Showing up to experience something of heaven
Liz Stuart, 25 August 2019
Hebrews 12: 18–29; Luke 13: 10–17
She just showed up. She just showed up like she did every shabbat to hear the prayers, to listen to the Torah read and being explained. She just showed up as she always did – a person of faith; she would always show up. She had no idea that Jesus of Nazareth would be there that day, she had no idea that she would become the centre of a conflict, a struggle between the old creation and a new one being born in and through Jesus. She had no idea that she herself would be made new. She just showed up.
Life had been hard on her. Luke describes her in a term that we translate as ‘bent over’ or ‘bowed together’, συνκύπτουσα. It is the only time the term is used in the New Testament. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used to mean doubled over with grief or humility. Perhaps she had a physical condition, perhaps she was carrying the kind of emotional pain that writes itself on your body. Or perhaps Luke is playing on the fact that in his culture, a bent back was an indication of a weak character and particularly associated with women, so possibly his primary point is that she was a woman.
The 18 years was clearly significant because Luke mentions it twice – maybe because the numerical value of the Hebrew letters for life is 18, thus indicating she had borne this pain always, or because in early Christianity Jesus’ name was represented by the Greek letters for 18. Her grinding life was about to meet the Lord of life.
Jesus’ encounter with the leader of the synagogue circles around two types of Sabbath. The leader represents a Sabbath that is for some but not all; it is a time of rest and restoration for ox and donkey but not this daughter of Abraham. In Jesus’ new creation the Sabbath excludes no one; indeed, the new creation is Sabbath and all are included in it.
In Jesus’ new creation the Sabbath excludes no one; indeed, the new creation is Sabbath and all are included in it.
They always show up, tumbling over themselves with joy. They are exuberant because they know Jesus will be there, that all is one in God. Angels and saints, the dead who have gone before us, they always turn up to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.
You and I, we show up here week after week. Why? Because Jesus shows up. He is here in the bread and wine, in the Word and in the love and friendship between us. He is as really present to us as he was to the woman in the synagogue. We are here because we are children of the new creation he brings; all of us are in the eternal Sabbath, and no one is excluded.
Where are you and I today? In St Paul’s/St Matthew’s, Winchester, sure – but we are also at the festal gathering, the assembly in the city of the living God, the new Jerusalem, and if we could but see angels swoop among us, the saints dance between us and our beloved dead join us, because we are all one in Christ! St John Vianney said, if we really understood what was going on in our worship, if we could but see who worships with us, we would die with joy.
If we really understood what was going on in our worship, if we could but see who worships with us, we would die with joy.
We show up to experience something of heaven. We all join in the song of the angels in the Gloria and the chant of the Seraphim in the Sanctus/Te Deum.
I know that when you look at me you think, ‘What an angel!’ The role of the deacon is actually to represent the angels in our worship. You may have noticed that angels are often depicted in art as deacons, with the distinctive stole across the body. I do all the bits that the angels do in the worship as described in the book of Revelation – except you won’t let me wave the incense about!
Of course, though we are children of the new creation that creation is still being born, so we come here often bent over with physical or emotional pain, with the hurt of non-inclusion or marginalisation in other parts of our lives, with the weight of our own sin – but unlike the woman in the gospel we know that we will meet Jesus here, the Lord of Life, that he always shows up and none of that pain will have the last word over us; it will be shaken away in the kingdom.
In the end there is only joyous, glorious Sabbath, which is why we praise God even when life doubles us up.
Having experienced something of heaven here among us, we are called to show up in the world where God is bringing in his new creation and join in healing and breaking the bonds that bind people, so that true Sabbath can burst upon the earth and the everlasting festival break out. We are called to show up so that all can ‘stand up straight and let God’s glory touch [their] face’ (Irene Zimmerman, Woman Un-Bent).