Pitchforks or Possibilities?

I heard an astonishing story recently.

A friend’s mother, well-respected and of deep Christian faith, announced to her grown-up family that she’d converted to another religion.

The announcement was met with shock and surprise.

Doing this contradicted the impression every member of the family had of her.

The sense of disbelief only intensified when she explained, ‘What I have gained from this is perceiving and experiencing the world from the perspective of others. It has been life-changing, refreshing and renewing.’

It took the family a while to deal with this. Some remained troubled.

This story has some bearing on the trajectory of our Revesby Church study group, which is studying Paul’s letter to the Romans.

What has become increasingly evident to me is that the church doesn’t read Romans; it reads Martin Luther’s take on Romans.

Some background: Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the church, engaged in a very personal and intense search to make peace with God.

He discovered a personal faith, ‘salvation by grace through faith alone.’ He wrote, ‘Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.’

He had cast aside the existing paradigm of Christian belief and practice, and planted the seed of a new paradigm – free of the institutional power of the Roman Catholic church whose framework of meaning had impacted him so profoundly.

The new paradigm took one individual’s reading of scripture as its starting point.

The revolution it inspired emerged at a historically opportune moment. The power imbalance between institutions and individuals was changing.

Individuals could now appropriate a new sense of identity founded on their reading of the Bible, their experience of God, not the institution’s. Faith was personal, individual.

This tendency has continued ever since. Now, it is the new normal.

Individuals and God are on the best of terms.

In the last 40 years, the work of numerous biblical scholars has pioneered a new perspective on Paul.

One of their conclusions is that Paul speaks not of individual faith, unlike Martin Luther. Paul addresses communities, people living in their cultural context, Jews and Gentiles coming together in a radically inclusive notion of grace.

Another new paradigm is emerging 500 years after Luther’s breakthrough.

And what a shock to discover Paul was oblivious to individual quests for faith.

I spoke about it in a recent church service. After filming it (we are in lockdown), a colleague said to me, ‘Well, Michael, they’ll be coming for you with their pitchforks now!’

He’s probably right.

Whenever new paradigms emerge, many oppose them. They are deeply disturbed by new insights that don’t fit. Some bring out their pitchforks.

Nonetheless, when pitchforks appear, it’s also a sign that new possibilities are emerging. To quote my friend’s mother, they are ‘life-changing, refreshing and renewing.’

They require the willingness to take on a new perspective, even embody it as my friend’s mother did.

Pitchforks or possibilities? We choose.