What If It’s Not About Us?

1 Corinthians 13
Luke 4:14-30

Honestly, it’s hard to know whose side to be on in this one. I mean I know we’re supposed to be on Jesus’ side, but really? Did he have to antagonize everyone? 

It’s especially hard to understand when we’ve just heard Paul’s beautiful passage about love – love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude. Well, Jesus doesn’t seem very loving to the people back home. They’re thrilled to have him back, and within minutes he’s alienated everyone – to the point of rage. He says, “I know I won’t be welcome here,” then proceeds to preach a sermon that makes sure he isn’t welcome. 

What does he say that’s so upsetting? Well, I think the gist of the sermon is something like, “God didn’t anoint me to make you happy. I’ve come to bring good things to this world, but guess what? It’s not about you.” At least that’s their take-away.

Jesus has just read from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, with words that would become his own mission statement. God has sent him, anointed him by the power of the Holy Spirit,

To preach good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the prisoners
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To liberate the oppressed,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then for his sermon illustrations he reminds them of stories they know – stories from the Old Testament - when God sent prophets to heal the sick and provide for the poor…. Only the examples he uses are of Elijah and Elisha ministering to outsiders, non-Jews, foreigners. Not the people of God. 

As scholar Tom Long describes it, it’s like Jesus is telling them that “God’s prophetic word and saving power are not the private property of Nazareth or Israel.” 

In other words, we may belong to God, but God doesn’t belong to us.

The way Fred Craddock puts it, “Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected; he is rejected because he goes elsewhere.”

The thing is, it feels like he is rejecting them. And that’s what makes them so angry. Honestly, I think I would have been angry, too.

What are we to make of this? 

I think it might help if we go back to the first part of the passage – the part we talked about last week. Jesus is quoting the prophet Isaiah, the verses that begin, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” The Spirit is everything in Luke’s Gospel – it’s the Spirit that blesses Jesus at his baptism, supports him through his temptations in the wilderness, and empowers him as he begins his ministry. 

As Luke makes clear, it’s the same Spirit that makes the church the church. When the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection, suddenly the followers of Jesus are empowered in incredible ways. Without the Spirit we’re just a collection of people with our own agendas. But with the Spirit? We’re the body of Christ. Without the Spirit, to paraphrase Paul, we’re just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. All sound and no substance. With the Spirit? We carry the very love of God.

The Spirit is essential for us to be the Church. 

But here’s the thing: in the deepest of paradoxes, in order to be the Church, we also need to understand that the Spirit is not all about us! 

Honestly, it’s easy to fall off both those cliffs. We’ve all known churches that seem, well, dispirited - they go through the motions, doing all the things that churches are supposed to do, but there’s no “there” there. There’s no energy, vitality, life. The members work hard, but everything feels flat, and the people seem kind of exhausted. It’s as if the Spirit has left the building. I’ve known that feeling in churches I’ve served, and frankly, it’s really depressing. 

But there’s an equal and opposite danger. A church can have all the energy in the world but be full of itself. Just like people, churches can be pretty self-absorbed. Aren’t we awesome? God must really love us ‘cause things are going GREAT! The Spirit must really be here, because we are really something, and boy, do we love each other! It’s almost like a pep-rally, and we’re rooting for the home team. There’s spirit, all right, but not quite what Jesus had in mind. I’ve known that feeling, too, and it’s full of the pride Paul warns about.

We need the Spirit to be church. That’s essential. But what Jesus is telling us is that the Spirit is at work in the world as much as God’s Spirit is here. It’s not about us, and God’s prophetic word and saving power are not the private property of the church any more than they were the property of a synagogue in Nazareth.

But if God is already out working in the world, then what is church for?

If God is blessing people out there, then what are we here for? 

I think those are important questions for us to ask, and keep asking. And I don’t think there are any glib, easy answers. I think that’s what’s so unsettling about Jesus’ proclamation. We have to keep wrestling with what it means to be church, or we’ll be tempted to stray in either direction. When we’re dispirited, we’ll be tempted to settle into old, empty routines where we’re just going through the motions, not trusting in the presence of God’s Spirit. Or, when things are going well, we’ll be tempted to convince ourselves that our success is a sign of blessing from God! 

Today, when we gather(ed) for our Annual Meeting, it’s especially appropriate that we ask how we’re doing. In the midst of struggles, are we trusting that God’s Spirit is with us? And in our joy, are we celebrating not our accomplishments, but how the Spirit is shaping and transforming us? 

A few years ago when we started our discernment process, we began with the questions, “What kind of people are we sending out into the world, and what kind of church creates that kind of people?” At their heart those questions assume that our primary work isn’t to bring people in to the church, but to send people out. The Spirit works to send us out as Christ-formed people, loving, patient and kind, not arrogant or jealous or boastful, or rude. We’re here to grow up into maturity, as Paul puts it, not so much to be blessed as to be a blessing to others. 

If we are going to be followers of Jesus, we need to trust that the Spirit is with us. And then we need to follow Jesus out into the world, where his mission and ministry take place. 

Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon us,
And we are anointed 
To go preach good news to the poor, 
To proclaim release to the prisoners
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To liberate the oppressed,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 

May it be so. 

Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
Granville, OH