Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Extraordinary Ordinary

In the part of the world where I live—the northeastern United States—one cannot go more than a few blocks in a populated area without coming across some kind of Christian church. Christianity is absolutely ubiquitous. Despite the fact that many are claiming we are entering into an increasingly post-Christian era, Christianity continues to play a fairly large role in our culture. Most people here in the United States, have participated in some kind of Christian worship such as a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Why is it then so common that church is the last place that people expect to find truth or spirituality?

            In the last few hundred years the West has enjoyed a flirtation, if not an all-out love affair, with Eastern Spiritualities such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The popularity of New Age authors such as Eckhardt Tolle and Deepak Chopra are evidence that this trend continues. While  I think that studying world religions is a very worthwhile thing to do, and I believe we can learn a lot in the process, it often seems like the spiritual treasures and wisdom of the Christian tradition are ignored or dismissed. No doubt this is largely due to the failures, hypocrisy, and downright spiritual dryness of much of the Church, but I think another reason is the very prominence of Christianity in our culture. Christianity is commonplace and ordinary. We are very familiar with its claims, or at least we think we are, and we are not that inspired by them. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. In contrast, Christianity is spreading like wildfire in places like Africa and China. The stories that I hear from friends in the mission field are astonishing, such as stories of entire towns converting the Christianity in a single day. Often these stories are accompanied by dramatic tales of miraculous signs and wonders that seem lifted straight out of the book of Acts. For the most part, Christianity doesn’t seem all that exciting here, and the preaching of the Gospel often runs into a strong wall of cynicism.

Last week’s Gospel lesson had us study the inspirational faith of two individuals who came to Jesus for help, Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood. It also had us look at the wondrous deeds performed by Jesus, including the raising of the dead! In this week’s reading, Jesus is back in his own hometown. The author of Mark’s gospel informs us that Jesus was not well received. The people were incredulous about his claims, offended even, and they scoffed. Why was Jesus such a flop in his hometown? I think it is for the very reason discussed above, that familiarity breeds contempt. The people of Jesus’ hometown thought they knew Jesus. They knew his parents and his sisters and brothers. “Isn’t this the same guy who used to play in the streets as a kid? Didn’t we hear him cry when he skinned his knee? Doesn’t he come from an ordinary family in an insignificant part of the world? How can we possibly believe that he is some kind of mighty prophet? Who does he think he is saying these things about himself? He isn’t fooling us!”

The fact is that Jesus really was an ordinary person from an ordinary part of the world. It is difficult to believe that God would use the ordinary in such extraordinary ways. When we think of a holy man, we are likely to think of a wise old hermit on a mountaintop, someone floating two inches above the ground shrouded in light, a wise king, or someone powerful and mighty. The last thing people expect of a holy man and a great savior is that he would be the son of a carpenter from a blue-collar town.

When the prophet Samuel went to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as king of Israel, all of Jesse’s outwardly impressive sons passed before him. He thought, “Surely one of these is the one God has chosen!” The Lord corrected Samuel by saying, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel16:7 ESV). The one God chose was the one no one else expected; David, the youngest son out tending the sheep. Likewise Isaiah prophesized of Jesus in ages past,
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3 ESV).

Jesus was surprised at their unbelief and declared, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” Everywhere Jesus went, crowds of people wanting to get close to him swarmed him, but here in his own hometown he was snubbed. They thought they knew him already. They thought they had him all figured out, and he was nobody special. The author of Mark tells us that Jesus wasn’t able to do many mighty works in his hometown. This statement raises a few eyebrows. Jesus wasn’t able?! This is the same Jesus who raised a dead girl back to life just a few verses earlier? Jesus the Son of God? I think it would be a mistake to focus on what Jesus was not able to do. Much more important was what Jesus was able to do despite the resistance and the hostility of the people. The author qualifies his statement, “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (6). Oh, is that all? Early Christian theologian and Bible commentator Origen explains,

“Matthew and Mark [reporting on the incident in question] wished to present the all-surpassing value of that divine power as a power that works even in those who do not believe. But they did not deny that grace works even more powerfully among those who have faith…Thus the power in him overcame even their unbelief” (Commentary of Matthew 19)
I invite you to look past the ordinary and mundane nature of the Church. I invite you to take a second look at Jesus. You may think you already know him, but there is so much more! I believe the truth about him is so compelling that it can change us from the inside out. This extraordinary truth is not on the surface, however, it needs to be sought through faith. Even a small amount of faith, a mustard seed, can begin to change us. As Origen says, there is power in Christ to overcome even our unbelief.

The extraordinary truth about Jesus, the Gospel, is passed on by ordinary everyday people. The sending of the twelve follows the story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown. Jesus warns them that they will not always be well received. He tells them that if anyone does not receive them, they should, “shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (11). I don’t know about you, but I find that a particularly difficult passage, especially given the fact that, in light of the verses before, the ones most likely to reject you are the ones closest to you. The people who know me best have seen me at my worst. They know how selfish and petty I can be. Jesus may have shared my ordinary and humble estate, but he was also without sin! Who am I that anyone should listen to me? Yet Jesus calls ordinary, sinful, human beings to be his representatives in the world. He sends us out understanding not only our sinfulness, but also the sinfulness of the people to whom we are sent. He knows we will not always be a success, but it is precisely because he became an ordinary human being like us that he can sympathize with us in our struggles and help us in our weakness. 

God delights to use the ordinary and the mundane for extraordinary purposes. Saint Paul writes,              
 “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 ESV).

From the very beginning God has used the ordinary and downright disreputable to bring about his purposes in the world. Think of the less-than-sterling character of many of the Old Testament patriarchs. God has even gone as far as to use a shameful instrument of torture and political oppression to be the means of demonstrating his atoning love towards humankind. The cross is the height of foolishness to the world.

We might have contempt for the familiar and the mundane, but God doesn’t. God is not impressed by what we might consider wise and important. I think this may be one reason why God chose two such mundane, everyday, activities—washing and eating—represented in Baptism and the Eucharist, to be his chief sacraments. God wants to open our eyes so that we are able to see that the ordinary really can be extraordinary.

The Church around the corner might seem very ordinary. It might be the place where your grandmother worships. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is full of a lot of hypocritical backsliding people. Ordinary folks are like that. Can God use something so ordinary to do extraordinary things? Yes he can, and he does.