A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 27th January 2019 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(I Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21)
We are all creatures of the times and cultures within which we are formed; we interpret people and events around us according to the mental and social framework we hold. A few examples:
Have you noticed how often the Virgin Mary has appeared and spoken over the centuries in places like rural Poland or France or Ireland, where she is expected - and how rarely elsewhere?
So, it was obvious to people in first century Palestine that certain patterns of personal behaviour were the result of possession by demons; equally, it was obvious to people in this country at the time of Shakespeare that ill health was the result of humours being out of balance. Neither of these things seems at all natural or obvious to most of us.
St Paul grew up in a world washed through with Greek and Roman thought patterns; it was natural to him to reach into the stock intellectual and literary currency for an analogy for the new grouping of people which had grown up in Corinth, and so he told them that they were like a body. This was a well-used pattern and one which would have been recognisable and easily grasped by his readers, that fractious, excitable, and divided bunch of Christians - they had heard it many times from other lips, always encouraging them to social cohesion.
Our thinking has grown up within a different blend of influences. For example, we are inclined to think in remarkably individualised ways: ‘my opinion, my rights, my life, my vote, my choice’. This kind of atomised understanding would have been utterly weird to most people until recent centuries; it would never have occurred to those who constructed our famous Magna Carta that each human being in their society should have a theoretically equal right to choose who ruled the country.
And in the last century or so we have come to frame things in psychological and sociological terms. Where St Paul reached into the store cupboard of classical rhetoric, today’s speakers and writers are apt to refer to ‘personality types’, ‘teams’, ‘group think’, and the like; and pundits, politicians, and the marketing profession seek constantly to find ways to analyse, describe and mould public opinion.
St Luke spends several chapters of his gospel preparing our understanding of Jesus, but from our perspective it may seem odd that he never tells us what he was like. It would not have occurred to him to attempt to describe Jesus in Jungian terms such as introvert or extrovert, or to seek for his Myers-Briggs profile. He would not have interpreted him and his disciples in terms of team dynamics. Rather, he tells us about his ancestry, his relation to the religious traditions of his people, the ways in which things were prepared for his coming by the interventions of God; he tells us of the political conditions of his time, the circumstances of the birth, and something of his childhood.
And, four chapters in, he describes this scene where Jesus, having begun to make something of a splash as a preacher and healer, comes home. And there, in his own town, in the heart of his own people, he reads from their Scripture, the revered tradition of the community. And he tells them it has been fulfilled - here, now, in their hearing. That he is what they and all their ancestors have been looking for.
You would have to say it didn’t go well. Yes, I know Luke tells us that ‘all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth’; but he also tells us, more or less in the same breath, that they were so outraged that they dragged him out and tried to throw him off a cliff.
Perhaps those who heard Jesus were all too used to him, and all too used to hearing that Scripture; they considered both that person and that written tradition within established frames, and so were offended when he disrupted these. They knew this guy was a tradesman from around the corner, they knew the family; and they knew these powerful sayings of Isaiah, their greatest prophet, because they had heard them over and over, comforting, encouraging, hopeful. What outraged them was to hear him disrupt all that, and say ‘It’s these things, and it’s me, NOW’.
This is the problem with patterns of thought; they are just part of the way things are, so familiar we don’t even notice them and the ways they influence our reactions and behaviour. You and I too are formed in all sorts of involuntary ways by the assumptions of the society within which we’ve grown up, and we are formed more consciously by our exposure to the repetitions and patterns of our religious tradition. We’ve probably heard again and again the story of Christmas, the writings of Luke and Paul and all the others, we’ve shared repeatedly here and elsewhere in patterns of worship and devotion.
God is in these things. We find him in the tradition, in the Scriptures, in the community of faith. But occasionally all of that dulls us to the overwhelming nature and purpose of God. The prophet didn’t just speak pretty words about good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release of the captives, the jubilee year of God: he meant it, and Jesus meant it - NOW. This was his manifesto (‘God in man made manifest’ as we are inclined to sing rather comfortably at this time of year), and as his community, his body, it is our manifesto too. Society changes, ways of thinking change, but God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and he challenges us afresh each day, and in every generation, to perceive him, love him, follow him, and to make that good news come to pass.