Sunday, February 24, 2008


There is a Greek word that is often found in the First Letter to the Corinthians that I find Lutherans using –at least Lutherans of the pastoral type. The word is adiaphora. It is a term used in Christianity to denote things that are not necessary for salvation. According to Wikipedia it was used by Philip Melancthon when there was some argument of what was necessary and what was necessary in the Book of Concord: "church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God."

It seems to me a way of saying “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Today’s Gospel reading of the Woman at the Well is a good example of adiaphora. The Samaritan woman challenges Jesus when he has told her that she has she has had 5 husbands and the one she has now is not her husband. “We worship on the mountains and you Jews say one must worship in Jerusalem” And Jesus says “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” (Jn.4:23)

It did not take a genius or even a prophet to know that Judah was “cruzin’ for a bruisin’” in Jesus’ day. There had been one uprising after another against Roman authority. Most people understood that Rome would not tolerate endless rejection of Roman occupation. It was a mere 40 years after Jesus’ death that the Roman Legion bore down on the rebellious province of Judah and brought about the total destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of God that was the center of Jewish resistance. The region of Samaria and the province of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were placed under interdict which forbad the worship of the Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus, the prophet, spoke to a woman of Samaria about adiaphora. It wasn’t going to matter if the Samaritans worshipped in the high places. It wasn’t going to matter if Jews worshipped in Jerusalem because one day it would all be gone. How one worshipped didn’t matter much. But WHO one worshipped and in what manner DID matter. “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

All too often we Christians put an emphasis on things that are not necessary for salvation to distinguish ourselves. Episcopalians are likely to say that things must be done the English way. Lutherans often divide themselves between the German ways of worship and understanding and the Scandinavian ways. The Presbyterians are likely to say that we are predestined to salvation. Roman Catholics are likely to say that good works are a way to salvation. Methodists want to know if we have had a “spiritual experience” of God, while Baptists want to know if we have been baptized by immersion. Those outside of Christianity are often totally confused by denominational differences. They don’t understand why we sweat the small stuff.

Christians often have important doctrines that people must espouse, or sacramental actions demanded of them in order to “prove” they are of one flavor of Christianity or another. We even have a tendency to identify ourselves as being “liberal” or “progressive” or “conservative”, or “independent” or even “hard shell.” And yet it does not even touch what is necessary for salvation. And more often than not, what we argue over is for naught. It is adiaphora.

In the Anglican tradition we say that there are two sacraments necessary for salvation—Baptism and Holy Communion. And even those we fudge on—for God can save whomever God chooses! And we will never know. God does the saving—nothing that we do can change that. All we have to do is receive the work of God.
And that is about the most comforting thing that I know.

All the rest are ways of knowing God. For the Baptist to know in the believer’s baptism that Christ is present to her is awesome. For the Roman Catholic to find purpose and Christ’s friendship in the good works that he does brings him to his knees. For the Presbyterian to understand that events in her life have been planned by God since time immemorial is comfort indeed. For the Anglican or the Lutheran the finding of Christ in the sacrament of the altar is thrilling. All of it brings us closer to the God who has loved us more than life.

All too often we end up arguing about the things that are not necessary for salvation. We fight over minutia rather than share what we have in common. Rather than quibbling over how we handle the sacraments, perhaps we need to be talking about what the Spirit is doing in our hearts when we receive the Real Presence of Christ. Perhaps we need fewer rules about what to do with “reserved sacrament” and more discussion about how God changes us when we are humbled by his law of love. What would happen if we spent less time talking about how we are different and more talking about what we hold in common?

This is less a problem for lay folk than it is for us clergy-types. Clergy have a vested interest in all the ‘jots and tittles’ in the religious world. It is how we can tell ourselves apart! We need ways of deciding who is in our flock and who isn’t. But the reality is that they are all anaphora—things not necessary for salvation.

We need this word today when fewer and fewer people want to be tied up in denominational squabbles. If there is anything the Episcopal Church can teach the rest of main-line Protestantism is that church fights hurt. And the hurt is deep and often meaningless. It may be a way of purifying the Church, but in the end we are a scandal to ourselves and to others. And most of all, we have accomplished little.

Ultimately we as Christians are going to have to do some serious listening to those who are different from us. We are going to have to develop vocabularies and understandings of those who worship and think differently. We must be willing to hear the experience of the Holy One in the rites of others. We need to hear the Spirit and Truth that Jesus enjoins upon the Woman at the Well. "For the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”

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