Beyond Rules…

Posted: August 17, 2022 in Uncategorized

Beyond Rules…

What does it mean to be a follower of Yeshua of Nazareth in 2020? We have a few years under the belt now that suggests being a Christian is less about being a Protestant or a Catholic or being a Presbyterian as opposed to a Methodist, but is it still that? I don’t think it is, in that it has to be said that the difference these designations try to portray are already consumed by irrelevance redundancy and have become concepts of the past that no longer contribute to the world as it is now. While it might be said and with some justification that denominationalism and an institutionalism of the industrial world has had its day there is still a human need for gathering as a collective group of people for taking stock of what it means to think then act, to acknowledge that we don’t yet know it all and that its ok to enjoy being a responsible human being. There are signs that this awareness is happening, even amongst the increasing divisions and intolerance of diversity that seem at time s to control the world. The world is shrinking as we humans become more global and less national, more cosmic than local. Globalization of economies and partnerships is inevitable. The commercial world is interdependent for materials and trade partnerships that demand the collective and the collaborations. Interdependence is real and the relevance of differences are torn between individualism and the collective but only at a personal and superficial political and social level. Suspicions of the power and influence of the corporate bring a focus on the individual and sadly the individual loses sight of how to work collectively. The relevance of religion and subsequently of Christianity is a real question that the church seems reluctant to acknowledge or has put in the too hard basket. 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. Our theological task has become a battle for difference and thus something we should not do for the sake of harmony. I suspect that the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in its attempt to revisit the question of unity and the impact its decisions around diversity and sexuality have had on its unity are just examples of a church in survival mode as opposed to mission. Is this just waving the flagpole without a flag? The world has taken over the issue of diversity and subjugated it to the realm of chaos as opposed to order. We might all be more confused or alternatively more diverse in our thinking but is that because we have failed to keep up with change? This is a remarkable shift given that it is only a little more than 500 years since the Catholic verses Protestant Way emerged. 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, if it is already not too late, 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 being relevant in 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. We cannot afford to be moderate’s any more. We need to be protestants again perhaps. 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 and the application of compassion, responsibility and collective action. Otherwise, we might have war to do it for us. One might even say that Cameron’s Brexit, Trumps election and Putin’s War in Ukraine are examples of the breakdown in our society and this need for a global responsibility. A new understanding of neighbour and a new responsibility of co-creator of society. And I am not talking of global parliament or a single administration. I am talking about attitude and purpose and practice, and ultimately a new theology perhaps of a weak power, a turn the other cheek power, a shared vulnerability that invokes a compassionate response, a theology that acts as though it believes that love changes things and that grace and forgiveness are societal imperatives not just choices. 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. And let’s not be naive here, 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 understanding of a gospel power and the way that power is applied.

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.

Is it not time for a protest against religious apathy and its theological bases of salvation through fear and its reliance on the theory of original sin and its doctrines of atonement and penance as those things that are destroying religion and is it not time to challenge the assumptions of absolutes that lie in the way we talk and be the church. 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.

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 rules’… Despite all the hoo-ha 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 because it is beyond the rules?” Amen.

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