I’ve had a fair bit of reading to do recently. As I shared with you recently, there was the draft Covenant that has been put before all the Churches of the Anglican Communion as a way of getting us all to agree on the things that we hold in common, and to agree that the most important thing for us is to preserve the unity of God’s Church – and I’ve shared with you my profound worry about this document that when you boil it down it seems to be more about putting a lid on disagreement, of setting out some fundamental guidelines and structures of authority, and providing a mechanism for dealing with any Dioceses and Provinces that seem to be getting out of line according to the majority opinion – I worry about this because it seems to be more about codifying the instruments of Church governance and less about recognising God’s grace in one another or responding together to the new ways God might be leading us – then, just on Friday, I got my hands on the draft Strategic plan for our own Diocese that’s supposed to guide us through the next three years or so, and I guess part of me groaned inwardly as I thought ‘I guess I’ve got to get my head around this before Synod’ – but then the first thing I noticed is that the language is quite different, because it’s based on a completely different assumption. Instead of the assumption that some of us might lose the plot and need to be brought back into line by being reminded of the rules, there seems to be the assumption that the future of God’s Church is already lurking in there somewhere, that God has kind of woven into the DNA of the Church something new and wonderful that we just need to tease out and recognise, that all sorts of people, both clergy and lay people, have got the gifts that God is relying on to respond to the fresh challenges of a new century - and that we can be confident that when our faithfulness coincides with God’s faithfulness, when we trust that God is leading us into a new and exciting phase of our life as a Diocese, then all sorts of wonderful things will happen. I don’t for a moment mean to imply that this is a perfect blueprint, or even that I’ve quite digested it yet – in fact I’m sure there’ll be lots of argument about it at Synod – but I think it’s the right set of assumptions. It’s the difference, I think, between trying to build walls around the Church and define for sure what it is and what it isn’t – and setting God’s people free to listen and to dream.
And yes, all this has got something to do with this morning’s gospel.
You see, this really simple story isn’t really about healing somebody who is sick – we miss the point if we start speculating on whether this poor woman has got osteoporosis and why exactly Luke tells us she’s been like this for 18 years (which given the life expectancy back then would be about half a lifetime) – it’s actually a story about God’s people being set free from what imprisons them.
I think maybe the first thing to notice is that Jesus comes across this woman in the synagogue – in the middle of God’s faithful people - and notice she doesn’t approach Jesus herself, she doesn’t expect anything from him, even though she’s in the synagogue to worship God. This woman challenges us, because if we’re honest we recognise her. The faithful member of God’s Church who has spent half her life isolated, weakened and bent over – unable to take any initiative until Jesus takes the initiative for her. Jesus calls her over to him and touches her – so the first thing this story tells us is that being God’s people means we have to be prepared to take the initiative. If this isn’t a place where people reach out and touch one another, if people can come here and still be bent over and alone and in pain, then how do we dare say anything at all about the compassion of God?
The second thing is this, that for half her life this woman has been known by a false name. She’s been ‘the crippled woman’, the one who can only see other people’s feet because she’s bent so far over. So nobody looks at her face, she’s defined not by who she is but by her limitations. And Jesus gives her a name, in fact, Jesus gives her her true name, he calls her, ‘daughter of Abraham’, and by calling her that he gives her back her true identity as a child of God and as a member of God’s family. Actually, this is the difference between healing and just curing. Healing is about being set free from what confines you, for example from a negative self image or a false sense of shame that can twist a person’s life out of shape. Healing, literally, is about unbending people, about setting women and men free from labels that imprison them, or from decades of fear or failure. Being God’s people means knowing ourselves and one another by our true names.
And the third thing, of course, is that Jesus sets this woman free on the Sabbath. Actually, you read through Luke’s gospel in particular, and you’d be forgiven for thinking Jesus only ever healed people on the Sabbath. It’s one of the things he gets into trouble for time and time again. And in fact Jesus’ argument back to the synagogue official about untying your donkey on the Sabbath to give it water doesn’t sound at first like one of his finest come-backs. If she’s had this curvature of the spine or whatever it was for 18 years, another day wouldn’t have hurt – whereas of course donkeys need water every day of the week.
Except that it’s not really about a medical cure, it’s about setting God’s people free. The synagogue official uses the Greek word therapeuo, to cure, but Jesus uses the word apoluo, to liberate, both for the woman and the donkey – the point he’s actually making is that the Sabbath is a day for setting free. If you happen to be Jewish, you understand that point straight away – because we were slaves in
You see, in our Christian tradition one of our less attractive tendencies is to poke fun at the Pharisees and the scribes and lawyers in the Gospels – as though they’re a sort of religious equivalent of the Keystone Cops – forgetting maybe the reality that the rich vein of Judaism is what underlies our own religion and that Jesus himself was a rabbi who scrupulously observed the Torah – we do poke fun at the hapless religious leaders who never get the better of Jesus in an argument but forget sometimes that we’re really not all that different – we who hear Jesus’ scandalous promise that we don’t have to do anything at all to earn God’s love and God’s forgiveness because it’s absolutely gratuitous, no strings attached – it’s as though the message that God has set us free to be ourselves scares us so much that we have to work extra hard at tying ourselves up in knots again.
We do put conditions and limits on the grace of God, that’s the gist of it when we argue that we’ve got the right way of interpreting Scripture and try to bully others who disagree with us. When we set up ways of controlling how God’s people can worship, who is acceptable and who isn’t; when we try to set limits to what is properly Anglican and what isn’t – when, in other words, we forget that it’s God’s Holy Spirit that inspires and directs the Church and start to think it’s us. When we start to think we come to Church to be nurtured and fed, and forget that we’re also called to nurture and to feed the ones on either side of us. When we forget that the very main business of being the Church is to be a place where people can be set free, where people can find themselves accepted and loved, and where people can learn to let go of whatever has been keeping them bent over. And in the process maybe we forget that we – like this synagogue official – are a bit bent over ourselves, and what Jesus really wants to do for us is to set us free.
The Sabbath is the very best day of the week to do it. And the very place place is right here.