Epiphany 3 • 22 Jan 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Rev. Chris Udy

Last week there was a small kerfuffle
when a billboard promoting
an event for Australia day
became the target
for complaints and threats
and the advertising company (QMS)
decided to take it down.
When they heard about the threats,
and the advertising company’s decision,
a number of people launched petitions
to have it restored,
and Dee Madigan, an advertising executive,
set up a project on ‘go fund me’
to put similar billboards in capital cities across Australia.
The Uniting Church has contributed to the project,
along with more than 4 thousand other donors,
and in 2 days they raised more than $150k (now $165).

For most people,
and certainly for people in the Uniting Church,
the response wasn’t about Australia Day –
in fact many of us are ambivalent
about celebrating Australia
on a date that commemorates a tragedy
for the First Peoples of Australia.
And it wasn’t about Islam either.
Although the billboard was targeted with threats
because the girls on it are wearing hijabs,
the reactions weren’t about religious belief
or even about fashion –
for me, and for the Church,
and I think for most who supported the project,
it was about the kind of community,
and the kind of world
we want to live in.

Those people who used threats
to have the billboard removed,
and the advertising company
who caved in to their pressure
seem to want a community
where only people like them belong,
and they seem to want to live in a world
where anything that’s different,
anything they don’t understand,
is kept away behind borders and walls
and undeserved punishments used as warnings
to anyone those threatened and threatening people
want to keep away.

Over the last few years it seems
that threats and fear have been shaping the world,
and a world that’s formed by fears and threats
can only be chaotic and fragmented.
In a world like that
all energy and “treasure”
goes into weapons and schemes and rigid defences,
while homes, and farms, and schools and hospitals
get the little that’s left over,
and those who can afford it
choose to look only after their own
and forget that the world
they think they’re building for their children
will also be full of desperate,
hungry and angry neighbours.

But thankfully there’s another way
to respond to threats and fear,
and that’s at the heart
of what we’re doing here today.
Thankfully also,
while some of the voices in the conversation
have been cynical and strident,
when it comes to the billboard, at least,
it’s clear that those of us
who don’t want to live in broken world
are certainly not alone.
It was good to see Minister Peter Dutton
come out with a statement -
in the Murdoch media no less –
endorsing the billboard’s message
and describing the image of the girls as ‘great’.
And by Friday afternoon nearly 10,000 other people
had signed the ‘change.org’ petition
to have the billboard reinstated.
What they’re doing might be limited, and symbolic,
but it says that there are many
who don’t want the world
they pass on to their daughters and sons
to be defined by bigotry and bullying
and power used to maintain the very few
at the expense of very very many.

What we’re doing today –
celebrating baptism for Eddie and for Maggie –
is also part of that response
to a fearful, fragmented world –
and for Maggie, and for Eddie,
it involves an affirmation
and a promise
that love, and not fear,
is the power that shapes a world worth living in,
and trust, and hospitality, and forgiveness -
the disciplines and values that can reconcile and redeem,
are what we need to learn and teach
to keep them safe and healthy.

Today we read part of a letter Paul wrote
to the Christian community in Corinth.
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, “ he wrote,
“by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you be in agreement
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united
in the same mind and the same purpose.
For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people
that there are quarrels among you,
my brothers and sisters.
What I mean is that each of you says,
"I belong to Paul,"
or "I belong to Apollos,"
or "I belong to Cephas,"
or "I belong to Christ."”

Corinth was a cosmopolitan place.
It was a busy, prosperous city with two harbours,
attracting people from all over the Roman Empire.
When Paul arrived there,
he lived and worked with Aquila and Priscilla,
both tent-makers like Paul,
who had come to Corinth from Rome.
They, and all other Jewish people,
had been expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius,
possibly because the Jewish community there
had been stirred up and divided
by the arrival of Jewish Christians from Judea or Galilee.
That was in the year 49AD -
and it was just the year before
Paul first arrived in Corinth.
For the next 18 months
Paul worked with Priscilla and Aquila
and taught in the Synagogue,
where the congregation grew
to include, not only Jews,
but Greeks, and Romans,
and people of many nationalities and cultures.

But not everyone was happy
with Paul or with a multicultural synagogue.
In AD51 Paul was arrested, charged,
and put on trial before the local magistrate.
The case was dismissed,
but Paul soon left Corinth anyway,
moving on to Ephesus,
from where he wrote a number of letters
back to the community in Corinth.
The one we call 1 Corinthians
is probably the second letter he wrote -
urging them to live in unity,
and to work together
“in the same mind and with the same purpose”.
Paul was worried
because he’d heard reports “from Chloe’s people”
that the congregation was in conflict.
Other preachers and teachers
had come to Corinth after Paul -
one named Apollos,
possibly also Peter - or Cephas - and Barnabas,
and there may also have been others.
Each one appealed to
and attracted different people,
and over time,
factions had developed in the congregation.
Some maintained their loyalty to Paul,
others followed Apollos, or Peter,
others again seem to have decided
that they were the proper Christians
and said they belonged to Christ -
and it looks like each little faction identified itself
depending on which teacher had baptised them.

As we read today,
Paul urged and encouraged them
not to be divided,
and to remember that their baptism
wasn’t in the name of Paul, or Peter, or Apollos -
but in the name of Christ,
and that baptism into Christ
was baptism into the cross.

For Paul, the cross
is the complete and final demonstration
of the power of God –
and it’s power that’s used to reconcile and redeem.
For some it may look like weakness and foolishness:
for those who are perishing, Paul says,
it looks like death - the ultimate failure.
“But to us who are being saved” he writes,
“it is the power of God”.

The power of God is not revealed
in divisions and party spirit.
As soon as we give our loyalties
to anyone or anything
that splits us into factions,
up against and over above
and opposed to other people
instead of seeking the forgiveness,
reconciliation, healing and peace
that Jesus lived and died for - Paul would say -
as soon as we claim loyalties
to anyone or anything less
than the God who claims us all
as his daughters and sons -
anything less than the God we see
revealed in the life of Jesus -
we put ourselves outside and beyond
the saving power of God.

It isn’t what we have, or what we know,
or what we say or believe
that leads to life.
Life is God’s gift, and it always comes to us
from beyond our boundaries –
from beyond what we already are or what we have.
God’s gift of life comes in babies,
like Maggie and Eddie.
It comes to us in neighbours, and community –
the people who live
on the other side of our fences.
It comes to us in new ideas,
fresh insights, different tastes –
and sometimes they take time
to appreciate and understand.
If we get suspicious and frightened;
if we close ourselves off,
and try, with grim determination,
to put barriers and walls
between ourselves and other people,
if we try to isolate ourselves from our neighbours
and from the world -
then we will perish -
we will shrivel up and die.
But if we’re open;
if we forgive and seek forgiveness;
if we live with trusting respect;
if we extend the kind of hospitality
that we see in the life of Jesus -
then God’s gift of life is renewed in us,
and we are being redeemed.

We are called to hospitality –
and genuine hospitality
is a reciprocal thing;
we open our tables,
our homes and our lives to others,
to people whose experience of life and of God
will not be the same as ours,
and it’s in their difference -
it’s in their new insights, their new perspectives,
new wisdom, new skills, new recipes …
new energy and dreams -
that we also receive
God’s power for renewal and redemption.
It’s when we make space for guests in our lives,
when we share what we have,
and accept what we’re given in return,
that we build community
and preserve our commonwealth.

So whatever we’re going to celebrate this week:
Survival Day or Invasion Day,
or Australia Day –
or simply a quiet day with neighbours and family
before all the holidays end -
may it be hopeful and peaceful.
May all our celebrations be
both relaxing and inspiring:
as we give thanks
for the place we’ve found a welcome
and been given a home;
as we recognise and honour
some of those who’ve lived lives of service;
as we reflect on our history -
both in light and shadow;
and as we affirm that all good gifts
begin with God,
and that it’s only when gifts
are exchanged and shared
that they find their purpose
and lead us into life.