Scripture: John 5: 1-8; Acts 15: 1-11
What must you do to be a follower of Jesus or, to put it differently, to be made whole? Many times doctrine and compromise seem to be unbridgeable.
The man by the pool of Bethsaida wanted healing
The Gospel author John tells us that people in Jerusalem believed that illnesses would be cured if you were the first person in the pool when the water got stirred up,. The man Jesus met had tried to get this cure for a long time – John says 38 years. But each time, other people shoved him out of the way.
Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” The man could have answered,, “Yes, that would be my greatest dream.” Instead, he said, “No-one will help me get into the pool at the right moment; they keep shoving me out of the way.” In other words, he decided to play the victim card. “I’m not cured because life is unfair. It’s all other people’s fault. Jesus didn’t debate the rights and wrongs of getting shoved around. He just told the man, “Take up your mat and walk.”
Many modern Westerners look for scape-goats
These days, many North Americans believe that their children’s future will not be as good as their parents’. Here in Canada, house prices are too high for our children to afford because foreigners are buying up property. Americans complain about cheap imports from China, and that Chinese firms don’t play by the rules. Americans and Europeans both claim that immigrants are taking away jobs from local people. We all feel that other people are shoving us away and we can’t get into the pool first.
Jesus asked the sick man, “Do you want to be made well?” At first, he said, “It’s no good; people keep pushing me out of the way.” When Jesus replied, “Take up your mat and walk” he could have said, “That won’t work; I’ve been lying here for years.” That attitude guarantees failure. Instead, he must have said to himself, “I’ve got nothing to lose. I might as well try what this faith healer guy is telling me. Maybe it really will work.” So he tried to get up, and he succeeded.
Church people also look for scape-goats
Within the Church, I read continually that we are in an inevitable and irreversible state of decline. There are so many other attractions on Sundays these days – hockey practice and dancing lessons; all the shops are open; people go for brunch instead of coming to church. Will the last Anglican please turn out the lights? That response is the same as the sick man’s. It’s other people’s fault. Would Jesus tell us, “I really sympathize with your problem”? More likely he’d say the equivalent of, “Take up your mat and walk. Get involved. Go to one of the diocesan visioning sessions. Put in your two cents worth!”
Doctrine and compromise: must all Christians be Jewish first?
The early Christians in Jerusalem faced the problem of what it meant to be a Christian. The Jerusalem-based Christians, under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus, saw themselves as part of mainstream Judaism. Paul and Barnabas had a more international outlook. They were making converts on their missionary journeys through the Middle East. James’ group thought that everyone would have to follow Jewish dietary laws (i.e., eat only kosher foods), and all male converts would have to be circumcised. That would have greatly limited the appeal of Christianity in the Gentile world, where Paul and Barnabas were preaching. They imagined the old Jewish dream that eventually, and specifically when the Messiah came, God’s righteous rule would become available to all the nations [Isaiah 2: 2-4// Micah 4: 1-5]. .
What was under debate at the assembly in Jerusalem was doctrine. Who was in and who was out? A couple of weeks ago, Jan addressed that question in the context of Jesus’ saying in John 10: 16. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them home …. so that there will be one flock and one shepherd.” In the end, the Jerusalem assembly agreed that both Jews and Gentiles could receive the Holy Spirit. They needed only the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. The slogan “Jesus is Lord” expresses this idea [1 Corinthians 12: 3 and Romans 10:9]. So Christianity began to diverge from Judaism.
Strict doctrine should not be the most important issue
James’ supporters argued that the most important doctrinal issue was Jewishness. Paul and Barnabas said that the belief, “Jesus is Lord,” was more important. There’s a lot to unpack in those three words. Early Christians lived under the rule of the Roman Emperor, an autocrat and self-proclaimed divinity. For them, the statement was subversive – the Emperor is not lord.
Two things follow. First, even in our own day, we may sometimes have to put the lordship of Jesus over and above the lordship of secular rulers. We may – individually or as the Church – have to say, “Justin Trudeau, or Doug Ford, or whoever, is not lord.” This or that policy is wrong, immoral. I have often quoted Oscar Romero, Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, who was murdered for saying, in essence, “The brutal military dictators in El Salvador are not lord”.
Second, “Jesus is Lord” trumps lesser doctrinal issues. Do the bread and wine at Communion turn into the actual Body and Blood of Christ? Or are they merely memorials of Jesus’ command at the Last Supper, “Do this to remember me?” If Jesus is Lord, does it really matter? Or, does it really matter if two Christians hold sincere but opposing views on abortion or gay marriage? In both cases, I say ‘No’, provided that both can affirm, “Jesus is Lord”. However, they must also agree to respect the other even when they disagree on doctrine.
Fundamental human rights or human privileges?
That issue is playing out in the US right now concerning abortion. Some evangelical Christians are so sure that they are right that they cannot respect another point of view. Both sides have chosen to frame the debate in terms of human rights – the right of a woman to have an abortion versus the right to life of the unborn child. It becomes as question of which ‘right’ is more important. Neither side respects the other. Doctrine and compromise seem to be mutually incompatible.
The whole idea of fundamental human rights is very recent. It dates formally from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). But human rights exist only when there is the political will to uphold them. They are fragile and can be easily lost, as we see regarding access to abortion in Alabama and other conservative states. Evangelicals might consider that the right to freedom of worship also exists only as long as there is political will. Try being a Christian in Saudi Arabia, for example! Or being gay in Tanzania. I sometimes replace the term ‘rights’ to a benefit with the idea of ‘privilege’ of having the benefit.
Among Christians today, there’s so much polarization over issues like the nature of the Eucharist, or sexual orientation, or abortion that they cannot speak to each other, let alone share communion. When I was the curate at St. James’ Fergus, I helped organize the interdenominational service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I thought it would great to have a joint communion service open to all. I was told categorically that it would be too divisive; no-one would come! We could not bridge the divide between doctrine and compromise.
Christianity at its best: doctrine and compromise act together
Please don’t get me wrong about the idea of Christian unity. We share our building with a Romanian Orthodox congregation. Christian unity doesn’t mean that I have to worship in the Romanian language. Equally, I doubt that our Romanian friends want to sing Anglican hymns. But what we have here at St. George’s is the best of Christianity – two groups who both acknowledge ‘Jesus is Lord’. Both are comfortable in their own styles of worship. We don’t think that ‘our way is better than yours’. That is exactly the kind of doctrine and compromise issue that James, Paul, and Barnabas reached in Jerusalem. Agree that Jesus is Lord, but don’t sweat the small stuff.