Saturday, 8 September 2012

Jesus: homogenised, pasteurised & homoousious

Peter Lockhart

You may have seen an add on TV where a guy walks into a corner store and asks for some milk. In response the woman behind the counter begins to reel off all the different kinds of milk there are available – low fat, skim, flavoured, full cream, extra cream, soy and so on. At which point he responds by saying, “I just want milk that tastes like milk”. What the woman offers to him is a specific product that based on her opinion or maybe more realistically the advertising company’s opinion tastes like milk.

I reckon this add is not a bad analogy for the way we think about Jesus. In our own way what we have done for the last 2 thousand years is play with the formula to find a Jesus that is most palatable to us. There is more than one Jesus on offer to us and regardless of what we think we are doing, I suspect most of us are looking for a Jesus to suit our taste.

You see who Jesus was and what he was has been the source of debate for Christians since he walked the earth. For the first 300 years of the church there were fierce debates about who Jesus was, debates that still rage today.

There are those who would want to say that Jesus is nothing more than a human being, a great teacher, but basically a human being.

There are others who would so elevate Jesus divinity, that he was so fully God’s son, that as he trudged the roads of Galilee he was all knowing, some kind of super being in our midst.

I have problems with both of these views.

The first of the views, that Jesus was just a man, appears to limit the possibilities of how God can act. It places human beings in an all knowing position. It is a view that says, “Jesus couldn’t be God’s son it’s scientifically impossible, it is historically unprovable.”

The second of these views seems to miss the point of the idea that God became one of us in Jesus; it turns Jesus into something for more than being human and so presents us with a Jesus that is difficult for us to relate to.

These are but two views, or two flavours if you will, of Jesus that occupies the shelves of the spiritual supermarket we call Christianity.

So what do we this problem, how do actually find the real Jesus, is it possible?

I think one of the things that can help us to know Jesus is to try to listen afresh to the stories in the scriptures, stories like the one that we heard today.

Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophonecian woman has often been identified as a problematic story.

Jesus calls the woman a dog, and even though, as some scholars point, out he uses the word puppy the insult is still there.

Why does he do this and why does he dismiss her request? Jesus’ response is based on the fact that she is a woman and not a Jew.

One of the explanations given for Jesus’ behaviour is that he knew how the woman was going to respond and that he was testing her, but for me this denies Jesus humanity, as if he were all knowing.

It could also run the risk of setting up a model for Jesus’ followers that the end justifies the means. That is to say we could begin to think it is OK to insult someone if we think it is going to get the right response.

Thinking about what Mark was trying to get across in his whole gospel we know that he is trying to help people believe his very first assertion in Mark 1:1 which announces his narrative with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Alongside this theme of revealing Jesus to be God’s son, there is also a theme of who is to be recognised as insiders and who is to be counted as outsiders.

One of the ironies of Mark’s telling of the gospel story is that despite Jesus telling the disciples, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God’ it is the outsiders, the gentiles and the outcastes who recognise Jesus’ identity whilst his disciples flounder in misunderstanding.

So how might these themes be a part of this particular story?

One of the things that I would want to suggest is that this story shows Jesus humanity and that he was growing in his own understanding of what he had been called to do.

If we take seriously the idea that Jesus is truly human then he cannot be all knowing but is on a journey of discovery in his own relationship with God through his life. Maybe his desire to find some anonymity in the region of Tyre, his initial rejection of the woman and his preference that the news about his healing of the deaf mute be kept private are all indicators of Jesus’ humanity.

Is it possible that through this interaction Jesus himself comprehends more clearly that the love of God and presence of the kingdom that he is proclaiming is for more than the just the Israelites? Here is a man learning what it means to follow God and entering into what had been for the Jews relatively unchartered waters – God’s will was that all humankind and the whole creation share in his love.

So the story may be saying something to us about Jesus’ own personal growth, that when God became human it really was a self emptying and he did need to grow and learn as other human beings.

On the other hand, the story also contains pointers to Jesus’ divine connection and authority. To speak a word without even seeing a child and so caste out a demon, to heal a man who was deaf and mute, are given to us as signs of his power and authority. Jesus was a man, but no ordinary man.

How we think about who Jesus was and what he did is absolutely vital to our faith and to our life as the church – it determines how we act and what we do and what we think we should be doing.

It can be quite easy to homogenise and pasteurise Jesus, to skim the cream off or take the impurities out, but is this the Jesus that God wants us to know or the Jesus that we are making for ourselves to make him more palatable?

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”

I wonder what the solid food might be for us, real food and real drink. It is interesting to think that the image of the dogs being fed at the table found in this story has carried across into what is called the prayer of humble approach in some versions of the Eucharist.

It is a prayer in which we identify with the Syrophonecian woman, recognising the great gap between who we are and who God is, yet also celebrating that God’s nature has been to bridge that gap so that we like the woman might be fed, not with milk but with Jesus offering of himself for us, his body and his blood in bread and wine.

Take a moment to reflect on who you think Jesus is and what it might mean that he was truly God among us sharing the fullness of what it meant to be one of us.

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