Philemon & Matthew 25: 31-46 The Space Between Things

Reflection by Mart the Rev

I’m wondering about why everything has to be divided into one thing or another – as if the world is clear cut. Black or white – no in-betweens or other colours.

Do you ever get frustrated by the attempts people make to simplify the world into this or that categories? You know… left/right, east/west, first world/third world (I quite like the idea of the second world but cannot find it!), black/white race division, sports/arts, capitalism/communism, fiction/non-fiction, rugby/soccer, Crusaders/Highlanders… Then we do it in the church by carefully ignoring Paul’s teaching that in Christ there neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female…’ [Galatians 3:28] we divide ourselves into camps – liberal/conservative, progressive/evangelical, traditional/contemporary, Christian/born-again Christian, believer/true believer, catholic/protestant.  And then, from our moral stronghold, we divide everyone else… going to heaven/going to hell, moral/immoral, churched/unchurched… so boring!

A few illustrating cartoons…

Is the sheep and the goats – more of the same?

At first glance it looks like it. Those who didn’t look out for the little and least ones did not look out for Jesus, therefore off to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!

It is possible to head down the line that Jesus is all about dividing – believers and non-believers, sheep and goats, not coming to bring peace but a sword…

But those divisional passages are few and far between in his teaching. More often Jesus is widening people’s views of who our neighbours are.  He reaches across religious and geographical borders and he dismantles the old divides holding up a Samaritan as friend and teacher, tearing down the expectation that a wayward son would be lost forever, holding a child up as the teacher of God’s kingdom way, inviting himself to the home of a tax collector…And people noticed.  The Pharisees ask accusingly, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” [Matthew 9:11]

Is it possible that no one fits the sheep category? Is Jesus being ironic?  Surely all of us have failed at some point in feeding the hungry, satiating the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner. Most of Jesus’ teachings and actions are about building bridges between the divides and standing in the middle of things. Is minding the gap what he calls his church to?

Have a wee think about this: Who can you recall has stood in the middle of things for you?

Maybe the person was an advocate for you, or someone who helped you stand your ground, or they put in a word for you at a critical point, or intervened in a dispute and helped your voice be heard, or they defended you, believed in you, made room for you?

I suspect there have been many such people – some unknown. Can you recall one such person?  Dare you share what you have remembered with a person near you?  Can you think of a way you have done that for others?

I’ve been wondering about one of the roles the church plays in society. One notion of the church has been the place of sanctuary.  A safe space.  The safe place has often been violated from outsiders and insiders!  But the idea is an interesting one.  Is there something to recover there?

What do you make of this statement: When the church has been too closely entwined with power it has become an oppressor.

I’m not sure it has meant to but there have been times when the church has been quick to condemn, slow to show compassion, the supporter of state sponsored oppression, a supporter of state violence, and captured by ideologies.

I think it happens all the time. How often, in thinking it has been defending some perceived moral issue, has the church been the perpetrator of hate speech and, at times, physical violence?

We have listened to the letter to Philemon in its entirety.

Paul is writing to Philemon, a slave owner, about his runaway slave Onesimus who Paul is sending back. One form of punishment for a runaway slave is to string them between two horses facing in opposite directions and make the horses bolt!

Paul gently, and then more firmly, encourages Philemon to accept Onesimus back.

Paul takes the position of standing in the space between – the kind of place that Jesus stood with the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman who had a haemorrhaging problem, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the blind man in the temple (to name but a few!).

Paul is saying to Philemon this is where you are, and this is where Onesimus is, and I stand in the gap and occupy the space to remind you that you are brothers in Christ.

I’m wondering if one of the big things the church needs to recover is its role in stepping between divisions and breaking down enmity by standing in the middle of things.

What ways can you identify that people have been trying to do this in the churches you have been involved in? Can you identify ways we are doing this in The Village?

 The Bridge                             Joy Cowley

Source: Aotearoa Psalms

 There are times in life

when we are called to be bridges,

not a great monument spanning a distance

and carrying great loads of heavy traffic,

but a simple bridge to help one person from here to there

over some difficulty

such as pain, fear, grief, loneliness,

a bridge which opens the way

for on-going journey.

When I become a bridge for another,

I bring upon myself a blessing

for I escape from the small prison of self

and exist for a wider world,

breaking out to be a larger being

who can enter another’s pain

and rejoice in another’s triumph.

I know of only one greater blessing

in this life, and that is,

to allow someone else

to be a bridge for me.


Mavis Staples:

In Christ there is no East or West

In Christ there is no East or West, No North or South; Only one great love Inside and out.

True hearts everywhere Some deaf and some blind Singin’ one melody Lost souls cannot find.

Join hands and have faith, Whatever your race may be! Who serves my Father as a son Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West, There is no black or white Only one great love Hatred cannot divide

Join hands and have faith, Forgive your enemy Surely we’re all a part Of one big family.

Join hands and have faith, Whatever your race may be! Who serves my Father as a son Is surely kin to me.

Join hands and have faith, Forgive your enemy Surely we’re all a part Of one big family.

Songwriters: Burleigh / Fahey / Oxenham