“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Luke 4:30
One of the most enjoyable books I have ever read is a book called Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. It’s his account of years following Arsenal football club in times when the supporters had little about which to cheer. It is a story in which 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.
Perhaps the way in which supporters follow their clubs offers church members 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 churches don’t choose to read something else.
Could you be a true fan of a football club and leave out all the awkward and uncomfortable parts of the team’s story?
The crowd in the Gospel reading is like fair-weather fans of a football club, those who cheer when the team is doing well, but turn nasty when everything doesn’t run smoothly.
Reading the Gospel passage, the change in the mood of the crowd is noticeable.
Saint Luke says 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. The crowd becomes dubious, questioning. “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” from the Sunday School stories. 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, it is easier to have a warm and comforting Jesus who is nice to everyone and who allows us people to be his followers when it fits in with the diary, when it matches the middle class lifestyle. Why not have cafe church and house groups of like-minded people rather than engage with the nasty realities of the world outside?
Football prompts a much bigger commitment on the part of its followers than does membership of the church. Countless 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.
The average church member hasn’t the same level of commitment as the average football supporter. Church has become like something that is bought in the shops – people look for what they want when they want it. If they don’t like what’s on offer, if it’s not convenient, if there is something more attractive, well, why not give it a miss and do something else instead?.
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.
Christians are meant to believe in a day to come that is infinitely greater than that hoped for by any football supporter, but is there any sign of it? There certainly doesn’t seem to be much evidence. The Christian faith that is professed 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. Isn’t the church guilty of losing sight of what it is meant to be about?
Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way,” says Saint Luke. It’s a reassuring end to a difficult Gospel reading. It’s the sort of point where the church would happily pick up the story again. Had most people been there, I suspect they would have skirted around the crowd and fallen in step behind Jesus when everything looked safe again. The church wouldn’t want any nastiness.
Does being a fair-weather Christian count as being a Christian at all? Paul warns church members 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 the way with Jesus, means walking with him all the way, through the bad and the difficult and the unwanted and the 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’.