Challenging Times

I wonder what the historians will be saying about this period of European history in future centuries? It’s a challenging time – and not just because of Brexit. Europe is currently awash with confusion about identity and belonging. As so many people, fleeing danger at home, arrive on our shores, we glimpse a mirror-image of their insecurity in those who are championing so-called ‘identity politics.’ An ever-widening chasm is creating distance – and conflict – between those who have more than they need and those who have absolutely nothing. The Gilets Jaunes protests have shown us that what people are being told does not match what they see and experience. Our capacity to understand the needs of those from different cultures, who speak different languages, and who see life differently, is becoming more shallow and superficial. In the minds of many, home and a sense of belonging is not so much something to be celebrated, cherished and shared; as a silo to be defended against everyone else.

The French theologian, Paul Tournier, has explored how much of our personal, psychological and spiritual dysfunction is almost always linked to being displacedfrom where we sense we most truly belong. ‘The deprivation of love and the deprivation of place overlap’ he once wrote. And it was the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who spoke about our public, social and political disquiet. ‘The anxiety of our era’ he wrote ‘has to do fundamentally with place.’

The anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with place.

As we hear Luke’s Gospel, this evening, I am struck by how, after his baptism, and his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus returns to his parental home in Nazareth. We might be tempted to assume that returning to his native terroir was a good moment. But Luke leaves us in no doubt that there is a defensive edginess surrounding this episode. It is, perhaps, heightened by the fact that the first thing Jesus does is to go to the synagogue. He goes to the place of worship, study and enquiry; to the place where his Jewish identity could be expressed, as he announces the manifesto for his mission and ministry. But there is confusion and tension here – and it is confusion about identity and belonging.

The description of what happened in the Nazareth synagogue would have reverberated strongly for the people for whom Luke was originally writing. Luke, an educated Greek-speaking citizen of the Roman Empire, was the product of a religious culture where every free man was called to preach: to give an account of himself; to announce his personal manifesto; and call his hearers to debate with him. In the cultural centres of Rome, Athens, Pergamum and Alexandria, the pagan temples would have regularly resounded to the sound of young men setting out their philosophical stall. 

But Luke’s focus, in the Gospel reading we’ve heard, is not the temples of the Eastern Mediterranean; but a synagogue in the backyard of Galilee. There, he has Jesus read a passage from the prophecy of Isaiah that was full of rich resonances for the people of that region – and not all of those resonances would have been welcome! 

The passage Jesus quotes, from Isaiah, probably dates from the time when the Jews were exiles, some 500 years or so earlier. That was their particular crisis of belonging and identity, as they were dragged from their home and forced to become exiles in a hostile environment. Isaiah looks forward to a time when the Jews would be free again, would return to occupy the land they believed God had given them, to recover their identity as God’s chosen people. All that would have been welcome news to Jesus’s contemporaries, who were themselves living under foreign occupation, and facing their own time of confusion about identity and belonging. But more pointedly, this passage from Isaiah represents a shift in Jewish self-understanding. It proclaims that the salvation of God, which had been God’s unique promise to the Jews and the Jews alone, now reached out to embrace the whole world – the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the captives, and, most significantly, foreigners and outsiders. That would have rubbed – and rubbed sorely. It challenged them to see different cultures and different races as part of God’s plan of salvation.

… the salvation of God, which had been God’s unique promise to the Jews and the Jews alone, now reached out to embrace the whole world – the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the captives, and, most significantly, foreigners and outsiders. That would have rubbed – and rubbed sorely. It challenged them to see different cultures and different races as part of God’s plan of salvation.

Remember, he’s saying all this in Nazareth of Galilee. Galilee is a borderland. It’s the place, historically, where Israel was always vulnerable to attack; the gateway through which the Jews were dragged off into long years of exile. ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ as an earlier passage in the prophecy of Isaiah calls it. It was a racially porous region, a crossing-point for migrants and foreigners, people of different faiths and different cultural backgrounds. And here is Jesus, one of their own, reminding them of the universal outlook of this prophecy. At a time of confusion about belonging and identity, Jesus is not encouraging them to build walls and keep others out. He’s telling them that, may be, God has a wider, more generous vision of the future that doesn’t involve excluding those who are different or disadvantaged.

This would not have been lost on those listening in the synagogue that day. You can sense the irritation. These native Galilean Jews were probably a people who believed they needed to preserve their distinctive racial and religious identity, in a region where all kinds of outsiders brought with them ideas and influences that might taint – or dilute – this unique identity. Salvation for the whole world, and generosity to outsiders, is all very well when you are a free majority and have control of your future; but not now, when every kind of race and religion was invading their space, and a hostile foreign power oppressed them. There’s too much at stake. And, just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, they have to hear all this from one of their own. Surely, Jesus should be part of our club, singing our song, sharing our prejudices, endorsing our tribal view of the world, they are saying to themselves.

So no loud applause and shouts of ‘welcome home’ in the Nazareth synagogue that day. Instead, ‘He came to his own and his own received him not’ as John’s Gospel says. Of course, Luke is casting Jesus in the role of the preacher who is being radical in the truest sense of that word. Jesus is showing his own people that their cultural and religious roots go much deeper than the defensiveness and shallow thinking which, they imagine, will protect their identity. At a time of pronounced anxiety, Jesus reminds them of the authentic character of their faith. When it is all-too-easy to retreat into a defensive ghetto, he challenges them to look outwards, to embrace their neighbours: the poor, the captives, the disabled, the stranger, the migrant and the refugee. 

This incident at Nazareth is not the end of Jesus’s mission. It simply triggers a new stage of it. Where people – even his own people – refuse to receive the good news of the Gospel, Jesus goes out looking for those who can. He goes into the highways and byways of Galilee, the tiny impoverished farming villages, the hamlets of fishermen, the strange cities of the Gentiles to the North and the East. For Jesus, there is no confusion about identity and belonging. ‘Home’ is wherever he is made welcome.

we know that the Church flourishes wherever people are on the move, wherever there is migration, wherever new insights and experiences are made welcome

That’s worth pondering because we know that the Church flourishes wherever people are on the move, wherever there is migration, wherever new insights and experiences are made welcome. Europe may be where Christianity found a home over the course of the last 1500 years; but it is not its birthplace. Those fleeing violence and hatred in Syria, in Iran and Iraq, and along the coast of North Africa, come from the places where Christianity first found a home beyond the land we call holy – and theirs is the soil that produced the first generations of martyrs, scholars and saints. Christians from these countries remind us, sometimes uncomfortably, of where we are truly rooted. As the French Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clement, has reminded us: Christianity is an oriental faith. 

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Gospel is challenging us at a time of confusion and crisis. What gives us our identity? Where do we most truly belong? Is our Christian identity making us less, not more, generous towards those who are different? Is our fascination with those who are different only a thin gloss of politeness that masks our need to retreat behind our own defences? At a time when the societies of which we are a part are confused and defensive about their identity, how do we grow the antennae which will allow us to discern how the stranger and the outsider can feel at home? How does our Christian identity, and our sense of belonging to the Church, liberate us to offer the world a different way of living in society and community? 

Today, as we hear this Gospel, we have another Epiphany to celebrate. We rejoice as we hear Jesus speaking in that Galilean synagogue, returning to his roots, challenging his own people to see that their identity as people of faith goes deeper than they often admit. The Spirit of the Lord is opening the eyes of the blind, giving dignity to the despised, and freedom to the captives. From that manifesto, proclaimed in the Nazareth synagogue, we can still be surprised by Christ’s voice, speaking to us at the times where we are poor in spirit, blind in vision, restricted by a limited view of life, or defensive in our fear of the unknown. He speaks to us from the Gospel, and opens up to us to the new and enduring reality of God presence, God’s purposes, and God’s promises. He speaks to us, as he spoke to his own in Nazareth in Galilee, energised by power of the Spirit, so that everyone created in God’s image and likeness can be one with him, as children of his heavenly Father.

A Sermon preached at an Ecumenical Celebration in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in St John’s Church, St Raphael on Wednesday 23rdJanuary 2019

by the Archdeacon of France & Monaco, The Venerable Meurig Williams

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