As I read the lectionary readings for today, an interesting question emerged for me from these rather eclectic stories spanning some 700 years of evolving biblical history. Each of the stories basically asks: Who are the people of God, or, in reverse, whose God is God anyway - a question still being asked with evolving answers today.
The two readings from Exodus 14 and 15 recount a rather terrible story that you all know from Sunday School. The Israelites, the people of God, are fleeing from slavery in Egypt. After a series of divinely initiated cataclysmic events to persuade Pharaoh to release them, they are on their way with the Egyptian army on their tails. As the story goes, God commands Moses to part the water so the Israelites can walk across the dry riverbed. The Egyptian army follows in their chariots, but get bogged and God releases the waters, drowning them. We are not going to discuss today whether or not this happened, but, like all good stories, what it meant for the Israelites, the people of God. The Hebrew God had delivered them from all their enemies, not just the Egyptians - the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites and Canaanites are also mentioned in their song of praise about this victory - "Terror and dread fall upon [all these tribes]; because of the greatness of your arm, they are as still as a stone, till your people, O Lord, pass by" (15: 16) .... The Lord is my strength and my song and has become my salvation; this is my God, my father's God, whom I will exalt. This LORD is a man of war" (15: 2-3)
Many people today happily extract out this phrase "The Lord is my strength and my song and has become my salvation", conveniently ignoring in what way God was their salvation. It was because this God of war, the passage says, with joy killed all their enemies. Thankfully, only a scary few today overtly claim this God of war, although the belief that God is on our side still subtly fuels a lot of our thinking. The God to which the Israelites refer, however, is a different God from today. These ancient societies were tribal. People of ... described a small social or ethnic group related by language and genealogy. Each of these family clans had its own God. The tribal God of the Hebrews was Yahweh who had made a covenant with them "I will be your God and you will be my people". There were many tribal gods, the Bible tells us, thus the need for one of the commandments to be, "You shall have no other gods before me." Israel's tribal God Yahweh went with them in the dust and heat of the wilderness, symbolized by a God-tent pitched outside the camp, where Moses could talk things over with God as one speaks to a friend.
Today's text says, "In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your enemies ... Who is like you among the gods - majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders?" (15:7). This Yahweh has no love or responsibility for human beings beyond this tribe. In our habit of cutting and pasting the Bible to apply it to today, many have painted this tribal God of Exodus as the God of the whole universe, thus giving them permission to extract this war-like insider and outsider mentality as God's view of humanity today, claiming God's protection and defence for the few who believe the right things and act in a certain way. But this was not the meaning behind these stories of deliverance for a particular people. Before using such readings as songs of deliverance and protection in churches today, we need to take a closer look at what horrific slaughters they celebrate and the sort of God they describe.
Fast-forward to today's gospel reading from Matthew 18: 21-35, when Peter asks how many time he should forgive his neighbour - seven times? Jesus says seventy times seven, not meaning an exact number but rather, unlimited forgiveness. The gospel of Luke puts it this way, " If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and then repents seven times, "You must forgive" (Luke 17: 4) - in other words, stop counting, Peter! God and the "people of God" have evolved. That radical Jew, Jesus, is challenging religious laws that have come down from the past. Jesus' context was no longer a tribe wandering in the wilderness. His people were living in a multicultural world, trying to retain their Jewish identity and survive under an oppressive Roman empire. Rather than rising up against the Romans under their Jewish God of war, which others would do later, Jesus offered a non-violent empire or kingdom of God in opposition to the violent Roman Caesar who was called saviour of the Roman people and the divine son of God. This empire of God Jesus promoted was not limited to Jews. According to the stories, Jesus engaged the Samaritan woman, outcasts under Jewish laws and the Syropheonician woman, to name a few - all as the people of God. Tribal Jewish rules that oppressed and excluded some as outsiders were secondary to Jesus' inclusive command to "Love God and your neighbour", Jew or non-Jew. When the disciples were indignant because someone, not trained in their seminary, was healing down the road in Jesus name, Jesus simply said, "Leave him. He who is not against us is for us."
The final reading is from Paul's letter to the Romans 14: 1-12. even thought Paul's words were written earlier in time than the gospel of Matthew, the context is again different and the definition of people of God is still evolving. While Jesus moved in his Jewish world, spreading a message of the inclusive empire of God, Paul has a wider audience, the Mediterranean inter-religious world. His message in Galatians is - "There is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave or free person, for all are one in Jesus the Christ" (Gal 2: 28). God is now the God of this multicultural world, the God Paul describes to Greek philosophers in Athens as their "unknown God", the "God in whom we all live and move and have our being, as your Greek poets have said," Paul says. Christians have painted this reference to the Greek unknown God negatively, suggesting these pagans did not even know who their God was, but this is better translated as the "unknowable God", rightly meaning that God was beyond human knowing. Paul was not dismissing their God, but indicating that the God of whom Jesus spoke was not some tribal, Jewish God, but the God of their known world, with a universal message to Gentiles and Jews as people of God.
From this reading, we learn there was a problem with theological hospitality in the Rome church. Paul says, "As for the person who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions" (14: 2) - or don't argue over correct theology and ritual. These new Jesus communities contained both Jews and Gentiles from differing religious traditions. Apparently some ate meat, while others abstained, probably not wanting to eat meat from the marketplace that might have been first offered to local gods. Some Christians today latch onto this verse to make comparisons about those with weak or strong faith, but this misses the point. The issue for Paul was a desire to break the cycle of mutual condemnation. Paul admonishes both sides - those who despise those who abstain; and those who criticize those who do not. "God has welcomed everyone", Paul says. It is not for us to pass judgment on those who follow different paths or see their personal integrity compromised on either side of the argument. People are only answerable to God. Paul says, - "Someone who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. Someone also who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, giving thanks to God; while someone who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God". (14: 6) The most important thing, Paul says, is that "everyone be fully convinced in his or her own mind" (14: 5). This is about personal experience and authority, not humanly created rules. Anything less is theological inhospitality, a message that would have been amazing, if not scandalous, to these communities, drawn, as they were from the religious and social rules of their day. It is not about gradations of weak and strong Christians, but about theological inclusiveness and the breaking down of insider-outsider borders in the whole people of God, a category getting broader by the decade.
Jesus and Paul's inclusiveness would not last. As always, communities that grow around charismatic visionaries later define their borders in an attempt to preserve the original teachings. While the early church communities were a mix of opinions and theologies, Emperor Constantine declared correct belief in church creeds in the Fourth century. Those who thought differently were hunted as heretics - no longer people of God. Jesus' words, "Those who are not against me are for me" and Paul's words, "Let everyone be convinced in their own minds" were lost. At the Reformation, the Church put to death those who challenged the Pope and, in England, Catholics and Protestants were killed, according to the religious brand of the reigning monarch. Puritans who were persecuted in England went on to execute Quakers on the Boston Common in America where they had all gone for religious freedom. As we speak, people of God across the world continue to slaughter other people of God in the name of the true God.
Such theological inhospitality continues in many churches today. As numbers fall and more people call themselves "spiritual not religious", some in church leadership try to define and control orthodoxy, declaring what all Christians should believe. The Uniting Church Basis of Union was an incredibly open document when written, not as a confession or doctrinal statement, but as a statement of the evolving journey of the people of God. While the Basis of Union acknowledges that the Uniting Church "receives" the ancient Creeds as authoritative statements of the Catholic Faith, it describes these creeds as "framed in the language of their day" and commits ministers and teachers to "interpreting their teaching in a later age". It says, "The Uniting Church will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought ... and ... "prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds. While some want to make the Basis of Union a boundary fence as to what we can and cannot believe, the Basis itself declares its open and evolutionary nature, inviting us to be, in Paul's words, convinced in our own minds before God. Uniting Churches today are eclectic organisms, with theological convictions across the spectrum, from literalists, to conservatives, to ritualists, to progressives - and then some. Our challenge, as people of God today, is to create communities of theological hospitality, where we discover love and compassion as the glue that holds us together, not insistence on one "correct" set of beliefs.
Who are the people of God today? In the past, we were confident this title belonged exclusively to Christians. We've told our story in such a way that Jesus is declared the only incarnation of God and only those who believe this are God's people on their way to heaven. We have talked of Australia as a ''Christian country with a Christian heritage,'' ignoring our indigenous heritage stretching back into time, and also those millions of Australians who have never given even a nod to Christianity but call themselves Australian. But things have changed. Today our lawyer is Buddhist, our doctor Muslim, our accountant Hindu, and our teacher atheist. We can no longer drag out of context the words from John's Gospel, "no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14: 6), dismissing every other religion on the planet, most centuries older than these words. Just as Jesus opened his Jewish tradition to inclusivity and Paul proclaimed the absence of all divisions of race, gender and social positions in the new empire of God, we need to reflect on the inclusiveness across religions of the phrase "people of God" and also on the God who continues to evolve.
As I said yesterday, a male greybeard in the skies who fathered a divine-human son by a human woman, pushes too many alarm bells in today's scientific world. In our ever-expanding, complex universe, we can no longer talk about a Divine Being manipulating the laws of the universe from outside it, sending floods as punishment and parking spaces as rewards. Many contemporary theologians describe God as within the universe itself - Energy, Life, Ground of being, Mind of the Universe, or the universe as God's body. They are not making these up -- it returns us to biblical God-images of creating wind blowing over the waters, Spirit filling the man Jesus and later everyone at Pentecost. Such imagery allows us to talk with science today, engaging each other's metaphors in an organic universe, rather than setting up our lemon-aid stands on opposite corners. While Intelligent Design proponents see order in the Universe as proof of a Creator with a fixed blueprint from the beginning, there is also an ever-fresh wellspring of novelty in the universe to which its evolutionary progress points. What if the Spirit of the Cosmos - what some call God -- is not about order but about novelty, constantly active within an unfinished creation? What if the Mind of the universe is more concerned with helping the universe participate in its own creation than preserving some ancient story recorded in Genesis?
If we speak of the Sacred within everything, that means our God is within the Hindu, Muslim, atheist and Sikh -- which brings us to a whole new place. We can no longer describe the Sacred only from our own cultural and religious imagination. We can no longer talk of Jesus as the only incarnation if we have never checked how this Divine is incarnated in other religions. We can no longer adjudicate, like the Christians to whom Paul wrote, who says the correct words and performs the correct rituals. If the Sacred is in everything, we need to see, for authenticity and completeness, how what we describe appears in its different religious venues. This is more than interfaith conversation. It is a personal search within other religious explanations for fresh glimpses of that Mystery, that wild free Spirit beyond defining.
And so, who are the people of God today? What new vision do we need about who is included and excluded? Our challenge is to engage the breadth of people for whom God, however described, has meaning and power, rejoicing with all who so name themselves. As people of God in this particular place, however, may we be a community of theological hospitality, not bound by insider-outsider rules, but celebrating our shared roots as human beings. We gather here as only some the people of God throughout the world amongst whom the Divine Spirit pitches a tent, whatever shape that tent might take. Let us go from here to discover the inclusive expansiveness of what it might mean to call ourselves the whole people of God in our troubled world today.