Living towards a non-institutional future

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
6 Jul 2010

Lectionary readings: Psalm 66.1-8, Galatians 6. 7-16, Luke 10.1-11

Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' … and say to them, 'The realm of God has come near to you.' (Luke 10. 5, 9b)

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At various tricky junctures in Christian history it has been caustically observed (usually by those under the cosh of popes or prelates) that the message Jesus brings in the Gospels is one of human freedom and possibility through the life-giving of God; whereas what we have ended up with is the church and religion. In other words, the founding impulses of our faith reside in movement, but their continuation has required institutions, with all their temptations towards deadening control.

At one level this is an unavoidable tension. The idea that we can sustain purposeful relationships without organisation is a fantasy. But when money, structures and hierarchy shape our common life – rather than the other way round – the Spirit is rapidly crushed.

The New Testament readings for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity explore this dilemma from different but overlapping perspectives, and propose a radical solution. We are to live in the light of the potential and purpose offered to us in the life of Christ, rather than being constrained by received ideas about how God works within a narrow ‘religious’ framework.

St Paul is writing to the church in Galatia, a region in Asia Minor or modern day Turkey, probably some twenty to twenty-five years after the death of Jesus, in order to try to argue them out of a rather legalistic, ‘traditionalist’ stance on ritual and practice. Luke, on the other hand, is telling the story of Jesus and the dynamic movement around him from a later First Century viewpoint in order to demonstrate why Christianity has authentically found Gentile and not just Jewish expression – a point contested by the Galatians, it seems.

Paul is characteristically blunt. Echoing his argument to the Corinthians, he says in chapters 5 and 6 of this epistle that the fuss about ritual initiation has no value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through active love. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation,” he declares (Galatians 6.15). Don’t boast about your piety and purity, in other words; focus instead on sharing the joys and sorrows of those around you in the pattern of Christ. This echoes his theme in the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Controversially, Paul even likens slavish religious observance to “the corruption of the flesh.” By this he is not demeaning earthly existence per se, but rather pointing out the danger of turning towards things which have nothing to do with what Jesus in another context calls “life in all its fullness” – however ‘holy’ they claim to be. Properly understood, Christianity isn’t about what we these days call ‘religion’ at all, but the reorientation of all we are away from a narrow preoccupation with self and towards engagement with others, including our neighbours, who are also loved and cherished by God. That’s a point made in different ways by figures as diverse as Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I should add – lest you think I’ve just made it up out of convenience.

A similar impulse emerges from the story in Luke 10 about ‘the sending out of the seventy’ (or seventy-two, depending on whether you go with certain Old Latin and Sinaitic manuscripts, or the Greek and Syriac texts). Here Jesus defines the mission of his followers in terms of sharing peace with those near and far, participating in hospitality and table fellowship, curing the sick, and telling the ordinary people that God is close at hand. There are no ‘religious’ constraints. It’s about humanity restored. Remember also that those who had fallen prey to illness were defined by the people with power in the faith community as ‘unclean’ and out of sorts. It was the Temple religion that conveyed ritual purity and impurity, inclusion or exclusion. Jesus declines to play this game. Those who cultivate life and share it with others should know that “realm of God has come near to you” (10.9). Those who refuse it are their own undoing. Leave them be.

There is a starkness and urgency here that reflects a sense that an important moment of decision has come into their midst in the shape of Jesus. Things will never quite be the same again. There is also a contrast between the ‘feasting narratives’ in Luke (food shared is again and again a sign that God’s promise of life is at hand) and the overall architecture of the story he tells – which is an ordering of the things Jesus does and says, together with his fate, around an unavoidable journey to Jerusalem, the seat of both religious and political power. Here the simplicity of the Gospel hope meets the distortions and manipulations of institutional life in its most naked form: the imperial capacity to kill those who do not fit in.

For Jesus, however, the future is not defined by the powers-that-be, but by the love of God freely given and received. It is to this life-giving power that he trusts himself at the moment of his death, following his betrayal by one who has been seduced by a very different reading of what and who counts in the world.

The sending out of the seventy – to return to that particular story – is also highly significant in a number of other respects. First, note that the journey of faith is one shorn of power and pretension. God goes with this motley crew (they are not an inner core, but those gathered from around the region), rather than being located in a building or an organisation. It is relationships that are central to God’s purposes. And in the story as Luke tells it – there is no parallel in the other synoptic gospels – the mission of the multitude is rather more successful than that of the Apostles, the ‘official’ emissaries.

Though Luke’s gospel is Gentile in orientation, there is also lurking here a traditional Hebrew preoccupation with numbers. Whereas ‘the twelve’ are related to the tribes of Israel, ‘the seventy’ seem to echo Haggadic assumption that there are seventy nations and languages in the world, based upon the ethnological table given in Genesis 10. The point is that the Good News is for the whole world, not just an in-group, a point emphasised by the Revised Common Lectionary in its choice of Psalm 66, which speaks of “all the earth” as sounding the praise of the God whose eyes “keep watch on the nations”.

Here, then, is a message of biblical hope for a world which is all-too-conscious these days of the way that ethnic, exclusive religion can cause division and conflict, and where the authority of top-down institutions (including many inherited patterns of church life) is facing challenge and criticism.

So where does this gospel message leave us as Christian communities now? In a situation where, I would suggest, bold experimentation is necessary – alongside a commitment to using and re-using the best of what we have inherited in ways that builds bridges rather than barriers. That is precisely the point of something like the St Stephen’s project (http://www.stephenproject.org.uk/). It takes one of the key features of an institution, a beautiful and historic building, and turns it inside out (well, metaphorically, anyway!) so that it becomes a point of contact, service and inspiration for a wider community.

That kind of enterprise is many thousands of miles and a couple of thousand years away from the Jesus movement described in the Gospel of Luke, of course. There is no neat escape route from the entanglements that have been entailed by the long and sometimes tortuous course of Christian history. But that’s not the point. The point is that the same message of human freedom and possibility through the life-giving of God, which is the theme of our readings today, can work itself out in many different cultures and contexts.

What holds it together or lets it fall apart, of course is people… like us. For the same domination-free realm, or kingdom of God, to which Jesus and his earliest followers testified is also near this morning. Near, but not the same as us, identified with us alone, within our control, or ours to possess over and against others. It is a motivating grace that can move us to great deeds, but also keeps us in check.

Perhaps my favourite prayer-poem is one written by Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, not long before he was gunned down in 1980 for speaking out on behalf of the poor. It is called ‘Prophets of a Future Not Our Own’ (http://www.simonbarrow.net/reflect3.html), and in it he reminds us that the realm of God which comes so very close to us when we share peace, hospitality and food (as in Luke’s story) “is not only beyond our efforts, it is” – for the most part – “beyond our vision.” For “[w]e accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete...”

But that, Romero reminds us, is not what counts. We may only be able to do a little, but we can do it well and in a spirit which is open to its completion from a horizon we do not own, but to which we are continually invited by Love – whether we are seventy, seventy-two, many more, or rather nearer a dozen.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This address was given at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Exeter (http://www.parishofcentralexeter.co.uk/), on Sunday 4 July 2010.

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