Readings: Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen
I read a story earlier on about a mountain that wanted to come live in a house – and it just wasn’t going to work – the mountain was an outsider who didn’t and couldn’t fit in the confines of the town life in the way we would expect – but there were other ways to do it. Today I want to talk about ‘outsiders’ in the context of church life and community and faith. Just as, in our Gospel passage, the centurion, a Gentile, was an outsider in the eyes of the Jewish Jesus-discipled community, who is it that is outside of us and what is our relationship with them?
It’s interesting on many fronts, this story of the centurion.
-That the local Jewish leaders pleaded on behalf of this gentile soldier at all is unusual – but they have good reason because he had been more than sympathetic to them and their needs – a very supportive outsider and therefore a good man.
-That Jesus didn’t actually come to the house for healing to happen when in most other stories of healing there was contact, laying on of hands, sharing of words, witnesses to the event.
-That the Centurion had enough compassion and care for the ways of Jews (the other) as to not want to put Jesus in the difficult position of breaking the laws of his faith by having to come into the house of a Gentile.
-That in this common courtesy Jesus found a faith so astounding – what was it that the solider said: “Jesus, you just need to say it will be so and so it will be” – that he compared it with sadness to the faith of Israel. This ‘outsider’s’ faith was the yardstick by which all others could measure. One of those on the margins had a better handle on faith than those within the circle.
There is much in this story to explore and not a little to challenge us as church today – and I don’t mean this in the sense that we should just demolish church as we know it, that we should just give up and go home – rather that we should see this story as an opportunity to re-explore how God works in this world and to remind ourselves that we, as Presbyterian, or Protestant or the Christian Church Catholic, don’t have the exclusive rights to faith or spiritual truth. For God loves the whole world, not just the church.
Some thoughts then on how we relate to those we could call outsiders – in this context I am speaking of good people of belief, or not, who choose to not come join with organised faith communities.
I wonder if we assume a degree of goodness within the baptised community of faith and look to those outside to prove themselves? The soldier had proven his care and compassion by his acts – without that would he have gained the same support and compassion from the local faith community to heal his dying servant? Can we say that we love and recognise and accept the goodness in others without commitments or credentials or expectations of eventual membership? Can we accept that others than us have a heart filled with love and right-living? There is a story from Australia of some church people who were going around music festivals with an outreach bus. At one rock festival, where there were plenty of Hell’s Angels present, their tyres were slashed. There was one member of the gang, called believe it or not Ball Bearing, who, when he heard of this, strode up to the stage, grabbed the mike of the musicians and roared at the very large crowd: “those people in the church bus are good – they are here to help us – leave them alone – if I find the guy that slashed their tyres he’ll be history”. And that wasn’t the end of the story – one of the people from the church asked Ball Bearing if he would come with him when he went to talk to some secondary schools – and he agreed to! What did this ‘outsider’ do? Well he didn’t pretend to be a Christian nor did he promote Hell’s Angels, in talk back time he pushed the speaker really hard on some issues, and he said this to the students – and believe me they took notice – he said: “Listen to this guy – he’s on the level. He’s been praying for me for years – don’t know if its done any good but he’s worthwhile. I respect him. He won’t let you down.” And at the end of the assembly Ball Bearing gave him a hug and said ‘I love you’. God loves the world, not just the church.
I wonder if there is any truth that those on the margins, those not within the circle, have a better handle on truth sometimes, that they have eyes to see that which is real in a way that we can miss. Putting it another way, those within with all the teaching and theology and doctrinal truths can get it wrong just as much if not more than those who are not part of the church – we do not have an exclusive hold on perfection here folks! Sometimes the perspective of those outside of the established church can teach us heaps about our beliefs and how we live them. This is the issue that Paul was dealing with – when he discerned that the Church’s institutional authority was at odds with what he called the authority of God.
The new missionaries who had come to Galatia were preaching a different Gospel to that which Paul had preached. They were teaching that certain ceremonial practices were necessary for the New Testament faith community – in particular circumcision and following the law of the Hebrew Scriptures. They perhaps wanted to make sense of the chaos, the open invitation to all people of the world that they felt Paul had laid down, and in doing so, were contradicting what Paul calls God’s gospel of grace.
Now isn’t this something that continues to be a conundrum for us! I have to ask, ‘What’s new? Why do we continue to, as a church, make rules and policies that are contrary to God’s purpose for this world, to Jesus teachings and his living and dying? Why do we make rules that exclude not just people, outsiders, but actually, Jesus himself (if we exclude any one of his sheep are we not excluding Jesus)– either that or you could say that we end up converting Jesus to our best practice. I would suggest that part of the solution comes from those not in this place - those people, the outsiders often, who ask us the hard questions, who are directly harmed, excluded, dehumanised by church policies – we have to listen and do something about it. Paul preached a gospel of grace – the grace that is found in every act of kindness and justice and compassion in this world, inside and outside the church – in the bikie who yells at the tyre slasher, in the community that cares for the marginalised and the outsider without expectation or response or reward, in the church that continually listens for what the Spirit is saying in the person of Christ.
And lastly I wonder if we remember what astounding faith looks like. Are there things we can identify with or should examine as a church community that water-down our hope and trust in Christ to make a difference in this world? Or do we have to look outside the church for the stories of hope and grace and deep faith? Well yes there probably are things to identify – a discussion for another day – and, hear the good news, the stories of hope and grace and deep faith are everywhere – within the church and without. Our task is not to dismiss or patronise or default to those who choose to be people of faith and goodness outside the walls of this church – our task is to be a audible and visible people of grace in our community – recognising the part that we have alongside others in the wide and intricate tapestry that is God’s purpose for the church and the world. And together may we live and grow in love and grace now and always. Amen