A concept and theory called, “third space” developed by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and the theory by Oldenburg and Brissett, refers to significant “non-home/non-workspaces which provide a particular sense of well-being and belonging for participants…. They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships, …somewhere you can connect with others, share your thoughts and dreams, and have fun. A third place is an anchor of the community and usually a public setting that hosts frequent and informal gatherings of people. Coffee shops, parks, bookstores, churches, and community centers can all function as third places. The only real requirement is that nobody is forcing you to show up.” These various references suggest “third space or place” is about well-being, belonging, and purpose, beyond home and vocation. And an affirmation that churches and other places of worship can function as “third spaces,” for building relationships, connecting, sharing ideas, thoughts, and dreams.
I wonder what third spaces come to mind in your communities. I think of walking spaces, around Cedar Hill Golf course, or on Pkols/Mount Douglas, where having walked these spaces for some time, you see the same groups of people together, in conversation, sharing the common purpose of exercise, being outside, staying active, socializing. And libraries, golf courses, gyms, playgrounds, pools, squares, and many other examples, all serving as significant third spaces, beyond home and work or school, for people to connect to one another.
One of the first times I heard this term was related to the worshipping community and campus ministry of Martin Luther University in Waterloo, Ontario with Pastor Anne Anderson. Simply named “Thirdspace” – one word, they describe the ministry as “sharing the meal, the story, the journey,” a “vibrant alternative worshipping community… while remaining Lutheran, exploring new ways of ‘doing church’ …in worship, learning and service.” It’s a good name for a campus ministry, like Inclusive Christians, offering a safe, alternative space for students to
share a common purpose of creating and sharing Christian community, sharing ideas, thoughts, dreams, faith, together.
I wonder if this concept is helpful in hearing today’s readings, including the reading from Matthew 18, upholding a kind of spiritual “third space?” Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” A sacred third space created by Jesus. Community and belonging in a space with one another, with Jesus at the heart of that space, and all the gifts and challenges, the possibilities and barriers, being in this space together holds.
From the resource Sundays and Seasons, “the readings this week focus on the practical work of the gathered Christian community: turning from sin to repentance, from conflict to reconciliation. The question is as relevant today as it was for the disciples and the first Christians: how do we live together, work together, as the body of Christ? We have been saved by grace, liberated by God’s love to love one another. What does it mean for us and for our community to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14) and to clothe ourselves in love?
The first reading, in the unfolding salvation history of Israel/the Hebrew people, recounts the defining event in that history. The “Passover” of death at Hebrew households, made possible by enacting the command of God through the ritual sacrifice of a lamb and its blood marking their homes, and death passing over them leading to freedom from slavery to God’s promise of land and new life for the people of Israel. The Passover, the central yearly ritual for our Jewish neighbours could be described as an essential spiritual third space, a Passover community of family and friends identified by the Exodus, and seeking to remember and give thanks and remain committed to the God who frees them and gives life. A life of purpose, loving God and neighbour and giving light to the world.
Paul, in the letter to the Romans, summarizes the theme of life in community as, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. …Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And Paul proposes there is an urgency to this life of love together, to wake up, to not lose ourselves in wasted living, but instead to “put on Jesus Christ.” A call to live into and out of this essential and urgent third space of loving and committed community in Christ together.
Mathhew 18 has been described as a dispute resolution mechanism for the earliest expressions of Christian community. What that says is, as soon as there was any expression of Christian community, there were disputes and conflicts that needed resolving. It is like asking when did politics begin? When there were two people. We witnessed a dispute between Peter and Jesus in the reading last Sunday over Jesus being the anointed and beloved of God leading to his suffering and death and rising. And Peter will have none of it. And Jesus calls Peter out, or is it in, to understand that Jesus’ fulfilling God’s purpose will lead to suffering and death, but also to new life! And in today’s reading that follows, we hear instructions of how we are to seek resolution in disputes with one another in the sacred third space of loving and committed community in Christ.
There is an expression in discussions of racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, ablism, inclusion and diversity, of “calling people out,” or “calling people in.” It describes the need and commitment to name racism and Queer and other forms of prejudice and hate when they happen, especially as bystanders and allies. And that it is critical, especially if we witness overt expressions of hate, to call them out, including call a person out when it is safe, to create greater safety for those harmed. But graciously, people in this work also speak of the need and opportunity when confronting racism, prejudice, and hate, especially in micro-aggressions, of “calling people in.” Out of common humanity, out of love and commitment to community, telling one another when we have harmed someone else, failed to speak or act, and the hope of correcting that harm, growing in understanding and love. and seeking greater justice and reconciliation together. I wonder if Matthew 18 reflects this same “calling people in,” or what others might term “restorative justice,” as the way of resolving disputes and conflicts in the sacred third space of loving community together. Does this way of restorative justice, or calling people in, more common in traditional Indigenous cultures and teachings, define the third space of loving, more just, equitable, open, inclusive, and diverse communities we want to create?
And so also in relation to the earth in this season of creation in crisis. For many of us, with the privilege of accessing beautiful natural places around us as significant third spaces of communion with creation and one another, do we recognize and honour these spaces and the earth as sacred, where we as humanity have done and continue to do great harm, for which we are being called out by the earth and its suffering, and challenged with how we will confront and confess and work to restore right relationships with the earth and one another in care for all creation? What does being sacred third space communities of love and truth and reconciliation in Christ look like in relation not only to one another, and especially in relationship to the more and most vulnerable in our communities and world, but also in relationship to this precious and vulnerable earth that is our shared home?
Going back to the description of third spaces, as places where people gather regularly, that offer “a particular sense of well-being and belonging, where we exchange ideas, have a good time, build relationships, connect with others, share your thoughts and dreams, and have fun.” As we gather here, my hope and prayer and ours together I trust, is that this community of the cross offers some of these gifts of a third space for you, and for others who come here, and for all of us together. We know it is not all good times and fun, as we seek in the love of Christ to speak the truth, call one another in, and restore broken relationships to let God’s justice and peace flow like a mighty river for all people and all creation. And I wonder if this third space is held sacred especially around this open table, in a simple meal shared and to which all are invited and welcome, whether two or three or many more gathered in Jesus’ name, and all receive this food and drink of grace, in Christ, and by Christ’s Spirit are sent to share this love of God, love of neighbour, love of the earth, with all others in this great sacred third space that is this world of God’s creating. We pray, let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.