"He's an Anarchist! This Jesus is an Anarchist!" You can almost hear the teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, muttering to themselves. Another outrage from the Galilean teacher! "He's telling people to ignore the law of the Sabbath...he's leading people to their death!"
You've got to have a bit of sympathy for the religious leaders of Jesus day. After all, they believed that the Torah...the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, were the actual words of God, written down. They were like many Muslims today, who still believe (despite all scholarly evidence) that the Koran was dictated directly by God. The Pharisees and religious teachers were certain that failure to obey even one of the laws of God would be disastrous. Disobedience to the law, in their minds, should be punished with death. The Law itself said so. In the book of Exodus, chapter 31, the death penalty is prescribed for the crime of desecrating the Sabbath. On the other hand, they also believed that if the whole of the nation of Israel would keep all the laws, for just one day, then God would send the promised Messiah to free them from occupation, and establish the new Kingdom of Israel.
So, when they heard a teacher in their midst telling people that the myriad of these rules didn't have to be followed...we can only imagine their outrage. Here was someone who seemed to be trying to over-turn everything they believed...everything they followed. "He must be an anarchist!". Another word they may well have used to described Jesus was 'anti-nomian'. An antinomian is someone who, literally, is anti (against) laws (nomi). It's a theological word that has been used for 2000 years to hurl insults at people - especially those who have argued that our salvation comes through 'faith alone' (sola fide).
It was a worrying, perplexing time for the Pharisees. "If only people would keep the Law, then the Messiah would come, and we could kick out these Roman overlords. But here's this Jesus, letting people that laws don't matter!" You can understand why they decided that 'this Jesus' had to be got rid of, can't you?
The trouble is, human beings like laws. We use laws to regulate our society - to describe what is, or is not, acceptable behaviour. Laws help us to determine 'right' from 'wrong' - at least for the time being. Of course, laws change - and rightly so. The law which permitted slavery by the British was famously changed by William Wilberforce. The law of Apartheid was rightly over-turned in South Africa. But religious laws are rather more difficult to get a handle on...especially when significant groups of people believe that those laws are dictated directly by God. If you believe that God has ordained a law from on-high, then you are likely to believe that it cannot be changed...at least until God says so.
That's a large part of the trouble we are having in the Middle East, at the moment. Some Jewish people believe that God has ordained, by Law, that they should possess the whole land of Israel. Significant numbers of Muslims believe that adultery should be punished by death, that women should keep themselves covered up at all times, and that Mohammed was God's last great Prophet, whose writings are the actual words of God. Such attitudes are very difficult to change...because they are grounded in a belief that certain holy Scriptures are God-given, and can never be changed. It is no surprise, therefore, that when pressed to change their laws, people with such primitive beliefs about Scripture feel themselves backed into a corner. To them, giving up their laws would be like spitting on God. They cannot conceive of any other way of thinking. And that's essentially why the Middle East in particular, is such a powder-keg. The clash of ideas, the clash of deeply-held, primitive ideas about God, leads to the clash of armies.
But what, actually, was Jesus' saying about laws? What does this story of a simple healing on the Sabbath have to tell us. Was Jesus saying that the Sabbath law should be overturned...that it didn't matter anymore? What Jesus really an anti-nomian, or even an anarchist?
Let's look at his response to the synagogue leader who complained about a healing on the Sabbath. This man was similar to a Vicar in today's society. He was the leader of his congregation - the one charged with holding the faith while, sometimes, his congregation and the local population lived lives that were less than faithful. He would have been keen to point out error wherever he saw it. And to him, to this local Vicar, however wonderful and miraculous a healing might be, it was a bit of work...it was an activity which should more properly be done on one of the other six days. He would have been terrified that God's Law, laid down in the Torah, was being flagrantly disobeyed, right in front of his eyes...right there, in his own synagogue. Because of his background and training, watching Jesus heal someone in his synagogue provoked the sort of reaction you would get from me if someone came in here this morning and started offering odds on the next race at Newmarket!
But listen to Jesus' reaction to his outburst. "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"
Jesus is not saying that the Sabbath doesn't matter. Instead, he is saying that we need to change our view about what the Sabbath is for. The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath isn't a day for not doing anything. It's a day for healing! The Sabbath isn't a day for restricting activity, it's a day, of all days, for doing something new. Jesus uses the newness of healing, the miracle of Divine love, to show that God doesn't rest on the Sabbath (as the writers of Genesis believed). Instead, God was alive, awake and active in the midst of his people!
What should this mean for us? It means that the Sabbath is the day when we draw aside from the normality of daily life, and embrace the 'numinous' - that is the power and the presence of God. If Jesus healed on the Sabbath, then we too can expect to come for healing, in body, mind and spirit.
Many of our neighbours in this parish have lost the habit of coming to seek God on a Sunday...which is precisely why, as a parish, we are embracing the idea of 'Back to Church Sunday' - on the 26th of September. Back to Church Sunday is a chance for us all to invite friends and neighbours to come with us, to find healing and wholeness through each other's company, and with God. On that Sunday, here in St Nicholas, Margaret Freeman will lead our celebration of Harvest, and baptise a new child into the Church.
I'm hoping that all of you will give some serious thought and prayer, over the next couple of weeks, as to which of your neighbours and friends you might invite to come 'back to church'. Think about those you know who perhaps used to come to church, but over the years have fallen out of the habit. Some people, when they have done that, become nervous of coming back to church...even when they feel that they want to. They worry that people will look at them and say "Hmph! About time you came to church!". Or that they will be pestered with questions..."Where have you been? Have you been to another church? Have you been ill?". Instead, on Back to Church Sunday, we want anyone who sets foot over the threshold of church...perhaps for the first time in many years...to feel completely welcome, loved, and at home. We want to offer them, by our actions and by God's grace, the opportunity to connect again with the numinous...to experience God's healing power...just like the woman that Jesus healed in the Synagogue all those years ago.