2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13
The opening of Mark’s gospel is something of a whirlwind – Jesus is constantly on the move, calling disciples, who immediately drop everything and follow him; healing those who come to him, often in desperation; his fame and renown is spreading. And now, as we heard in our Gospel reading, Jesus returns to his home town. It’s worth noting in passing, the comparison with Luke’s Gospel, where the equivalent moment in Nazareth happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism. In Luke, Jesus is seen preaching in the synagogue; using the prophet Isaiah as almost a manifesto of what is to come. This moment in Nazareth is the launchpad of his ministry. But in Mark, Jesus returns to Nazareth having already established himself, almost as the conquering hero, the local celebrity, returning to a ticker tape welcome. As we’re in Scotland, I shall resist any reference to football, and coming home. But we certainly might expect a warm welcome. Nazareth is after all a small village – everyone knows everyone else. And this son of the village has made a name for himself.
And yet that isn’t how things work out: ‘Where did this man get these things?” they ask after hearing him in the synagogue. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they take offence at him, we’re told. Is this a case of familiarity breeding contempt?
Jesus’ response is curt: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour,” he says. And perhaps most surprisingly we are then told that Jesus could not do any miracles there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them, as you do. He is amazed at his hometown’s unbelief – it is almost because they see him simply as the carpenter, the boy next door, that they do not trust him, have no faith in the possibility and potential found here. And Jesus is left impotent. It is an amazing image of co-operation – of the need of the hero for the people, as much as we all need a hero.
Except that Jesus, particularly in Mark’s Gospel has no interest in being the hero. Jesus has an extraordinary ability to (literally) move people – follow me, and they do; he attracts people’s desire for change, for healing – and then enacts that, as we saw last week, by establishing relationship, connection: the previously unclean, are revealed as loved by God, and restored to relationship with one another. What is at the heart of Jesus’ action, life, is the kingdom that he declares is already in your midst: it is in the kingdom that we are established in relationship, that we are connected, through the breaking down of mistrust, and the building up of the faith that overcomes fear. But we also see in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ seemingly strange desire for secrecy, for what is happening around him not to be broadcast: this is not just about me, he seems to be saying. He has no interest in celebrity status, in being the hero, but instead to point beyond himself, to that in-breaking kingdom, and so involve others in that.
And I suspect that’s where the people of Nazareth refused to play ball. They wanted to bask in the reflected glory of their local celebrity, and Jesus isn’t interested – this is not about how wonderful I am, this is about you and the kingdom in your midst. And to that challenge, they take offence – in place of faith, cynicism, and the cheap shot.
And so we are told he could do little there.
Paul cuts a very different figure: you don’t have to read much of his epistles to guess that there is a strong ambition and personal drive at the heart of Paul. But what redeems that drive is that the need to wrestle with his own ego, to subvert it, is also always present, Our Epistle this morning was a classic example of that wrestling: he is both desperate to prove himself, his visionary encounter with Christ is the equal of any body’s; and yet he knows that that is not what finally matters: at the heart of his faith is the encounter with God’s grace, a ‘grace that is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
The Christian tradition has often placed pride as the archetypal sin; pride is the valuing and vaulting of self above all else, above God. The need that we feel for affirmation, for power over others, drives our propensity to place our security and comfort, our selves, at the centre of our world. That is a powerful critique of what makes us humans tick. But the danger is that the opposite of pride is often understood to be self-abasement, the total loss of self. But our Gospel points to another way, between pride and the abasement of self, which is too open to abuse. And that middle way is found in a proper understanding of humility.
For humility is the desire to be in relationship, not glory in self-sufficiency. Humility is not about knowing our proper place as it is sometimes characterised, but begins in an acknowledgement of our need beyond what our own self can provide:
‘The humility of Christ is not the moderation of keeping one’s exact place in the scale of being, but rather that of absolute dependence on God and absolute trust in him, with the consequent ability to move mountains.’ H. Richard Niebuhr
Humility seeks, therefore, community, relationship and it begins in trust, the trust that lies at the heart of faith, the trust and faith so sorely lacking in Nazareth. Humility springs from the sense of dependence upon God from which all else flows. It begins in the practice of prayer, and contemplation – the making space within ourselves for God to be God in your life and my life. That does not obliterate the self, but allows the self to trust again in God’s creative power: prayer puts us into a different relationship to God and to others.
For humility is the movement from desire for self-in-opposition-to-others, to desire for self-in-through-and-with-others. Humility does not therefore destroy selfhood but is the necessary underpinning for it to come into its own unique being. Humility is not about the neglect of self, a life-denying martyr complex, but about living the truth that we come to fulfilment in, through and with others.
Jesus responds to the unbelief he encounters in Nazareth by sending the raw, untrained vulnerable disciples out, two by two, to travel light, heal the sick, and proclaim God’s coming kingdom, a kingdom ruled by the power of forgiveness, not coercion. They are to establish connection, to live from trust, overcoming cynicism and fear with a faith in hospitality and the power of forgiveness. Don’t wait for the hero figure coming to rescue us. Get involved, see the kingdom breaking in, join the disciples in being sent out – however inadequate we feel, to heal, offer hope, reveal the power of forgiveness. In Christ’s name. Amen.