Every year in Australia, on the 27th of May, we have an important anniversary – an anniversary that to my mind celebrates one of the most defining events in our history as a nation. This was the date in 1967 when a Constitutional amendment was passed by a whopping 90% majority to recognise Aboriginal Australians as citizens of our country. Referendums don’t very often pass, actually, and they need to receive a two-thirds majority in every State – but Australians recognized overwhelmingly the need to change the original Constitution that specifically excluded Aborigines not only from the census but from the exercise of democratic rights like the right to vote. I think this was the beginning of the long road to reconciliation, and it was also one of the defining moments for our national identity because it said, Australians want to be a people of fairness, Australians want to be an inclusive and a just people. But for a moment what I want to ask you to think about is what it would have felt like on that day if you were an Aboriginal Australian – one day you were an outsider, not counted as belonging – one day you didn’t count and the next day you did.
Unfortunately, fewer people count in Australia now. It’s been a sharp slide down from the national ideal of fairness and justice – we started by declaring that asylum seekers don’t count and that climate change and the environment are figments of the imagination. We counted ourselves out of the shared task of overseas aid. And in its budget last week, our elected government has withdrawn the safety net from the most vulnerable groups within our own community – the young and the old.
We heard three very powerful and very familiar readings from the Bible this morning, the Gospel which is one of the passages most often chosen for funerals, and for very good reason. This passage from John tells us we have an eternal home – we are not wandering from nowhere to nowhere but we are going home. We belong somewhere, we belong in God’s heart and the journey of our life doesn’t end with our death because we have an eternal place with God. We all I think have experienced times in our lives when we didn’t fit, or we didn’t belong, times of homesickness or alienation, and the desire to find a place where we belong, and place that we can call home is very powerful. That may be why people speak of finding a church ‘home’ when they find a congregation that welcomes them and feels like a place in which they can grow their faith. Finding a church home means finding a safe haven, a refuge, a fortress, and a rock. The church may be the one place, the one way, in a person’s life that they experience God's protective love in a hostile and dangerous world.
But the reading from the first letter of Peter reminds us that that’s only the starting point for our journey as God’s people. Specifically, it’s only the starting point for the journey that we take together, as a Church. We perhaps need to remember that Peter here is writing to a dispossessed group of people, people who didn’t belong anywhere – a Gentile not a Jewish community, and a group of people who were outsiders and nobodies, slaves and lower-class people. And he tells them – echoing actually the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea – once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you were nobodies, and now you are God’s chosen people. Can you imagine the effect of hearing that, if all your life you had lived on the edges of society, maybe working hard for other people’s comfort but belonging nowhere yourself? No wonder early Christianity appealed so strongly to slaves and misfits. No wonder Christianity even today appeals most strongly in places and amongst people where day to day life is hard and unjust. People who don’t count. You have come out of darkness, says Peter in this letter, and now you are living in the marvellous light of God. If these words are familiar to you it is because this is what we say in the liturgy of baptism. Yesterday you didn’t belong anywhere – today you belong to God, you are beloved of God and you have an eternal home in God’s heart. Can you imagine the power of those words if your only experience, up till now, had been the experience of not belonging? And St Peter reminds the people that they are just at the beginning of a new life, that they need to be fed, like babies, with spiritual ‘milk’.
But Peter doesn’t stop there. If we begin as babies needing sustenance, or as misfits and slaves finding a home and a safe haven, then the implication is that we have to grow – and specifically that we have to grow in ways that we ourselves can become the hospitality that is offered to others. Continuing the analogy of a home, and a safe refuge, Peter tells his baby Christians that they themselves will be shaped by God into living stones, the stones that the Church will be built out of and the stones that are going to be strong and durable enough to provide shelter to others. Peter here, it seems to me, his drawing his analogy from another part of the Old Testament, in the Book of Samuel when David suggests he might build a Temple for God. And God says, through the prophet Nathan, no. You won’t build a home for me – that’s altogether too safe and domesticated. No, I’m going to build a house out of you. David, and those who come after him, are given a vocation and a task – it is they who will be the house that offers safety and shelter to God’s people. You see the distinction? We come for reassurance, and for safety and belonging – and we stay because we are commissioned by God to be the safety and reassurance and belonging and speak God’s words of love to others.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles which describes the stoning of Stephen in a sense gives us a glimpse of the moment when the infant Church begins to grow up. This is the first martyrdom, the first recorded instance where an ordinary Christian meets a sticky end for daring to live the faith without compromise. And the important point I think is that Stephen is nobody particularly special. He is a deacon – the Greek word in the New Testament, diakonos, simply means servant – and the deacons were commissioned literally ‘to serve at tables’. The early Church found itself doing some emergency relief, feeding widows and orphans and the apostles needed some help so – well, basically Stephen and the others were on the morning tea roster. But Stephen also felt the need to preach the word, and what he had to say set the cat among the pigeons. Perhaps it wasn’t very tactful to be reminding his listeners of their habit of ignoring the prophets going all the way back to Moses, and of complicity in the death of many of the prophets, most recently Jesus. The story reminds us that living our Christian vocation with integrity can provoke opposition – the way of service, and of compassion and forgiveness has a way of exposing the way of worldly power that is based on competition and inequality. If you think that doesn’t happen so much nowadays, you maybe didn’t notice that the sharpest critique and the firmest opposition to the government’s Budget attack last week on the most vulnerable of our community came immediately from Church organisations like Anglicare, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. Not coincidentally, these are the service organisations, the modern waiters on tables or diakonos of the modern Church.
Neither, I think, is it coincidental that the stoning of Stephen contains several details that remind us of the death of Jesus. For example Stephen’s face shines with a heavenly light – reminding us of the Transfiguration – he surrenders his spirit to God and prays forgiveness for those who didn’t know what they were doing. As we learn to give flesh and blood to God’s priorities in our own actions – caring and speaking for the vulnerable – then that is where the Church really becomes the body of Christ and comes to shine with the light of Christ.
We start by being a place of safety and welcome, and a place where lives are nurtured and relationships are built. A place where those who once were outsiders and nobodies can find themselves loved and included. A place where we find ourselves at home in God’s love, and where we are secure enough to allow ourselves to be shaped and transformed so that we can become the promise of nurture and safety and homecoming for others. That’s how Church works, and St Peter is gently telling us we can’t just stay put as milk-drinking infants because God needs us to do some of the heavy lifting – to become part of the fabric of shelter and care, to be tellers of the truth that is God’s concern and God’s priority for the most vulnerable in our world – to be grown-up members of the body of Christ.
What makes us a distinctive people? In what ways could a visitor come in here and immediately tell the difference between our community and the culture we live in? Just because we sit and stand and pray and sing hymns? Or because the reality we proclaim and the values we enact are fundamentally different? In what ways do we offer ourselves as a safe haven and a place of welcome and healing and inclusion? In what ways do we – must we – stand apart from the culture we live in and by our actions and priorities declare ourselves different? Yes, it’s how Stephen got himself stoned. It’s also how the light of God shines through.