that I think have buildings or special places in which we believe we encounter is unimportant but I would want to challenge when we begin to hold on to the Holy Space or Ground over against the relationship with God, even unintentionally.

Think for a moment about our own church buildings and the concept of Holy Ground.  This morning I was very deliberate about the acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Turbaal people.  We have built our buildings and laid claim to this as Holy Ground over the top of another people, for which this land itself may have been sacred in some way.

As an aside in this last month it was the anniversary of the  pastoral workers strike led by Vincent Lingiari.  A strike that went for 8 years and led to one of those iconic images that is etched into our Australian history of the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of sand from his hand into Vincent’s hand.  It was a symbolic retuning of sacred ground.

In terms of this building in which we meet whilst it may carry sentimental and historical value for us as a sacred space it should also be understood in a broader history of who we are as Australian people and that we have set this space aside for us to meet with God.  I wonder this morning did you have that sense of taking of your shoes, did you come expecting that God would speak to you and call you to ministry or are you simply here going through the motions?  The space only retains its value if we are expectant and responsive to the God who will send us from here.

As I thought about this taking off our shoes to enter God’s presence on Holy ground I was struck by me memories of the times I have been into Mosques to observe Islamic worship.  There are rows of racks where the worshippers place their shoes before entering the worship space.  They take off their shoes as they meet with God.

Yet I am also aware that in their daily prayer, which they are to engage in 5 times each and every day, people cannot always come to the mosque.  So they take off their shoes wherever they are and facing Mecca pray.

The point seems to be that it is not the venue itself that is Holy but God’s presence whenever we enter into it.  A concept which I believe we could learn from.

This leads me from these thoughts about Holy Ground to what it is that Moses was doing when saw the burning bush.  Moses hadn’t gone to church; he wasn’t at daily prayer or listening to a sermon.  Moses was at work.

He had fled Egypt and was accepted into the Midianite family that he had come into contact with, marrying one of Jethro’s daughters.  Such was his place that he was trusted with the flock the family’s wealth.

Moses had not gone seeking God, no God had come to him in the midst of his mundane and probably quite difficult task of tending the flock.

When Moses saw the burning bush he turned aside; he stopped to be with God.

This is a reminder for all of us that Holy ground is not somewhere we construct like this building but somewhere, anywhere that God comes to us.

In the midst of our daily labour whether we are at home or in the community we should be looking out for the burning bush of God’s presence and we should like Moses be prepared to turn aside and listen for what God might have to say.

Too often I believe we want to restrict the possibilities of God speaking to us to church on a Sunday, or our daily devotionals, or when we are gathered in some holy huddle.  But God speaks to us and meet with us anywhere and when he does God calls us.

This brings me to the third point about Moses response to God’s call.  Moses response is to question his value, his gifts, his very existence: who am I?

This existential crisis for Moses is a denial and dodging of God’s call – I’m not good enough, why me, I’m not holy enough, can’t someone else do it.

I want to share my favourite story about the burning bush, it is a story told by Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the world Dominican order.

"In May 2004 I was taken to the monastery of St Catherine's, at the foot of Mt Sinai. At 3:30 pm in the afternoon, when all sensible people are asleep and 'only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun', we walked past the shrine of the burning bush and climbed the mountain of the Lord... As I walked past the shrine of the burning bush, I was delighted to notice beside it a large red fire extinguisher. It looked so old it might have been there since Moses. It seemed to symbolise our ambivalent relationship to the word that comes from the burning bush, and the perpetual temptation to quench it."

Timothy Radcliffe "Do Not Put Out The Burning Bush" in Don't Put out the Burning Bush ed. Vivian Boland, ATF Press 2008.

I wonder at times whether too many of us in our ambivalence are carrying a fire extinguisher in fear that the burning bush of God’s presence might come to us and God might call us to follow and serve.

Yet for those of us who are Christians is this not meant to be what we do.  Listen for God and respond obediently to God’s call on our lives – even when we don’t think we have the capacity to do what God is asking of us.

Every one of us who is baptised is called into the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ – in our work place, in our relationships, in our families, in our community, the places where we can and do meet God.

This brings me to the promise of God and the conclusion of this sermon.  God’s response to Moses existential crisis and doubt is the promise that God will be with him.  It is a promise which gives Moses the courage to respond to God’s call.

As Christians reading this story the idea that God is with us is powerfully altered by the advent of Jesus Christ who is called Emmanuel – which literally means God is with us.

In Jesus God walks among us and the promise of the Holy Spirit is that our lives our drawn into Christ’s life, that he is with us and we are with him.  But more than that, Jesus indicates that we will meet him in poor and prisoner and the hungry and the sick.  God is with us in each other and in the people in the world around us.

This too is Holy Ground: people’s lives and their stories.  I met a man in the coffee shop the other day and he shared with me some of his story.  In that moment I knew I was on Holy Ground, the Holy Ground of his life, and that in our conversation I believe God was speaking to me.

The story of Moses and the burning bush takes us deep into our faith and what it means to meet with God, to listen to God, to respond God and to serve God’s purposes.

We are on Holy Ground now not because of these walls around us but because here God speaks the good news of Jesus Christ to us and calls us to go out into the world to meet God again and again in the moments of our days and our weeks and to respond in faith.

Now in the silence I invite you to remember God’s presence and listen for what God is calling you to do this day.  Amen.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Elevating others into our family!

Matthew 10: 24-39

I have been involved in teaching Religious education or instruction in schools for just over 20 years and each year as I begin with a new class I hand out a get to know you sheet.  I have provide one each for you this morning.

As you can see on the sheet students are asked to finish the sentence, “The most important thing in my life is...”

Through 20 years of teaching classes from Grade 3 through Grade 7 one answer dominates this sentence.  It comes up again and again.

The most important thing in my life is... Family!

The idea that family is the most important thing in life constantly comes through in pastoral conversations in congregations as well.

Family is important to us, really important.  It is, no doubt, important to you, just as it is important to me.

Despite its importance another lesson I have learnt over 20 years of teaching in schools and working with congregations is that how we define what a family is varies a great deal.  When I ask students to draw a picture of the people they live with this reality is often emphasized.

Some families have one parent.  Some families have half brothers or sisters.  Some families have a step dad or step mum.  Some families now have 2 dads or 2 mums.  Some families include grandparents and some include the whole wider family. Family is important but families are also defined by culture and the experience of life. 

It is amongst all this importance that we place on families as well as alongside the ambiguous definition of what family means that we come and hear Jesus words from Matthew’s gospel:

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me!

Taken at face value we could assume that Jesus is attacking the idea and place of family and elevating individuals and their choices. 

We could make sense of this by reflecting on the concept of family from Jesus time, which is quite different to how modern Western people understand family.  Family meant the household, it could include slaves and servants, the father was the head, and women had a particular place.  If one member of the family did something wrong it would bring shame to the whole family.  Honour would have to be restored.

Jesus could be challenging this idea of the binding ties of family but such a reading of Jesus words put us in direct conflict with other parts of the scriptures, let me share just a few:

1 Timothy 5:8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her

Wife Proverbs 31:31 Honour her [your wife] for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Exodus 20:12 Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord, your God is giving you.

Psalm 127:3-5 Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.

So which is it and what can we do with this complicated issue. Are our biological ties to one another important or not?

If we return to the passage from Matthew and consider the words that Jesus first speaks I believe we might find some help here:

“‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.’”

The question that might be raised by this comment then is what was Jesus relationship with his own family, how did he view them. 

If we read on in Matthew’s gospel to Matthew 12 we get an interesting insight. 

In Matthew 12 verse 47 and 48 is says, “Someone told Him, “Look, Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48But Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49Pointing to His disciples, He said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”

Jesus view of the idea of family here is not to diminish it but to augment it.  Family is not defined by biological ties but is defined by the growing relationship he had with those outside his own family – his disciples.

The restriction of who could be part of the family changed, the goal post was shifted.  The fact that he defines the disciples as mother and brothers reminds us of how important Jesus views family to be, yet at the same through his words Jesus time elevates others into his family.

When we combine this with his sayings in Chapter 10 about putting God above family then maybe we could summarise Jesus’ teaching about family like this.

We should not elevate our family above God. Rather we should elevate others into our family to honour God.

Let me repeat that:

We should not elevate our family above God. Rather we should elevate others into our family to honour God.

Years ago I can remember reading the influential book Being as Communion by the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas.  In the book he speaks of our baptism drawing us beyond our biological ties and into the family of God with God. 

Another way of recognising this is to speak of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  The exclusive biological boundaries of family are broken down and we are reminded of our common humanity.

From my perspective Jesus is not encouraging family division but is about elevating others into our family, which ultimately is the family of God.

Earlier in the week I was preaching about this issue in another setting and I made the comment that in our contemporary world many parents create idols of their children.  Sacrificing themselves so that the children can have everything that they want.  Our hands are always open providing more and more to them.

One of the older men there agreed with me about parents who seem to give the children whatever they wanted.  And we spoke about the sense of entitlement many people within our culture seem to have.  But almost in the same breath he said that it was luck the passage didn’t mention grandchildren!

The notion of elevating others into our family is not an easy one.  For me to think of other people as being equal value as Tim and Lucy is hard for me to wrap my head around.  Yet this is the challenge that Jesus lays before us – not to make idols of our families but to keep God at the centre of our lives and to honour all people as members of our family.

This is important for us to grapple with as a congregation – how do you elevate each other into being family members of one another?  And, how do you elevate our Christians into your family?  I can remember saying to another congregation that if every child that came into their midst, every family, had been treated as mine had then I could not see why that family would ever leave.  The day I turned up at my new manse there was a fresh meal provided and others frozen.  When my children were born they were showered with gifts.  At times I was embarrassed of the privilege treatment my family received when I could see that this was not extended to everyone. 

More than that how does this love for others extend outwards into the community?  In the reading from Genesis were reminded that God’s concern extends even to those who appear to be cast out.  The story of Hagar and Ishmael is another uncomfortable one for us, a difficult passage, but one which drives us to contemplate how God views those beyond the family of God as still part of God’s family.

37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me!

This is a difficult teaching but I would place it in the context of the words of grace that God cares as deeply for us as any sparrow, that God counts the hairs on our head.  Jesus presence with us is precisely because we live with these tensions and so often fail.  Paul’s letter to the Romans from which we read struggled with these very issues of sin and works and grace.

I believe Jesus teaching acknowledges the messiness of our human existence.  Family is important and the idea of family is important to Jesus but it is easy for us to elevate our family above God and distort and disrupt our relationship with God and with others when we do this.  Jesus words remind us not to elevate our family above God, but rather, that we should elevate others into our family to honour God.  To honour the God who has freely, lovingly and graciously drawn us into his own.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Forty Years of Worship, Witness & Service

As we celebrate 40 years of the Uniting Church on this day I want to pick up on a core theme that emerge in the early days of the Uniting Church and relate those themes to three statements found in our readings.

That theme was the expression of the mission of the church as worship, witness and service.

These three expressions of our life as the church and in particular as the Uniting Church were grounded in the life of Jesus Christ and it was to be through engaging in these three things that the Uniting Church was to live out it’s life as God’s people.

It is an opportune time for this congregation to be revisiting these fundamental themes of what it means to be a church as together you are standing on the cusp of change.  As I leave the Presbytery has engaged with you to reflect on who you are and what God is calling you to do and be as a congregation.

So let us consider these three themes.

The first is worship and in Psalm 122 we read these words:

I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’

This Psalm was a Psalm of ascent.  It would have been sung as pilgrims travelled from their villages and towns to Jerusalem for the festivals.  Worship for the Hebrew people was more than the gathering in the temple or synagogue but flowed out into their meal sharing and their home life. It shaped who they were.

In this particular Psalm of ascent there is a sense of joy and even happiness about engaging with God.  In some of the other Psalms of ascent other emotions are reflected: sorrow, lament, confession.  Worship encompasses the fullness of life.

As a small congregation your gathering for worship is a fundamental act of mission which should also ground you in a life lived to the glory and praise of God.  As we are gathered into worship we are gathered as people who have been worshipping God through our not only our devotional lives but also our daily witness to others and service of those around us.  And as we are sent out at the end of the service we are constantly commissioned to be God’s people in the world.

Be glad as God’s people to come together for worship, be glad in the good times and in the hard times, be glad that God is a faithful and steadfast God and worship God together.  Be open to the changes that might come and be committed to support one another in your worship.

The second theme is witness.  In Jesus prayer in John we read:

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

Jesus prayer of John 17 is prayed in the context of worship.  The disciples had gone to Jerusalem for Passover.  Jesus had washed their feet and prayed with them.  He was teaching them and serving them and it was in the context of this pray that Jesus indicates that their behaviour would become a witness.

The unity of the church would help people believe.  Now the reality is that we have been on a long journey since that night of division and disunity.  I have never been a part of a congregation growing up, as a teacher or as a minister in which there was not conflict.  From childhood I was aware of the division between the denominations and did often wonder whether I was in the right or real church.  Despite this problem I believe God continues to use our broken witness as sign of hope in the world.

And whilst unity is one aspect of witness as people of faith every time we allow others to know that we are followers of Jesus we become his ambassadors in the world. We have a task through our words and actions to point others to Jesus, to help to know of God’s love through our imperfect witness.

Once again as a small congregation the imperative is not just for worship but that your daily lives and your life together might draw others to a greater commitment to Jesus.  Last Sunday we had the exciting event of baptising 2 and confirming another 4 people.  On that day it was more than 20% of the congregation.  We should not underestimate the possibilities of what God could do in and through this small community of faith and we should be each of us active in our inviting others to share with us and praying for others to come to know Jesus and the one whom he called Father as we know Jesus.

Lastly, the third theme is service: 

For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

This may seem an odd choice from the readings to highlight service but in these words the Psalmist reminds us our actions in God’s name are about others.  For the sake of our friends and relatives, for the sake of the house of the Lord and of the city.  The focus of faith is found not simply in gazing at God but in our serving others.

In the book of Hebrews the writer encourages acts of service and love and throughout Jesus ministry we are made acutely aware of Christ’s service of those who were sick, who were demon possessed, who were ostracized and estranged.

Jesus came seeking and serving the lost sheep and we are invited to share in this ministry of healing and giving hope to others as well.

As a congregation thinking about your own life I have never been strong on saying we have to do these things together and start programs or projects.  Rather my views has always been to encourage each one of you to serve the people around you and to be involved in organisations which inflame you with a passion to serve.

Worship, witness and service.

Ground in God’s love shown to us in Christ we share in his life of worship, witness and service.

So as you face the future the coming days, weeks, months and years I encourage you to ground your life in Christ on whom the church is founded and participate in the worship, witness and service of faith just as God has called you to.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Pentecost, Babel & Baptism

In his book “What is thePoint of Being a Christian?” Timothy Radcliffe critiques the notion that baptism brings us into being a part of God’s family in any sort of exclusive way.  He suggests that “In baptism we die to all that divides us from other human beings; we are pointed beyond the small confines of any lesser identity.  Our parents, perhaps unknowingly, having received us as a gift from God, give us away.”

It is true to say that there is a sense in which we are brought by baptism into the Church but being a part of the Church is fundamentally about being truly human.  In this way baptism does not enclose in an exclusive group it opens us to reality of our identity as human beings.  This was told to us today in the readings as we heard the stories from Babel to Pentecost.  These stories are two sides of one coin: they are the story of God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people.  I want to pick up on the connecting thread that runs through the two stories concerning the transition in the relationship between God and humanity.

To begin with the story of the tower of Babel we are taken back to a time not too distant from the great flood of Noah described in chapters 6-9 of Genesis.  Noah’s sons and their descendants peopled the earth and in Genesis 11 we are given an insight into their growing pride.  What is notable about these people is that there is only one people and one language in all of humanity and as God indicates in their unity human beings are capable of great things. 

So, prior to the tower of Babel there is only one people that inhabit the earth and these are all God’s people.  In a manner, which has clear echoes of the story of Adam and Eve, these people begin to believe the notion that they can control their relationship with God, that they have a right to build a tower up to heaven.  This idea denies God’s presence and care for them as God’s people and could even be seen as them challenging God.

The story carries with it a mix of sin and grace.  The people act in a manner that can only be considered unfaithful to the truth of their relationship with God but God in his grace does not choose the way of destruction again, that is to say another flood, but offers a new way forward.  God confuses the language of the people and in so doing turns one people into many nations. 

In this way the many different languages and dialects of the world created by God at this point serve as a metaphor to remind humanity of its fallibility and our place in relationship with God.  So the story of the Tower of Babel is a transition from one people to many nations.  However, this does not mean that God abandons humanity because from these many nations arise the one people of God called Israel.  Following the story in Genesis 11 the Scriptures lead us to Abram and his calling and the promise of God to him concerning Israel.

Now, as an aside, whilst God chooses Israel to be his people, Israel is chosen to be a priestly people and a light among the nations.  In other words Israel’s relationship with God as God’s people still serve as a representative group for all humanity.

The important thing to remember here is that prior to Babel one people, God’s people, true humanity, is a common people on all the earth.  The evolution of different languages at Babel is given as a corrective by God for human pride.

This brings us forward to the day of Pentecost.  Pentecost occurs 50 days after Passover and was a Jewish festival but this event among the believers in Jerusalem redefines its significance for the church.

The believers had gathered together and the Spirit came upon them.  The gift of the Spirit on that day had many signs: rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the speaking in tongues.  Each has its own allusions to Old Testament scriptures, but picking up the thread of language from the Tower of Babel what we hear about is most significant.  People spoke in their own language, people from the divided nations, but others were able to understand despite the fact they did not know the other languages. 

This is not so much a gift of tongues as a gift of hearing.  Douglas Adams in his novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy captures the idea of this gift in the strange animal called the “Babel Fish”.  In the story the Babel fish is a small fish inserted in the ear of a person that enables them to understand every other language.  (It is now also an online translation site) The Holy Spirit comes into the gathering of believers and does just this – enables them to hear in their own language.

What happens is a reversal of what had occurred at the tower of Babel.  Human beings separated by language were drawn back together in their ability to understand one another.  A significant aspect of this reversal though is that God did not heal everyone so that they all spoke the same language but rather were given a gift of understanding one another which did not diminish the cultural differences established by language.

Taken to its logical end the two stories of the Tower of Babel and the Day of Pentecost combine to speak to us of the truth of our being human is about the unity of all humanity.  The Church as the first fruits of the new creation is called to live as people of that unity now.  This means understanding exactly what Timothy Radcliffe expressed that baptism does not isolate us in some select group but incorporates us into what it real means to exist as a human being.

This has important implications for all who are baptised.  Yes baptism makes us part of the church, God’s family, but understood through the lens of a reversal of the Tower of Babel being a part of the church is meant to break down barriers not create some sort of exclusive community. 

Being baptised establishes a person in their relationship with God as well as all other human beings.  Baptism brings us into a restored and reconciled humanity in which people of different languages are made to understand one another and live as one once again.  This is the scandal of the Christian faith.

This means that the expression used by Radcliffe, that in allowing a child to be baptised parents in a sense give the gift that God has given them away, rings true.  Baptism takes us beyond our biological ties of family, beyond our cultural and linguistic ties and into something deeper and greater: a truly shared and common humanity.  In the Uniting church we recognised just such a truth in a response to a baptism when a congregation promises the following:

            With God’s help,
            we will live out our baptism
            as a loving community in Christ:
            nurturing one another in faith,
            upholding one another in prayer,
            and encouraging one another in service.

On an internal level this is a commitment to care for and nurture all in our midst as brothers and sisters in Christ.  This has very practical implications in the way that we support parents and children, of whatever age, come to know of God’s love.  We all have responsibility for one another.

Yet on an external level this is also a commitment to live openly witnessing to the world around us that God has reconciled us with one another and all things.  The Church is not to exist as some sort of religious ghetto constrained by an exclusive language or piety and culture that shuts others out.  No we are to live as people reconciled with one another for the sake of the world.  The people who were enabled to hear and understand the good news were not simply the Christians gathered on that day but the observers as well.

Of course this does not mean that all will hear and respond and understand – in fact sometimes it means quite the opposite.  People will ridicule and question us – have they been drinking?  Are they filled with new wine?  Proclaiming the gospel is not guaranteed with a positive response but our call to live as the one people of God, which is the new humanity, is at the heart of our faith.

The witness of the scriptures is clear that it is only through Christ and in the Spirit that this new humanity is formed put the promise is that it has been formed and we who are the Church are called to respond in a way which gives honour to God’s faithfulness and our new existence as God’s people.