President's Sermon at WA Synod

Dr Deidre Palmer preached at the Opening Worship of the 42nd annual Synod meeting of the Uniting Church in Western Australia.


Psalm 107:1-9
Philippians 1:1-11
John 20:19-31


In the conclusion to the Gospel of John we read these words – “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

And it is in this Gospel of John, that Jesus speaks of life in abundance. (John 10:10) I have come that you may have life – life in abundance.

The theme of the 15th Assembly was “Abundant Grace, Liberating Hope” and it will continue to be a focus throughout this next triennium.

I will focus on this tonight. And as is the case so often in the life of our Church, there are wonderful connections between this theme – and the theme your Moderator has chosen for this triennium – Deep and Wide.

God’s love and grace are so abundant that in our lifetimes we will never know the full extent of the depth and the expansiveness of God’s grace.

God’s love is deeper than any love we can imagine. It cannot be contained by our human comprehension, our assessments, our judgements.

At the point when we think we have grasped the length and depth and expanse of God’s grace, God surprises us and at times confronts us with the smallness of our thinking, the limited nature of our love, our inability at times to open our heart to our neighbour.

When God’s love opens up and expands our hearts and minds, as a community in Christ, the transformation that takes place is breathtaking. Or in the case of this text in John, breath giving!

This transformation is seen in the disciples' encounter with the risen Christ in John’s Gospel.

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

These were the disciples who had been with Jesus, heard the powerful words he spoke, witnessed his miracles, ate meals at table with him, promised to stay with him.

These were the disciples Jesus called friends. And yet here they were afraid, behind locked doors, confused, despairing… And Jesus steps into their midst and offers them peace.

Jesus commissions them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.

And here in this encounter, - the coming of the Spirit in John, Jesus breathes on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

Jesus has spoken of this in his earlier farewell discourse. He has assured them that he will not leave them to follow in his way, on their own.

In his earlier farewell discourse, he has assured them – I will not leave you orphaned, I will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.

A fearful group of followers are transformed – and commissioned to proclaim the risen Christ to the world.

It cannot be contained in that room! As we know because we are beneficiaries of their proclamation.

The presence of the Risen Christ, breathing the Holy Spirit into them, liberates them from fear and despair and gives birth to courage and hope within them and gives birth to the early church.

The disciples in John’s Gospel go on to be witnesses, risking their own lives and in some cases giving up their lives, for the sake of this One who is God come among them. Jesus the Christ. Their Lord and God.

As we gather for this Synod meeting, this gathering of this Council of our Church, Jesus speaks these words to us tonight and in the coming days: "Peace be with you" and commissions us to engage in God’s transformative mission in the world – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

And God empowers God’s Church as God breathes life into us and this gathering - “Receive the Holy Spirit”

A couple of weeks ago we had our first Standing Committee after the Assembly meeting,

I focused on the Holy Spirit from the earlier chapter in John’s Gospel (John 17).

We will have an opportunity during this weekend to talk about our experience of the Assembly meeting and how we have spoken about the meeting with others.

There are various narratives about what took place at the Assembly and if we wove them all together, I believe that we would have a rich tapestry of the 15th triennial Assembly.

One of my most frequent descriptions of the Assembly meeting is the way I saw the Holy Spirit move among us, guide us and bring wisdom to our decision-making. 

There have been mixed responses to some of the decisions of this Council of our Church. But the signs of the Holy Spirit’s action and being among us and through us at that meeting were palpable.

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In the second part of this story in John is an account of Thomas and his reactions to the unfolding events.

Thomas has been portrayed in varying ways over the centuries – doubting Thomas… Thomas who asks great questions. Thomas who declares a profound statement of faith..

I am not sure Thomas quite expected what unfolded in these encounters with the other disciples.. and probably didn’t expect the risen Christ to come in this way, or in any way…?

I can almost imagine the exchange between them: the group of disciples are describing to him – this crazy thing happened, we were in the room, it was locked, Jesus came among us,… set us at peace, and …Thomas: – you have got to be joking.. that’s ridiculous, delusional, wrong…

But Jesus comes and shows him his scars – this is the wounded One – the one whose suffering reveals a God whose love for us knows no bounds… And Thomas responds with a profound statement of faith, as God reveals to him who Jesus is: “my Lord and My God.”

For me… the past weeks – as I mentioned in my Pastoral Letter, there have been times when I have been saddened by our unwillingness to be in community with one another, to see the other, who may think differently as a faithful disciple of Christ, finding their way to follow, however imperfectly, that may be.. 

Just at the point, when I may be tempted to say - God where is the evidence of your Risen presence (in us, in me)?

I have those grace-filled hopeful encounters when the Crucified Risen Christ comes and breathes life into situations and places where we have been unsure of how we may follow.

My meeting with the leaders of our various National Conferences was such a hope and grace filled day.

We spoke of our shared concerns for our Church, for the joys of ministry and the challenges.

We spoke of ways we are seeking to support and encourage people in the mission of Christ. I had one of these cards on the table and one of the leaders as he left, pointed to the theme and said this is what we need to be focusing on God’s grace and the liberating hope…

In Fiji – I visited Dilkusha children’s home, a community supported by the Methodist Church in Fiji.

It includes 42 children, who are orphaned or whose families are not able to care for them.

This is a hopeful community where the Crucified Risen Christ is seen in so many ways.

In the joy of children, who have been nurtured in love, and who have aspirations to go to university and becomes health professionals.

I met a young woman, who now works at the home, who was a child there herself.

She and her husband and child see themselves giving back to the community that supported her and enabled her to flourish.

And meeting in that same home, a woman who came to the home as a child, for whom the abuse and traumas that were part of her childhood have so profoundly affected her, that she can barely utter a word, and the love and dignity with which she is surrounded in the children’s home speak of the Risen, Crucified Christ.

In Vanuatu, I witnessed the presence of the Risen Christ in pastor Sophie who serves as a Presbytery clerk, offering leadership to her community.

I was inspired by her commitment to the empowerment of women, which in turn is strengthening the life and health of their families and communities.

And there have been various moments here in Australia, in local churches, airports, and cooking a sausage at the Great Outback Barbecue in Adelaide yesterday, where I have seen the Risen Christ in conversations with people, who are seeking to embody the compassionate presence of Christ in so many communities in Australia.

There have been many times over the past year – as I prepared for the Assembly and as I have served the Uniting Church as President over the past two months, that I would echo Paul’s words of encouragement to us: And I would hope we could say them to each other.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he is writing to encourage the church.

He prays God’s grace and peace be upon them. 

Philippians 1:1-11 Salutation
1 Paul and Timothy, servants[a] of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops[b] and deacons:[c] 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart,[d] for all of you share in God’s grace[e] with me, All of us share in God’s grace – a gift that is not ours to possess, it is a gift –and the Holy Spirit breathes into us this grace of God that God might shape us and flow through us.

I know there is talk in some parts of the Uniting Church about people standing aside or even leaving the UCA… because people disagree with the Assembly’s decision on marriage.

This is not a time sisters and brothers to stand aside from each other.

This is a time for us to hold together in Christian community.

It is not a time for us to point fingers at one another – naming some as more Christian or less Christian than others…

This is a time for us to be willing to continue to have conversations about how we together, as sisters and brothers in Christ, sharing in God’s grace, can witness to the liberating hope of the Gospel.

Church history is littered with stories of divisions in the church over doctrine and various practices…

I appeal to you, to us, to resist becoming part of the narrative of division that has scarred the Body of Christ, and diminished our ability to embody the abundant grace of God in the world.

It just may be, that for the Uniting Church, witnessing to the ways we can live together as a loving community in Christ, with all our imperfections, is our time to speak hope and God’s abundant grace in to our society.

People may notice in us, through our behaviour toward one another, through our engagement in compassionate actions of justice and healing in our world, they may come to see the Crucified Risen Christ for themselves…

And their fear will turn to joy, their lives will be transformed.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.