Are We Too Familiar With Jesus?
When families get together, sooner or later the legends start coming out. Perhaps one of the family members has done quite well for themselves in the world – made a real success of their career, or become a well-known local politician, or something like that. If that’s the case, it’s quite likely that at some point during the family gathering someone with a wicked sense of humour is going to say, “Do you remember that time when Jack did such and such?” Everyone will collapse in fits of laughter, the person in question will be suitably humiliated, and the family gathering will continue!
I have a story like that; it gets told about me sometimes when I meet with my Mum and Dad and my brother and other people who knew me ‘way back then’. The story concerns a time in my mid-teens when I was sent down to the local Laundromat to take some dry-cleaning to be done; it included stuff like the blazers and dress pants my brother and I had to wear for school uniform. Now, to be quite honest, at that time I was completely oblivious to the distinction between laundry and dry cleaning. And I must have been incredibly dense, too, because I never stopped to ask myself why my family would be sending me down to the Laundromat to do ordinary laundry, when we had a perfectly good washer and dryer at home. But anyway, I stuffed all those clothes that needed dry cleaning into the washer and dryer at the Laundromat, took them home proudly afterwards, and then experienced a rather spectacular family explosion. I didn’t do too badly out of it in the end; I got a new school blazer. My brother didn’t do quite so well, he got to wear my shrunken blazer, with black leather extensions to make the arms a tiny bit longer. I don’t think he’s ever forgotten that.
I expect that’s the sort of story the people of the village of Nazareth were remembering about Jesus when he came to preach in their synagogue:
‘They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3).
“This is just Mary’s boy? Do you remember the time when Joseph sent him to drop off a plough at Avram’s house, and he went dreaming his way through the field and dropped it off at Amminadab’s instead? Do you remember when he was little and he looked so cute? Do you remember the scrapes he got into? Too bad he’s gotten big ideas about himself now; I wonder where all that came from!”
In Mark’s story of Jesus, this passage comes at the end of a section that describes the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee. It started in chapter three, when Jesus chose the Twelve. Immediately following that, we had a story of how his immediate family were so worried by the things they were hearing about him that they came to take him home, because they were convinced he’d gone out of his mind. Then we had a chapter of parables, like the farmer scattering seed in his field, and a number of miracle stories, like the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the stilling of the storm on the lake. Now, at the end of the section, we’re back to the same two themes: the family of Jesus - who presumably know him best - don’t believe in him, but his disciples do believe in him, and he sends them out on a mission in which they are able to do some spectacular things because of their trust in him.
So the theme of faith and unbelief has been simmering all through this section of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is the farmer who is scattering the seeds of God’s message wherever he goes, but not all of them come up – in other words, not everyone hears with faith. The disciples and Jesus get caught in a storm on the lake; the disciples are afraid, but after Jesus stills the storm he says to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). Jesus delivers a poor man from the power of evil spirits by casting the spirits out of him and into a herd of pigs. The pigs run off the cliff and drown in the lake, and immediately the people of the area beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood! Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood, who we heard about last week, are able to believe in Jesus and so to experience his healing power, but the people of Nazareth won’t believe, and as a result Jesus can’t do much to help them.
Let’s take a minute to look at little more closely at this. What does it mean to say that the people in Jesus’ hometown didn’t believe in him? What exactly were they saying about him? In a nutshell, it was this: “He’s nobody special! We’ve known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper; why does he suddenly think he’s better than we are?”
I want to suggest to you that this attitude to Jesus is alive and well in the contemporary world: “He’s nobody special!” Many of the people I meet in non-Christian circles feel the same way about Jesus. Some time ago I was having coffee with a friend and we got talking about the Christian message; my friend believes in God but he has no patience with the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. “Christ makes much more sense to me when I think of him as a man”, he said.
I didn’t have time to give my friend an adequate response, but what I wanted to say was something like this: “You know, I have exactly the opposite experience. When I read the Gospels, it’s when I try to think of Jesus as just an ordinary man that he makes no sense to me at all!”
What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus wasn’t just a sort of first century Yoda or Robert Fulgham, wandering around giving sage advice about how to live. Jesus actually believed strange things about what was happening through his ministry! Contrary to popular opinion today, the heart of Jesus’ preaching was not ‘love your neighbour as yourself’; rather, the heart of his preaching was an announcement that because he was present, the Kingdom of God was at hand.
In other words, Jesus believed that through his ministry God was at work in a unique way to set the world free from the dark forces of evil. He believed that God was working through him to establish a kingdom of justice and peace, in strong contrast to the kingdoms of exploitation and violence and injustice that everyone was so familiar with. And not only that, he believed some very strange things about his own coming death – which he apparently foresaw quite clearly. He said that he was going to give his life ‘as a ransom for many’, and that his blood was ‘the blood of the covenant’ – which was the sort of language Jewish people used when they offered animal sacrifices to atone for their sins.
Speaking of the things he said, what about this sort of stuff: “My friend, your sins are forgiven”? That’s a bit presumptuous, isn’t it? In Judaism there was a clearly defined way of receiving forgiveness for your sins: you went to the temple and you offered a sacrifice. Now here is Jesus acting and talking as if his presence makes the temple unnecessary! And, of course, that wasn’t the only strange thing he said. He claimed to be the one who had sent the prophets and preachers of the Old Testament. He said that if you had seen him, you had seen the Father. And so it goes on.
So what I wanted to say to my friend was this: ‘When I think of Jesus as just a man, he doesn’t become a good man in my mind: he becomes either a very bad man or a raving lunatic. Today, a man who was just a man and said and did the things Jesus said and did would have been locked up in a psychiatric ward. We certainly wouldn’t have trusted him as the pastor of a church; he was far too unbalanced for that!’
The people of Nazareth were correct, you see; if he really was just the hometown boy, and nothing more, then they were quite right not to be impressed with him. Religious fanatics were two a penny in those days; they arrived on the scene, and before too long they were put in their place, usually by the Romans.
So I want my friend to take the New Testament picture of Jesus seriously – to realise that if he’s just a man, then he makes no sense at all. He only makes sense if he’s more than just a man – if he’s a prophet, or even, dare I say it, the Son of God. If God has come among us in Jesus to show us the way, and to live and die for us, then Jesus makes sense. Of course he still challenges us, and turns our notions of what’s real and what’s not upside down - but then, if God is coming to us in him, we’d expect that, wouldn’t we?
But I can’t stop there. After all, this reading of the text is very comfortable for me, isn’t it? In this interpretation, I’m the faithful one, and my friend is one of the faithless Nazarenes who didn’t accept Jesus’ authority. But isn’t that a slightly inaccurate way of reading the text? After all, Jesus’ family members and fellow-Nazarenes were the ones who were close to him, weren’t they? The whole point of the story is that they were his people, his own flesh and blood: they ought to have been the ones who would recognise him and welcome him. But that’s exactly the opposite of what actually happened; as John says in his Gospel, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11).
Who are Jesus’ family today? Who are the ones who ought to be the closest to him? Surely it’s us, his Church? In Mark 3, when Jesus’ family came to take him away, we read that he looked around at the disciples and the people sitting listening to him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34b-35). So perhaps we need to ask the question, have we become too familiar with Jesus? Are we so comfortable with his story that we don’t see it for the dynamite that it really is?
Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God, an upside down kingdom where the little people would be honoured and the proud tyrants brought down. He taught his followers not to accumulate money and possessions, but to give generously to the poor and needy instead. He told them not to retaliate, but to love their enemies and do good to them, and to pray for those who hated them. He told them that the point of life wasn’t riches or success or popularity, but learning to love God with everything in them, and to love their neighbours as themselves. He told them to be a people who were known for their honesty and integrity. He reached out to the lepers and the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the Samaritans – the people on the margins of society – and he taught his followers to do the same.
Why do we Christians so often miss all this? Why does our way of life so often bear so very little resemblance to the way Jesus taught us to live? Has familiarity bred contempt for us? Jesus was clear that he had come to show us the way, but it sometimes seems that in the past two thousand years we’ve been so busy building impressive churches for him that we’ve got no time to actually follow the way he showed us!
And what’s the result? In Mark 6 we read, ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them’. Isn’t that a rather strange sentence? I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I could lay my hands on a few sick people and heal them, I’d think of that as a pretty impressive deed of power! So what did Mark mean when he said that Jesus could do ‘no deed of power there’?
Here’s what I think he meant. The gospels are clear that Jesus’ miracles aren’t just a free version of modern medicare; they are also signs, pointing to the coming of the Kingdom of God. When the kingdom comes in all its fulness, evil and sickness and injustice and death will be no more. The miracles point to that future reality.
What would have happened if the people of Nazareth had believed in Jesus? Would there just have been a lot more healings? No – the entire community would have been transformed. People with resentments would have forgiven each other. Rich people would have given away most of their wealth to people who didn’t have enough. Some impending divorce actions would have been cancelled. People would have stopped hating the Roman soldiers – the enemy army, that is - and started inviting them for meals in their houses. The whole community would have started practicing love and contentment and reconciliation and peace and justice. Now there’s a deed of power for you!
And here’s the tragedy of what we’ve often done to Christianity in the western world. Because of our lack of faith, we haven’t actually done the things that Jesus told us to do; we’ve tamed Christianity down, and the result is that all he can do is lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. In other words, yes, some people do come to church, and they are helped by what they find there, but the world is not transformed as Jesus had intended when he started his Kingdom revolution in the first place. The world stays pretty much the same.
So here’s the challenge of this text: we, the church, have often become like the Nazarenes in the time of Jesus. We think we know him so well, but we’ve dulled the sharp edges of his message and avoided the challenges. So this text is calling us to faith – real faith, faith that trusts Jesus so much that it follows his example and obeys his commands. When we do that, then Jesus is able to do the ‘deed of power’ he wants to do – transform the world into a place of compassion and justice, a place of reconciliation and peace.
So – have we, like the people of Nazareth, become too familiar with Jesus? We are the heirs to centuries of respectable establishment churchgoing; have they taught us to ignore the hard edges of Jesus’ teaching, because of course common sense tells us we can’t take that sort of thing too seriously in the real world? If so, maybe it’s time for us to take a fresh look at the gospels – ‘meeting Jesus again for the first time’, as one modern scholar puts it – and think about what he was really up to when he sent his followers out to announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder says that the movement Jesus started was ‘the original revolution’ – a nonviolent revolution, yes, but a revolution nonetheless. Let’s not allow familiarity with Jesus to dull the sharp edges of that revolution in our lives. Let’s pray for the courage to truly believe in Jesus, and to show our belief by doing the things he taught us to do.