JESUS AND THE AGE OF RADICAL UNCERTAINTY
It is hard to get our heads round just how polarising a figure Jesus was in Palestine. It’s said that history gives perspective, but it can also distort reality. People know a lot less about Jesus today, but a common view would be as some good, unimpeachable person; an ideal to look up to with reliably high approval ratings.
Yet those who lived with Jesus were hugely divided and he made no attempt to find a middle ground consensus that made people feel comfortable around him. After thirty years of obscurity, he exploded onto the scene, teaching and healing and compelling people to make a response to him. In trite modern imagery, he was marmite, not vanilla.
Not long after the start of his ministry, St Mark says his family ‘went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’’. They felt he was out of control, maybe mentally ill and not a responsible adult who could be left to his own devices. His opponents went even further, claiming he was demon possessed.
Later on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says ‘whoever is not with me is against me’. If someone said this today, you can imagine the response it would provoke. It’s not surprising then, that first century Palestine was deeply divided over Jesus. This led CS Lewis to say the only logical categories you can fit Jesus into are mad, bad or God. Someone with a psychosis may say the things Jesus said, but no-one in their right mind would. A dangerous person can lead people astray to follow him or her in a strict cult, but Jesus healed people and set them free. No sane or balanced person would make claims like ‘I am the light of the world’ or ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ because people would just laugh at them. CS Lewis was simply trying to get people to face up to Jesus: the evidence points to him being who he said he was.
This gives some background to the sobering words of Jesus where he talks about his followers being violently rendered to Jewish religious and Roman political authorities. He talks of families being ripped apart by their different views of him. We have much to be thankful for that most of us do not endure persecution, but we should be mindful of the many countries where this happens. And there are families where the tensions over what people believe boil over in ways that cause damage, to whom we owe pastoral care.
Throughout, Jesus calls his followers to bear witness to him. And it looks and feels differently in each culture. Perhaps the first place to start is to recognise that people on the whole know much less about Jesus than we imagine they do. They simply haven’t heard the Gospels that surround him. If that shows there is a story to paint, it’s on a blank canvass, which is all the more exciting.
Words have always had great power, but they have been cheapened today as people drown in a sea of information, much of which cannot be trusted. Every ten minutes, we generate as much information as the first ten thousand generations of humans combined. No wonder we’re dizzy. And that makes what we do so important. Words can seem cheap, but when they are backed up by actions, they take on a 3D quality. As St James said pithily: ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.
It is said that we are living in an age of radical uncertainty. I don’t need to spell out why, and most of us would agree with the idea that we just don’t know what comes next because we haven’t predicted a whole series of events well recently. Radical uncertainty produces deep insecurity in people, and this is where our ministry now lies. We cannot promise an easy life in following Jesus, as we have just examined. But the deep ache for security in people is satisfied in Christ. We were made for this relationship, as St Augustine wrote: ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’.
The words of Psalm 121 have deep power:
‘I life up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?’ says the Psalmist.
‘My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth’.
When we are afraid and anxious, we become confined. Our horizons narrow and at its worst, it’s like being cramped into a tiny cell without light; where the world beyond becomes a scary and unreachable place. We simply don’t lift our eyes to take in a bigger view.
Our pastoral care is to sit with people and to listen to them properly, without jumping in; and to keep looking up until they wonder what we’re looking at and they join us in gazing upwards.
If we listen to one another carefully in church, it prepares us to listen together to the stories other people have. Not to prejudge, to rush to conclusions or to jump in with advice, but to wait patiently and to hear people out, because this is how we spend our love on others. And it is also how we gain permission to tell our own story, the one where our eyes are fixed on the hills, where our help comes from.
‘The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore’ says Psalm 121. There is no greater security for any of us than to know that the God of the vastness of space and the cruelty of the cross has our back every second this fragile, messed up world turns fractionally on its axis.
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