THE CENTRALITY THAT HOLDS
Beneath all differences of doctrine or discipline there exists a fundamental agreement as to the simple, absolute essentials in religion.
Julia Ward Howe
One of the sad things about Christianity is the ease with which some of those following the faith turn to become intolerant of anyone who might be walking a slightly different path. Even within the first generation of those forming the Christian Church the number of such divisive beliefs was extraordinary. Although Paul was only addressing one particular Church community and highlighting their divisions – which would be very different from our divisions today – in his day people appear to have been as likely to reject people for legalistic reasons as they are today. We might note that although the points of difference Paul referred to now might seem to us to be trivial and peculiar to the church culture of the time, yet in their setting, the issues must have seemed great indeed.
Paul talks for example about the division meat eating caused. Remember that in those days the issue was not so much the attraction of vegetarianism but rather a reaction to the fact that it was difficult to ensure that meat had been killed according to religious tradition. Meat which even had a slight chance of being killed according to some other tradition was considered to be contaminated and unlawful to eat by those with a Jewish background. If the meat for example, had been sacrificed on a pagan altar, or not killed according to strict religious protocol, it was thought to go against sacred rule to eat it. For those living in Rome, the chances that purchased meat was killed according to Jewish law would have been much less than they would have been in Jerusalem.
Although we would find it hard to see what the fuss was today, remember the underlying issue was whether or not they should obey the laws in the only scripture they had at that point. The New Testament was still to be written and the other scriptures were still a few years away from being formulated into what we often call the Old Testament (at the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD)
There were also disputes about days. Remember again we are talking Rome. There some of the new gentile converts to Christianity would have been far less attached to the Jewish sacred feasts and specific Holy days which were generally still followed by the early Christians who were Jewish. Conversely the non Jewish Gentile Christians would no doubt be wishing to retain some of their own more traditional days and festivals. Remember that both Christmas and Easter were originally non-Jewish and non-Christian feasts that got borrowed by the Christian Church and changed in meaning.
Paul was not so much saying the rules should be ignored. He was more suggesting that where the rules are dividing – we should look behind those rules to the principles and insights that unite us.
I guess one possible reason why Paul was far less attached to specific rules even if they came from scripture was that since becoming a Christian, Paul the missionary had been an inveterate traveller. Travel in strange places is great for realising that outward customs come in many different forms yet many might simply be different outward manifestations of what are essentially the same ideals and values.
Paul rightly sees the danger in disputes within the faith. Insisting on different customs and rules can lead to hurtful criticisms and abuse. Paul identified such divisiveness as being very destructive to the emerging Church community. Seeing beyond the different observances of religious custom whether it be communion, baptism, rites of membership, or the insistence of certain wording of our creeds, Paul’s suggestion that instead we should focus on what Jesus stood for, gives us a sense of perspective taking us back to centrality of principles of compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.
If we are honest with ourselves we would have to say that many of the differences we find within our Church today wouldn’t even have been recognised as legitimate in Paul’s day because the culture and customs have changed so much. I have seen churches where people argue about what is essential furniture forgetting that in Paul’s day, furniture for places of worship was largely absent and probably considered entirely irrelevant. I have seen Churches where they value stained glass windows portraying Bible scenes whereas at one time it was considered inappropriate to have any images of human figures present in a place of worship. Women clergy are acceptable today in many Churches but in Paul’s day women were not even allowed to speak in Church and often were placed away from the men during worship. Consider for a moment a selection of issues that currently cause different opinions in the Church –
For some it will be issues like whether or not homosexual ministers are acceptable to the Church, for others it might be how we find meaning in the Bible, whether or not there is a heaven, whether or not God can change the weather or someone’s illness if we pray…Whether or not Christians should drink alcohol… and so on. Because we are all inclined to believe that our chosen faith is the best, we might also be uncomfortable with those who teach other versions of Christianity – thus for Protestants the teachings of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the Mormons and the Roman Catholics are all slightly suspect – yet as soon as we hear Jesus calling us back to his essential principles these things seem somehow of little consequence. Yes and for those of a very conservative faith, there may well be 613 rules comprising the law of the Old Testament.
We might for example use those rules selectively to deal to those we don’t like – and say we are enlisting God on our side. Yet Paul says we have to put the rule dividing differences to one side as we focus on what Jesus really was about. And what again was it that Jesus said?
The most important rule is, “Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. You’ve got to love the Lord your God with your whole being – with your whole heart and every ounce of energy.” And the second most important rule is, “You must love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself.” No other rule is greater than these two.
With these words, Jesus abolishes religion of the sort which tries to cajole God into supporting whatever our current rules might be. He pioneers the way for Paul and, much later, the way for some of our modern prophets like Colin Morris as they point out that a religion of rules can neither buy God’s approval nor bring social justice.
If our version of Christianity causes us to separate ourselves from our wider community and not notice where things are going astray for our community and our world our religion becomes less relevant.
The upshot of Paul’s writing for us today is, I think, to recognise that the way our current rules and customs shape our religion in churches on Sunday may help us develop what to us are comfortable customs but in no way should they define how we are to be Christian. Nor is the Christian way of life even defined by an ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast of the sort we might find in the detail of our creeds. .
But Christians are still defined by a choice to love – rather than by obedience to religious laws (says Jesus); by a willingness to set aside the security of external ceremonies (says Paul); and both imply the need to focus on issues where the principles of Jesus need a clear input.
Let us stop to consider one of the big issues of the day. All is not well in this world. The economists and scientists tell us that for the possible the first time in history there is enough food on the planet to feed all the population. Yet the international surveys tell us that there are many obese – as well as many who remain hungry. Those who are hungry are in effect being denied access to the food. Almost a billion are seriously hungry – many to the point of starvation and in many countries (including New Zealand) there has been a growing gap between the rich and the poor. There may be a good number who attend Church – but among the ones who are attending to the principles of Jesus are those who show by thought, word and action that they wish to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Attending to minimal rules of honesty would probably lead you to overlook the gap between the rich and the poor so here too in fact Paul is right to remind us that we need the over-riding principles.
In Words We Live By Brian Burrell tells of an armed robber named Dennis Lee Curtis who was arrested in 1992, in Rapid City, South Dakota. Curtis had a clear idea about what for him was a code of acceptable and unacceptable practice. In his wallet the police found a sheet of paper with the following code.
1. I will not kill anyone unless I have to.
2. I will take cash and food stamps – no cheques
3. I will rob only at night.
4. I will not wear a mask.
5. I will not rob mini-marts or 7 – Eleven stores.
6. If I get chased by cops on foot, I will get away. If chased by vehicle, I will not put the lives of innocent civilians on the line.
7. I will rob only seven months out of the year.
8. I will enjoy robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
It will not surprise you that the Judge took no notice of this code and passed the standard judgement according to the wider principle of accepted law. It seems to me that the overriding principles that Jesus taught would provide a good guide as to what is acceptable whether it be moral decisions about helping the poor and the hungry – decisions about what is acceptable behaviour for Denis Lee Curtis – or even the question as to what is the most desirable way to interact with those whose journey in faith is different to our own.
It is inevitable that sooner or later we will encounter those who see life and faith differently to ourselves. We will always be tempted to focus on the differences.
Yet in the midst of the rivalries there is a quiet insistent voice calling us to new possibilities as we meet in a spirit of love.