Beyond the Rules

Posted: August 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 11C, 2019
Luke 13: 10-17

Beyond the Rules…

What does it mean to be a Protestant in 2019? We have a few years under the belt now that suggests being a protestant was being a non-Roman Catholic but is it still that? I don’t think it does, in that it has to be said that the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant is no longer as cut and dried. Even the recent Popes have had to rethink what it means to be a Christian in today’s world and it has to be said that in almost every congregation there would be such diversity of theology that it is hard to distinguish what the differences are. Sure, the practice, the way we do things, still has some difference but essentially in terms of theology, and belief there is little difference. We might all be confused or alternatively more divers in our thinking. This is a remarkable shift given that it is only a little more than 500 years since the Protestant Way emerged. There is however one difference still evident and that is that to be Protestant is to protest, even if many protestants don’t do it. I would suggest that just as there was a need for Luther to challenge his church and to challenge what would have been considered fundamental truths there is the same need today. Like the Roman Catholic Church in those times the institutional church today is in need of revolution, and like then I think it is in the areas of belief and practice, not in the sense of the previous practice being wrong but, rather, in its need to be relevant in its engagement with culture and human need. The need to be contextual is today a world of huge diversity and of rapid change.

In terms of human need I suggest that our cosmic beliefs and our ecological practices need to be spoken to, spoken for and critiqued with our theological, justice and peacemaking beliefs and practices. As I indicated last week, we cannot be moderate’s any more. We need to be protestants again, We need to provide some resistance to the injustice of today. The ecocide that is evident, the apathetic approach to responsible management of the planet needs the resistance of protest. One might even say that the current mess in Hong Kong is a very good example of the breakdown in our society and this need. Is it appropriate for a dominant ordering institutional ideological and political evolution and practice? Is it that expectations have not been heeded and protest without transformation is doomed to be squashed by superior powers? In the end will justice suffer at the hands of might. I think this sort of resistance is risky today because it can very easily be sidelined by political propaganda paid for by the mighty, but then again it might sew some seeds of change in the way that power is applied.

When we think about this in terms of being religious protestant we acknowledge that resistance of injustice as a response to God’s “justification by grace through faith” sparked the Protestant movement in 1517, and such a commitment to protest continued to function as a foundational and prominent organizational tactic. For example, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 – essentially an imperial parliament – the established order sought to reduce conflict by suspending the 1521 Edict of Worms, which had declared Luther as a heretic and banned his writings. Many Lutherans interpreted the 1526 decree as a victory, but after the Emperor annulled the Diet’s decision of 1526, in 1529 a group of princes and representatives refused to accept the imperial revocation. What was significant in that earlier time was that those allied with the new resistance movement, refusing to be bound by worldly authorities, became known as “Protestants”.

When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a “supreme power” that is destroying “true religion”, may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience.

Protestant meant those who protest matters of faith and those matters of faith were about the wellbeing of society, and that wellbeing was dependent upon faith.

Looking back, we see that while also filled with its own errors and abuses, Protestantism served an important and positive social function and has done so for hundreds of years, both religiously and politically, by advocating for systems and structures that resist various manifestations of tyranny and promote diverse expressions of freedom. The question being asked by such protest as that in Hong Kong is not should one protest; but rather, does protest still have a place and if so, what form does that protest take.

There are currently hundreds of millions of Protestants in the world let alone those Catholics who question the power of the institution. These children of the Reformation possess the capacity to spark massive and life-giving social change if somehow united and organized. While there are clear and often conflicting variations in theological and political belief, that which does bind Protestants together, is a common heritage of responding to God’s grace with protest against injustice.

This commitment to personal and public renewal is meant to benefit all people of good will, regardless of religious and political identity. So, the question becomes: When existing authorities seek to reduce ethical constraints, misappropriate funds for personal gain, legitimize lies, and establish forms of hierarchical rule that exploit and conquer through dishonourable policies, will Protestants honour their heritage and serve their prophetic vocation in society? Five-hundred years after Luther bravely protested as an expression of faith, will the caretakers of his legacy now allow a world order that is defined by division and manipulation of that diversity? Will Protestants be seduced by apathy and complexity and by a debilitating use of difference as a tool for the wealthy, the politically manipulative dominant malaise of our day and age? Or will we instead resolve to “bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”?

In religion, politics, education, economics, and countless other facets of life, the mass protests of 1517 had a dramatic impact upon the past 500 years. This is most certainly true. Whether or not Protestants accept the responsibility of resistance in 2019 may define the next 500 years. Can those of us who still dare to identify as Protestant, take comfort in the belief that God will love and forgive us regardless of what we do. This will require courage, determination and long term thinking for those of us Protestants who also still dare to call ourselves citizens, because we know that history may not be so gracious.

On the other side, the power of Protestantism has seen a change in the attitude toward War. Global strategies for world war will not be easy to implement other than by use of massive destructive weapons by a few. The idea that huge numbers of people can be motivated to join a cause for war is thankfully more remote than it was. During the late 1960s, many university students, sat in the gutters and registered their protest against the Vietnam War. Many of us can remember the controversy which such actions aroused. Many of us hear of the Vietnam vets and the treatment they received because of what that war did to them and to others. It was seen as a war of the ego for some. I can remember at the time being confused. Being anti the protestors as well as for them. There were those who cheered any effort, no matter what form the protest took. There were those who were more cautiously behind the principles of anti-war, but who were totally opposed to the demonstrations because they were illegal. Not unlike the Springbok tour in NZ and the advent of the Cavaliers rugby team. All silenced perhaps by the rise of Mandala. There were all shades of opinion in between. Many people in the time of the Vietnam War fell into the category, of those who thought they might be opposed to the war, but who were horrified by the actions of the demonstrators. Nobody, they said, especially not students, should consider themselves above the law. Action was OK, but should always be within the law. Similar things were said during the demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Similar thoughts are being expressed about Hong Kong today.


The truth is that whenever so-called ‘illegal actions’ have been taken to heighten the consciousness of the general public towards a particular issue, there has been controversy. And in today’s traditional gospel story by the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, we find an imaginative, rather than an historical story, of Jesus supposedly breaking the law. Luke says Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when he saw a ‘bent-over’ woman, and he immediately stopped what he was doing, called the woman, and heals her. We have heard this story many times in our life-time, but can we imagine the woman in this story.


One reflection on this story goes like this. “18 years she had been growing smaller, into herself, face down, 18 years she had been bound by this spirit and made quite unable to stand up.  And here she was, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, bent and all, but close enough to the front to catch his eye. “She must have longed for something, otherwise she would not have come, would not have tried, would not have risked meeting the eyes of this man.  Was there still hope in her somewhere?  A tiny wisp of a hope, that could have been blown away very easily?  Was there still the un- bendable conviction that somehow she was worth more than being the woman weighed down by sorrow and pain?” Then the words, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment’.


The reflection continues; “What did those words, those hands do?  Did they awaken anger and revolt in her that had been slumbering inside her all along?  Or did they make a jolt of electric energy course through her, making her, suddenly, realise that she was alive and that she wanted to live… tall?… What was it? “Was it a coaxing ‘you can do it’ or was it a commanding ‘come on woman, get yourself together’ type of statement that made something inside her decide that it had been enough, that she would stand tall, that she would unfold herself, unbend and open herself to him and to the world?


Luke’s story says the leader of the synagogue was indignant, and has him rebuking Jesus for healing her, against the Law, on the Sabbath. Overhearing such a rebuke did it tempt the woman, urge her, “to roll up in a tight ball again…


What is so threatening about her?  Is it the tales she might tell or is it the eyes they don’t want to meet because they know what bent her in the first place?…


“How did the people around her react to the look in her eyes, the tallness that suddenly stood over them, the power and strength that seemed to ooze out from somewhere deep inside her.  Did they like the new woman?  Or would they have preferred the curled up version?


Luke continues to craft his story by having Jesus respond to the leader’s complaints by attacking. The story’s crowds and Luke’s congregation, would have been delighted. There’s nothing people enjoy more than seeing a pompous and pious official put in their place. But the untold bit of this story is: Jesus gained another enemy. For virtuous public officials don’t take kindly to being humiliated. And Luke weaves this clue into another story later on.


What statement was Luke intending Jesus to make by his actions in this story? That people are always more important than the law? That if through the application of the law some innocent human being comes in for unnecessarily harsh treatment, then that law should be ignored? Is this a call for protest? Perhaps too he was saying something about the interpretation of law. That laws are often capable of wide interpretation, and should always be interpreted for the good of individuals. Is this a call for protest?


Here’s the point, for my title of ‘Beyond the rules’… Despite all the hoo-har often reported in the media, being a follower of Jesus, walking the Jesus Way isn’t about keeping the rules, not the moral rules, not the so-called biblical rules… It works in a totally different ball-park. It’s about giving of oneself in love and compassion, and if that challenges someone else’s rules, go with the love and break the rules. It’s about risking oneself and one’s reputation, if that should become necessary. It’s about standing up for people, even if the rules sometimes condemn those people. The most powerful and life-giving action Jesus took was to give the ‘bent-over’ woman a new sense of who she was. After years of being beaten down with the belief that she was of no value, Jesus affirms her whole sense of being. What a gift! What a ‘miracle’! But I wonder if our storyteller called Luke also went on to re-imagine the woman.


In his storyteller’s heart, did she also discover “that once you have started to unfurl, once you have set foot on the path of healing there is no way back and there is no stopping either. It will protest, it will fight itself free, rip things open, tear the bonds asunder, and it will hurt?” Amen. 2007).


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