Saturday, 17 October 2009

Word on the Street (2)

Reflections on Inclusion and St Paul

St Paul is often viewed as being intolerant, a misogynist, and single-minded when it comes to questions of sexual identity, but we were challenged in this session to open our minds and see beyond the immediate. We were reminded that the expectation of the arrival of God’s Kingdom was the restoration of the people of God and the establishment of heaven and earth, and as noted in the previous reflections, this had not appeared to happen on Easter Day. That morning, despite the hurrying to and from the garden tomb, the life of the city is continuing as normal. The Messiah has not arisen in power and majesty, and so the disciples treat the testimony of the women as suspect.

Our speaker, Paula Gooder, used the phrase “a slice of next Tuesday has arrived last Thursday” to try and convey the idea that the Messianic Kingdom HAS arrived, and is present in the here and now, but that the full completion is still in the future. – a part of the end times has broken into today, the world HAS been saved, and the promises of the end time are now available in the old time. In what we know as his Second letter to the Corinthians, Paul attempts to explain in his own language and terminology this tremendous truth, and that inclusion or exclusion in this new kingdom is the responsibility of the individual, it is not something for an external body to dictate. It is self-inclusion or self-exclusion, and the church is to welcome into its community those who choose inclusion. This has a bearing on the validity of all types of membership criteria that a church sets.

In the First letter to the Corinthians Paul uses an image of the members of the church being like parts of a human body, and this is a passage that is often expounded upon to teach that all talents and skills are valued in the local church – the body, the hand, the foot, all are members of the one body. Yet there is a further aspect of this imagery that is seldom spoken of, and this is contained in the following verses where Paul says that one part of the body cannot say to another part “I have no need of you.” We are the Body of Christ, and we cannot choose to leave, but neither can we tell others to leave. In this teaching Paul is vitally Inclusive.

Paula then challenged us over the exclusion of people from the Holy Communion. The one aspect of the church where all should be welcomed, and where despite the words of the liturgy which categorically state that “all” should drink of the cup, the church practices exclusion. The Book of Common Prayer says that any who eat and drink without discerning the Body of Christ are unworthy of receiving the sacrament, and this is often used to justify the Anglican practice of no communion before confirmation, of holding back the bread and wine from those who have not “reached the age of discernment”, but is this how that command should be interpreted. Paula maintained that the injunction of discernment relates to the wider Body of Christ rather than the elements of bread and wine. Thus we are bidden to discern the community, and all who are part of it. Again, this is the Inclusive aspect of that injunction rather than the usual exclusive interpretation.

We were also shown how the exclusions of women mentioned by Paul in I Corinthians 11 are knocked down by him in I Corinthians 12, 21-23, and that he had been using them as evidence of how things should not be.

We also looked at the single example of exclusion in I Corinthians 5, “you are not to associate with immoral people.” Paralleling this with a similar injunction in Matthew, the church is to treat such people as “tax collectors and sinner”. What is forgotten is that this is precisely the type of people that Jesus wanted to spend his time with. So the conclusion has to be that once people are excluded from the worshipping Body of Christ, that community is to view them as people with whom they should spend time, to talk, to be with, to encourage, and gently bring back. Once again, and statement of exclusion is seen to be the Great Commission of Inclusion.

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