An Open Table where Love knows no borders

It doesn’t get better than this!

A sermon on Acts 10: 44-48 and John 15: 9-17 by Alison Sampson

It doesn’t get worse than this. We had the monopoly on God. We knew we were God’s own people; that we were special; that we were loved. We had been given the truth. We knew how to live. And then the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles, and Peter told us to baptise them.

It doesn’t get worse than this. We know that sexual relationships between two men or two women are an abomination: an offence against the natural order and God. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are very clear on this. And yet in our very own Baptist Union are those who would bless such relationships, and offer them the sacred rite of marriage.

It doesn’t get worse than this. We know that Jesus calls us to his table, just as we are. We know this means offering the sacrament of marriage to all who are willing to live out its vows: straight or gay, bisexual or transgender. And yet in our very own Baptist Union are those who would turn some people from their doors, and refuse to bless their relationships.

We are gathered here today, as we gather each week, representing a range of theologies, a range of attitudes, and a range of experiences. Some of us are appalled by the idea of gay marriage; some of us think it’s about time; some of us don’t know what we think. And as many of you know, in a few weeks’ time, four of us – Shelley and Ian and Nathan and I – will represent our church at the biannual gathering of the Baptist Union of Victoria, at the Delegates’ Dinner; and there we will be asked to affirm a statement which locks down an understanding of marriage as being between a man and a woman only.

What a hornets’ nest! Rumours abound. I have heard that the churches which petitioned to have this put on the agenda will leave the Union if the statement is not affirmed. I have heard that other churches will leave the Union if the statement is affirmed. I have heard people argue for a great fight, and a split, because it is through schism that the church grows. I have heard people argue for a split so that the holy remnant can get on with being the church while the others rot in hell. I have been told how to circumvent the motion, whichever way it goes; and I have been told that circumventers will be severely disciplined. If the statement is affirmed, some ordained ministers are talking of handing back their ordination and going freelance. And some of those in the ordination stream are wondering if they can be ordained if the decision goes one way, or the other.

It doesn’t get worse than this.


The great frustration of the Baptist Union of Victoria is also its great gift: that is, its variety. It encompasses an immense range of theologies and personalities, church practices and liturgical styles. Some congregations are enormous: over a thousand people meeting together every Sunday. Others are tiny: half a dozen people gathering in a small room. Some accept women as leaders, some don’t. Some services are like rock concerts, some use a formal liturgy. Some churches are deeply committed to social justice; others to individual salvation; still others to group identity formation. And so on: there are many, many ways to be a Baptist in Victoria.

With all these differences, it is tempting for us to label each other: the right-wing conservatives over here; the inner-city elite over there. We can label each other by our suburbs or our demographics or our expressions of faith or our theologies; and we often do. Labels are used all the time in the suspicious climate of the contemporary church, and I am certainly guilty. When other Christians disagree with me, I try to remember that they hold some of the truth; but in my heart, I suspect that I really hold the whole truth. I find it hard not to feel contempt towards people who read the Bible differently, holding a different newspaper in their hand. It is all too easy to dismiss other opinions, other ways, other subcultures; constricting labels and stifling boxes come to mind.

And when I think about the upcoming Delegates’ Dinner, I feel an anticipatory swirl of labels and boxes, a nightmare from some hellish mailroom, and I feel a bit sick. I would like to beg off, stay home, and rethink this call to ministry. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like to listen to people whose beliefs are so different to mine, and whose opinions are voiced so stridently. I’m not sure I want to be ordained by a Union which declares a stance, since I believe discernment is a task for the local church, and not the church united.

Like the first disciples, I find being chosen by God is not an easy thing. I thought it would provide answers, but it has given me hard questions. I thought it would provide privilege, but it gave me a heap of thankless tasks. I thought it meant coming home, but it is sending me on difficult journeys to places I’d rather not go: even unto a reception centre in Keilor. And like the first disciples, I am struggling to accept that the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone who hears the Word, not just the people in my box. I am reluctant to give up my monopoly on the truth.

Because there is a certain gleefulness that comes with being right, and with being seen to be right. There is an impish delight in sensing one’s privilege, or in looking down one’s sulphurous nose at the fears and the idiocies of others. And I am sure that Ian and Nathan and Shelley and I will see and perhaps experience some of this glee, and some of this impishness, at the Delegates’ Dinner.

But this is not what we are called to manifest.

John’s gospel tells us that Jesus came so that his joy might be in us, and that our joy might be complete. And our joy is found the moment we recognise the shocking truth that we are chosen by Jesus as friends; our joy is experienced the instant we realise we are loved. And out of that joy comes an expansive generosity in which we might for a moment sidestep our boxes and labels, our insistence that we alone are chosen, and we alone have the truth, and instead begin to recognise that everyone else is chosen too. Because God’s nature is to love, and so God chooses everyone.

And it is in that understanding that our Baptist Union lies: I am chosen, and so I refuse to be pushed from the fold just because my views might be different to yours. You are chosen, and I refuse to let you be pushed from the fold just because your views might be different to mine.

Because we live in a broken world, this Union of chosen ones does not yet manifest itself as unity of opinion, or harmony of thought. Even within this small congregation, on many matters there are people at either end of the spectrum and everywhere in between.

And whether or not it will be voiced, there will be strong disagreement at the Delegates’ Dinner, and strong feeling on every side. Yet truth will not be found if our church threatens to leave, or gleefully accepts the resignation of other churches with whom we disagree. Nor will truth be found in schism. It will only be found when the Spirit of Truth guides our hearts and our minds. And because we really don’t have the whole truth – not I, not you, not this congregation nor anybody else – this Spirit will be heard only when we are together, listening to one another in love.

Such careful listening is never easy. It means putting aside the things that don’t matter, and some of the things that do. It means swallowing our prejudices and our pride, and listening for truth from unexpected quarters. It means admitting that the truth might not be what we expect, nor what we desire. And the truth which emerges might answer a whole new question, rather than the questions which are before us.

Such careful listening will be difficult. And yet to those who can hold on to this call to love one another, Jesus has promised good things: we will bear fruit which is lasting, and our joy will be complete. So as members of this congregation, and thus of the Baptist Union, I urge you to pray, both in the lead up to and at the Dinner, and for a long time afterwards. Pray for peace between churches, that they may exercise patience and respect and kindness. Pray for wisdom for Nathan and Ian and Shelley and I, that we might listen well, and vote wisely. Pray for all delegates, and pastors: that no matter where they stand, their decisions be motivated by love, not fear, and that they can find ways to respect the multiplicity of opinions in the Union, that terrific variety that is its struggle and its gift.

To this and to many delegates, the upcoming Dinner looms dark and threatening. But with your prayers behind us, and the Spirit of Peace within us, it has great potential: to be a time of connection across theologies, and subcultures, and outlooks. A time of Union. And no matter where the truth lies, we will hold fast to the promises of Jesus: that when we seek truth together loving and being loved, we will experience joy and bear lasting fruit – and it doesn’t get better than this! Ω


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