Trinity 10/Proper 16
Why do you come to church?
What answer would you give to that question if asked by someone who is not a Christian?
Maybe this is a difficult question to answer.
I was asked this question many years ago by a friend and I struggled to come up with an answer. I was very involved in the church I was going to; I was feeling like a ‘good’ Christian. Yet I did not have a clear answer on why I went to church. It didn’t help that she prefaced her question with the wry observation that ‘I didn’t seem the church-going type.’ The answer to be revealed later!
This is something to give thought to in light of the Gospel reading this morning as it takes place in a synagogue on the Sabbath. The Christian equivalent of church on a Sunday morning! We have three main characters: Jesus, the synagogue leader and the crippled woman. All in church on a Sunday morning. This is also the third story in Luke’s Gospel featuring Jesus healing someone in a synagogue on the Sabbath and causing problems with the leaders.
Firstly we need to understand the rules. The preface in the weekly email yesterday asked if you were a rule breaker or a rule keeper. The Jewish faith had very strict rules about the Sabbath going all the way back to Genesis when ‘God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.’
Sabbath rest was a solemn obligation, to set aside the day for rest from work. Its importance is shown as this is one of the Ten Commandments, so serious that to break it was considered a capital offence. There is, however, very little explanation about what is meant by ‘no work’ on the Sabbath. The only specific things in the OT were that fires could not be lit, sticks for the fire could not be gathered and the Israelites could not collect any manna. Sabbath was meant to mark and celebrate the relationship with God but how this worked out in practice was fairly open.
By the time of Jesus, many centuries later, the Sabbath was still very important although many rules had been made up over time. Different groups had different rules about what could and could not be done. How far you could travel, soldiers could not carry weapons, food had to be prepared the day before, no water could be fetched, no sex. It had also become customary to meet in the synagogue for corporate prayer, reading of Scripture and instruction. Church!
Jesus abided by the rules of both the Sabbath and his culture. He attended synagogue services and was allowed to teach there. But Jesus did not always behave himself in church! I am not sure what your reaction is to the people you feel do not behave themselves in church! We like our rules, our particular seats, hymns, people – the list goes on.
What has Jesus done? In this case – Jesus heals the woman who is bent over double in the synagogue and on the Sabbath.
Let’s look at the reactions of the other 2 main characters:
Synagogue leader: upset! Jesus is not behaving. He is breaking the rules. The leader’s idea of the synagogue does not involve God or people. Just rules.
The Isaiah reading reminds us that the point of the Sabbath is to change your daily focus. Jane Williams writes ‘without a day on which you remember what you are for, and who your God is, you can just get into the habit of thinking only of yourself and your own needs. Isaiah sees the sabbath as a day that turns you back to God and so away from yourself and towards others.’
The leader’s argument is that Jesus has broken the Sabbath by healing the woman bent double. This was not an emergency or life-threatening. He is a leader unconcerned for the needs of his congregation. Come back at a more convenient time; there are six other days in the week for this sort of thing.
Why did the synagogue leader go to the synagogue? Duty? Tradition? Maintain the rules?
The Woman. Why did she go to the synagogue that day? Was she a regular? She would have been a social outcast, on the margins. Did she have a family? Her condition was likely seen by others as a result of her sin. We are given the specifics of her condition; bent over double. No NHS. Was it painful? Who helped her? Did she have friends? Always find these people fascinating when you stop to consider their circumstances.
The rabbi and leader would not have had much to do with her as they did not associate with women. Maybe she had some expectations when she went to the synagogue? Something would happen – would she be healed? Made better? Well that Sabbath she was. She walked into the synagogue, not seen by the leaders, bent over double like every day for 18 years. But she walked out straightened up.
Jesus saw her. Jesus took the initiative and with a word and a touch she was healed. This is amazing stuff!
And the synagogue leader is upset.
Jesus has a word for him too!
It was hypocritical for the leader to deny the woman what he would have done for a donkey. The rules that the synagogue leader lived by demanded that compassion be shown to animals in distress including on the Sabbath. Jesus highlights that his priorities were wrong.
This Gospel story reminds us that we can get it wrong. We can miss the point of coming to church. If we make it more about rules and regulations than about the wholeness and abundant life in and with Christ. We become like the synagogue leader; protecting our religious systems as we like them and want them. Yet we are also like the woman with the bent back. Weighed down by the worries of the world and our own situations.
We all need Christ to straighten us up! To release us, unburden us.
So – why do you come to church?
What is our expectation level of Jesus?
Do we expect him to show up?
Do we leave room in our religion to let him in?
When I was unable to answer that question, another, cleverer friend came to my rescue. She said that she went to church to be challenged in her relationship with God.
That was the answer I was looking for and have hung on to.
We would all be (I hope) greatly challenged if Jesus walked through the door and performed some healing this morning. Wouldn’t you?
I go to church to be challenged in my relationship with God.
We need to be regularly straightened up about a few things. We need a challenge and this should come through the musical worship, the words, the readings, the prayers, the preaching (I hope I am doing that for you!). We can, of course, be challenged through our relationships with other people.
Church does not exist apart from God and other people. Sometimes our interpretation of the rules needs to be challenged. Let us pray we do not lose sight of that.