Saturday, 7 July 2012

How familiar should we be with Jesus?

Peter Lockhart

I can remember a visit from a guidance officer to the school I was in when I was teacher. He came and ran some lessons in with the high school students I was teaching.

As part of what he was doing he ran some group work and brainstorming techniques that I did not regularly use in the classroom. They were not completely new techniques to me but I saw that the students responded well so I thought I might try some of the same teaching strategies in the next few weeks.

Now whereas the guidance officer seemed to keep the students compliant and on task the moment I tried some of the more creative strategies and techniques things simply fell apart and I had to abandon my plans.

On reflection there maybe something to be said about my capacity at the time to employ those strategies but I have always suspected what was more likely is the novelty of the visiting teacher gave them a scope to try things and get the students learning in the new ways than their everyday teacher.

I have seen the same to be true not simply in school settings but in college and University settings, in congregations, presbytery and synod meetings. The visiting speaker or preacher can often say things and challenge people in ways that the more faces can’t seem to do.

The saying usually associated with what is going on here is that familiarity breeds contempt and it has been often suggested that when Jesus returns to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue that this is exactly what happens to Jesus.

According to Mark’s gospel Jesus has already out and about doing great miracles like healing the daughter of Jairus and the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years. Now he heads back to his hometown and goes to teach in the synagogue.

Among those gathered are his relatives and friends, people who knew him as their carpenter. No doubt he had fixed tables and fences and chairs and feed troughs for them but now he was out of character and it jarred for them.

Jesus taught them challenging them. He taught with authority and depth and wisdom that the people simply could not rationalise.

In fact we are told that they took offense at him. There is a similar story told in Luke’s gospel which has the townsfolk so offended that they are ready to throw him off a cliff.

Now whether Mark, along with Matthew, is playing down what happened in this instance or whether Luke embellishes his version of events, or even whether there are two different incidents is by the by: the reaction of the people is rejection.

What really strikes me about Mark’s version of events is Mark’s comment, “And he could do no deed of power there.”

The inference that Mark is making is that the people’s response limited Jesus ability not only to teach them but also to heal them and help them. Or as the biblical scholar David Lose puts it, “their refusal to receive him limits what they can receive from him.”

For me any suggestion that divine power can be limited by human behavior is illogical. If God is all powerful, which I have a tendency to believe then to suggest that Jesus was limited in what he could do as the incarnate son of God seems fallacious.

What all this raises is the question of how we perceive and understand the way in which God relates to the world. It raises the old chestnut of divine and human freedom.

Is God in control of everything, micro managing our lives like some grand puppeteer in the sky?

Is God arbitrarily intervening in our existence, blessing some randomly whilst ignoring or directly disadvantaging others?

Is God holding back simply allowing the creation to roll on, simply letting it go and not intervening?

Does God’s intervention require an appropriate relationship or not?

I have to admit that these are really difficult questions, questions which can turn God into a tyrant controlling every moment of our existence or, alternatively, into an uncaring and absent diety.

This scene does indicate some things which I think are fundamental about the divine-human relationship. I want to mention two.

Firstly, there appears to be a level of openness and co-operation required to receive the fullness of what God is offering to us in the lives that we lead. I don’t necessarily think this should automatically cause us to think that this equates to those who believe will be blessed with a good life. Any student of Christian history knows that some of our most inspiring figures were martyred and suffered greatly in the course of entering more and more deeply into their relationship with Jesus. Nonetheless, living in the relationship with God impacts our lives and the decisions that we make.

Secondly, it is possible for any of us as we seek to deepen our relationship with Jesus that our familiarity breeds contempt: maybe not contempt for Jesus per se, but certainly for Jesus teaching.

For me, this raises a question about how any of us view our relationship with Jesus and how much we personalise this. There is within contemporary Christianity a real push that each of us has a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s not necessarily an unhelpful approach but it can be problematic.

“What a friend we have in Jesus!” Sounds nice, cosy, familiar even, but I also know that I can sit with a friend and chat about life and then walk away taking or leaving what they say. Friends are great, don’t get me wrong, and there should be an implied intimacy in our relationship with Jesus but I wonder if we hold him too close we domesticate what he saying to us.

Viewing Jesus as a friend has become even more endemic and personalised through much contemporary Christian music which has the overtone of modern love songs. Many of my colleagues speak of this as “Jesus is my boyfriend music”. The style of music and the choice of words lead us into a romanticising of the relationship we have with Jesus. And as much as our passion and feelings are a part of our faith over-emoting about our intimacy with Jesus may be unhelpful to our discipleship.

Most young people approach a romantic relationship with a checklist of what the other person is meant to be doing for them and how the other person satisfies their needs. There is a danger in approaching Jesus with such a checklist that instead of receiving what he actually offers we reduce what he offers to the bits that satisfy me and if he doesn’t then I can ‘dump’ Jesus.

Jesus’ presence in his hometown and the reaction to him is a constant reminder to me not to become over familiar with Jesus, to accept that there is a mystery to this person that is beyond a simple friendship.

At the same time it also reminds me that to receive from Jesus requires openness, including the uncomfortable confession that the way in which the relationship between God and me plays out in this life always has an element of mystery about it. I am as uncomfortable with a God who leaves us completely alone as I am with one who acts arbitrarily or even worse determines everything.

Yet despite this risk of not knowing and being able to say definitively how God is and acts the relationship remains and leads me on because Jesus very presence in the village as God incarnate emphasises that cares enough to become one of us.

The promise of Jesus presence is the promise that God is not absent from our lives and that God’s love can transform us.

As the scene progresses Jesus sends the disciples out to share the good news with others, to bring and hope into the lives of those who are suffering. At this point in Mark’s gospel the disciples certainly do not grasp the depth of Jesus identity and the meaning of his life in the world – yet still they go.

This also gives me confidence to encourage you to go out week by week to live and share the good news as you have experienced it, carrying with you the mystery and ambiguity of your faith but confident that God cares enough about our lives that God shared in our very existence.

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