Some thoughts on Paul, Jesus, a Canaanite woman,and Fresh Expressions of Church…
(The biblical bits are in Romans chapter 11 and Matthew chapter 15)
Hobart North UCA, 14th August, 2011 (I don’t intend this to be a space for my ‘sermons’, but this reflection and the process by which it formed, has been a very important one for me, and maybe my thoughts might be of value to others).
It’s an oft-repeated idea: the goalposts have moved. Sometimes it goes further and we hear that ‘the playing field is no longer level’.
Or there’s my personal favourite when enquiring of someone how they’re going: “Oh, I’m getting there”. Without fail I wonder where “there” is! And even more to the point, when I/they get “there”, will “there” now be somewhere else?
It’s a big thing, these moving goalposts!
Now I know this is not simply a recent phenomenon, and I’m sure Nicolaus Copernicus would be gratified to hear me say that. After all, his particular moment was pretty awe inspiring: Realising that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the reverse, equals a pretty enormous set of moved goalposts!
And the goalposts have moved throughout history for all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways. So, not new then…
It’s just that I have the distinct feeling that I’m hearing such statements much more today, than I did years ago: that there’s a sense of acceleration in society, and especially with technology, that is creating anxiety for many people, not least for church people.
(Among the many and varied comments about the riots in the UK this week is a belief that society is out of control, that the things which once held communities together are no longer there).
The goalposts keep moving… It’s a phenomenon by which we suddenly, or gradually, discover that things are different from what we’re used to, and that can unsettle us, because we seem to have to respond in some creative way.
Well, we don’t HAVE to respond, but the alternative usually seems to involve the ‘ostrich method’! (apparently a myth, btw, they don’t do this).
All of this has me asking: “What do I do when the goalposts move?” “How do we respond creatively?” These questions are those that have been with me as I’ve attended to these scripture texts this week.
Caution: in what comes next, I’m NOT simply saying “Here’s the question and, Hey look! Here’s a bible quote that answers it”. I don’t believe scripture works that way.
I AM saying “Here are stories of Jesus and Paul wrestling with that same issue””, which I believe can help us in our wrestling.
If nothing else they remind us that this isn’t a new issue. They also encourage us to ask, with Jesus and Paul, “What are the G.O.D. questions in our experience and thinking”? “Where do we/might we discover the spirit of G.O.D. addressing us and leading us, as we chase the goalposts around our lives”?
But there’s more to it than that!
For me, the context of this wrestling is the work that many people in the UCA in Hobart are doing at present to help us discern, chart, and enact our course for the next decade or so (called Uniting Alive: Hobart 2020).
It’s also the work I’ve been doing to prepare for my learning trip to the UK, with its focus on social entrepreneurship and the “Fresh Expressions of Church” international conference.* (A programme jointly called Weaving Connections”). This context has profoundly influenced the way I’ve heard and thought about these texts this week.
I have always seen Paul, and particularly Jesus, as profoundly inclusive, when it comes to embracing people, and to dealing with people in G.O.D.ly compassion. Within the culture of their times, sure, but often pushing beyond barriers imposed on them. I still see them that way. But as we see in these scriptures, it didn’t always come easily to them.
In Paul’s case,people often see Romans as Paul’s developed theological ‘statement. Maybe it is, it’s certainly one of his last works. But it’s a mistake to think that means it’s an unemotional, detached statement.
Paul is dealing with something HUGE here: not just for his readers, but for himself –for his own experience and understanding of G.O.D.
His statements about the inclusion of non-Jews in G.O.D.’s way and embrace have led him to be attacked from many corners. They have others asking him about whether G.O.D. has abandoned the Jews, whether the covenant still stands.
His response to the first question is clear :”By no means!”, and to the second, equally clear: “Absolutely!”
But he’s not wrestling with these things just for others. It’s for himself as well!
If we see this part of the letter in what’s gone before and what follows, we see that there is intense emotional engagement with his people. At one point there is exhilaration about the new sense of grace that now extends beyond the Jewish covenant. At another point there is deep despair that some of his people cannot make this journey of discovering new grace for themselves.
Throughout much of Romans, the question is whether G.O.D. has changed ‘his’ mind about the whole covenant thing. Again, the answer is a resounding “NO”: expanded yes, abandoned no.
Paul goes on to talk about a sense or renewal in the covenant. G.O.D.’s love remains constant, he says, because that’s what G.O.D. is!
Matthew also raises the covenant relationship question, in the story he tells of Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman.
This is a troubling story in many ways, particularly because of Jesus’ initial response to this woman’s request to heal her child: a request which he has seen as quite reasonable in many other situations.
His response is an open insult to her, but she is not to be put off: what parent would be, if this might save your child’s life?
And as the conversation something really important unfolds. Jesus, a product of his day and culture, as are we all, grows through this woman’s insistence that he treat her with some respect and dignity.
In the process, he discovers that she is speaking to him with the voice of G.O.D.
Just as he has said himself many times, she reminds him that the will of G.O.D. is in compassion, rather than in legalistic thinking which excludes or harms others.
The goalposts move… quite a long way, in fact! And Jesus has to choose how to respond. His response, is to acknowledge his need to grow, and his need to do for this woman what she asks. In other words, he responds with grace… and with respect.
Who are we when the goalposts move? How do we respond?
I mentioned before the context in which I’ve approached these two texts, Uniting Alive and Weaving Connections. Each of these are about creatively responding to the moved, and moving, goalposts in which we live and work as Christians.
In particular they are about the way in which we are being forced to reconsider how we are and do church in a culture for whom church organised religion has lost much of the relevance and respect it seemed to have 40, 50, 60 years ago. (I say ‘seemed’ there, because it’s not clear in my mind that the good old days were as good as we might think. The church, in Australia, at least has always been fairly marginal).
Perhaps strangely, I have found the gospel story easier to deal with than the words of Paul. I see in Jesus the courage to have boundaries pushed, to learn from others, and to respond with grace, so I’m ok with that.
The challenge for me has come in the question of Paul, as to whether the covenant with the Jews is no longer valid. Only for me, it has taken this form:
As I get excited and bang on about “Fresh Expressions”, am I saying that traditional church is no longer valid?
Is that what many good and faithful people think I believe?
Just like for Paul, there’s a lot at stake for me here.
Traditional church is the community that has nurtured me, encouraged and challenged me, and seen gifts in me that I didn’t see in myself.
It’s the community that, more often than not, has taught me about the way of Christ, and modeled it for me.
It’s the community for which I have a deep love, and a restless passion.
Am I to turn around and consider it no longer valid, no longer capable of shining with the light of Christ?
I’ve wrestled with this often, a bit like Paul did. And almost always, I answer with him: “By no means!” And I do so again today…
But as I’ve held these things in my head and emotions alongside today’s scriptures, I’ve realised something – or maybe remembered:
Paul is not saying it’s either the old or the new grace.
He’s saying that for those who’ve entered the way of Christ through the old ways, celebrate that, and live it.
For those who’ve entered through the new ways, celebrate that, and live it. The choice is not “either or…” but “both and…”. Paul never stopped being a Jew.
His criticism is for those who refuse to acknowledge that G.O.D.’s spirit may have moved beyond the old ways, not to abandon them but to grow new things.
After all, it had happened before. Just ask Jeremiah, Isaiah and the others….
My concern for OUR churches in these days of rapidly shifting goalposts, is that we are so busy maintaining the traditional ways of being and doing church, that any other expressions of church are seen as extra.
They are usually under-resourced and unsustainable.
To use another expression I hear a lot lately: they happen off the side of someone’s desk. They are add-ons to a load usually already full.
One of the things that excites me about the Church of England’s “Fresh Expressions” process, is that it gets its own desk!
I’m not sure what the level of acceptance of that is across the church, and look forward to finding out. But I believe that we in our churches need to clearly allocate resources to different ways of being and doing church. And I hope that Uniting Alive 2020, and things like the “Changing the Conversation” groups help us to do this:
** NOT because the ‘old ways’ are broken or invalid, not because everything new is better, but because we need both!
**NOT because we need to get more people in to save the organisation (though that may be part of it), but because it is our calling: to respond with grace and courage to new realities, and to old ones… in the name of Christ
The goalposts may have moved, and are moving,
But the living Word of G.O.D. is among us, the light of Christ remains in our midst!
(* “Fresh Expressions” is a specific name for the Church of England’s programme of seeking & practising news ways of being and doing church.)