Come to me, take my yoke, I will give you rest (Matt 11)

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

The book of origins, the first of four accounts of Jesus in the New Testament (known to us as the Gospel according to Matthew), locates Jesus firmly within his historical context, as a teacher and prophet within Israel. He is the one who has come to renew the covenant, to restore Israel, to instruct them in the ways of righteous-justice. He is the one who brings the Law to fulfilment and establishes the way into the kingdom.

This book has a high view of Jesus within that Jewish context. It positions Jesus as the most authoritative teacher in his community, the one who guides, directs, and inspires those who listen to him.

It is to the words of Jesus that believers are to look for guidance in their lives (7:24–27). In this Gospel, Jesus is the one and only teacher (23:8), the one and only instructor (23:10). Whilst “heaven and earth will pass away”, the words spoken by Jesus will endure (24:35). The last words of Jesus reported in this book are the instructions from Jesus, to his disciples, to go to the nations, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). His teachings stand supreme.

In the lectionary for this coming Sunday, we find a striking passage from Matthew’s Gospel (11:25–30) which depends this understanding of Jesus the Teacher. In this passage, Jesus offers a prayer to God in which he lays claim to this distinct, even unique, place.

The first part of this passage (11:25-27) is often nicknamed “the Johannine Thunderbolt from a Synoptic Sky”, because it seems so out of place in this Gospel; the language used (“Father” and “Son”, amongst other things) invites comparison with the Fourth Gospel, as does the insistence on Jesus as the one who “knows the will of the Father” and thus reveals “the gracious will” of the Father (11:26-27). How these verses found there way into this particular Gospel is an intriguing question. (If you have a compelling answer to this question, I would love to hear it!)

As this prayer continues (11:28-30), Jesus is depicted as laying claim to be the authoritative teacher; his words claim an absolute authority to interpret the Law, which is here portrayed as “the yoke”, a term for the Law which is found in rabbinic writings (Mishnah, Aboth 3:5, Berakoth 2:5; see also 2 Enoch 34:1 and 2 Baruch 41:3).

Jesus here is portrayed as claiming this high authority for himself; his yoke provides a sure understanding of the Law. His language is filled with scriptural words; he speaks in a way that is strongly evocative of certain passages in Sirach concerning Wisdom (Sirach 6:18–33; 24:19–22; 51:23–28). In this book (dating from around 200-250 years before the time of Jesus), Wisdom commands attention (“draw near to me”, “come to me”), offers instruction, commands submission to the yoke of her teaching, and offers rest.

A hymn on the values of Wisdom concludes that book, with the invitation to “acquire wisdom for yourself … put your neck under her yoke and let your souls receive instruction” (Sir 51:25-26). Earlier in the book, this invitation to learn from Wisdom had been issued by Wisdom herself: “come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits” (Sir 24:19).

And in the opening chapters of this book, an extended poem in praise of wisdom includes the invitation to “come to her like one who plots and sows … put your feet into her fetter and your neck into her collar, bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds … come to her with all your soul … search out and seek … when you get hold of her, do not let her go, for at last you will find the rest she gives, and you will be changed into joy for you” (Sir 6:19, 24-28).

The poem continues, “then her fetters will become for you a strong defence and her collar a glorious robe; her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord; you will wear her like a glorious robe and put her on like a splendid crown” (Sir 6:29-31).

So many of these phrases resonate in the words attributed to Jesus in the book of origins (Matt 11:28-30). As he speaks, he claims the authority of Wisdom. His words provide insight, guidance, direction, as do the words of Wisdom in earlier Jewish traditions. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, the voice of Wisdom has been invoked by Jesus as he reflects on the criticisms he has received, as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). The proof of the pudding is in the eating—“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”, is what Jesus responds.

Wisdom appears in the book of Proverbs, where she is portrayed as a teacher of “good advice and sound wisdom” who offers insight and strength (Prov 8:14), leading people along “the way of righteousness, the paths of justice” (8:20). She is also portrayed as the one who worked beside God to bring the created world into being (8:22-31).

Wisdom then appears in later Jewish literature, including Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), always as the teacher, instructing people in God’s ways, instructing and guiding people of faith through their journeys in life.

We have noted in earlier blogs that this Gospel, the book of origins, came into being in a community which found itself in competition with regard to other streams of Judaism. (See the blog posts listed below.) This Gospel, it would seem, seeks to validate the interpretation of scripture promoted by the followers of Jesus over and above other understandings and interpretations of the Law.

Who better to call upon for such validating support than the master exegete, the authoritative teacher, Jesus, the one to whom “all things have been revealed by the heavenly Father”, the one who speaks with the voice of Wisdom herself?

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

Black Lives Matter. Now—and Then.

#BlackLivesMatter. The importance of this hashtag has been highlighted in recent weeks.

First, it gained attention in the USA, where yet another incident of the unwarranted treatment of a black man and the resulting unjust death of that man, George Floyd, led to widespread protests, resistance, and riots across the country.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter originated in 2013, after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, was killed in an argument in Florida. The man charged with his order was acquitted, resulting in the community response that saw #BlackLivesMatter gain traction.

See https://www.adl.org/education/educator-resources/lesson-plans/black-lives-matter-from-hashtag-to-movement

The hashtag has also had prominence in Australia, especially in recent weeks. After the death in America of George Floyd, a black man killed while in police custody in Minneapolis in early June, the BLM movement became active once again. The widespread unrest in the USA was clearly evident.

Around the same time, reports in Australia were indicating that there were 434 people—black men and women, indigenous Australians—who have died whilst in police custody, since 1991. (That was the year when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended.) And there had been no conviction of anyone responsible for any of those deaths over all that time.

See my blog on this at https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/09/racism-and-reconciliation/

So #BlackLivesMatter. We know this now, in our own time. This movement has generated widespread public support. The Pew Research Centre in the USA has reported their recent findings, noting that “two-thirds of U.S. adults say they support the movement, with 38% saying they strongly support it”.

See https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/

All of this points to the need for ongoing, continuing, relentless lobbying, advocating for First Peoples, protesting injustices and working towards a more just situation in our society, today. Without question, this is a critical priority.

Alongside that, let me suggest the importance of remembering that #BlackLivesMatter when we turn to scripture, when we listen to the Bible being read in church or in Bible study groups, or when we open its pages ourselves and read the stories it contains. Do we imagine the skin colour of the people who are in these stories? Do we remember that the vast majority of them are dark-skinned?

Some years back, an enterprising forensic artist, Richard Neave, created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, “Son of God”. Neave took an actual skull found in the region (not claiming that it was actually the face of Jesus) and built a model of what the person might have looked like.

The end result was not the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of traditional Sunday School storytelling. The darker colouring of the skin (historically accurate) caused controversy at the time (and still does, whenever I use it with groups). The aim was to prompt people to consider how Jesus was a man of his time and place—a darker-skinned Middle Eastern man.

See https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/reconstructing-jesus-using-science-flesh-out-face-religion-004942

There’s a more detailed discussion of “what did Jesus look like?” by Dr Joan Taylor, of Kings College London, at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965

Just this week I came across a fascinating art project, seeking to depict the well-known characters of the Bible as the black-skinned Middle Easterners that they were. You can see the full gallery of art created by photographer James C. Lewis in the “Icons of the Bible” gallery at

https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/2-cornelius-lewis

Take some time to explore these images. As you do, remember that just as we know that #BlackLivesMatter now, today, so as we travel back in time, in our imaginations, into the world of the Bible, #BlackLivesMatter in those stories. We learn from these tales about these ancient black people. We gain guidance for living as faithful disciples today from these dark-skinned people of these ancient stories.

#BlackLivesMatter. Now—and Then.

In memory of James Dunn (1939–2020)

Elizabeth and I heard the sad news this morning, of the death of James Dunn, at the age of 80 years. To those who read the fruits of his professional work in biblical scholarship, he was the pre-eminent New Testament scholar, J.D.G. Dunn. To those who had the fortune to know him in person, he was the gregariously ever-cheerful Jimmy Dunn.

This sad news rekindled memories for us of some times in the past when we had encounters with Jimmy and his wife, Meta. Because he was willing to take on the daunting task of supervising Elizabeth as a doctoral student, we travelled across the globe to spend the calendar year 1997 in Durham, in the north of England. It was a wonderful year for us, in so many ways.

Meeting Jimmy in person and getting to know him and Meta was an enriching experience. Participating in the weekly New Testament seminar for postgraduate students and the biblical faculty of Durham University, under the genial chairing of Jimmy, with his distinctive Scots accent and his rapier-sharp mind, was an equally enriching experience.

Having his eagle eye scrutinise our work in biblical studies (both of us—Elizabeth in her regular supervisory sessions, myself on the few occasions when I presented in the seminar) was a wonderfully deepening and expanding experience.

The controversial nature of Elizabeth’s chosen thesis topic (on Matthew’s Gospel) could have led to difficult supervisory sessions, especially as the Dunn interpretation and the Raine interpretation were not at all the same! Instead, Elizabeth had enriching and stimulating sessions with him as supervisor—a great model of how to engage in discussion across differences.

Meta Dunn, Rev Dr Philip Luscombe, Rev Elizabeth Oliver,
and Professor Jimmy Dunn, Durham, 1997

It was because Elizabeth had worked intensively with him during that year in Durham, that Jimmy agreed to include Sydney on his trip to “the Far East”, as he called it, in 2003. He planned his tour, lasting a couple of months, so that he spent a week or so in various locations in this part of the world, visiting his “Far East” students. Sydney was his only Australian stop—and that was because his student, Elizabeth Raine, was there!

Jimmy and Elizabeth, sorting “questions from the floor”
during the UTC–SCE Seminar Week 2003

So United Theological College and the School of Continuing Education benefited from Elizabeth’s connection and thus Jimmy’s presence. He gave a series of lectures on the oral traditions about Jesus, during the annual Seminar Week of the college. Rob McFarlane, Elizabeth, Jione Havea and I worked to ensure that we had a creative and productive week. Other biblical and theological minds joined in the panel discussions. Elizabeth had scored a magnificent coup for the college!

That year, 2003, Seminar Week attracted the largest number of people for many years, and probably the attendance numbers have not been matched in subsequent years. People of cautiously conservative, liberally oriented, and thoroughgoing critical perspectives, gathered each day, to listen, discuss, debate, and learn, as Professor Dunn lectured, responded to questions, and engaged in banter with people during the breaks.

Elizabeth Raine, Jimmy Dunn, Jione Havea, Jungmin Soo,
Dean Drayton, and Rob McFarlane, panel discussion
at North Parramatta, Seminar Week 2003

My earliest awareness of J.D.G. Dunn the scholar was when I was a theological student, in the late 1970s, at UTC. The people in my cohort of students candidating for ministry were, with only one exception, much more conservative than me in their theology. The charismatic renewal movement had influenced quite a number of them. Their focus was on the work of the Holy Spirit—tongues and prophecies, choruses and exorcisms, joyful and exuberant freedom in worship—these were what my fellow students appreciated. And exposure to the rigours of critical theological and biblical scholarship was hard for a number of them.

I remember that, for a time, the name of James Dunn was to the fore in many student common room discussions at that time. His work on the Spirit was gaining much attention. Here was a rigorously critical biblical scholar who took seriously the experiences of charismatic renewal and highlighted the place of the Sprit, bringing giftings and enthusiasms, in the Christian life. He was able to bridge the gulf between charismatic experience and thoughtful scholarship. That was a fine gift to possess.

Jump forward around 15 years, and I was back at UTC, as a member of the faculty, with responsibility for teaching New Testament subjects. In the intervening years, I had studied in America, been exposed to Jewish thinking, started a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group, and gained a strong interest in interfaith relationships. From those experiences, I set out to develop a new subject, grounded in the study of biblical texts, exploring the origins of the movement we know as Christianity, and tracing the ways it became a discrete entity separate from Judaism.

I gave the subject the name “The Partings of the Ways”—a deliberate choice to include two plurals, for the ways by which the emerging movement diverged from the parent body were multiple, diverse, and complex. The book by J.D.G. Dunn (with the same title) proved to be the foundation for the whole subject. If I recommended to,students that they buy any book, this was the one. Jimmy Dunn had provided the detailed exegetical and theological foundation for a subject that I loved teaching for the next 15 years.

So it was an experience with multiple levels of delight when Elizabeth and I lived in Durham, spending each day in the Theology Department of Durham University, getting to know the wonderful biblical faculty with Jimmy Dunn, Stephen Barton and Loren Stuckenbruck as New Testament professors.

How glad I was that Jimmy Dunn took on Elizabeth as student—meaning that I could spend the year researching Luke-Acts as she worked on her thesis on Matthew under his guidance. And that led, in due course, to a later invitation to me—a surprise phone call from England, quite out of the blue!—to contribute the commentary on Acts to the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, for which Jimmy Dunn was co-editor.

And it was a double delight when Jimmy and Meta travelled down under six years later, spending the week at UTC and then seeing the sights of Sydney with Elizabeth and myself, before heading back home to the UK. Knowing him personally, and professionally, has enriched both of our lives. It is with great sadness that we heard the news of his death.

Meta and Jimmy at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Sydney, in April 2003

Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 1970

Jesus and the Spirit, 1975

Christology in the making, 1980

Romans 1-8, 9-16, 1988

Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1990

The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism, 1991

The Epistle to the Galatians, 1993

The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 1996

The Acts of the Apostles, 1996

The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 1998

The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (ed.), 2003

Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2003

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 1, Jesus Remembered, 2003

A New Perspective On Jesus: What The Quest For The Historical Jesus Missed, 2005

The New Perspective On Paul, 2007

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 2, Beginning from Jerusalem, 2008

Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, 2011

Christianity in the Making: Vol. 3, Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity, 2015

Paul’s vision of “One in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and the Uniting Church

A sermon on the anniversary of the Uniting Church (for the Project Reconnect resource)

Galatians 3:23–27

On 22 June every year, across this continent, people gather to celebrate the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. Today, rather than address the passages set in the lectionary, I want to turn to a section of one of Paul’s letters, from our New Testament. It’s from the latter part of chapter 3 of his letter to the church in Galatia.

It is good to have this passage as our focus. It speaks to who we want to be, together, as the church. It is a word for our times. In fact, I think that this passage could well express the fundamental calling of the Uniting Church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in the midst of an intense and ferocious debate within the early movement that had been started by Jesus. It was a time of great transition. Things were changing. Old practices were being challenged. New practices were being proposed.

In Galatians, those who advocated Circumcision came under criticism. In that place, as in many other places where the good news of the Jesus movement had been proclaimed, baptism was being proposed as a new ritual, to mark the new faith of the growing numbers of the followers of Jesus.

The argument about circumcision has behind it the issue as to how much, or how little, of the Jewish Law should apply to believers within that movement – those whom we now call the early Christians. This was an incredibly contentious issue at the time, which caused much dispute. Galatians is a letter that was created in the heat of this intense debate; so, at many points, it bears more evidence of rash fury than it does of considered reflection.

Paul’s language in Galatians is ferocious. He accuses the Galatian believers of being fools who have been bewitched by deceivers; he accuses them of biting and devouring one another; he criticises them for urging Gentile converts to be circumcised and to adopt full adherence to the Torah. This is no gentle, reflective spiritual meditation; this is full-on partisan polemics!

And yet, right within the midst of this turbulent flow of argument and disputation, we come across comments that provide cause for reflection; ideas that do invite deeper consideration; insights that do offer the opportunity for spiritual growth to those who would read, ponder, and reflect.

One of these passages is just two well-known verses from the third chapter of this letter: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

Here, Paul sets out a vision for people of faith; a vision for believers within community; we would say, a vision for the church. It could well be our central mission statement, as the Uniting Church in Australia, for we so much value grace-filled inclusiveness, we so strongly reject divisive and judgemental stances, we so yearn to live in accord with this grand vision, where all belong to a welcoming and loving community.

The vision of the church for Paul is one of harmony, concord, unity. Paul envisages great changes within the community of faith, because of Jesus. If the reality failed to achieve this change, nevertheless the vision stood firm; Paul envisaged a community that would bring together strikingly disparate opposites.

In this community, the religious differences of Jew and Gentile would matter no more; the different levels of social status, of people living in freedom and those serving as slaves, would become irrelevant; and the societal roles and expectations associated with the gender of a person —  male or female – would no longer function as dominant. These three conditions of difference would melt away, within the community of faith, into a cohesive unity of co-operation and interconnection. This was a huge change to took place all those centuries ago.

Indeed, as we ponder these three key instances of the way in which difference would disappear, we might even push it further: is this vision not simply one for the church, but even one for society as a whole? Might it be that the vision, the hope, which Paul set out in his letter to the Galatians, could be brought about within the patterns of living and relating right across his society? Was Paul passionate, not only about partisan points of religious practice, but also – and more significantly – about visionary ideals for human society as a whole?

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – this unity within the church might well become a model for harmony within society. Certainly, that is the way that the church has interpreted this statement in the centuries since Paul wrote it.

The church of the late first century continued the battle begun in the time of Paul; over time, Jews and gentiles were equally welcomed within most of the faith communities of the ancient world.

The church of the Enlightenment was at the forefront of the movement to end the slave trade, to enable black Africans to live unhindered by white masters seeking to profit from selling them as slaves.

And the western church from the later part of the 20th century has been active alongside many other community organisations to ensure that the opportunities available to women were not less than those available to men.

In each of these battles, the church at large has understood Paul’s words to the Galatians to be words for both the church, and for the society as a whole. It is a grand vision. May it be a reality for you, in your community of faith, and amongst the people of the place where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28).

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Some questions to consider:

What did you find to be the most significant idea in this message?

Can you describe a time when you experienced the “unity in Christ” that Paul wrote about?

In what way does your congregation today model the vision of inclusive acceptance for all that Paul wrote about?

In what way might you be able to show that vision to the people where you live, sleep, eat, work, and rest?

To read more on the distinctive contributions of the Uniting Church to Australian society, you may wish to read my blogs at https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-i/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/18/the-dna-of-the-uca-part-ii/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

“Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” (Matt 10:30)

Who goes around counting the hairs on the heads of people? I don’t, that’s for sure! Although it would be a lot easier for anyone wanting to count my particular head of hair (or not), than for other people.

But God does, according to this week’s Gospel passage. God counts the hairs on our heads. Or so we are told. It’s part of a speech by Jesus when he assures his followers that their lives are of value (Matt 10:28-31).

Now, I think the idea of God taking time to count the number of hairs on the heads of every single person alive today beggars belief. Think about it: 7.8 billion people (that’s 7,800,000,000 people—quite a lot!), each with one head, with approximately 100,000 hairs on each of those head—that’s 7,800,000,000,000,000 hairs to count.

At one hair per second, that’s 248,015,873 years. (Thank goodness for Google!!) 248 million years! And that’s just for the current population. It doesn’t count those who have already lived. Or those who might be alive when those 248 million years of counting have been completed.

Of course, we could reduce the number by arguing that there are some (like me) with much less than 100,000 hairs on their head. But that group is still a small minority amongst the 7.8 billion alive today.

And we could reduce it further by arguing that this speech of Jesus was addressed to believers who were following him—at that time, and then on across the ensuing years up to our time. That reduces the number of hairs to be counted quite a lot. But that is a problematic principle for interpretation: it means we take everything as applicable only to those who were part of the first audience, and not to anyone else later on.

All of which goes to the point I want to make about the words of Jesus in this passage: Exaggeration! Exaggeration is a common rhetorical technique employed by Jesus. Jesus exaggerates on a number of occasions in his teachings. Think about it:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29) Who obeys that command?

Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A speck, yes; a splinter, maybe— but not a log.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh.

For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20). Mountains moving? Perhaps possible in a massive seismic shift event, but not your normal run of the mill happening.

Or the Samaritan woman, who spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4:39). Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point.

“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5). What, every single person?? Again, exaggeration, overreach, hyperbole. Typical of Jesus—and typical of the Gospel writers.

We do this in our everyday speech: “He’s got tons of money.” (have you weighed it?) “He is older than the hills.” ( were talking geological eras, here) “I’m so hungry I can eat a horse.” (OK, lets not go there.) “His brain is the size of a pea.” (Or there.) “My feet are killing me.” (Says the person who is still alive.)

Get the point? Exaggeration, hyperbole, is a common rhetorical technique. We use it. We find it in scripture. It’s a reminder not to take everything spoken, or written, absolutely literally. That’s a really important principle for interpretation. For this passage—and for everyone time we turn to scripture.

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matt 10:5). The mission of Jesus in the book of origins.

Jesus had a mission to the Gentiles. The mission to the Gentiles was “the fundamental missionary dimension of Jesus’ earthly ministry”—so wrote the guru of modern missiological studies, David Bosch (Transforming Mission, p. 30). And thus, every theology of mission since that paradigm-shifting work of 1991 has echoed this claim as a given fact.

But when we turn to this week’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus instructed his followers: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). What is going on?

This is a very distinctive claim to make. Other New Testament books have a different take—Jesus did engage with Gentiles, even with Samaritans, and did encourage a mission to the wider Gentile world. And plenty of New Testament texts can be pulled out to support this claim.

Not in this Gospel, however. Jesus does not go amongst Gentiles. Or Samaritans. Just as the disciples of Jesus are entirely drawn from Jewish people in Matthew’s Gospel, so also Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus’ mission is “only to the lost sheep of Israel”—that is, exclusively to the Jewish people.

Elizabeth and I have had many conversations about this aspect of the Gospel according to Matthew. She has undertaken thorough research into the Jewish nature of this Gospel, and especially on how Jesus related to Gentiles. What follows is drawn from our conversations and particularly from the research of Elizabeth, as we have written this material together.

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The statement about going “only to the lost sheep of Israel” (10:5–6), in the mission directives to the twelve disciples, is clearly an addition to the original Markan passage (Mark 6:8–11) that Matthew used as a source. In this statement, Jesus directs that Gentile (and Samaritan) towns are to be avoided.

There is a second statement to this effect in this Gospel, when Jesus encounters a Gentile woman on the northern borders of Galilee. This also is a clear redactional addition to an account already found in Mark (Mark 7:24–30). In Matthew’s version, he declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). There is nothing of this in Mark’s report of this encounter.

A third Matthean statement about mission, the “Great Commission” (28:16–20), is completely different, as the disciples are commanded to go out and actively “make disciples of all nations”. This command correlates with nothing at all in the body of the Gospel, during the earthly period of Jesus’ life. The mission to the Gentiles is an entirely post-resurrection phenomenon.

So the two major statements of mission to Israel in this Gospel, as well as other accounts of the activities and ministry of Jesus, contain a number of significant differences to that of Mark and Luke. The ministry of both Jesus and the disciples is geographically quite limited in Matthew’s account.

*****

Jesus rarely sets foot on any Gentile soil in this Gospel. In Matt 15:29–31, there is no tour through Sidon and the Decapolis as is reported in Mark (Mark 7:31–37), and no missionary activity undertaken by the demoniac after the demons have been exorcised from him (Mark 5:1–20; compare Matt 8:28–34).

The Matthean Jesus never goes near Samaria (contrast with Luke 17:11–19 and John 4:1– 42), nor does he speak favourably about Samaritans, as he does in Luke (Luke 10:25–37), prefiguring the Lukan mission to Samaria (Acts 1:8; 8:5-25). The activities of Jesus and the disciples are concentrated in the Galilean area, and on the Jewish people.

In Matthew‘s account, there are no Gentiles who are intentionally sought out by either Jesus or the disciples. Rather, there are just a select number of Gentiles who seek out Jesus. They come to him; he does not approach them or seek them out. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this striking observation.) In two instances, it is their faith which includes them in the kingdom of God (the centurion in Capernaum, 8:10, 13; the Canaanite woman in Tyre and Sidon, 15:28).

Ultimately, Jesus says to the Jews, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). He is not here saying that the kingdom will be opened to the Gentiles per se; his words are directed towards the chief priests and Pharisees (as 21:45 indicates).

It is those Jews who “produce the fruits of the kingdom” who will be given entry to the kingdom. Those who do “produce the fruits of the kingdom” include those normally considered as “unclean” by the Pharisees, and therefore outcasts or rejects from Judaism (9:10–13; 21:31, 32).

Jesus’ discourses and acts of healing, in general, involve only Jews. His contact with Gentiles, when it occurs in the Gospel, is always highly significant, and designed to illuminate some aspect of Jesus’ teaching or person regarding authority, inheritance of the kingdom, discipleship or messiahship.

It is noteworthy that those occasions when a person is asked whether they have faith before Jesus will heal them, are only when Gentiles are involved. Jesus readily heals Jewish people without requesting a prior faith statement (4:24; 8:3; 8:15; 12:13; 12:22; 14:36; 15:31; 21:14).

*****

More recent Matthean scholarship has recognised the Jewish character of this Gospel, and a consensus is emerging that this work was most likely written for a community that was still immersed within its Jewish tradition. It appears that members of this community had been ostracised and persecuted by other Jews (including their families) who did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. They did not withdraw voluntarily from their local synagogues, but still operated as a group under Jewish authority (10:17; 23:34).

This community is still directly under Jewish law; the clear words of Jesus that are remembered and repeated are “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it” (23:1-3). That law is not to be abolished, but fulfilled (5:17); it remains “until all is accomplished” (5:18).

In the teachings of Jesus which are recalled in this community, their faithfulness in the midst of persecution is valued (5:10–12); they report that Jesus identifies this persecution as taking place “on my account” (5:11; see also 10:18, 39; 16:25; 19:29). Thus the difference between this community and many other Jews of the time was the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

Judaism was in a state of flux in the middle to late decades of the first century. The pivotal moment looks, from the benefit of hindsight, to have been the a Jewish-Roman War of 66-74 CE, and particularly the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which took place in 70 CE, in the middle of this war.

Things were different after the Temple was rendered unusable. That is often taken as a marker for understanding events in the period of the New Testament, certainly, it is a key marker for understanding the major shifts that took place within Judaism—with no Temple in place, the importance of synagogues as gathering places in towns and cities across Israel (and beyond) grew.

What little evidence we do have from this general period indicates that there were a number of sectarian groups within Judaism, which were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. They were well-placed to take advantage, as it were, of the situation when the Temple no longer served as a focal point for Jews.

Nevertheless, many Jews, particularly in the Diaspora, were not yet “Pharisaic”—they did not see their faith in the same way as the Pharisees. There were many disputes amongst Jewish communities as to the correct way of seeing things, and some of these disputes were quite bitter.

Many groups claimed to be the ‘true Israel’ as distinct from other groups, who were false leaders and teachers, and who failed to follow the Law correctly. The Law became the most accessible means of revealing God’s will for Israel after the destruction of the Temple, and most of these groups focused on what they believed to be the true interpretation and application of it.

The synagogues were the places where the Law was studied and discussed, where it was preached and understood. The synagogue was where the scribes and Pharisees most naturally operated. The Pharisees thus grew in significance over time. They had established synagogues decades before Jesus was born. After 70 CE, synagogues became the key gathering place for Jews, both within Israel, and across the Dispersion.

*****

Matthew’s Gospel reflects one such debate, between the authorities in the synagogues and the followers of Jesus. Biblical scholars suggest that this Gospel should be read alongside of other literature from after the time of the destruction of the Temple—books such as 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the Psalms of Solomon. This literature is trying to envisage what Judaism should be like in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Understanding and living by the Law is central in each of these documents.

Thus, although Matthew’s Gospel has been seen to have played an important role in the formation of early Christian theology, a more natural interpretation is to locate this Gospel within the first century Jewish debates about how the Law is best to be understood and applied.

These debates took on even more intensity after 70 CE. The survival of Judaism without the Temple depended on the faithful practice of the Law: all of its commandments and instructions. The polemic in Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees, and the warnings that are uttered to Israel, show that Matthew still had hope that his ideas would become normative for all Jewish people.

If the author of this Gospel knew anything about what was happening elsewhere, he would have known about the gathering strength of the movement led by Saul of Tarsus, for whom strict obedience to Torah was of less importance than belief in Jesus as Messiah.

This arm of the movement was opening a door wide for Gentiles, who did not follow the Torah, to belong to such communities. This had been underway since the 50s. It had gained momentum by the late 60s and would become the dominant form of Christianity later in the second century.

It was perhaps with this awareness that Matthew’s Gospel was created—to insist on the centrality and priority of the traditional teaching of Jesus, the Torah-observant Jew, whom God had chosen as the anointed one. And the picture that he offers of Jesus is a resolutely Jewish one. Remembering that Jesus said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5) makes perfect sense in this context.

(In fact, I think that this Gospel might more accurately reflect the activity of the historical Jesus during his earthly activities—he was a faithful Jew who observed Torah and advocated for his particular interpretation of how the commandments were to be kept. Staying away from Gentiles and Samaritans would be a perfectly respectable course of action for such a person.)

So, in reporting the words of Jesus about mission, and in insisting on the thoroughly Jewish nature of this movement, this really is “the book of origins”. This is how I translate the opening phrase (1:1). Usually this phrase is related to the story that follows, about the origins of Jesus (1:1–2:23). And that makes sense.

In a broader sense, however, the author of the book of origins is making a pitch about the true nature of the movement that was formed by Jesus.

Jesus instigated a prophetic movement to renew the people of Israel, to recall them to the prophetic heart of their traditions and restore the sense of righteous-justice that was fundamental to his understanding of Judaism. That is the real story of our origins, the author of this book is declaring.

******

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

“Greet one another” (2 Cor 13). But no holy kissing. And no joyful singing.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” So the second (extant) letter to the Corinthians ends (2 Cor 13:11-12).

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” is also how Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Cor 6:20), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

What do we make of this instruction to kiss one another? Many people in churches that I know have interpreted “holy kiss” to mean “warm handshake”—so the “passing of the peace” has been shaking hands with as many people as possible in the Congregation. In some smaller gatherings, even, making sure that you shake hands with everybody present!

Well, not any longer. No more handshakes—not in church, not at the door after the service, not anywhere in society. COVID-19 has put paid to shaking hands for quite some time yet.

Other people have take a more literalist line of interpretation. A kiss means, well, a kiss! If not a lip-to-lip kiss, then, at least, a lip-to-cheek kiss. Yes, I have been in church gatherings where my hairy unshaven cheeks have been kissed. And even, when my hairy-encircled lips have planted a kiss on the cheek of another worshipper. I confess.

But not any longer. No more person-to-person contact; especially not any contact that involves the lips! COVID-19 has put paid to the socially-approved form of public kiss, for quite some time yet—if not forever.

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate the reference to a “holy kiss” in these five verses, is by referring to a “holy embrace”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of our practices during the current situation with COVID-19. The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved. The current situation proscribes any form of physical contact. It is just too risky.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

Of course, we do not put our heads in the sand. We acknowledge the sense in the guidelines being proclaimed across society. We listen to those with expertise in infectious diseases and medicine. We refrain from physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. No handshakes. We look for alternatives to signify that we are greeting one another.

We aren’t yet meeting in person for worship. It will be some time before most Congregations are able to do this. But when we eventually do begin to worship in person, and it comes time to pass the peace, we might face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.

Another option would be to clasp our hands together and place them in front of our chest, in the “praying position”, and then, as we face each other, bow in greeting.

A third option—one perhaps only utilised in a very distinctive liturgical setting—could be to “bump elbows”, using the recommended social alternative to “shaking hands”. But that option would need to be employed with care! And it may not be to everybody’s liking, to be sure.

Which brings me to singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”, the psalmist instructs us (Psalms 66:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, 6, 100:1). Sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, an early Christian writer exhorts (Col 3:16). “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, another letter writer directs (Eph 5:18-20).

So how do we interpret these passages? Do we adopt the same literalist approach—the Bible says we must worship, the Bible says we must song, so that’s what we must do! (Yes, I have heard this said, even in current times.) That is not really a satisfactory approach.

Of course, the same dilemma confronts us here. Just as direct physical contact is not advised in the current pandemic situation, so singing in a group of people is also deemed to be out of order, in the understanding of health professional and medical advisors.

Research clearly indicates that singing contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Singing spreads droplets in aerosols which are expelled from a person’s mouth as they sing. They can carry the virus a significant distance and remain suspended in the air for some time after they have been expelled from a person’s mouth. A cloth mask is unlikely to be enough to provide protection as people sing together. This article canvasses the issues:

https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/does-singing-spread-coronavirus-choir-outbreaks-raise-concerns-1.4943265

So in the case of singing, as with physical touch, we need reinterpret our scripture in keeping with what we know about the spread of infectious diseases. We might have to be content with listening to a recording or watching a video of a favourite hymn or song being sung. One suggestion I have seen is to invite people to listen, then to share with a couple of other people what you have heard, what has connected with you, as you listen.

Another suggestion is to invite people to tap into their own wells of creativity, and after listening to the song, write or draw their own response. That could be in the form of a prayer, a modern psalm, an impressionistic artwork, a poem, a sketch drawing. The possibilities are endless.

Some other ideas are canvassed in this post:

https://godspacelight.com/2020/05/23/five-ways-to-worship-with-music-beyond-singing/?fbclid=IwAR07U327jYyIu8PKq3xmBnDSE3wDD56ySbiRlRxpT1Foc42o4ucgZOnHhJg

There’s another central aspect of worship that will need significant attention and careful consideration in the time ahead. Before we actually start meeting in person for worship, a decision will need to be made, in each local community of faith, with regard to holy communion.

We know that any action that involves direct physical contact is risky. We know that multiple touching of the same object is highly risky—it provides many more opportunities for a virus (any virus, not just COVID-19) to be passed from person to person. When we regather for worship, we will not be “passing the offering plate around”; it is too risky.

In the same way, we need to,consider carefully what we do when it comes to offering the bread, passing a plate of bread, drinking from the cup, or passing the small cups.

That’s a matter for future consideration. If anyone has any clear ideas or knows of useful guidelines in this regard, I would love to hear from you!

A prayer from Sarah Agnew https://praythestory.blogspot.com/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

Worship like the first Christians. What will our future look like? (3)

I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?

You can read those posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?

*****

If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?

The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.

Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).

Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?

*****

The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).

I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?

We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.

So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.

*****

The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)

Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.

Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?

And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.

That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).

We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?

*****

Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.

Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.

What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.

*****

Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)

When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.

*****

It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.

Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?

This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?

For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.

This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.

Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)

(See the work of Rodney Stark, summarised in https://thejesusquestion.org/2013/01/20/the-rise-of-christianity-by-rodney-stark/; for a discussion of the contemporary relevance of this view, see https://time.com/5824128/early-christian-caritas-coronavirus/ )

So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.

So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).

To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).

And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??