Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 5
July 11, 2012, 3:28 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday July 8, 2012

“He was amazed because of their unbelief.” Think about that for a moment. Jesus was astonished, taken aback, because the people who (one would have thought) were most familiar with him, who knew him best, dismissed him precisely because he was familiar. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” we say. What we take for granted, we do not value.

This incident, apparently, took place at Nazareth- at least, Luke in his Gospel, though rather earlier in the story, says explicitly that Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Mark, followed by Matthew, only says that “he came to his home town.” Apart from a few times when Jesus is addressed or referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth”, Mark only in one place, right at the start, says that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized. Six chapters later, he says just that “he came to his home town”, literally “his native place”, so presumably he means Nazareth.

Anyway, with the coming of the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue. We think of a synagogue as a building, and certainly each village would have had its religious meeting-place, but strictly speaking the synagogue is the meeting itself, the gathering of a group of people, in particular the men of the community, at least ten of them. At the time of Jesus, the central feature of the service would have been a reading from the Law- the Torah, the Books of Moses- accompanied by prayers, probably singing, and commentary. Every Jewish boy was expected to be able to read in synagogue, and comment was not confined to ordained rabbis (let alone priests, who were mainly in Jerusalem, serving the Temple). It was probably more like a Bible-study group in a non-conformist chapel than any of the official services of the Church of England.

Even in Mark’s very simple telling of the story, it is clear that when our Lord began to comment on the Scriptures on the Sabbath, he was an impressive speaker. “Many who heard him were astounded,” or at least, translating literally, the majority of those who heard him. You don’t ask “where did he get all this?” if “all this” is not rather remarkable. I think of Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge, having received an answer to what he regarded as an abstruse question, exclaiming, “How do you know all this stuff?” Elsewhere we are told that Jesus taught “with authority, and not like the scribes.” He sounded like someone who knew what he was talking about, and who had the gift of explaining it so that even uneducated people could understand him.

When Jesus returned to Nazareth, he already had a reputation. The congregation in the synagogue had heard that he had done “deeds of power” in other places (though the implication is that they had no first-hand knowledge of these). How could someone they had known since childhood- who had had no more education than they had- have got so clever? How could he be doing these things reported of him? If the majority were impressed, maybe from the start there was a minority that wasn’t. There are always the cynics and sceptics who say, “It’s too good to be true- therefore it probably isn’t true.”

Mark says that Jesus could do no “deed of power” there; though he did visit some sick people, and lay his hands upon them, and they were healed. To the cynic and the sceptic, that doesn’t count: they were probably not all that ill, they would have got better anyway, all he did was cheer them up a bit. Not a proper miracle. One of the things our Lord complained about was that all some people seemed to want was “signs and wonders”, while they failed to see and wonder at the signs he actually gave. They demanded signs as a condition of belief; whereas in fact they needed faith in order to recognise the signs that were already there.

What does all this say to us, and to the world of today? Isn’t it still true that many people think they know Jesus, a familiar figure since their childhood, at least through Church and Sunday School, and for that very reason are no longer impressed by him? Yes, he taught some beautiful truths, about loving our neighbour and so on, and the world would be a better place if people lived according to his teaching: but these truths would still be true, even if Jesus had never existed. Other teachers have taught the same, even non-Christian ones like Buddha and Socrates. With the late Earl Attlee, they accept the moral teaching, but have no time for the mumbo-jumbo.

For Mark, from the beginning of his Gospel, it is the mumbo-jumbo that matters. It is the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Emissary of God, the One who inaugurates the Reign of God over the world. From the beginning he defies Satan, constantly casting out evil spirits, demonstrating his authority. Compared with Matthew, Luke and John, Mark gives very little of Jesus’s actual teaching. He shows him in action, leading his disciples step by step until they recognise him as Messiah. Then he teaches them that the Messiah will only fulfil his mission in the world through suffering and death.

The men of Nazareth could only see Jesus in a human way- Mary’s son (Joseph is not mentioned here, already forgotten), related to other village figures, Jacob and a younger Joseph and Simon and Judah and unnamed women. How could he be anyone special? How could he possibly be God’s Messiah? When Peter first acknowledged him as such, Jesus told him that it was not flesh and blood, not human reasoning, that had enabled him to see: it was a revelation from God himself, giving Peter insight into what was already there, namely Jesus himself.

The key to being a Christian- or, perhaps more accurately, the key to what kind of Christian we are- is how we see Jesus. Is he just a long-ago teacher and nothing more, or is he a living friend and companion, the guiding light of our life? Is he indeed God in human form, the Power and Wisdom of the Creator translated into our own terms? And do our intellectual beliefs translate into a living faith and trust in him that underpins our lives? I am sure that in you and me they do. That is why we are here- to draw near with faith, and receive the Body of the Lord, feeding on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Browsing led me to ‘Bristol Ordinariate’ and thence to this collection of homilies – very attractive, interesting and edifying, and thank you.

Is the preacher Richard Hoyle? And what is the connexion with the Ordinariate? Has All Saints’ Clifton crossed the Tiber en bloc? (Not far to your new Cathedral!)

My family and I now live in Brighton, but I used to be Diocesan Director of Education in Bristol. I’m afraid I am irredeemably Anglican, but very interested in the Ordinariate and how it develops.

More power to your preaching – a blessing to your hearers!

Comment by Canon Robin Protheroe

No, no, dear Robin! ’tis I, Paul Spilsbury, who run this blog and am the preacher. There is no official connection with the Ordinariate, other than my personal interest and support for the project.
All Saints remains firmly with Ebbsfleet, as long as Ebbsfleet continues.

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: