In Galatians 2:20 Paul writes, ‘It’s no longer I who live’. The ‘I’ has died (metaphorically of course) and been re-born into a ‘we’. The identity of the old Paul has died (though traces remain) and a new identity has been forged. He calls this new identity, this we, this new tribe he has joined, “in Christ.”
This shift in tribal identity was huge for the early followers of Jesus. It wasn’t a shift from Judaism to Christianity. They were still, and would remain Jews. Until about the 2nd century. It was more a shift from the usual life of a marginal peasant, bound to their community by kinship and obligation - but on the edge due to poverty, prejudice, or health - to a new ‘kinship’ in a new ‘tribe’ of similarly marginal, edge-tilting people.
In that new tribe were people like a woman who suffered with seven demons (that’s code for seriously screwed up). Jesus ordained her leadership. In that tribe were people like the racial and sexual outsider, whom the text calls the Ethiopian eunuch. By the way, I think he converted Philip – not the other way round. In that tribe was a fisherman whose claim to fame was betraying Jesus. He would become a pillar of the new tribe. The list goes on: unconventional women, lepers, heathen Greeks… And there were some socially respectable types too whose membership in that tribe seriously dented their standing in the respectable circles. How historical (as in literally existing) these characters were who knows. But what is historical is that this how the Jesus tribe saw themselves – a bunch of misfits who were being fitted up together.
One member of that tribe is the nameless woman in our reading today (John 8) who was, as the text says, ‘caught in adultery’.
We notice firstly the violence of this scene. She is about to be stoned. A brutal way of killing someone. And there is no male ‘caught’ with her who is about to share a similar fate. This is violence directed against women. And violence endorsed and perpetuated by religious texts and unquestioning adherents.
Secondly, we notice that Jesus not only doesn’t participate in this impending act of violence but seeks to subvert it. And not through rational argument or use of force but by appealing to the accusers’ consciences. A technique we would later see Mahatma Gandhi use: calling out to the oppressor’s best self.
Thirdly, we notice the woman says very little. She doesn’t cry out for mercy. Or repent , or ask for forgiveness. She cowers in silence before the crowd of crowing stone-wielding accusers.
Then we might notice that this is only reference to this scene in any of the gospels. Maybe it is an archetypal story for the new post-Easter tribe. Maybe followers, particularly female followers, were experiencing the criticism and judgementalism of fundamentalist men. Maybe the male members of the tribe are learning to support the women and resist such accusatory violent behaviour by calling out their fellows. Maybe both female and male followers have and are experiencing the extraordinary grace that underpins this story.
For this story is about amazing grace. It is about a man repelling the deadly religious logic of some of his contemporaries by suggesting that none of us are worthy to judge and condemn another. He is motivated by the wish to restore. This is what grace does. This is the glaze of God, sticky with generosity. This is redemption. God stuff tastes like grace.
And grace doesn’t need a commitment or some act of repentance from the woman. This is radical grace – unearnt, unasked for, a gift of belonging and healing. It is offered free time and again. Indeed ‘time and again’ is inferred in the admonition to ‘go and sin no more’ – for given how sin was religiously constructed sinning no more was impossible. I think that admonition might be better paraphrased as ‘try not to hurt and damage yourself any more’; and ‘keep dodging the bully boys of religion’.
The new Jesus tribe was predominantly populated by people who had been condemned by others, experienced grace by the mercy and acceptance extended (by God, though often through one another), and begun tentatively to be restored.
Earlier in the service I quoted from Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor with a past. She writes:
“Getting sober never felt like I had pulled myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps. It felt instead like I was on a path toward destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing and saying, ‘Screw you. I’ll take the destruction please.’ God looked at tiny, little red-faced me and said, ‘That’s adorable,’ and then plunked me down on an entirely different path.”
“And the thing about grace, real grace, is that it stings. It stings because if it's real it means we don't "deserve" it. ... And receiving grace is basically the best shitty feeling in the world.”
Grace was and is the doorway into this new, strange Jesus tribe. And like an antiseptic applied to a wound it would initially sting.
In 1 Corinthians 15,[i] and later reformatted in the 4th Gospel, there is the saying that unless a kernel of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies it produces a great harvest. A kernel planted produces one stalk of wheat, whose head contains 50 kernels (maybe less in Jesus’ time).
This metaphor of death and regrowth was one that was widely used in the post-Easter movement to understand the untimely and violent death of Jesus. But, and maybe more importantly, the transformation metaphor of dying and then rising was used to talk about what was happening for individuals, and between individuals.
Our protective systems that keep us safe from those who look different, sound different, believe different, might have to, like a kernel of wheat, fall into the ground and die. My prejudices might have to die. So that grace – the generous godly sticky stuff – might come, stinging a little at first, and then begin to heal us.
The metaphor of the kernel dying was also used to mean that we should die to ‘encumbrances’ – like anxiety, egocentricity, and commitments demanded by the patriarchal structure of society. All of these coalesced – and are laughed at - in the comedic parable of the banquet. The invited ‘could not come’ because of their duties to family, to their own livelihood (business), to their husbands/wives. So, the call went out to all those nuisances and nobodies on the margins. The table got extended.
And there’s nothing that forces the dying of prejudices and protective systems more than gathering at the extended table and looking in the eye of some adulterous woman or some stone-wielding Pharisee, passing her or him a cup, and saying ‘Christ for you’. And grace continues to flow when they pass the cup back and offer the same to us.
What the early post-Easter movement had to do was keep on extending the table to include all who were prepared to die to their prejudices, their encumbrances, their fears, and welcome outsiders like themselves. The extended table of unconditional welcome was how grace was made visible. So, all manner of so-called sinners came and learnt that in God’s eyes they were saints. 100% sinner, 100% saint, don’t use a calculator to understand but listen to your heart.
Nadia, after her ordination, founded a church that called themselves ‘The House of All Saints and Sinners’. She writes,
“I love being in a spiritual community. But I’ve learned something over the years. This community will disappoint you. Every community (church or secular) will in time disappoint. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let you down or someone (sometimes me) will say something stupid and hurt your feelings. I then invite you on this side of your inevitable disappointment to decide if you’ll stick around after it happens.”[ii]
Church communities only stay together because there is enough grace – enough tolerance, forbearance, forgiveness, and willingness – to allow difference to co-exist.
When it came to writing about the post-Easter Jesus tribe the New Testament authors tended to hide or smooth over differences. But the failures of and factures within community seep through the pages anyway. Like the story of John Mark and Paul falling out in the Book of Acts, and Barnabas’s siding with John Mark. Between the lines we can hear disappointment, hurt, and disillusionment. Like the story of Paul’s opposition to Gentiles needing to be circumcised. It’s not hard to hear division, animosity, and the absence of reconciliation – a fracture point in the post-Easter tribe. Like the story of how Mary Magdalene was treated in the movement – on the hand called ‘the apostle to the apostles’ and on the other hand the editors’ work in making her virtually disappear after Jesus’ death. The leadership role of strong women was another fracture point for the post-Easter tribe.
For the extended table to be a sign of hope, to be the place where hurt meets healing, we need to acknowledge that like our forebears we too will fail, and fail continually. We will be hurt and hurt each other. We will be disappointed and disappoint each other. If you are looking for a community that always gets loving right, you won’t find it here. But I hope, we hope, that you might find the grace that says you are loved and accepted, you belong, and you will be okay, regardless, unconditionally, with whatever inadequate help we can offer.
I once travelled for some months in central Africa. I heard of a tribe that settled conflicts with eggs. When the feuding parties had hurt and been hurt long enough people were invited to come to a meeting holding an egg. The eggs were put together to form a nest. The metaphor is that the nest [community well-being] needs to be mended. The eggs also represent fragility – they need to be carefully handled, just like people. And they represent, like other fertility symbols, the possibility of new hope - that a desire for the good of all might triumph. And so, the eggs, weak and little as they are, are also a symbol of grace.
[i] 1 Cor 15:36-37
[ii] Nadia Bolz Weber, Pastrix, p.54