When I first think of Christian unity, what comes to mind are those powerful commentators who are agitated by bedroom behaviours, who deal in moral absolutes, and who claim to speak on behalf of all Christians—and do so loudly, and often. Unfortunately, their attitudes and actions have led many in the wider community to perceive such people, and Christians in general, as puritanical, hypocritical, judgemental, reactionary, homophobic, sexist and fundamentally irrelevant. Yet when I look around at the people gathered here—faithful representatives of the combined churches of Warrnambool—I see something quite different.
Not a monolith. Not moral outrage. Not judgement, not fear, not puritanical hypocrisy. Instead, I see a gathering of diverse people who hold a variety of theological and political and social and moral convictions, who yet are united by their common faith in Jesus Christ. And this shared faith is what enables us to go beyond our differences and be formed into one body.
Let me explain. We have just heard Jesus’ call narrative according to St Luke. In declaring his mission and purpose, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, but what he reads is not an exact quote; he edits as he goes. Where the Isaiah passage brings good news to the oppressed, Jesus brings good news to the poor, and he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour. This emphasizes the oppressive nature of poverty and points to the year of jubilee justice, when the debts of the poor will be cancelled and their land will be returned to them.
Jesus proclaims release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. He adds that he will open the eyes of the blind; and he leaves out any reference to the day of God’s vengeance. Then Jesus tells his listeners that this Scripture is now fulfilled, and he goes on to remind them that the ancient prophets served those outside Israel’s national, religious and cultural borders.
Notice what is not in his mission statement: Judgement. Shame. Punishment. A blessing on wealth. Sexual ethics. Border control. A violent God. And a whole lot else besides that the general public might associate with religion. Instead, Jesus proclaims that he is here to bring good news to the vulnerable: and that this work has already begun: for “today,” he says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is his self-proclaimed mission and purpose: and therefore, individually as his followers and together as members of his universal body, it is our mission and purpose, too.
That is, we must proclaim good news, not fear. We must cancel the debts of the poor, not marginalize, mock and humiliate people on Centrelink. We must offer freedom and opportunity, not just to straight white men, but also to women and LGBTI+ people and people of colour. We must release the captives, freeing asylum seekers from indefinite detention, and freeing Indigenous peoples from prison, where they are so grossly overrepresented.
We must open the eyes of the blind to the truths of our oppressive economy and our recent genocidal history; and we must liberate those who are oppressed by these realities. We must befriend national, religious, cultural and social outsiders, seeing no threat but only the Spirit’s work in them. And we must engage in this work of the kingdom today. Not tomorrow, not next year, not next lifetime, but today.
As the combined churches of Warrnambool, we are the body of Christ: so these are our tasks. And as I look around, I give thanks: for I see that you already understand this. I see that you are already working to bring about God’s kingdom-culture in this time and place.
Through so many agencies and in so many roles, I see you serving young people at risk, and children with disabilities, and struggling families. Through Love Makes A Way, I see you gathering and praying and seeking freedom for children in immigration detention. Through the Compassionate Cities project, I see you working to make Warrnambool a good place not just to live, but also to die. In churches and small groups and private homes, I see you hosting asylum seekers, and foster children, and migrant workers who speak almost no English.
And I see that all these activities are ecumenical: they involve people from many different churches. And so I commend you: for wherever I look, in so many ways, I see the people of the churches of Warrnambool transcending their theological and political and social and moral differences. Rather than engaging in petty turf wars or corrosive moral argument, I see you uniting around Jesus’ call for justice, and bearing powerful witness to his extraordinary love for the most vulnerable people in our midst.
So with Jesus’ words ringing in our ears, let us keep transcending our differences; let us keep living out his mission of loving-justice together; and let us keep doing this not just for ourselves but for everyone, especially those outside the church. And in these ways, let us keep being formed ever more deeply into the good, acceptable, mature and above all unified body of Christ.
Because freedom and forgiveness, jubilee justice, hospitality, healing and hope, an end to human scapegoating, and all this to happen in this life now: This is the way of our Lord Jesus Christ; this is what forms us into one body. And it is good news indeed, a gospel worth repeating, a gospel worth living into together.
So may God’s kingdom come, in Warrnambool as it is in heaven. Today, Lord, in and among and through your unified body of Christ. Your will be done: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen. Ω
A homily on Luke 4:14-22 presented at St Joseph’s Church, Warrnambool, for an ecumenical service to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. 6 June 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Photo shows one local ecumenical group … still gathering once a week outside our local MP’s office, seeking freedom for children in immigration detention.
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