Sunday, June 8, 2008

Unity in Diversity

Matthew belongs to a Charismatic church – there are lots of them in Cheltenham. Trinity, Glenfall Fellowship, three c’s church – New Life, Elim – It’s their firm conviction that their worship, their way of being church has its roots in the Bible. Look at the way the church of Corinth used the gifts in their very free worship.

Fr Ian is an Orthodox priest – the Orthodox church meets in Cheltenham over in Bentham, there are Roman Catholic churches in the town – great to be in conversation with Fr Alan of Sacred Hearts this week and to be going to Prinknash later in the month. It’s their firm conviction that their worship, their way of being church has its roots in the Bible – look at the way Jesus valued the Temple and its worship and so did the first Christian community in Jerusalem.

And I am a Congregationalist, preaching on Congregational Sunday in a Congregational church. Not so many of them around. But we share a similar kind of tradition of worship and of being church with the Presbyterians who meet at Holy Apostles’ School with the Baptists, with the URC, and this evening I will be preaching in a united Congregational and Methodist Church in South Cerney. It is our conviction that our worship, our way of being church has its roots in the Bible. Where do we look to our roots.

Is it inevitable that we each go our separate ways, maintaining we are right and everyone else is wrong?

Is it necessary that we should long for the day when we can all have the same way of worshipping, the same way of ordering the church?

Or is it possible that each of us has some measure of the Truth and that we can hold on to our convictions while at the same time respecting, affirming and working with those others? It will come as no surprise to find that I am drawn to that third alternative.

Teaching and Learning in the Synagogue

That picture is one of the very special pictures I took in the Holy Land.

We were in Capernaum, the town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee that Jesus used as the base for his ministry and mission in Galilee.

We were sitting in a Synagogue built maybe on the site of the Synagogue that Jesus would have been so well acquainted with.

And we had just had a wonderfully stimulating hour and a half discussing, debating and sharing in a marvellous experience of ‘teaching and learning’ with Henry Carse, a teacher based in St George’s College in Jerusalem.

A bench runs round the synagogue. In the centre would have been the place where the Law, the prophets and the writings would have been read. A smaller room off would have been a teaching and learning centre.

The synagogue was not simply for ‘worship’ – it was a place to read and study and enquire of the Scriptures. The rabbinic way of teaching and learning was to enter into question and answer, to explore, to dig away at the meaning of the Scripture.

It was not enough simply to read the Scripture. It was necessary to explore its meaning, to uncover its message. The one teaching would engage in asking questions, seeking out the truth.

Some of the fruits of that kind of teaching and enquiry was written down in comments on the Hebrew Scriptures – collections of rabbinic teaching on the text formed the Midrash on the Scriptures, collected again into the Mishnah and then into the Talmud.

In those writings you catch a glimpse of the teaching and learning process that goes on in a Synagogue.

It is all based around asking questions.

Jesus was steeped in that whole process. And so often we fail to see it!

Take the passage we have just read. I’ve always read it with impatience – the whole point of the passage is in the story, the most wonderful story of the Good Samaritan.

Teaching and Learning around the Parable of the Good Samaritan

I am impatient with the lawyer who wants to test Jesus and to justify himself. I speed over the first bit holding the lawyer a little in derision. What an idiot to be trying to catch Jesus out in this way with such catch questions.

Teaching and learning in the Synagogue is based around asking questions, it expects people to dig away at the Scriptures to seek out their meaning, and it involves enquiry into the Scripture. What caught my eye this week was the five questions that are asked in this passage. Maybe they are part of a genuine process of Synagogue style teaching and learning.

Let’s read the passage in the light of that. And lets have some respect for the lawyer. Let’s see him not with derision, but with respect. He is steeped in the Law, the Torah, his task is to apply it to daily life. He has given his life to the study of the law – he is one of those very much involved in the Synagogue process of teaching and learning. He would not simply take the words of the Torah, he would ask questions of it, he would identify the heart of the Torah.

Is he out to catch Jesus out?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

Is he simply trying to catch Jesus out. That’s one meaning of that word ‘test’. Or is it possible that another meaning could be found here …

to try to learn the nature or character of someone or something by submitting such to thorough and extensive testing - 'to test, to examine, to put to the test, examination, testing.'

Question 1

"Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

To my eye that’s not a catch question. It is a very genuine question. In fact it is one of the big questions of every age and every generation. Do you think it’s a question about life after death?

Look carefully at the question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

An inheritance is not something you get after you die. It is something you receive while you are still alive from someone else who has gone before you.

What must I do to receive the inheritance that is due to me from all those who have gone before in the Law, the Prophets and the writings, that fullness of life that comes from God’s eternity, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

What an interesting question. And Jesus finds it so. If the question is about an inheritance to receive from those who have gone before, in the Synagogue you know that the focus will be on the Torah, on the law.

So Jesus asks two questions – and they are not exactly the same.

Question 2

What is written in the law?

That question focuses the mind on the law, the Torah, the first five books of our Bible. That’s a massive body of literature that includes stories, history, laws to do with ritual, laws to do with individual behaviour, laws to do with community life.

As soon as the question is asked you are focused in on the five books of The Law.

But then Jesus asks the next question. Not what is written there – that includes the whole lot, but a sharper, more focused question,

Question 3
What do you read there?

What counts in Scripture is not just what is written there but what you read in it. What do you read there? You haven’t got time in your answer to recite the whole of the Torah – you have to sum it up. What do you read as the nub of the matter – all that the Torah stands for.

The Lawyer has an answer. It is not a foolish answer. Indeed it is a wonderful answer. It is an answer that Jesus gives on another occasion to someone else’s question.

It is a reminder that this coupling of love for God and love for neighbour is not new to Jesus. It is a way of reading the Torah that people like this Lawyer could see for themselves.

We need to respect him … he knows what he is talking about.

27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself." 28 And he said to him,

Look carefully at Jesus’ response. Jesus commends him.

"You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

You will live – or in other words you will receive your inheritance and your ordinary everyday life will be injected with that something extra that is real living, real life – bubbling over and full of God.

When we were in the Synagogue in Caperaum, one of our number was very argumentative. He put Henry on the spot – and the discussion went on … some were getting restless. Some were simply enjoying the experience of the question and answer technique of Synagogue teaching and learning.

We are quite disparaging of the lawyer for wanting to justify himself. But this is precisely what you would expect in the discussion. It’s precisely what Jesus would expect. It is the give and take of question and answer.

And of course the Lawyer’s question is the key question.

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,

Question 4

"And who is my neighbour?"

This time Jesus does something that again is typical of the Torah – the books of the Law don’t simply contain rules and regulations, they contain wonderful stories too.

The greatest truths often come as you enter into a story.

That’s what the lawyer found as he listened. That’s what countless generations of Christians have found as they have listened through the ages.

What a remarkable story – about thieves and robbers, a Samaritan, a Priest and a Levite. And listening to it you are drawn into it and you have to make a response.

Gathered in the Presence ... around the Word

Henry showed us the lintel of the synagogue – a picture of the synagogue itself – complete with its roof. But intriguingly, it is on wheels.

Why? The Ark of the Covenant was transported on a cart with wheels while the people travelled through the wilderness years, and first settled in the Holy Land. Only once the Temple had been built was it fixed in the Holy of Holies. And that was where God’s presence touched earth and could be felt in a special way.

But this is a massive claim for the Synagogue – it is here that God’s presence is felt. This is where God’s presence is to be found. How? As we gather together around God’s word and explore its meaning God’s presence is felt.

Remember that text we use as Congregationalists so often. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

The word ‘gathered’ is the Greek word ‘synago’. Where two or three synagogue together in my name, I am there among them.

God’s presence made real as we ‘synagogue’ together, as we gather together around God’s word and explore its meaning.

The gathered church that departed Plymouth in the Mayflower for what was to become the USA – had started in Lincolnshire and moved over to Leiden in Holland under the leadership of Pastor John Robinson, someone who had himself studied the scripture and wanted to model church and worship on the spirit led church of the new testament.

Each Sunday morning they would meet for worship centred around the reading and then preaching from Scripture. But then in the afternoon they would gather again – and this time, each of the people of the church would share their insights into Scripture under the moderation of John Robinson.

Teaching and Learning Around Scripture

- the heart of our Congregational way of being Church

Teaching and learning centred around Scripture – is the heart of our tradition. It is how this church at Highbury was born. Another picture – Richard found in the Car Boot Sale – of Highbury Congregational College in the 1820’s – the recognition that at the heart of church life is the need to study and teach and learn out of the Scriptures.

Charismatic friends do find their roots in the Bible in the church of Corinth with its speaking in tongues and other gifts, let’s respect their insights into church and learn from them. Orthodox and Catholic friends find their roots in the bible in the Temple worship Jesus valued and his followers did at the first. Let’s respect that.

But our roots are in the question and answer of exploration of God’s word.

But that question and answer is not enough.

There is one more question and answer in this passage.

The story over, Jesus asks the lawyer one more question.

Question 5

Which of these three, do you think was a neighbour

to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

Was there a pause before the answer came. Was it a life-changing exchange for that lawyer?

“the one who showed him mercy.”

Teaching and learning is no good unless we put what we learn into action.

Jesus says to us as the time for our synagogueing together draws to its close precisely what

Jesus said to him,

Go and do likewise.

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