Sermon - Ordinary 14 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
The otherness of Jesus
It has been common in recent times for pious Christian believers to think of Jesus as an intimate friend, like a member of the family; and he is indeed our brother; but I wonder, if the truth be known, how welcome he would be, and how much he would feel at home, in our families. While it is true that in the family of faith he is our brother, his membership is different from our natural families. It comes from our being adopted as children of God, not by way of a natural birthright but through the grace and generosity of God. Within our adoptive family of faith we share the love of brothers and sisters in Christ [Romans 8:14-17; 1 John 4:21;5-1]; but to call Jesus directly our brother was not the way the disciples spoke; nor was it his normal way of speaking to them [See endnote, and a sermon with a different emphasis, You are my friends ]. When Paul wrote of "our brother" it was always with reference to a fellow worker for Christ. I would not wish to discourage a sense of intimacy in devotion to Jesus, but do suggest that to incorporate the figure of Christ too easily into our memory and love of human families could involve us in quite serious self-deception.
The deception involved in an attempt to incorporate Christ into our human families and natural communities is a problem in part because, in our faith, he is not only friend and brother, but Lord and Master. Then there is the problem of accommodating our understanding of Christ to the biases and limitations of our particular communities and cultures which have different ideas of family relationships. It depends to some extent on how much the culture, in the sense of our general way of life, has been influenced by and conformed to the mind of Christ. Whether ours is a basically Christian society may be doubted except in an historical sense of some cultural residue being retained. But even taking a generous view on whether it is basically Christian, our families, friendship circles and local communities are not fully transformed by the gospel, and may in some respects be quite hostile to Christ. That is more likely now in Western society as modern people have turned away from the gospel, and when the dominant influences in mass culture come from sections of society which have openly rejected the Christian faith. The saying of Jesus saying at one point that he had not come to bring peace but the sword, to divide members of families against one another, could well apply today in Western societies where his presence would cause conflicts of loyalty if it were openly acknowledged.
We will need to come to grips with that kind of possible conflict if we think we can invite Jesus into our homes and treat him as a personal friend, even if he is indeed our true friend and brother.
We also call him "Lord". In fact the confession that "Jesus is Lord" is what makes a person a Christian, and it has always been so from the beginning [eg Romans 10:9]. Christians in all ages have been conscious of the high and mighty character of Christ the King, and in past centuries when kings were often objects of fear and dread some of those feelings were associated with Christ who people in traditional Christian societies knew would ultimately be our judge. The worship of Christ as that kind of distant, and sometimes fearful though compassionate figure, in the Middle Ages is said to have been a factor in the rise of the cult of Mary as a warm human figure through whom Christ could more easily be approached. In the post reformation period, a few hundred years ago, perhaps partly in reaction against that distorted view of Christ, and partly in a genuine recovery of the personal nature of faith, there were movements of piety in which devotion to our Lord was expressed in very personal and intimate terms, terms which incidently had also been found in the writings of medieval mystics.
I referred recently to the Moravian missionaries who had a significant influence on John Wesley. One movement of personal piety in the post reformation period was the Moravians of central Europe, of whom Nikolaus von Zinzendorf was a leader. He wrote the hymn "Heart and heart unite together", translated for the Australian Hymn Book by Melbourne theologian Harry Wardlaw. (It has been omitted from the new book AHB II: Together in Song, perhaps because of the ambiguous attitude of the churches to pietism). The passion of the devoted Moravians for our Lord was great and intensely personal: "... let thy flame of love consume us ...". He refers to "Christ, our true friend", to us as "his brotherhood" and begins the last verse "O thou gracious friend unite us" and concludes "we, O Lord, are truly thine." These sentiments in the language of love are familiar to us, especially those of us who come from the Methodist tradition. It was partly through their influence that Wesley, some years later back in England, came to share with people disaffected from the church of the time "the religion of a warmed heart" in the great evangelical revival which he led. That warmth and commitment is with us in the personal experience of some, but it can seem strange to many.
Although Wesley combined a personal loving response to Christ with a broader view of life in community and the catholic traditions of the church, there have been two rather different aberrations which have developed from that kind of personal piety in recent times. One is a false kind of "evangelical" faith which emphasises certain kinds of personal experience: it looks inward and tends to suggest that unless you have had the same kind of experience as they take as a standard you are not a true Christian. It is an inward, individualistic religion, often judgmental in its attitude to others and lacking in social or political concern. Another development from the same historical root is in sharp contrast and is currently expressed in the social justice movement in the churches. It tends to focus on Christ as brother in such a way as to emphasise his humanity, and to associate such sentiments with concerns for equality, and the ethical and political consequences of people being called to be brothers and sisters together, to the exclusion of any transcendent character of Jesus as the Christ. Each of these somewhat heretical derivatives of personal faith in Christ as friend and brother gets us into trouble because they tend to assimilate the gospel about him to our current social, cultural and personal preferences, so that only that which fits with what we otherwise believe is allowed to enter our lives. That is the big question for us behind the story of what happened to Jesus when he came back to his hometown where his mother and brothers and sisters were still living. [Mark 6:1-6; cf Matthew 13:53-58 and Luke 4:16-30.] Can our brother Jesus be Christ the Lord?
When Jesus began his ministry after he was baptized by John he was not very far removed from his family. In terms of physical distance the villages on the shores of the lake, where his fame began to spread around Galilee, were only about 25 miles, or a long day's walk, from Nazareth where he had grown up. His mother and other members of the family appear still to have been living there. They are reported in the gospels as having gone with him on occasions and to have visited him there in the fishing towns on the lake shore:
His brothers were not at this time believers in him and their visiting could give rise to misunderstanding:
Although it was still early in his ministry, the distinction between his natural family and the family of the faith community was beginning to cause some conflict. It was sharpened when he went back to Nazareth. Yet his new found fame must have been in their minds when they welcomed him home, and probably with more suspicion on the part of other citizens of his hometown. We soon learn what they thought when he began to teach in the local synagogue:
They took offense at him. The word translated "took offense" in Greek is literally our word "scandalized". It was beyond all expectations and quite unacceptable in a way which challenged their basic values. If we follow Luke's account of the visit we see how some at least spoke well of him and marvelled at his teaching even when he spoke of the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 61 about the Spirit of the Lord being upon him, but they finished up, according to Luke, taking him out to throw him off a cliff. The offense of being someone special when he fitted their view of the world as an ordinary member of their community was noted by Jesus when he quoted a proverb that was in common use:
We could just leave it at that. It is a common enough human experience. When we see people in a new situation it is sometimes difficult to recognize them. We can be surprised at how children whom we know well, even our own children, turn out when they grow up. Someone wrote a book about teenagers called A Stranger in the House. Failure to cope with changes as people develop is a common enough source of tension, and that can apply to what happens in families well into the adult years. Even in middle age marriages can fail when people have not allowed each other room for development in unexpected ways. Professional people may well be reluctant to work in a community where they grew up because of uncertainty about whether they would be accepted in a new role. "You can't go back", they say. The people of Nazareth were probably more isolated from the wider world than most people are today, and might have felt these things more keenly, but we can recognize the difficulty they had in accepting Jesus as a prophet, let alone his being the Messiah. They were basically the same as us in human terms, and their reaction to Jesus as a man with a new and special mission is not very different from the reaction of many people today to the person of Jesus. They are prepared to accept him as a good man, but that is all. He is acceptable so long as he fits into their own little world.
Where the story takes us beyond ordinary human experience is not in the very human response of the people but in the nature of person Jesus. What was it that was so different about him? They had known him as "the carpenter" or perhaps, according to Matthew, "the carpenter's son", and as the brother of James and the others. There was nothing dishonourable about this: the carpenter was a general handyman who could turn his hand to many useful things. [Our words "tectonic" (concerned with building or construction), and "technician", come from the Greek where tekton is here translated "carpenter".] But there was some uneasiness about hearing him teach because as they said in Jerusalem when he taught in the Temple "Where does he get this knowledge when he is not an educated man?"
Please avoid the trap of using this as an excuse for putting down academic learning in favour of the well known virtues of folk wisdom. I hope I am not simply defending my old profession in saying this. Jesus was much more than a folksy teacher. If we look more closely at John chapter 7, where that previously quoted text comes from, we see another discussion of the same issues. It is remarkably similar to the main thrust of the story of his hometown visit, and the story of his family visiting him when he was teaching, as told in different ways by Matthew, Mark and Luke. The point is that he was not appealing to popular imagination through his folk wisdom, but on the contrary he was challenging his own ordinary folk as much as he was challenging the men of learning. That is why they both rejected him.
There is evidence in John 7 that his brothers were interested in his fame, but did not believe that he deserved it and wanted him out of the way.
There you have it. The claim and the real offense was that his teaching came from God as he himself had come from God. It is doubtful whether any of his immediate family, except probably his mother Mary in some subtle way, accepted this until after he died. Mary at times expressed faith in him and at others is grouped with the brothers who were questioning. Both she and his brothers were mentioned amongst the believers present, after his resurrection and ascension, on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14), and Paul tells us that his brother James was one of those to whom he appeared after he rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:7). James, some years later, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15). But all this was after the major work of Christ had been done when the kind of values expressed in family, tribe and national loyalties had in fact sent him to his death.
The message is that there is an otherness about Jesus. He does not fit easily into human values and institutions, but comes from a holy God who brings it all under judgement and ultimately transforms it through his Word. Do not confuse old fashioned family values and tribal loyalties with the Christian faith. That kind of idolatry has led to countless wars and much suffering. It is very far from the truth about him. There is no place in the Christian life for ancestor worship. Of course he upheld marriage and taught people to keep the old Jewish law about honouring your father and mother, but he also cautioned many times against human loyalties that could prevent a person from accepting the good news of the kingdom and following him. A sharp contrast is drawn between the community of faith and the natural human family, with its related communities of tribe and nation that divide people from one another and shut out the good news about God's universal love.
We dare not reduce his humanity to the limited proportions of our own experience and imagination. You see, his difference from us, even precisely in his intimate love and compassion for us, shows both his divinity and the perfection of his humanity. His otherness comes to us both as a judgement on our limited humanity and as the ground of our hope for fulfilment as children of God. We both love and worship him. Through him we know the awesome mighty God the Creator to be our friend. We know it through the otherness of the one who became fully human as the man for others. He is our Lord Jesus Christ, who brings under judgement all petty human loyalties and transforms them into the life of the Kingdom of God, in which we may know and enjoy him for ever. Amen.
There are only two references to Jesus possibly calling his disciples his brothers, and these are both post resurrection messages which are ambiguous as they could refer to his "natural" brothers in the sense that his "brothers" present at Pentecost were mentioned in Acts 1 with his mother Mary or to his brothers in a broader sense who included his natural brothers and his disciples who were together with them. It is not clear who is intended by "brothers" in these passages and they could have a special meaning in the post resurrection context.
More typically, perhaps, there were occasions when he called them "children":
It may be significant that the last of these is also post resurrection and the others are clearly eschatological. The use of human family terminology, whether of "brothers" or "children" in respect to their relationship to him may be more appropriate in that context in which the Christian hope is being fulfilled than it would have been in reference to their relationship as his disciples during his earthly ministry. That could relate to all who received him having the potential to become children of God, as proclaimed in the prologue to John. There is a sermon from Easter 6 Year B touching in this, You are my friends , which makes a different emphasis although the fulfilment of the hope of transformed relationships is a theme in both that exposition and this.
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