“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. ” Luke 4:30
I was thinking about the late Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool Football Club, his team have been having a difficult season and I wondered what Shanks would have made of it. Most of us will know Shankly’s most famous comment about the game he so loved. Asked if football was a matter of life and death, “no”, he said, “it’s far more important than that”.
Bill Shankly was a marvellous man and manager, but his perception of reality was slightly askew. The result of a football match made not one jot of difference to whether someone had a home to live in, whether they had food on the table, whether they had treatment for an illness, whether it was safe for their children to walk the streets. But did it really matter, did any of it make any difference? I have seen people break down on tears at matches, I have seen people taken away in cardiac ambulances, I have seen horribly vicious fights take place, about what?
Football is a complete irrelevance to the real issues of life, but the way in which supporters follow their clubs offers us an insight into the sort of commitment that Jesus expects of his followers.
The Church shies away from saying difficult or awkward things to its members. Even tricky Bible readings are left out when possible. This morning’s Gospel reading comes around once every three years, and that’s only if Easter isn’t early and churches don’t choose to read something else. Lots of churches will today use the Gospel reading for Tuesday, the story of the baby Jesus being taken to the Temple by Mary and Joseph. It’s much more comforting to read about babies than this confrontational story of Jesus taking on the crowd and nearly getting killed.
I wonder, could you be a true fan of a football club and leave out all the awkward and uncomfortable parts of the team’s story?
One of the most enjoyable books I have read is a book called ‘Fever Pitch’ by Nick Hornby. It’s his account of years following Arsenal. In it one encounters the sort of people who take days of their already brief annual. holidays in order to spend a large part of their weekly wage travelling from London to places like Plymouth to watch Arsenal play midweek cup matches. No question of saying that they don’t like what’s coming up, so they will not bother to go.
The crowd in the Gospel reading is like fair-weather fans of a club, those who cheer when the team is doing well, but turn nasty when everything doesn’t run smoothly. Did you notice the sudden turn in the mood?
Luke tells us that everything is happy, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”. But then someone must have said something; the mood changes; they become dubious. ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’
Jesus hears the doubts, he hears the mutters, and he takes on his detractors directly. If a soccer player went to confront directly the section of the crowd that was barracking him, the referee would very quickly intervene, but this is not a soccer match, this is First Century Palestine, a very violent place, and Jesus is in danger of his life.
This is not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. This is not the rather anaemic figure so often presented by churches, this is a flesh and blood Jesus who engages directly with the realities of the people and the place in which he lives. This is a troubling Jesus.
Most Christians shy away from the harsh bit of the Gospel story, we want a warm and comforting Jesus who is nice to everyone and who allows us to be his followers when it fits in with our diary.
Maybe Bill Shankly was on to something, perhaps football is not a matter of life and death, but it certainly prompts a big commitment on the part of its followers. Hundreds of thousands of people every week show huge levels of commitment to attend football matches, but Christians, the very people who say that they are concerned with matters of life and death, are completely lukewarm in comparison.
We haven’t the same level of commitment as the average football supporter. Church has become like something we buy in the shops – we look for what we want when we want it. If we don’t like what’s on offer, if it’s not convenient, if there is something more attractive, well, we give it a miss.
What takes the supporters of some of the football teams to stand in the rain at rundown grounds on cold Wednesday evenings is the belief that one day their team will win something, maybe not this season, perhaps not next, but one day there will be a moment to make it all worthwhile.
We are meant to believe in a day to come that is infinitely greater than that hoped for by any football supporter, but do we? We certainly don’t show much sign of it. The Christian faith we profess each Sunday is about hopes for eternity, it is about the most important thing in the entire world, it should surely be a matter of the utmost priority. Aren’t we all guilty of losing sight of what we are about?
Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way”, says Luke. It’s a reassuring end to a difficult Gospel reading. It’s the sort of point where we would happily pick up the story again. Had we been there, I suspect we would have skirted around the crowd and fallen in step behind Jesus when everything looked safe again. We wouldn’t want any nastiness.
Does being a fair-weather Christian count as being a Christian at all? Paul warns us in the second Letter to Timothy,
“if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us”.
Passing through this world on going on our way with Jesus, means walking with him all the way, through the bad and difficult and unwanted and hard times, as well as through the good times. As it says in one of the old Spirituals, “If you will not bear the Cross, you can’t wear the Crown”