“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Can this suggestion by Jesus undercut the overall tenor of the way these readings have been combined seemingly to try to argue for an authoritarian and patriarchal (based on the 12 patriarchs of the 12 tribes) view of church authority? What then if we refused to let our hearts be troubled or afraid but stoutly look for a transgressive reading that will liberate us from the more oppressively traditional interpretations?
In the first reading, some unnamed people have decided that they can speak with authority of the church and preach a rules-based slavish adherence to one part of the cultural heritage of the church. They say that you can’t follow Christ unless you are circumscised. Rather than reading this in an anti-semitic way, let us consider other church teachings over the years that have been needlessly prescriptive, oppressive or misguidedly heaped on the shoulders of the laity?
Unless you eat fish on Fridays you cannot be saved
Unless you go to church every single week you cannot be saved
Unless you are heterosexual you cannot be saved
If you use contraception you cannot be saved
If you disobey the clergy you cannot be saved
If you read and interpret the bible for yourself instead of trusting the church hierarchy you cannot be saved.
Some of these seem ludicrous to us today, but would have been the church’s common sense not so long ago. Some sadly there are still many people within the church who would subscribe. This is the prescriptive and narrow-minded side of church teaching, all of that which is dogmatic but not liberative and ignores the autonomy of the person to respond to God in free relationship rather than only through trembling obedience to the church. This compares to the circumcision argument in the first reading.
Along come Paul and Barnabbas from the apostles and elders and tell them they have no mandate to be so bossy. The wording is unfortunate “you have no mandate from us” as if Paul and Barnabbas et al run the church. The real point is “you have no mandate from God to be needlessly prescriptive and bind people into rigid, lifeless traditions”. The traditional reading here of course is that the “apostles and elders” are the proper authorities and the way we are church needs to always be guided by their authority. They are shown to be a liberative and wise authority that prevents abuses of power. OH IF ONLY!!!!
The fact is as women we know that the “apostles and elders”, or at least the officially sanctioned ones are all too often the ones doing the opressing, repressing and abusing. There are voices of abuse victims reverbating from several generations of having the courage to speak out and I think we risk a very serious sin indeed if we ignore these voices (like the blood of Abel calling for vengeance at the dawn-times of our tradition). There is also the present, ongoing prevention of women from having full participation and fair representation in how the church makes decisions about things that frankly men have amply demonstrated they neither understand nor are capable of understanding.
So the call to obey the “right authority” of the church is one that makes the hairs on my neck stand up. There is danger here, engage hermeneutic of suspicion! But the overarching agenda to reduce unnecessary burden on the believer, yes this is an important point. To do this well, I think we understand in the 21st century, needs a degree of democratic engagement (time for the catholic church to come out of its medieval cave and realise this) and a respect for boundaries and for the autonomy of the individual. That is I can have a rational discussion with you about whether contraception is good, bad or indifferent but if my life experiences are very different than yours, and I in no way (or in minimal ways) am able to support the consequences of what you decide, then I don’t really get to make that decision for you. This is called respect, it’s a side-effect of character traits like peace, gentleness and self-control which are supposed to be fruits of the Holy Spirit. But the spirit of slavery that Paul warns about is rife in the church, in the way authority cracks down on people but also in us, in the way we accept unwise authority and do not take responsibility to think for ourselves.
Even though there is this picture in the second reading of a dazzling construction that is the “city of God” and perhaps a metaphor of the church, and it has inscibed on it the names of the Twelve, again appearing to lend credibility to patriarchal authority. There are significantly no temples or lights in the city. The lamb is enough. We do not need other rituals or lights shedding light for us, each one who comes to the city can directly look upon “the lamb” for light and for inspiration, each of us can personally worship not through the mediating influence of a temple. The Twelve are mere gates or foundations of tradition, but who says there may not be other ways to come to the lamb, to the only light.
Once again there has been enough in the reading to engage my hermeneutic of suspicion but I can respect that tradition has at times a richness without being bogged down in the tradition, I can pass on through to Godself. It would be easier and safer if tradition was reliable and if church authorities were infallible but there is light more than sun or moon for us. There is the lamb.
And so we pass onto the gospel and see what this “lamb” has to say.
Jesus here once again like last week shows that his words and deeds are identical to the words and deeds of God (here called the father). The Spirit is also brought into the discussion and we see the identical interests and work of the Spirit as one with the “father” and with Jesus. So in a sense there is grounding for trinitarian understanding here, but it is also about an alignment of interests and trusting collaboration as discussed last week. Love of Jesus is shown by keeping Jesus’ word. It sounds as if Jesus has made promises about the reign of God and if we love him we will try to keep those promises. But it is a mistake to see the vocation here as merely words, preaching in the narrow sense. The word of God is elsewhere called “alive and active” it actualises what it preaches. And that is what we do to keep the word of Jesus. So then we are brought into trinitarian action through love. I don’t say we become God, as I am not attempting idolatry here but we ARE CALLED to move toward becoming one with God in interests, intention and action. So that if our response to our vocation was perfect we WOULD be drawn into God’s identity but at least through our love for Jesus we achieve this partially (and more when the Spirit teaches us).
Lastly as a look forward to next week’s attention, if we loved Jesus we would rejoice that he was going to the “Father”. So if we selfishly hand onto the feet of Jesus and try to keep him here as a rigid idol or a fossilised token of assurance then we are not loving Jesus. Jesus asks for the same freedom and autonomy he is offering us. We become unified through the Holy Spirit’s movement and out love-response not through obedient or co-dependent toxic relationships.
And if that is Jesus’ desire then it really needs to become the church’s desire too. We the church will resemble our beloved Christ when we stop trying to control people, when we trust people’s free love-responses and movement toward the beloved. In a flawed and hurtful world that is very hard to believe of course. But this is what it measn to love God. Challenge accepted.