Conflict in the Church, division, factions, opinions, controversy, unfortunately we know all about it. Resolution 84 not the only issue that will make it hard to keep the Church united in the next couple of years, and even harder to keep people on board while the issues are being sorted out.
It has never been different. Paul in his letter to the Galatians starts with an explanation of the troubles he has had with others over matters of order and regulations. There has been conflict in Antioch and there have been misunderstandings between the "pillars" of the Church, Peter, John and James and other preachers and Paul.
How far exactly should new Christians, recruited from the gentiles, be following the Law of Moses?
A hot issue, and an issue that is still very pertinent today.
Christ was a Jew. Two thousand years on we may sometimes tend to forget about that, but he was and observant Jew. He had been circumcised, he kept the food laws, he admittedly did some outrageous things and broke some of the minor laws, but all in all he very much kept to Jewish practice and custom.
All the disciples were Jews. And they too observed Jewish practice and custom. It is the way they had been brought up.
After Easter and Pentecost things had changed. Theyd come to realise that the good news about Jesus was not only a message for Jews, but one for the whole world. That was pretty revolutionary, although in scripture, with the prophets there already was an undercurrent moving towards a more inclusive thinking about Gods love. Peter is the first one to realise that the times have changed and that Gods offer is for Jews as well as gentiles when he dreamt about a sheet full of non-kosher animals. But he apparently didnt realise all the consequences this had straight away.
Paul, whod been a Pharisee and was well versed in the law and had been an observant Jew of the highest class for the bigger part of his life is the one who starts to think the whole concept through.
There are however those who would like the converted gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the Jewish food laws. Jesus did not annul any of these laws did he? He never said the law wasnt valid any more? On the contrary, he said that nothing of the law would be lost, that hed come to fulfil the law, not to annul it.
What Paul says seems in direct contradiction with that and there were those at the time who would have nothing to do with it.
Where do you end up when you let go of the law? If you change one tittle or one iota, where will it stop? It is clear enough what scripture says isnt it? Those who love the Lord should be circumcised, those who love the Lord should observe the law. Those who love the Lord should lead their lives accordingly and be prepared to be led by his laws.
No, says Paul. The law is no use. I was an observant Jew, I know all too well what it is to live by the law. It will show you your mistakes, but it will not redeem you. When you try living according to Gods law in earnest, you will only discover that there is no way you can. There is only one way to redemption and that is through faith in Jesus Christ.
What Paul has discovered is that there is no way we can live before God as Jesus did. That we will always find ourselves lacking if we measure ourselves to what God would have us do. Not to put us down and make us feel unnecessarily guilty, on the contrary, to help us acknowledge that in this broken world we are all only fragile people. Broken en breaking from the start. And that there is no hope in heaven or on earth if it was up to us to put things right.
It is hard to accept that, at any time, but particularly in our time and culture I think. We like to think we do our best. We like to think we are not doing an all too bad job at being good. We give money to charity, we adhere to high moral standards, we keep the commandments, we go to church, we pay our taxes. What more can one ask?
"To be crucified with Jesus" would Pauls answer be if I read him right.
Lets for a moment move to the dinner party Simon has organised in the gospel of Luke. He and his friends are enjoying a lovely meal and theyve invited an interesting speaker. A bit of a novelty this Jesus, and I imagine that they felt quite modern and perhaps a bit daring at having him there, in their midst, probably looking forward to a bit of word play and a good meaty discussion about ethics.
And suddenly this woman comes in. We spoke about her a couple of weeks ago when the story came up in the gospel of John in a slightly different context, but as we said then, it is probably the same woman being completely out of order in the same way. In John it is Judas who complains about the money and the poor that could have been cared for. Luke overflows with Simon the Pharisees disapproval. Not only of the hysterical woman but most of all with the rabbi who fails to rebuke her.
And what does Jesus do?
He gently rebukes Simon the Pharisee. You may be a very good boy he says, and I know you are, and that is great. This woman is a sinner, and a very bad one at that. From what youve shown me in the way of hospitality and friendliness it is clear you dont think you need me and that you feel fairly secure in your position of the pious law abiding citizen. This woman is giving her all, her heart and soul, she makes quite a public display of her self in her desire to show me her love. A prostitute, a woman of low moral standards, but capable of deep and unrestrained love.
Id rather have her!
It is a hard message this, and it touches us because I think that most of us would feel rather at home at the dinner table of Simon. Comfortable in our respectability, secure in our feeling of being good and law abiding Christian folk. Our lives in order, or community organised. Open to a bit of a challenge in the shape of the rabbi from Nazareth, but resisting anything that would go too far out of the ordinary.
We all know were not perfect, but we are not bad either are we? Wasnt it bad religion that wanted to make us feel guilty all the time? Surely were past all that arent we?
Do we need redemption? Do we need Christ to die for us?
Or was it all in vain? Are we good enough as it is and will God understand the rest because he knows how nature and nurture have formed and moulded us into what we are?
The woman understood, Simon did not. Paul understood, some of his contemporaries did not.
There are some paradoxes here that are difficult to cope with. The good Simon, walking the narrow path all his life misses out on what is most important: Giving love and being able to receive it. The sinful woman, never been anywhere near the narrow path, gives excessively and quite inappropriately of her love and receives even more.
Pauls contemporaries, anxious about losing their moral principles, worried about the slippery slope and trying to keep to the narrow path as God had given it miss out on grace because they think they can organise at least part of redemption for themselves. Paul, who gives all the law up for grace, accepting that the boundless grace of God is larger than any petty following of rules could ever merit ends up with the hardest bargain of all.
Because, you see, once youve let go of the thought that rules and regulations will save us and put us right with God, once youve come to rely solely and completely on the love of God for being able to be at one with Him there is only one rule left to follow, namely the rule Jesus followed to his death: to love God above all and the neighbour as well as ourselves.
We have to die says Paul to what binds us, even if it is, like it was in my case (like it was in the case of Simon the Pharisee) being good that keeps you from really connecting with the grace and love of God. We all, in our own way, will have to let go and rise to new life in Christ. Depend completely and utterly on God. Enter into a life that has something of a free fall about it because there is nothing to hold on to than the love and mercy of God and the trust that that will be enough to save us.
Jesus sees the woman rather than the sinner. Simon cant because living according to the law has got in the way of his loving and looking at this woman with Gods eyes. Paul has come to realise that that is what the law can do, come to realise that the only real solution is to let go of all of it and surrender completely to the unrestrained love of God.