Scripture Readings: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Proper 9 (Year B, RCL)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s summer time, a time when we often do a lot of travelling. Many of us are getting ready to travel, or are just back from holiday. Some of us have friends and family who recently travelled to come to see us. And we often have visitors from all sorts of places in our congregation at this time of the year (and it’s great to have you with us!).
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life tell how, during his short career as a preacher and healer, Jesus was often on the go. Jesus didn’t travel very far, in modern terms. He was active, in a narrow strip of land in Palestine, maybe 50 or 60 miles wide. He got as far north as the area around Tyre, north of Galilee, and to just south and east of Jerusalem- about 100 miles, as the crow flies. I suppose the farthest Jesus ever travelled- that we know about- was when his parents took him as a baby as refugees into Egypt. But today’s Gospel reading has him going home.
Many of us no longer live near our birthplaces, or the towns in which we grew up. So ‘going home’ for any reason can bring mixed emotions. Once, we might have been intimately familiar with the place where we spent our childhood, went to school, made our first friends and started on our life’s journey. But going back, the place will have changed. My schools have been replaced by new buildings. Many folk I once knew there have left, or have even died. Meeting those friends and family who still live there can be a bit odd. We’re older, and perhaps wiser. Things have changed.
But I wonder what it must be like for a celebrity to return home? My dad was at school in Dumbarton with someone who went on to become a genuine international celebrity, Sir Jackie Stewart. Between 1965 and 1973, won the Stewart won the Formula One Drivers’ Championship three times- the most successful motor racer ever born in Scotland. Yet he achieved all this despite suffering from dyslexia, a condition which makes it difficult to read or write. At school in Dumbarton in the 1940s, the condition wasn’t recognised, and pupils with dyslexia were often badly treated, so his schooldays weren’t pleasant. He recalled,
I have never been asked back to give away prizes at my old school. I am little remembered at that school, I think, except for the fact that I was just dumb and stupid.
Sir Jackie Stewart has done much to publicise dyslexia- he is an example of someone who has achieved much despite the condition. The school finally invited him back in 1986. Sometimes going home can be painful experience, for a celebrity, or anyone else.
Mark the Gospel writer tells of a time when Jesus went back to Nazareth. He had, by this time, a reputation as a preacher and healer, so it wasn’t surprising that he should be asked to preach in the local synagogue. But it is an awkward homecoming. Yes, the people are at first delighted with their local celebrity:
Many people were there; and when they heard him, they were all amazed.
But then their delight begins to turn sour:
“Where did he get all this?” they asked. “What wisdom is this that has been given him? How does he perform miracles?”
They are puzzled about who this boy they thought they knew has become. They can’t quite believe that their community has formed him into who he is. In Scotland, we have a saying about someone who seems to have done well for themselves: ‘Ah kent his faither’- ‘I knew his father’? Someone who says that might not be proud of knowing the lad or lassie’s father; instead, it’s a slightly bitter phrase, meaning ‘Who does he think she is anyway’. Mark the Gospel writer gives us Nazareth’s version of ‘Ah kent his faither’, as the people say about Jesus;
“Isn’t he the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters living here?” And so they rejected him.
Jesus doesn’t manage many miracles in his home town, and, we are told, is surprised by their lack of faith. Familiarity breeds contempt, as Jesus ruefully reflects that a prophet is without honour in his home town:
“Prophets are respected everywhere except in their own hometown and by their relatives and their family.”
I once met someone who had left their home area and pursued a very successful career in a public service. But the economic tide in his home area began to turn, and an opportunity came up for him to take a very senior position in a project which would have great implications for his native country. So he decided to take the job, and when he came home, he visited his old mother. But she was not, at first, enamoured with this turn in his life, and asked him ‘What has gone wrong, that you have to come home now, son?’ In fact, he went on to be very successful in with that new project.
When the joiner’s son has come home, the people didn’t quite know what to make of it. But this is the sort of things I like about Christ, about the Gospels, about Christianity- its very humanness. Sometimes, we forget that the important thing about Christ is not that he was God, but that God was in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. This is a wholly human Jesus we meet in this story- the son of a carpenter (‘He’s just the joiner’s son, the son of Mary and Joseph. Why’s he back? What’s gone wrong? Who does he think he is?’). The visit home is a bit of a flop (‘Why don’t these people have any faith? Why don’t they understand me, like people in other towns? Why aren’t I successful here?’). It’s not a triumphant homecoming- it’s a bit of flop. Quite embarrassing, really.
Another wee human details- we hear that he has brothers and sisters. His brothers are James, Joseph, Judas and Simon (all very common names for the Galilee region, if the Gospels are anything to go by). I suspect that many people are not aware that Jesus had brothers and sisters- we hear about James elsewhere in the New Testament. The sisters aren’t even named- a piece of patriarchy typical of the times, as if the girls weren’t as important as the boys.
Brothers and sisters always keep you down to earth. For brothers and sisters, even if they love you dearly, know some of your secrets. But it must be odd to grown up in the shadow of a famous sibling. For example, I feel a bit sorry for the Conservative Member of Parliament for Orpington. He’s done well: he’s Minister of State for the Department of Transport as well as Minister for London. A solid political career- but Jo Johnson is always going to be in the shadow of his buffoonish elder brother, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary (at least, he was the last time I checked). Relations between brothers and sisters aren’t always without friction.
Yet there is a humanity, a credibility, about a Saviour of the world who has brothers and sisters (later, he will call all of us, his followers, his brothers and sisters- for Jesus had a bit of a rocky relationship with his sibling). We can identify with this man, for he has identified with us. His mother, Mary, will weep for him as he is crucified; his father, Joseph, had to endure the village gossips when his son was born, and then lead his family to safety when a mad tyrant tried to destroy them; James and his other brothers will eventually hear of his resurrection. Jesus has known the joys and sorrows, the love and the tensions, of family life- and I think that is just wonderful.
‘He’s just the joiner, and his family live here’- Ah kent his faither. Perhaps going back to Nazareth wasn’t such a good idea. But maybe sometimes it’s good to be grounded in where you came from. Perhaps the place where you are vulnerable, surrounded by people all too happy to think you must have feet of clay because you seem just as ordinary as they are- perhaps, nevertheless, Jesus found something there. Because this visit home seems to have been a bit of a turning point, at least the way Mark tells it.
For he leaves his home town, and goes out into the villages. He teaches the people, telling them to turn from their sins, driving out demons, pouring olive oil on the sick and healing a great many people. And he starts to get organised, as if he realises that if he is to save the world, he is going to need some collaborators. He calls the Twelve, and somehow persuades them to go out with nothing but a hiking stick and the clothes on their backs as they preach the kingdom and battle evil. It’s almost as if Jesus got a new lease of life from that short, disappointing, embarrassing visit home.
And this I also love about our faith: something which St Paul puts his finger on when he writes, as he often does, about weakness. In today’s text it’s his own weakness he’s talking about. When Paul writes about a man who had a wonderful spiritual experience (‘snatched up to the highest heaven’, as he puts it), he actually means himself. It’s bad form for a preacher to boast about himself, so Paul tries not to:
I will not boast about myself, except the things that show how weak I am.
And then he goes on to talk about himself, and about what seems to be a very real, physical weakness:
But to keep me from being puffed up with pride because of the many wonderful things I saw, I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.
This is Paul’s famous ‘thorn in the flesh’, as other translations put it. It’s been much discussed, but no-one is quite sure what it was exactly. But clearly this was something painful, uncomfortable, something which would have been a great challenge to a man who travelled so much (far further than Jesus ever did!) and had a life of constant controversy and physical hardship. It was not something which he just accepted and put up with:
Three times I prayed to the Lord about this and asked him to take it away.
This is the cry of someone in distress, in pain, in discomfort- take this away. We can imagine sleepless nights, worry about what it was going to lead to. There must have been times where Paul perhaps cancelled journeys, or pulled out of speaking engagements, or did so while suffering pain.
But, despite his prayers and protests, his thorn in the flesh did to go away. Perhaps he came to understand it as simply something which was an essential part of who he was, something which was certainly a challenge to be overcome, but which did not necessarily mean he could not have a full life (perhaps a bit like Jackie Stewart achieving so much, despite his his dyslexia?). And so, Paul makes this incredible statement:
But [God’s] answer was: “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christ’s power over me. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
And here is something else I love about our faith- that a strange kind of strength comes from weakness. A joiner from a small town which didn’t understand him changed the world. A short tentmaker who apparently wasn’t a very good speaker, and suffered from a debilitating, painful condition, took the joiner’s message across the known world. For Paul (who was a tentmaker to trade) saw in Christ crucified something paradoxical. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he admitted that there was something crazy about his message. He wrote:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.
God’s power was at its greatest when Christ was at his weakest- hanging, helplessly, dying on a cross. We all like to feel confident, secure, healthy, strong. We think the church should be powerful and influential and treated with respect. But maybe we need to discover what Paul saw in Christ- that it is often when we are at our weakest that God is most powerful.
Do sometimes people look at us, see our faith, and scoff: ‘Who are you to set yourself up? Ah kent your faither. You have feet of clay’- and that’s their excuse for not taking Christianity seriously? Well, that happened to Jesus. And do sometimes we feel limited, insecure, just not up to it- a thorn in our flesh is getting us down? Well, that happened to Paul. But perhaps, in the places where Christ is scorned, there God is at work. Perhaps, when his followers feel at their most inadequate, there is God at work. Even in the midst of contempt and rejection, Christ sends us with nothing but a walking pole and the clothes we stand in, to battle the demons of injustice and pour healing oil on the wounds of the world.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
After sermon: Hymn 158 God moves in a mysterious way
 1 Corinthians 1.18, 23-25