Readings: Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10
Last week we held our monthly Amnesty group meeting. As usual it was full of talk and sharing, particularly since we had someone from the WA branch office visiting, and working out the letters we would write. We have been debating whether the letters need to be hand written, or typed, or even emailed. It was determined that a letter was best, but that it could be typed as long as there was some personal writing on it, like the greeting or the salutation.
Isn`t it interesting that in our technological age, letters can still be a powerful medium of communication, and can make a difference; particularly when sent in large numbers and from around the world. Amnesty has shown that, over many years.
So it was in Paul`s day, when other than human messengers there was no other way of connecting to one another. The letter was it! The letter to the Galatians, from which we heard the opening address, dates from around 55 CE, and in it Paul is writing to his converts living in Asia Minor. While some of Paul`s letters in the New Testament cannot be attributed to him, and have been written by those who have come after him, this one is seen as authentically Paul. Thus we hear his voice.
In it he seems a bit miffed, even angry, at the community. So much so that he dives straight in without any real pleasantries usually associated with a letter. He initially defends himself, and asserts from where his authority has come. He asserts that he is Paul, an envoy, not appointed by humans nor by an individual, but by Jesus, and by the Father, by divine determination and divine authority. It seems the Galatians have come to doubt him, and he is at odds with the other leading apostles Peter and James.
The issue at the centre of all this is about inclusion, who is in and who is out. We know from Paul`s other letters, that for him the gospel message is profoundly universal, it is for everyone, Jew and Gentile, and that God`s love for all is at the heart of a new community. The Galatians have returned to the belief that for Gentile s to join the people of God circumcision as demanded in the sacred scriptures and biblical law must be adhered to. Paul is accused of watering down the gospel, picking and choosing which parts of scripture to believe. He is accused of seeking human approval. Sounds rather familiar doesn`t it?
Paul was so angry at this early fundamentalism that later in the letter, while describing those who were, in his view, disturbing the Galatians, he says he hopes they may cut if off. In this argument about circumcision the `it` refers to their penises. As Brandon Scott suggests, this is an angry letter indeed.
Yet Paul holds to what he believes is at the heart of the message of Jesus, and of God`s kingdom. God is compassionate to all, offering a right relationship to all. We hear this message most profoundly further in the letter, in Galatians 3:28. He writes, `There is neither Jew nor gentile , slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ`. The spirit moved in Paul and he knew in his heart what gave life and what took it away, a truth revealed to him most fully in Jesus. Paul grew to understood about love at its deepest level, and this is the gospel he preached.
If we leave the letter for a minute and go to our gospel reading, this message is appearing in neon lights to us. For we are like Paul ¬ where is the heart of our faith? The reading encompasses the healing of the centurion`s servant in Luke, but it is a story also found in Matthew and John, emphasising its importance as a profound revelation about Jesus.
Regardless of how we understand healing now, in ancient times Jesus seems to have gone around healing people. What we have here is not the unusual event of the healing but who was being healed. This is what the Gospel writers are concerned with. Here we see what Paul knows in his heart. God is for everyone and with everyone.
The centurion is a gentile and in the reading Jesus does not enter his house. This is not because it`s messy or Jesus is not invited in, but that a gentile `s house was seen as a place of impurity or immorality. It may taint those who enter. As Bill loader points out the centurion`s response is sensitive to this issue when he declares himself unworthy that Jesus enter under his roof. Jesus` response when hearing those words turns the situation on its head. While not going into the house, he heals the servant anyway, from a distance.
We know that Jesus had to face what Paul faced. People complained that Jesus was flouting the rules, eating with sinners and tax collectors, healing a Samaritan woman, in fact healing without due reference to who they were and not observing the Sabbath. Both Jesus and Paul who follows him say something completely different to those who want to exclude and marginalize, everyone counts, everyone is to be welcomed to the table. All are God`s children.
I sometimes wonder about scripture. It was written a long, long time ago, and hey we can now see pictures from space, can talk about dark matter and quantum entanglement (ask me later), and we know about evolution. But then I get a few readings, explore them and am gob smacked by the wisdom on these pages and in the life and words of Jesus. Sometimes we find radical and challenging and life giving words amongst the confusing, often violent and downright unhelpful other bits. As Paul insisted in his day, we cannot take the words literally, we need to find the heart of them just as we need to find the heart of our faith.
So today what are these readings telling us.
Inclusion and love over fundamentalism, compassion and justice over laws and words. While there is much in Paul`s letters that is time and culture dependent Paul never wavered from the gospel message of Jesus, and the most beautiful passages from the New Testament come from him, about love, and grace towards all. He consistently argued that we are to show the fruits of the spirit, which were shown to us by Jesus, compassion and justice and care for the poor, for all people are to be respected and included in God`s kingdom..
Our world is at a crossroads, for we know that we are divided in so many ways. But more and more these ways are artificial. We make our own rules that separate us, whether they be rules about church affiliation and things to believe, about citizenship, about borders and boundaries, about worthiness, about the amount of money we need to be successful, or important, or to just matter, about the jobs that are respectable or the sexual orientation that we deem as normal or God given. Yet we are actually bonded biologically, cosmologically and spiritually. Together as one, you and me and all those around us.
I was watching a video by Rob Bell, a previous American evangelist who has become a wonderful voice for progressive Christianity, a voice for finding the heart of the gospel and of the divine calling. This video was called `Everything is spiritual`. It sounds rather like a Pentecost sermon presented recently.
He refers to a little book called the spirit level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which was written some years ago. I read it when it was released, but have revisited it this past week.
It takes research that has been accumulating in public health and science over a long period of time to make a convincing case for our need to share our resources with one another. It asserts that while we are biologically and socially drawn to each other we have allowed economic inequality to grow to such an extent that our wellbeing, both for all people and of our planet is threatened. Sounds very biblical and it is.
These authors took all the data available about developed nations and looked at health in those nations - things like how long people live, how physically healthy they are, how much education is completed and what the crime rates were. They developed a health index which measured how healthy people were.
They then looked at the gap between the rich and the poor in these nations. What they found is that the larger the gap, the lower the life expectancy of the poor, the greater are numbers of people in prison, the higher the rate of mental illness and the greater number of homicides. The larger the gap the lower the rate of literacy amongst 15 year olds. They found that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest in society was the single biggest determining factor in health.
It is clear from this very well researched book and from the evidence presented in it that the best way to improve our quality of life, to have fullness of life, both as individuals and as a society does not lie in more possessions or wealth, not more and more growth, but in sharing what we have.. To spread the love as they say, supporting those with less and not being seduced by the idea that wealth and possessions mark one as special and therefore privileged.
What I am constantly amazed at is how often people in the so called secular world speak out on things that we, in the church, should be calling for. Why does it take graphs, and tables and numbers to show what we have known for a long time? That the search for a just society and a just world involves everyone getting a fair and equitable share of the things needed for life, that everyone matters. Maybe it is because this aspect of our faith heritage has been lost amongst the clamour for personal salvation rather than the call for individual or societal transformation. We need to reclaim our heritage of justice and inclusion and join those in the wider world who are currently doing it for us.
What we need to do is reclaim the message of Jesus and the message of Paul. The centurion, the gentile, the beggar and the prostitute are all part of God`s world and in the circle of God`s love. What we have to do is to embrace our message from science and from the stars, from evolution and from cosmology. We are bones, and spirit and soul and we are linked in ways far more intimately than we ever dreamed of.
We are to be guided by love, not by rules or accepted norms; love is the key to life, and unless we use that key we will not unlock God`s kingdom on earth.
It`s about knowing and sensing the divine in our world and in you and me, and in each one of us, and going forward, expanding the circle of life until there is no circle.