There are three accounts of Jesus being asked to preach in his hometown synagogue. The last one by Luke (4:14-30) has been enlarged and embellished with the statement that the congregation was so upset that they proposed to throw him over a cliff – notwithstanding there are no cliffs near Nazareth!
Whenever I go to Nazareth I always make sure to go to what is referred to as “Joseph’s synagogue”. The way you get there is to go past the huge Basilica of the Annunciation and ask in the markets on the left how to get to Joseph’s church. You will be directed to a room about half the size of this one, a white arched ceiling and chairs for about thirty people. It is not of course the original synagogue where Jesus grew up but it does give an idea of what it may have been like.
When we in France a few weeks ago we also visited a Joseph’s Church. It was in Lyon which ranks in my book as one of the best cities in France to visit. Paris is hopeless. Too many tourists – eighty million of them visit France every year. In Paris we saw the Mona Lisa in the distance over the heads of about two hundred people. Lyon on the other hand is sheer delight and it was there that we visited Joseph’s Church which is underneath the Basilica that is high on the hill overlooking Lyon. The view from the Basilica grounds is not unlike the view of Perth from Kings Park. Our local guide remarked that beneath the Basilica there was another Church – Joseph’s Church. It was intended to be connected with the Basilica above by a huge stairway but this has since been blocked off. This was enough to make it interesting and we made our way to Joseph’s Church underneath the Basilica. It was as large as the Basilica but far less ornate and in the front was a statue of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. I was most impressed. Later that night I mentioned to a land agent on the boat how impressed I was, and said “After all, Joseph was Jesus’ father”. The land agent looked at me and said “Foster father” and I said “No, real father”. – and that is where the conversation finished – which was a pity because I would have enjoyed a discussion on the Virgin Birth. Stories of a virgin birth were common in the first century. Alexander the Great was said to be born of a virgin as was the Emperor Augustus in Jesus day who was said to be fathered by the God Apollo. It appears that Matthew, who wrote in the 70s, was the first to introduce the story. Paul , who wrote thirty years earlier makes no mention of it, nor does Mark, the first and basic gospel. And it wasn’t until 325 AD that it became official, the time when the Emperor directed the theologians to get their act together and produce an official statement of faith, a creed, a statement that could be an instrument of control and which resulted in heretics being burnt at the stake – a rather regrettable state of affairs in the light of Jesus statement to love one another.
The Creeds make no sense today. They belong to the third century and the context of the Roman Empire. They speak of Jesus descending into hell and rising into heaven which may have meant something in days gone by. It is nonsense today. The same goes for “the resurrection of the body”. A friend of mine, who is a theologian of some repute ,points out that neither the Greek language nor Latin had a word for personality and that what this phrase means is that nothing of what we have done or experienced in our earthly life will be lost. Fair enough! My point is that if that is what it means then say it and don’t use words that are deceptive and dated. For the life of me (and that is a very interesting phrase) I cannot see why we lock ourselves into the context and wording of a pre Copernican past? Ours is, or should be, an evolving faith which is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. To use words and concepts and ideas that were current two thousand years ago is a recipe for disaster.
And this, when you come to think of it, is precisely the problem that Jesus struck in his home church. At first they were impressed, “amazed” is the word that is used. “What understanding and insight! Joe and Mary’s boy has done very well.” But when they heard what he was saying , the mood changed dramatically. There was a change of attitude and we are told “they turned against him.” Marcus Borg says “We are not told why”. I beg to differ! Jesus’ words about prophets being without honour in their home town make it quite clear why there was a change of attitude. A prophet, as I hope we are all aware, is not one who foretells the future but one who forthtells the future. A prophet is one who is concerned about the future, about change and social justice and politics and international affairs in their time and in the future. Jesus was concerned about the future and where his society was going. His congregation that day was not. They were concerned about the past and the present. Jesus was concerned about the future and what was required to bring about what he called the “Community of God”. Jesus was concerned about the future. The congregation was not. They were locked into the past and the present.
Robert MacAfee Brown expresses it well “ The hometown boy is back home. He has been away for a while doing nobody is sure quite what. No matter, here he is safe and sound, sitting in the family pew just like old times. Thy ask him to read the scripture lesson, and the hearers are charmed. And then Jesus, not knowing enough to quit while he is ahead, starts explaining things and the spell is broken. What kind of talk is this? Who does this young upstart think he is? And the scene that starts in tranquility literally becomes a cliff hanger. They jostle the guest speaker to the top of some nearby hills but somehow there is no lynching that night. But instead of learning from the experience, he obstinately continues the same disturbing message elsewhere. A couple of years later another mob gets its hands on him, takes him to another hill outside another city, and makes sure this time that he doesn’t get away”
How much of the story was fact and how much fiction we will never know but the point is very clear. Jesus was not locked into the past – nor must we be! What we need to do is to restate and rethink the faith “in the light of understanding and information not available to earlier generations” (Keith Rowe)
Last Thursday I went to see the movie “El Comino” – the story of the 800k walk across northern Spain – a part of which Karen and Matt will be walking in the near future. The shots of the scenery were magnificent . It was like walking through a gallery of Van Gogh paintings. It was, however, the throw away lines that really impressed me. One woman quietly said “Change is so hard”. Another said “ I’ve changed – and all change is spiritual.” And then there was the guy who crossed himself and said “Energy of the Universe” – a superb definition of God. The movie reminded me of so many things: that life is in effect a journey, and that the early Christians were called “People of the Way”. The other name of course was “atheists” because they did not believe in the Gods of their day. People of the way, people of the journey – a journey that has a beginning and an end. I was asked the other day what I want in my funeral service. It is an interesting question. I am still giving it some thought. Somewhere in it I would like an adapted piece by Studdert Kennedy.
“It really isn’t finished, Lord,
I have so many things left undone.
Nothing in my life
Has been really won.
It’s like the scribblings of a child!
I can but hand it in and hope
that you will understand the scrawl
and my regret
that I cannot rewrite it all.
The night is falling fast
and sooner late than past
I shall breathe my last.
I have no strength for more
So it must stand or fall, my Lord.
What I like about it is the idea of life as a journey. The congregation when Jesus preached in the Nazareth synagogue was locked into the past. They failed to see that change is the name of the game, that growth is what it is about – and that the nature of the growth constitutes the God question. Change is of the nature of life and has always been part of the human condition. Life is dynamic. The world is dynamic. As Alfred North Whitehead puts it: “Our existence is in our becoming”. The Christian faith likewise is dynamic. The words of Jesus “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness” is what it is all about. There is far more to life than our comfort and amusement. Life is about what we want the human race to become. The Christian faith is not about pie in the sky when we die. It is about the future of the human race.
I don’t know whether you read the article in the West Australian last week by a Muslim woman. It was about Islamic State and she stated clearly what some of us have been saying for some time, that religion is a key driver in the growth of Islamic State. The writer pointed out that Islamic State is very Islamic and is based on the Wahabi sect that has a literal approach to the Koran and believes in a coming Apocalypse. “ Islamic State propaganda and radicalization” the writer says “are based on Islamic teachings and cultural values, particularly those related to the afterlife and the day of judgment” And then she says some chilling words “It is my understanding that Islam shares the concept of the Apocalypse with Judaism and Christianity”. And she is right! It’s all there in the bible! Take the Bible literally and you are hooked into the concept of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Rapture and all the other nonsense masquerading as the Christian Faith
The question that emerges from out of the scripture set for today is “Why in the name of God are we so hooked into the past?”
The congregation at Nazareth had their ideas firmly fixed and when Jesus came in with new ideas they “turned against him”. They expected Joe and Mary’s son to carry on their tradition. He spoke however of a very different social order to the one in which they lived – and in which we live. And the congregation didn’t like it. Luke’s bit about wanting to throw him over a cliff was a vivid metaphor of the rejection of what he was saying – and is still saying. That’s what the resurrection is all about: Jesus still standing among us saying “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness”.
And the question raised by our reading today is how will we react to the Jesus who now stands in this congregation. God forbid that we too should remain locked into the past
There really is more to life than our comfort and amusement and being happy. What Jesus and we are on about is the future of the human race. Creation is in the future and we are called to love it into being. The New Community is what the Christian faith is about and the problem we face today is the same that the congregation in Joseph’s church faced two thousand years ago. It is all too easy to fit comfortably into the old order, and the new order goes unannounced and unacknowledged.
I finish with some words from the first chapter of Ephesians
“God has allowed us to know the secret of his plan and it is this: he purposes that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him. And here is the staggering thing – that we, as the first to put our faith in Christ, we have a part to play in the working out of his purpose.”
So be it, and if it be so, then to the crucified Jesus of Nazareth and the eternal energy of the universe be the praise and the glory.