Today in Australia we commemorate a truly historic occasion: 40 years ago, on May 27th, 1967, Australians voted to change the constitution, to allow the federal parliament to make laws for the well being of the indigenous people, and to provide for them to be counted in the national census.
That’s right: before that, they were not counted as part of the population in their own land.
Today is also Pentecost, in the Christian calendar. In a sermon today, I tried to bring these things together, under the theme of a spiritual community in which there is genuine acceptance of difference.
The referendum to change the constitution was a remarkable decision.
The issues take us back to the first encounters of Europeans with indigenous peoples of all kinds, around the globe (in the 17th,18th and 19th centuries).
The basic question was: are they humans, are they really humans?
Or were they savages, or maybe even some lesser, prior species, not yet fully evolved, into white, European, or even better, British form?
We might imagine that no one actually said it like that, but in fact many did. And in the great and visionary work which gave us a federal constitution, it was imagined that the black people would simply die out, soon. There was no need to include them in the federal system. That ‘problem’ would soon be solved.
What sits behind all this is the question which is so powerfully relevant for us today: the question of how we live with difference. Who are these strange people, who wear no clothes, who can run like the wind, play football like magicians, and whose culture had adapted to this land over tens of thousands of years—not demanding that the land and elements serve us, but happily acknowledging that they belong to the land, the earth is their mother?
Who are they, if not pagans, scarcely human, and utterly ignorant of God?
That’s how it was. That’s how it is still is, in so many ways, when we encounter difference: those who speak another tongue, those who dress strangely, and have another story of God.
By the grace of God, some of these strangers have been able to tell us another story. They have told us about their knowledge of the Creator Spirit, represented as a serpent, a Spirit of life, giving birth to all, giving breath to the animals, the humans, and the air, the winds: this Creator Spirit gives life, and calls forth responsibility for how we live with the land and with each other, the elders, and the community yet to come. This Creator Spirit is a giver of life, and destiny, and community.
And more than a few of the children of this Spirit have come to name this Spiri as the One who gave birth also to Jesus, their brother from Galilee: and have seen how his people, also, knew God as creator, life-giver, and the one who makes community.
And they see, too, how difficult it was, and is, for the Jesus people to encounter difference, and to live in the community the Spirit creates.
Pentecost is not just a day; it is not just an event, long ago: this is a process, in which the Spirit of God is continually involved.
Pentecost is a gift and promise, into which we can live. Pentecost gives them, and it gives us a future, to be lived into.
It is like that referendum: it is something from the past, which we can even now reach out and claim, and put into practice.
For thousands of years people have told the story of Babel. It’s a story which tries to come to terms with the divisions of the human family. Why are we so divided?
Why do nations divide, why is there racism, family tension, and all that wracks the life of human kind?
But in response to that, God has done something else.
Pentecost is God’s answer to the story of Babel.
In the Pentecost vision, God brings all the dispersed nations of the world together, to hear, not in one language, not by making them all fit into one pattern, not by demanding that they all shape up or ship out: no, they each hear in their own tongue, in their own language.
God gathers their differences into one community of difference and yet unity.
And thus it is that sons and daughters, older ones and younger ones are drawn into a new song, a new and richer life together, in spite of differences, in spite of the old rules which said the young must be quiet and women are not to be part of it.
Here is the promise, the hope of a new community. Here, generations and genders and gentiles are gathered in: all the differences are included, not negated but gathered in: here, there is a new community.
This Pentecost promise begins to happen: they each hear in their own language, and soon a new community begins which allows the way of Jesus to be their daily life.
And this, you see, becomes the life of the church. The Spirit creates a community, a community able to embrace difference, within the unity of the Spirit, the unity of our one creator.