Who can abide…?

Heaven help us, but the Presbyterian Church is embroiled in another ‘redefinition’ of itself.  Who can serve?  How do we interpret Scripture in light of ‘the world that is’; with regard to current cultural mores.  These are the questions behind the recent resolutions from General Assembly to ‘further study’ questions around sexuality and service in the Church.  How do we honour God and the traditions of faith?  How do we know that we’re ‘doing this properly’ – How can we define – once and for all – what it means to be a child of God – a servant of Christ – a member of the household of faith?

Psalm 14 offers evidence that these kinds of questions are not just a modern phenomenon.  What’s more, the Psalmist had passed judgement on those who chose a different belief, or had another opinion about how the world might work.  Psalm 15 follows with a list of expectations  – behaviour expected of those who would call themselves faithful.  More evidence that we have been having conversations like this for a very long time.

True, we have spent much of the last two or three hundred years fine tuning our definitions; making large and small categories that are meant to help us decide who’s who – Large categories to define the family of faith we call the Christian Church, then smaller and smaller groups (denominations) that tried (unsuccessfully) to distill ‘perfect righteousness” or “the essential Christian faith.”  but these distinctions are not a modern invention.  God’s people have always been searching for the ultimate – the last word in faith and practice.  It is a frustrating search for all kinds of reasons.

The first hurdle has always been our ability to acknowledge God.  “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’.  Fools, we call them, but in every age there have been those whose questions – whose imagination – whose experience of life – have led them to dismiss the existence (and the very idea) of a power in the universe that is greater than themselves.  This is the simplest form of ‘testing’, really; If a person denies the existence (or their need) of The Divine Presence, they are not ‘part of the family of God’

Or are they?

Consider the expansive picture that Psalm 15 paints – the description of who may dwell on God’s hill – honest, upright people who don’t slander their friends or cast aspersions on their neighbours; people who keep their promises and don’t cheat others in business deals – it’s quite a list, really, but it makes no mention of what these people believe concerning ‘a higher power’.  Even then, it seems, the rules about who’s in and who’s out were…broadly defined.

In the encounter described by this morning’s Gospel reading  Jesus looks to keep the doors open.  Arguments about proper observance of ancient ritual follow Jesus throughout his adult life in the gospel accounts.  And some of his activities seem intended to provoke these arguments; picking grain on the sabbath – healing the sick on the sabbath (plenty of sabbath violations, to be sure) – and here, eating without washing.  This is not like the rule we all endured when we were young – washing to get the worst  of the day’s dirt removed after hours of baseball or tree climbing or frog hunting.  Washing hands (and food and utensils) was essential to maintain your status as a righteous person – a person of faith – a child of God.

God forbid that someone who did not believe might have first touched your bread (in the market) or your plate (in the pantry) or that you had touched something that had been ‘defiled’ by ‘one of those people’ (ie – anyone who wasn’t following the rules…”)  Ritual washing was the way the faithful reminded themselves and everyone else that THEY were in a special category – they claimed status as God’s people, and they demonstrated that to the world through these ritual actions.

But consider again the 15th Psalm:  “O Lord, who may abide in your tent (or) dwell on your holy hill?”  One who shows integrity in their relationships with others…one who acts with kind regard for others…one whose ideas reflect the compassion and mercy of God.

Jesus dismisses the power of ritual clean-up – “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.”  He makes a distinction between heart and stomach that may baffle us, but the heart was considered then (and symbolically still) the source of all human urges; love, hate, judgement, reason, compassion, cruelty – good hearted; cold-hearted – we still honour that understanding of human decision-making.  And Jesus suggests that we alone are responsible for the mischief or mercy that is the result of our ideas, attitudes and actions.

Given all that, how can we decide “who’s with us”?  What does true faith look like?  In a world that seems increasingly foolish with regard to ideas about the existence of God, how can we tell we’re on the right path?

We have our rituals, of course; we worship, we celebrate the sacraments and we use these things to define membership and justify ourselves, but what about those “good people” who just can’t (won’t) make the commitment to join us Sunday by Sunday?  Who is right?  Who is faithful?  Who can we trust if not the traditions and practices of our past?

Well, as it happens, we can trust Jesus – or so we’ve decided.  The church of Christ seems to go through these cycles; where the traditions are called into question, where practice has pushed us away from God rather than bringing us closer to God – and every time we examine ourselves, or seek to reform our practice, we are drawn to the practice, the words and the person of Jesus Christ.

To Jesus, who openly defied tradition where it seemed to contradict the spirit of God’s mercy and grace.  Jesus, who attended godless gatherings and fraternized with the ‘enemy’; Jesus, who dared to claim intimacy with God, and who suggested that anyone could have a similar relationship with God.  So a church that is founded on Christ – that struggles to understand the significance of the cross and the mystery of the resurrection; and in faithful people who seek to order their lives in ways that honour God; by these things alone can we decide who ‘belongs’.  We reside in a tradition that claims to be “reformed and always reforming” in faith and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Not ignorant of our past, but neither are we bound by it.  We are bound only to the Risen Christ, whose mercy defined our past and whose compassion shapes our future.

It will never be simple, this desire of ours, to draw clear lines around our notions of faith, nor is it altogether faithful to decide for ourselves who does and doesn’t belong in the company of God – but if we choose with Jesus to err on the side of grace; if we follow His model of faithfulness; if we really trust the guidance of the Spirit of God,  we are promised that glorious kingdom of peace is indeed very near to us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen


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