‘Because there is no other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.’

A response taken from the Anglican liturgy of Evensong.

 

Today I read 1 Samuel 6-10. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens in chapter 8, it seems to be a hinge on which Israel’s future turns.

War torn Israel asks Samuel for a king. God has given them tribes and judges, a more diffuse, perhaps even more democratic (in the wider sense of the word) set up, but they want a king “like other nations.”

It is quite clear from this telling of the story that in asking for this they are rejecting, whether consciously or not, God’s kingship over them (8:7-8). Why?

Reading the chapters preceding, it is quite perplexing. The Philistines had victory against the Israelites, yes, but when they stole the arc of the covenant their luck certainly changed (1 Samuel 4-5). In chapter 7 we are told that God “thundered with a mighty voice” against the Philistines and Israel’s land was recaptured; that’s pretty decent stuff (kind of). But then I noticed that just before this victory they had asked Samuel to ‘cry out’ ceaselessly for them. Is it, then, that they trust not in God’s deliverance but in Samuel’s prayer?

Perhaps they can’t quite trust what they don’t see. Perhaps they think they need an intercessor, that there is no way to follow God without following man (and we ain’t talking ‘full God, fully man’ here; just man).

At first I thought  this choice was all about not trusting themselves to hear God, to be guided by God. While I think that’s part of it I think there’s something else going on. They want a ruler, they want someone to tell them what to do. Why? Perhaps because they don’t trust each other to be guided by God.

As well as a rejection of God, I see this choice as a rejection of community. In the systems of clans and judges there is room for debate, for consensus perhaps; but with that room comes messiness and effort. It is, I think, the harder route.

When you try to live in community, when no one person is ‘in charge’, then you have to be open to listening to others and to questioning yourself. You can’t just follow the rules, you have to engage with them, test them, even challenge them, or their interpretation. You have to be willing to change.

When someone is telling you what to do from on high you don’t need to wonder if it’s right or wrong, you don’t need to inquire into yourself; you’re just following orders.

In this, latter, model there is no personal responsibility. There is no group ownership of faith. Is there really what you could call a faith community?

From my impression, the early Christians seemed to embrace community living (Acts 2:43-47). There are natural leaders, apostles, of course, there are different roles within community, but there is still engagement of all. This is key for me. And I worry, sometimes, that many just go to church and listen to a sermon and believe it, rather than engage with it. The more I read the Bible, the more sure I am that there could ever be one person who ‘has all the answers, but I’d still love there to be. I still look for a teacher other than Jesus (Matthew 23:8).

There is a telling verse near the end of chapter 8. The Israelites hope that “our king may govern us and may go out before us and fight our battles.” I think they were afraid of the almighty, unpredictable force that has been going out before them. They want something they can pin down, someone they can hear physically, not something they have to stop and listen to ‘in their hearts’.  I think that they would rather just have a nice predictable human who they can see and touch; they think it will be easier to obey him. That once they have the right leader then everything will be sorted; life will be easier. They look to another, rather than within themselves.

Enter Saul… but that’s a whole other post.

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Dear reader, I’ve really enjoyed my experiments over the last week or so. Letting myself be freer and more creative in my responses to reading the Bible has really breathed new life into this project. Thanks God!

Yes, I’ve definitely felt more enthusiastic of late… and then there was 1 Corinthians 5-6. These are not two chapters that give me that ‘spurred-on by the word of God feeling’; more turned off by the word of Paul. I don’t react well when the chapter heading is “sexual immorality defiles the church” and as read I just kept thinking “stop being mean!” It makes me angry when I read lines like “drive out the wicked person from among you” (5:8). Is that how the Church is supposed to behave? To ‘hand over to Satan’ those who are not living right (5:5)? Aren’t we supposed to love them???

Okay, lady, take a breath. Aaah that’s better. Once I let my immediate (allergic) reactions die down I begin to see past the bits that make me angry. Paul is writing to a divided community in different time. In fact I read a great reflection commentary on 6:12-20 which opened up this whole reading for me.  So here goes:

 It is widely believed that Paul established the church in Corinth when he lived there for a year or so (Acts 18:11, AD 49-51?). He’s writing to them sometime later (AD 54?), when they seem to have more than slightly lost their way.

He had taught them about the freedom that we are offered in Jesus; he had taught them of a redemption that was beyond the law. However, they seem to have taken the whole freedom thing and run with it. So much so that they are now boasting about a man in their congregation who’s married his father’s wife (is his father still alive? is it his mum? too many icky questions). They’re also arguing in public, taking lawsuits against each other (6:1-11). So it looks like the early Christians weren’t so good at working on their public image; “come to church; you can sleep with your step-mum and argue with each other”. Erm, no thanks.

When I think about it like this, no wonder Paul needs to give them a good talking to. I’m still uncomfortable with the whole ‘throw the naughty ones out’ idea. Seventy times seven and all that. But then I guess you can’t forgive someone if they’re not sorry… Still, I think one of the most miraculous and inspiring things is when you stick by someone even when they’re behaving badly. When you just keep loving them. That’s a witness of Christ to me.

That aside, there’s something really important going on here. The beloved Spiderman quotation (beloved by my husband at least, he wishes he had spidey senses) goes “with great power comes great responsibility”, perhaps the same is true of freedom. Indeed, I think what it is to be free has been totally misunderstood in recent years (always? I duno, I’m only 26). It’s seen as an absence of constraints, a “I can do anything I want, I’m empowered” thing. I certainly saw it like that (within reason, not many people feel they are ‘free’ to kill others etc).

But perhaps instead of an absence it’s a presence, or the assurance of a presence. The deep knowing that God is and always will be with us. This freedom isn’t the kind that makes you want to go out and get wasted, it’s the kind that frees you from those needs for oblivion. But there are no rules; you don’t have to be a teetotaler to please Him either. He just wants your heart. That’s a big ‘just’.

A passage from ‘concerning worship’ in the Iona Abbey worship book (fantastic resource) reads “We owe our very existence as a community to the central Gospel conviction that worship is all that we are and all that we do. Either everything we do is an offering to God, or nothing. We may not pick and chose.”

Wow. Everthing? I was really struck by this, especially “we can’t pick and choose”. And it seems to resonate with what Pauls is saying when he asks “do you know that your bodies are members of Christ?” He is reminding the Corinthians that they’re not living for themselves, that their religion cannot simply be a mechanism for justifying their behaviour.

You are one with Christ. Do you get that? Do you get how major that is?

When we know this, when we enter into a community where knowing this is the premise for everything else, we open ourselves up to be challenged. Instead of reading Paul’s words as arrogant berating, I could see them as brotherly admonition (though he terms it fatherly in 4:15 but that’s not very Matthew 23:9).

It is okay for us to challenge each other, because we have all made a commitment to be changed each day from glory in glory.

Paul makes it very clear that there is a different standard for those outside the Church (5:10) and though he phrases it in rather derogatory terms (we know that there are good people who aren’t Christian!) I think his meaning remains true for us. If you have invested in the message of Jesus, if you have chosen the narrow gate, then you better be ready to have a long hard look at yourself. What is the church for if not to hold up the mirror?

Church needs to be a place where can safely, lovingly challenge each other, not because we know better, or we live better, but precisely because we’re all in the same boat. And sometimes the boat needs rocking.

Can you imagine a community where it was safe enough to challenge each other? Where criticism could be seen as an expression of love not attack? I’m not sure I’m secure enough to be a community like that, but I think it sounds very special. Perhaps Paul thought so too.