by Peter Lockhart
As a minister I am regularly confronted with a question or a comment which is “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, do you?”
I wonder how you feel about that question. I wonder what motivated you to be here this morning. Was it because you felt you had to keep the fourth commandment to honour the Sabbath? Was it because Sunday is church day and that’s what you always do? Was it because you wanted to catch up with someone? Was it because you wanted to give thanks to God? Was it because you thought it might be good for your children to go to Sunday School? Or did you simply come with someone else because either you were made to or because you wanted to?
Luke tells a story about how one day Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when a woman crippled over for 18 years with what we are told is a spirit comes in. Jesus invites the woman forward and heals her at which point pandemonium breaks loose. The woman sings Gods praise, people are amazed and the synagogue leaders become irate about people doing inappropriate things on the Sabbath.
This little story opens up to us quite a few issues to do with the Sabbath and its implications of how we relate to God and each other. I want to pick up on just three.
The first has to do with acceptance and healing.
The second has to do with legalism and criticisms.
The third is to do with freedom in thanksgiving.
Going back to Jesus time a woman who had an affliction like being bent double would likely have found herself ostracised in the community. The very fact that we are told that her ailment is caused by a spirit, presumably an unfriendly one, indicates the kind of attitude the society had towards those who had illness or disability.
Despite the probability that she was very much seen as an outsider this woman goes to the synagogue to listen to the teaching. As we know on seeing her enter Jesus invites her over and heals her. The thing that is striking here is that Jesus notices her presence and respond to it not simply accepting her but bring her healing.
There is something very basic here in terms of Jesus ability to comprehend the needs of a person and to meet those needs. Jesus does not judge her; he does not indicate that she has great faith; there is nothing to indicate that she sought healing – Jesus simply sees her predicament and his heart goes out to her to give her what she needed most. This indicates to me that Jesus and therefore God has concern for our human situations, the challenges and difficulties we all face. Jesus sees not simply a bent over woman but sees a person to be loved and cherished.
Now if the Church is to be a sign of Jesus love in the world I believe this has implications for us. In the last 30 years there has been a continually shift in the way that we have spoken as a community about people with disabilities. The word handicapped is not longer deemed appropriate, the word disabled has been superseded, to say someone is physically challenged is not in vogue. I believe the current politically correct phrase is differently abled. This all may seem like playing with words but at its heart is the search for affirming the humanity of people who are different.
Unfortunately the moment we use any kind of label for a group of people there is a point of differentiation and even segregation. It strikes me how often in the scriptures people like the bent over woman are left nameless. In knowing a name we begin to know a person and as we get to know a person labels become less relevant.
Yet at the same time acknowledging the pain and difficulties that people face also seems paramount. Jesus accepted the woman as he invited her to come near to him but Jesus met her deepest need as he healed her. The church should be a place of healing and hope and whilst we cannot be Jesus I do believe it is important that we seek to meet those basic human needs of the people who come into our community as we are enabled to. There may be miraculous healings, there may not, but either way as the church we are called to show compassion and caring.
This leads me into the second point I wanted to raise. The incident occurs on the Sabbath and this causes quite a deal of consternation among the leaders of the synagogue. In their view Jesus doing the healing is akin to working on the Sabbath and so they attack the woman for creating this situation.
At the heart of the attack by the synagogue leaders is a rigid approach to the law and morality. The fourth commandment was to honour the Sabbath and this including not working but Jesus had worked. To be good meant obedience to the law.
If we go back to the question I asked at the beginning it arises out a challenge to just such an understanding of going to church. ‘Do you have to go to church on Sunday to be a Christian?’ A legal moral approach to being a Christian must answer yes – it is our Sabbath keeping. Even though Sunday is not actually the Sabbath it is the day we set aside to honour and worship God.
The question around the issue for us then is how we approach our faith. ‘Is being a Christian about moral behaviours and obedience to the letter of the law or is it something else?’
Jesus answer to the legalists is to point out that the law makes provision for compassion to be shown to animals on the Sabbath. A Jew was allowed to feed and water animals on the Sabbath if necessary so if compassion can be shown to an animal then why not to a person. It is a good question and does not necessarily undermine the Sabbath law but prioritises it.
Elsewhere, when Jesus is challenged for his behaviours on the Sabbath, Jesus points out that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. What this simply means is that the Sabbath is a gift to humanity which grounds them in their relationship with God. The observance of the Sabbath is for the benefit of people it is not meant to cripple them.
In asking the question or making the statement that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian I believe that the question of our participation in the community of faith has become conceptualised as a matter of law as opposed to a matter of faith, whereby we accept a gift from God.
This leads me into the third point which is about the freedom of giving thanks to God. The healed woman stands straight and praise God. The other people in the synagogue rejoice in what Jesus was doing, even though they personally may not have benefited from his actions.
In recognising that in Jesus God acts people praise God. In coming to a point in our own lives where we want to praise God and give thanks our reasoning around coming to be the church on Sunday changes away from the legal imperative to observe the Sabbath.
Coming to church is about coming to a place with the people of God where we can give thanks for the real encounters we have had in our faith journey with Jesus healing and acceptance. It is also in gathering together we share each others burdens and celebrate each others faith journeys. In other words it’s not just about you.
I know as a minister that people come to church for all sorts of reasons and many people argue that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. For me it is not so much a question of having to go to church, or having to keep the Sabbath, it is a question of what gifts God has given us to assist to know and honour God.
Jesus was not undermining the Sabbath in his actions simply prioritising needs and honouring God in a different way. The question of how you and I find acceptance and healing and freely express our thanksgiving in this day and age is just as important as it was back then. As we are drawn into community to know each others names, to accept each other and bring healing and hope let us also remember to come together to give thanks to God who gave to us these gifts.
I invite you to take a few moments of silence to listen for God speaking to you on this day.