You may have seen the commercial. It portrays a loving grandmother welcoming her sweet grandbaby for a visit. But as she takes the child in her arms, suddenly the camera shows the grandmother shockingly transformed, Grimm’s Fairy Tales style, into a wolf, grinning evilly at the baby. It’s an ad for whooping cough vaccine, and the message is that if you haven’t had a booster shot, you are a menace to the most vulnerable people in your life; you are not the nurturing presence you seem to be.
It can be a terrible shock when you learn that someone is not who you thought they were. Even under the best of circumstances – the teenager in a white coat who turns out to be your physician, or the whole genre of superhero-in-disguise stories – there is tension and even conflict, whether internal or acted out, around the adjustment to the new identity or character of someone you thought you knew.
So, here in Luke’s Gospel we have Jesus, the hometown boy, back in Nazareth, no doubt looking for some home cooking, and attending Sabbath worship with his folks. Knowing the reputation he is gaining as a preacher, the worship leader offers him the pulpit. Let’s see what Joseph’s boy can deliver. The neighbors settle down, expecting to hear nostalgic tales of childhood and comfortable platitudes, a homecoming sermon.
But that’s not what they hear at all. They hear someone they don’t know. Luke has been at pains to tell us that Jesus has been taken over by the Holy Spirit. He has spent time in the wilderness. He has wrestled with his demons. He has accepted his Messianic vocation, with all that it entails. And he speaks hard and unwelcome truths.
The transformation of the congregation is sudden and shocking. It reminds me of the climactic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the angelic beings released from the Ark of the Covenant suddenly transform into demonic monsters. The mood in the synagogue flips from patronizing approval to murderous rage. We are stunned by this development: Jesus’s own people rejecting him, a foretaste of what is to come at the end of his life.
Two thousand years on, it can still be a shock to realize who Jesus really is. Acceptance of Jesus as our Lord changes our relationship to God, just as this episode changed the Nazareth neighbors’ relationship to Jesus and his family. Jesus grew up in a place where people undoubtedly knew that his conception was irregular and that Joseph had bucked convention by extending forgiveness to Mary and marrying her anyway. They think they know this guy. It’s one thing for Jesus to gain a reputation for fiery preaching in Capernaum – which is all he has so far done in Luke’s account – but it’s something else to claim to be the embodied fulfillment of the prophets.
Think of the comic that shows two camels, each with a bumper sticker on its rear, each with a woman in the saddle. One says “my son is an honor student”. The other says ” my son is God.” How do you relate to a family that isn’t at all what you thought it was?
Our assumptions are among our most treasured possessions. Whether we are talking about the relationships we take for granted, or the rule of law, or our confidence in medical expertise, we hold our assumptions tightly and things can get ugly when they are torn from our grasp. Jesus has a way of telling truths that we don’t want to hear, of disturbing our peace. Maybe you are OK with Jesus as a great teacher or a shining example of inclusivity. But what if he really is the eternal Word of God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father? What if he really did allow his enemies to torture him to death so that each one of us, as sinful and broken as we all are, could claim life in its fullness? What if he really means it when he tells us to get down on our knees and wash the feet of those we would rather ignore? Can any of us honestly say that we fully embrace all of these claims without a single regret for the illusions we leave behind?
The people of Nazareth had a hard time with these truths. They heard their hometown boy preaching that the God whom Israel has claimed as her own reaches out to save those who are not among the chosen people, foreigners and nonbelievers, and they could not accept the message or the messenger. In the twinkling of an eye their admiring approbation turned to murderous rage. They would not let go of their assumptions so easily.
If only they had taken the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as their guide. Although we often hear this passage at weddings, the kind of love Paul describes here is not romantic love. The ancients had different words for different experiences of love: they were regarded as quite distinct phenomena. There was passionate or romantic love, the kind that longs to possess the beloved; there was brotherly or companionable love, what we might term affection; and there was a sacrificial, self-giving, servant love, more about action than feeling, the kind of love that places itself between the beloved and harm, that puts others first, that seeks to give itself away. It’s a love characterized by determination, by perseverence, by actions that can change the world. The old translations call this kind of love charity. The word charity, or literally “charis” is closely related to our word grace, which in turn provides the root for the gracious or grace-filled words that Jesus spoke in the Nazareth synagogue.
In speaking truth to his neighbors, in revealing himself to be the fulfillment of the prophecies, in extending God’s grace to those beyond all acceptable boundaries, Jesus is embodying that kind of love, a love that must undergird all that we do, for without it, even the most heroic act is meaningless.
This kind of love is what we seek to offer in the Episcopal Church and at St Paul’s Cathedral. We welcome everyone, and we really mean it. Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself in the journey of faith, you are welcome to join us on the road, the Jesus Movement, pressing forward to share the good news with a starving world.
It might mean telling difficult truths and risking denial and anger, for love does not insist on its own way but rejoices in the truth. It might mean offering God’s love and forgiveness to people we disagree with or disapprove of or who have harmed us, for love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. It might mean opening our doors and sharing our space on a cold, wet, El Nino night to our brothers and sisters who live in the park, for love is not irritable or resentful. And it might mean accepting that we ourselves are worthy of that love, that we are fully known and deeply treasured, as broken as we might be.
This Epiphany season is a time for coming to terms with who Jesus is. As we look towards Lent we prepare to be challenged, stretched, called to new dimensions of commitment, as the boy Jeremiah was once called. The Epiphany Gospels reveal Jesus as one who brings a new message into our world, who expands the boundaries of God’s love, who will not stand for us hoarding grace. Our call is to live out the love of God for all who need it, deserved or not, ourselves included; for as the Psalms remind us, God is both constant and generous, our hope, our confidence, and our strength.
January 31, 2016. Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges