This week (October 18, Year A) the Bible stories focus on how God works in people we wouldn’t expect, showing how His sovereignty covers all people and all affairs.
Knowing Him through Jesus, we enjoy a very privileged relationship, but it is not as exclusive as we sometimes like to think. There are plenty of stories of people’s Christian journey starting with God revealing Himself, perhaps an unexpected act of love, when they hardly knew Him.
Some churches have added to their numbers significantly through engaging with Healing on the Streets, an opportunity for people to be prayed with and experience God’s healing touch — and as the name implies, it is not something held in church or even aimed at Christians.
A vision beyond the cultural boundaries
Many of Isaiah’s insights were extraordinary, but the story related in Isaiah 45:1-7 must have shocked his hearers, and probably left them baffled, as it reached forward into the time following the fall of Jerusalem and the exiles longing to return. Isaiah lived a century before the exile happened. It was a foretelling of a Persian king, correctly named as Cyrus, who would receive extraordinary favour and success from Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. He was a Persian who followed an idol called Marduk and did not know the Living God of the Israelites, who would, however, give him success and use Him to help fulfil His plans. Cyrus would be enabled to conquer Babylon, break the oppression of the Israelites and then would publish a decree allowing the exiles to return to their homeland. The book of Ezra details the beginnings of that return.
Jesus offends the guardians of boundaries
In the gospel account for October 18, Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus shows how civil rule and spiritual rule are distinct and different, yet both come under God’s sovereignty. The religious leaders hearing this, looking for a reason to condemn Him, must have choked as they heard this — but what Jesus said was not blasphemy and neither was it a rebellion against Roman rule and taxation. The Jews may gave hated being occupied and ruled by pagan Romans, but there were benefits: Pax Romana brought stability and protection with law and order. And Jesus did not protest against the taxation which went went with it, although he distanced himself fromThe Jewish religious leaders considered that they defined the law in civil matters as well as religious. This first-century way of government was similar to the the authoritarian rule promoted in our time by extremist Islamic movements and attempting to create what they call a ‘caliphate’. Its a classic deception, pretending to create God’s narrow and therefore ‘holy’ rule while imposing dictatorship government that is all about man’s control and authority, not God’s.
Jesus came to represent God’s kingdom, to confront religious oppression and bring this fair and compassionate order in the lives of all men and women. To draw out the distinction of what is part of God’s realm, and what is properly delegated to civil rulers and laws, gives us guidance today. Until the mid 1500s the church had sought to have the last word in government and be a major player in terms of wealth and power. Adding to that wealth by attempting to sell salvation in the form of indulgences was the corruption that sparked the Reformation, following which the a large part of the Church rediscovered its identity in Jesus and salvation by faith alone, and civil government discovered democracy and accountability in which people of faith continue to play a part. In the UK parliament, every day’s business in the House of Commons begins with Speaker’s Prayers, and the Lords Spiritual occupy a section in the House of Lords — part of the Established Church of England. How Jesus would have viewed this, in the light of His reaching about the denarius coin and civil government, is an interesting question we won’t explore here, but the teaching point is one that has to be rediscovered by every generation: in our humanity, we attempt to make spiritual life a members-only closed society which we control.
Sadly, evangelical and charismatic churches have been as guilty of this as more traditional groups which assert that salvation only comes through belonging to their institution. The present pandemic restrictions are a wake-up call to churches that are all about buildings and services and the hierarchy needed to operate them, to see how God continues to work in people’s hearts and lives in the wider community.
A church of converts from beyond the boundaries
Thessalonica was an example of this in the Early Church. Some of Paul and Silas’ original converts were the more spiritually aware members of the synagogue who had received the Good News of Jesus and His kingdom with joy. They were the few who didn’t cause a riot and run him out of town. However, from the focus of his letter, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, praising the Thessalonians’ turning from idols and pagan religion to “serve the living and true God” is an indication that the Holy Spirit was working in the hearts of a lot of non-Jewish Greeks who had no background at all in knowing who God is. It was controversial: in all the churches, the Christian believers who had come from a Jewish background perceived themselves to have some moral and spiritual superiority. It was an ongoing lesson that God works in those He chooses to work in and He is does not show favouritism to Jew, or Gentile, or to any kind of ‘insider’, (Deut. 10:17, Romans 2:11).
It is the same lesson for us today, whenever we attempt to fence around our kind of membership or worship practice, and confine it to our particular building. A recent story told by New Wine Cymru was of a pair of young people who found the money to buy a burger van and operated it in the evenings in the valleys around the Welsh Rhondda — and area where disused chapels abound. But young people in particular were drawn, not just by fast food but by authentic demonstration of the Good News of Jesus, shared in simple and non-religious ways, and many have become Christians: perhaps almost outside an empty chapel that their great-grandparents flocked to in the Welsh Revival. At the beginning of the last century, that was another time when God worked in an extraordinary way, in the hearts of those who might not have presented as good candidates!
And He hasn’t changed in His quest.
Return to post for October 18