Posted by: owizblog | February 25, 2018

The Original and Genuine: Sermon, 28 January 2018, UCB



As you just heard, the Lectionary is working its way through Mark’s Gospel at the moment, in our Sunday morning readings, but Mark’s Gospel doesn’t have a story that Luke’s Gospel does. For that matter, Matthew doesn’t have it either. Luke tells of Jesus, having made an enormous impact in Caesarea, and all the villages round about, returning to Nazareth, on the Sabbath, and, having initially captivated the people in the Synagogue in his home town, suddenly invoking such hostility in them that they try to throw him off a cliff.

What did he do?

He went beyond what they already knew about him – and because they were the people of his home town, they knew a lot. He was the carpenter’s son, he was the one they’d seen grow up, they remembered him, and when he left, they could imagine him out there in the world as the youngish man they remembered leaving town, and thought of in that light, amazing and impressing people in Capernaum, and the other communities round and about – our Jesus, Jesus from here, I-know-his-parents Jesus. And they were proud.

And then he comes back. And he confronts them with what they don’t know; with the Jesus who is there now. And they can’t see what’s there in him. They can’t get beyond what they do recognize, what they knew before. I-know-his-parents Jesus becomes kent-his-faither Jesus. And he can do nothing with them. They can’t see beyond Jesus-like-them to the Jesus who challenges them. His challenge makes them uncomfortable, very uncomfortable – and they react murderously. They go to throw him over a cliff.


We haven’t known Jesus from when he was growing up among us! We don’t remember him in a carpenter’s workshop down the town. But we do remember him, most of us, from our own childhoods. We do remember him from when we were growing up, we remember him from Sunday School, we come to this encounter with him – because that’s what church is, an encounter with Jesus Christ – with a long familiarity.

Perhaps that familiarity covers over the strangeness, the challenge of this Jesus in something like the way it happened for the people in the Synagogue in Nazareth.


We aren’t looking at Luke’s story, this morning, but Mark’s. And Mark’s story (which Luke also tells, pretty much as Mark does) is not about Jesus not being recognized for what he is in Nazareth, but about Jesus being recognized for what he is in Capernaum, in the Synagogue there.

He’s recognized by the “impure” and split-personality demon who possesses a poor, unfortunate man in the town.

We need to be honest, that these stories always cause problems for us, who live in the twenty-first century. Some people insist on reading them as they stand, as stories of demons, demonic possession and exorcism; other people insist on translating them into terms of understandings of mental illness which have been shaped by the science and psychiatry of the last century and a half.

Most people just don’t know what to do with them.

But the bones of the story are clear. Jesus is recognized by the people of Capernaum, and by everyone and everything as… What?

“I know who you are…” says the demon, speaking through the mouth of the tormented human being, “[You are] the Holy One of God!”

“You” we might paraphrase “are IT! You are the Real Thing!”

Or even “YOU are YOU!”

You are the one I can’t describe in the third person, not with a title or an appellation, not by telling other people ‘That Jesus – he’s this, or that…’

You are you, and I encounter you, and in you, I encounter the Ultimate, what I can only call God. I can’t explain it, beyond saying that you are authentically what and who you are…”

“I know who you are! You are the Holy One of God!”

I smuggled a word in, there. Did you notice it? It was the word “authentic.”

It’s the sort of word we become familiar with if we watch antiques programmes on television –

“This is an authentic Second Empire ormolu clock!” “This is an authentic Faberge glass button, worth £22,000 pounds!” “This is an authentic Corgi toy Aston Martin from 1965 with the plastic Oddjob figure, who gets fired out through the roof by the ejector seat, still with it, and in the original box!”

“Authentic: of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.”

“You are… you.” “You are… the Holy One of God.”

The American scholar Norman Perrin famously read Mark’s Gospel as, in part, the disciples’ successive attempts, one after another, to say who Jesus was, by describing him in other terms: healer; teacher; the one who forgives in God’s name (and what does that say about who he is?)… And then, finally, at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus has asked “Who do people say I am?” and they’ve answered “Some say Moses, some Elijah, some, one of the prophets…” and Jesus then says “Who do you say I am?” Peter says “You are the Christ, son of the Living God!”

And we think “Bingo!” “That’s it!” “By George, he’s got it!” – or some such.

But he hasn’t, and, says Perrin, that’s Mark’s point here. Peter tries to explain who Jesus is in other terms. Who are you? You’re the Messiah! That’s the label that fits, that’s the drawer in the filing cabinet where we’ll find your CV.

But, says Mark, Jesus is more than that. Jesus is the one who is so ultimate, so authentic, so very much himself, and only definable in his own terms, that as soon as they call him the Messiah, he changes the very meaning of the word.

And we can see it happen. Peter starts talking about “Messiah”, yet Jesus, accepting that, starts talking about Jerusalem, and suffering and death.

And Peter says “This isn’t supposed to happen! It’s not to be like this!”

But Jesus comes with such authority, and such authenticity, that as soon as he is recognized as “the Messiah”, the very meaning of the term “Messiah” starts to change around him. “Messiah” doesn’t define Jesus, and doesn’t explain Jesus. Whoever this is, this Jesus, he redefines the term “Messiah.” Jesus is the measure of “Messiah”, not “Messiah” the measure of Jesus. Jesus is the utterly authentic one. Jesus is the ultimate one, the “Holy One of God.”

And the people of Caesarea, unlike the people of Nazareth in Luke’s Gospel, recognize this, or begin to.

Let’s assume, this morning, that we are more like the people of Caesarea than the people of Nazareth. Why shouldn’t we? We know that we encounter Jesus here, the Holy One of God.  There may be times when our familiarity with the things of God, and the story of Jesus, get between us and the encounter, the challenge of this ultimate, unnameable reality that confronts us in Christ preached, and Jesus present in the midst.

But not always. And if we, like the people in the Synagogue in Capernaum do recognize that what stands among us is ultimate, that present to us is the Holy One of God – well, what difference does that make to our real lives, day by day? What difference does it make to our being Jesus’ disciples in the real world?


It’s strange the things you remember! There came back to me something that happened in a Glasgow hotel two decades ago, at a funeral purvey, of all things. I was sitting next to a nice elderly gentleman – he was probably about five years younger than I am now to my right, and he was talking proudly about his son, who’d just set up in business. I asked what business, and he reached into his pocket, and produced one of those freebie, giveaway keyrings from his son’s business. “He blows things up!” he said.

“Wow!” said I; “If I hadn’t felt a call to the Ministry, I’d have loved to be a demolition contractor!” The man laughed until the tears ran down his face. “No! No!” he said. “He blows up pictures of things, and puts them on the sides of buses and buildings and suchlike!”

As you know, we were away the week before last, in Brussels, visiting our daughter. How often have we brought things back from our holidays as gifts, and presented them to friends, and said “I saw this, and thought of you…”?

Well, friends, in Brussels, “I saw this, and thought of you…”

It’s the Church of Saint Servain, in Schaerbeek, in Brussels. Except that it isn’t! Look closely at it, and you’ll see that what you are looking at is actually a life-sized photo of the church, fastened to a scaffolding in front of it.This is a blown-up church. And it’s not a church. DSCN0050

You’ll see it more clearly here.

How about that! We think we’re looking at the church – but we’re really looking at a picture of the church!


I thought it was an interesting and thoughtful thing to do, to cover over unsightly scaffolding while extensive repairs and refurbishment were being done beneath. But that formulation stuck in my mind: “We think we’re looking at the church – but we’re really looking at a picture of the church…”


We think we’re looking at the Real Thing – but we’re not. We’re looking at a picture of the real thing, an abstraction. You could say that the people in the Synagogue at Nazareth were content with a picture they had stuck over the real Jesus, and couldn’t see what was behind it, couldn’t see through it to the authentic Christ behind it.


But then again, it’s so easy for a church to become a picture of a church, a picture of what people think a church should be, a representation, and not the reality. It’s so easy for a church to present an idealized image to the world, and so to miss what makes a church a church.


But what’s that?


It’s Christ in the midst, and recognized. It’s a shared life shaped by openness to that presence, recognition of its ultimacy, and obedience to its claim and demand.


It’s what Paul is explaining, in anger, and frustration, but also in love, to the Corinthians, with all their feuds and splits and insistence that only a part, their bit, of the Corinthian church is really the church.


Accept each other, says Paul. Even if it costs you.


In Corinth, there were people whose liberation into newness of life in Christ meant that they felt completely free to buy and enjoy the cheap meat from pagan temples, left over after their sacrifices. “It’s just meat! And rather good meat! And awfy’ cheap meat, too!”


But there were others who – and Paul is explicit about this – don’t possess that strength of faith, that strength of conscience, that lets them do this. They are horrified that fellow Christians should eat “pre-owned” – or even, perhaps, “pre-loved” as the Ebay expression goes – meat, from pagan worship.


And no doubt, each side looks down on the other, each side insists that they are the real Christians, and the other side are less-than-real. And, says Paul, in this, each side is as bad as the other.


It’s not symmetrical. Paul is with the meat-eaters, and clearly sees the road to the emancipation of conscience as part of what Martin Luther, a millennium and a half later, would call “The Freedom of a Christian Man (sic)”


But, he says – to both sides, effectively – if you can’t love each other in a way that gives people who are very different to you their place, you are not the Church. You are a picture – your own picture – of what the Church is.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking prophetically to the twentieth century church, puts it trenchantly:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly… He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.


“When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.


When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”


If we conceive of a picture of the Church, and insist on sticking it in front of the real thing, we are actually obscuring the real thing, masking it, making it impossible to see.


But, as Bonhoeffer reminds us,


If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ….


What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God.


Look around! Look at the people sitting around you! This is the Church! And if we grasp that what stands in the midst is Jesus Christ, present wherever two or three are gathered in his name, if we see that the one we encounter here is the one who, for us, is the Real Thing,


We have moved beyond the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, whose picture of Jesus got between them and the real thing, and even beyond the people in the synagogue in Capernaum, who knew that there was something huge here, that they didn’t understand. We have moved even beyond the fractious Christians of Corinth, who couldn’t love and accept, or even fully acknowledge each other. If we love and accept and acknowledge each other, without reserve, we recognize Jesus Christ as the measure of all that we are, and God’s love in him as the foundation of all our life, then we are not just a nice picture of the Church, but we are the Real Thing – because he is the Real Thing, and we know it, and live it.


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