Rule maker, or rule breaker? Why not both.

My questions of the Gospel this morning – after a week of history-making, heart-breaking, mind-altering news from south of the border – concern the church of Christ and our relationship with controversial rules.  Events in the USA this week – from the grace-filled response of those most deeply affected by the Charleston shooting, to the decision of the Supreme Court making same-sex marriage possible in every state – have covered a wide range of uncomfortable topics: racism, sexism, oppression, (etc).  Many of these barriers were enshrined in our culture by the attitudes of well-meaning Christian leaders.  We (because this is our heritage) knew what was best; we made the rules because we were only following the rules that God had laid down (that was our defence).  As culture changes and grows, influenced by new discoveries and fresh understanding, our expressions of faith have also changed – and Jesus, rather than freeze faith and practice into a single, unalterable model, demonstrates that, even in his time, change is not only possible but necessary (and desirable…).  For example;

Jairus was leader of the local Synagogue; as a man of privilege and power; a man whose wisdom and knowledge of religious tradition and practice was essential to the spiritual health of the community, he comes to see Jesus.  This might have been a natural curiosity – or it could have been a pre-emptive visit, to establish his rights as the Spiritual power in the neighbourhood – but it becomes something else.  In a heart-breaking display of grief and need, this faithful, powerful person throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for his help.

In many ways, that’s the whole story – the biggest news of the day.  What happens after that is no more that we’ve come to expect in the presence of Jesus; people are healed; restored to wholeness and abundant life.  But the gospel is always multi-layered, and there is much to learn from Jesus response to Jairus’ humility.  This moment in Mark’s Gospel shows us the changing landscape around religious orthodoxy and cultural norms.

Here at the beginning of Christian history we are reminded that our interpretation of the ‘will of God’ is never complete; never perfect.

In two separate incidents, Jesus demonstrates his penchant for controversy and his disdain for those things that his community had declared ‘stigma’.  A dying child; a woman with a flow of blood.  Each of these accounted as ‘lost causes’ – less than people – religiously unclean.  And in each case, Jesus responds; to a cry from the heart (in Jairus’ case) to a desperate act of faith (in the case of the nameless woman).  Jesus embraces the (so called) stigma, upending the rules that created the stigma.  In the place of grief and shame; death and disease, Jesus touch brings wholeness, peace; assurance, and joy.

In the end it is physical contact that makes the miracle – touching what was untouchable – but it is  just as important to note that Jesus does not hesitate to go where his tradition & religion said “do not go!”  Jesus touches those who are out of bounds.  His (apparently) alarmed response to being touched – to the power going out from him – has more to do with his desire to acknowledge this woman – to lift her from her isolation and anonymity.  The constant refrain in Mark’s gospel to “tell no one” does not keep Jesus from dealing with individuals, face to face, over and over again in an effort to draw them into the family of God, one small group at a time.

We have our own experience with these sorts of changes in Canada – never with the same spectacular coverage as our American cousins – in areas of equal rights (for women – for people of colour – for people of different sexual orientation); not just as a society, but as communities of faith.  In every case the Church must examine the foundation of our position, and then decide how any cultural changes might be folded into our search for faithfulness.

This does not come easily – it is far simpler to imagine that patterns of righteousness are laid out in black and white – but that is not how Scripture works; that is not how the Holy Spirit works, and it is certainly not how Jesus rolls.

Sometimes the church leads culture into a change – and sometimes, the church finds itself chasing change; that’s okay, as long as we accept that the race is not yet over – nor are we the winners by virtue of our having chosen to follow Christian rules.  For it was Jesus who claims to have come to “complete the law” – a phrase that suggests we must always examine our past positions through Jesus’ eyes as we move through the present.  And so, just as we have reconsidered our stance on the ordination of women, or our role in the Government’s policies on First Nations education and assimilation, we are  being invited (by the General Assembly) to to carefully and prayerfully study, as sessions, Presbyteries and Synods, the position of the Presbyterian Church in Canada on issues of human sexuality.

Big questions, you say – too right they are – but no less important than Jesus decision to turn aside and face those women stigmatized by religious righteousness and cultural expectations of his day.

And just in case you think Jesus lesson covers only the large cultural questions, or the ‘highlight-reel’ events, consider this; congregations in every corner of this county – our own included – are trying to work their way into the future using rules established in the past.  Rules that decided the shape of our worship services, and the size (and location) of our buildings.  Rules that formed expectations of ministry – the who, the how and the when – established by one hundred year old cultural norms; rules imported from ‘the old country’; rules concerning membership and involvement; rules that have defined our faith communities which are no longer valid – and we must, with Jesus help, decide what to do about those rules.

Must we continue to meet in buildings designed for a future that never came?  Always at 9:30 (or 11:00)?  Who can have communion?  who may be baptized?  Married?  Buried?  Some of these questions are easier to answer than others (and some have been answered for us) but I promise you one thing;

If we find ourselves tied to old habits for any reason, the Spirit of Christ is never bound with us.  The kingdom will come, not because of our devotion to the rules, but in spite of our foolish declarations concerning right or wrong.  People we don’t consider worthy will be healed by the touch of Christian love – made whole and offered joy, hope, and health – because we dared to follow Jesus, rather than the rules about Christ.

It promises to be a difficult road.  There will be controversy; outrage; and, I hope, careful, prayerful discussion about how to proceed.  But Jesus desire has always been to lead us forward, rather than hold us back.  Pray that we might accept His offer, and meet the challenge with him in faith.

Amen.

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