UNheroic Christianity (Feb 5)
Readings 2 Kings 5:1-4, 9-14 and Matthew 9:18-26
Many of us grew up with the great Greek myths. Fundamental in many of these tales is hero’s quest (perhaps our hero needs to appease an angry god, perhaps they need to retrieve a lover, perhaps they need to prolong their life, or lift a curse). To do so they must set off on a quest… and it is never an easy quest, it is a great quest, befitting a hero, and having been overcome the quest bestows its own greatness onto the hero. Heroes scale mountains, slay monsters, solve riddles, and play all kinds of diplomatic games, in order to finally, finally, reach their goal (of course, not all reach their goal, or some, having reached it, find it has rather unfortunate, unforeseen consequences for them and their loved ones).
Having been raised on such stories, and the stories these stories spawned and shaped, we are not immune to this kind of thinking. Believing receiving what we wish is all the more glorious if it is of great difficulty to achieve… there is a certain disappointment attached to something feeling “too easy.” We like to tell the story about how a simple task such as buying and setting up a new couch became an odyssey of its own, with twists and turns and frustrations, adding and emphasising new details in each subsequent retelling: “so it wouldn’t fit through the door, so we tried to hoist it to the balcony.” This isn’t to say that satisfaction can’t come through overcoming an obstacle, or that there aren’t things that are worth doing that take a long time to be able to do… but there is a way that we, believing ourselves the heroes of our story, expect a hero’s story.
And with this in mind, we come to a man named Naaman. A great man named Naaman, a mighty warrior who has delivered many victories to his kingdom named Naaman. Despite all of this, Naaman suffers a skin condition that causes him great distress. Through a young woman, captured in one of his great battles and enslaved in his household, he hears of the prophet Elisha in the lands of Israel, who it is attested, will be able to cure him.
Naaman gathers an entourage of servants and soldiers, and heads to Elisha. Arriving there he gets the good news, Elisha can indeed heal his skin condition, and with some ease, Naaman must simply bath in the waters of the Jordan. And yet, Naaman does not treat this like good news:
Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.
Naaman is upset that, despite getting what he wants, he is not getting what he wants in a manner befitting a great man!
Luckily for Namman, his servants know what kind of man he is, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” These servants know that if Elisha told Naaman, ‘to be well you must bring me back a petal from a flower which blooms just one day a year on the edge of an active volcano’, Naaman would have set off immediately – for such a quest is befitting of his stature. But anyone could wash in the waters of the Jordan… it’s… too easy. Naaman almost gives up his chance of being healed, almost throws away the grace of God, because he wants it to be harder, or if not harder then at least Elisha should bestow healing in a way that recognises that he is an important man.
I think there is a temptation that can creep into the life of the Christian, into churches, that wishes Christianity were a little more difficult, that the path to deliverance and redemption required a little more human greatness, that asked more from us in the telling of the story. I’ve spoken with Christians who grew up in the church, who bemoan how simple their story of faith is: “I grew up in the church, I kind of always felt Jesus loved me, and so I’m still a Christian and here I am”… This story, it can be felt, isn’t as dramatic, and thus not as profound as testimonies where people, finding themselves at rock-bottom, are rescued by a dramatic bolt of God’s grace.
In another way, this desire to make Christianity more difficult, to make deliverance and redemption more hard-won, manifests in a desire to erect certain cultural and behavioural requirements around the coming to faith – that one must make themselves ready through a series of denouncements, ambitions, and enculturation in order to receive Christ’s grace.
And yet, Christianity requires no heroes. The path to deliverance and redemption is not earnt through the ascension of mountains or the slaying of beasts or any kind of movie montage where we work and work and work until we are ready for the big finale! No, the haemorrhaging woman had it right, If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.
Jesus, is Emmanuel, God with us. The light and life of the world came and lived among us, and such is the power of the eternal word of God that his life (culminating in his death, resurrection, and ascension) brings about deliverance and redemption for us all. In Christ God was reconciling all of creation. Jesus has already lived the great story, already overcome all the odds, already gone to the top of the mountain, already slain Sin and Death… already… already, he has come to us, taken us by the hand, and called us to rise. Our deliverance happened while we slept.
We do not need to make our deliverance and redemption difficult for the sake of difficulty, to make a better story, or bestow upon ourselves the glory of solving the riddle and finishing the quest. In Christ we receive (as gift!) the resurrection and the life. Like Naaman we go into the water in baptism and are restored, not through our own might but through the love of God. This is what Christ has done, already done, for us by being with us. If it feels ‘too easy’ be not disappointed, but celebrate, for your faith has made you well!
Of course, the Christian life is not necessarily easy. Being a disciple requires following The Way; resisting the lures and temptations of the world – its greed, its violence, its vision of greatness. There is a cost to being a disciple, it requires a kind of life… but nothing needs to be proved, nor earnt, in order to come to Christ. In Christ we receive grace, in Christ we receive life, in Christ we who lay dead, now live, we who were under sin are delivered, we who were lost are found. And this comes by simply grasping for Jesus’ cloak, or, for many of us, having our hand taken in a love we were not able to name at the time but have come to know as the kind and powerful hand of the Lord of Glory.
Jesus loves you. Jesus wills that we should live. And Jesus has done all that needs doing for that love and life to be ours. Having accomplished all, Jesus doesn’t set us on a quest to match his efforts, but takes us by the hand, inviting us to come to him in childlikeness and receive his grace, to be restored and made well.
Image: Gavin Hamilton, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, 1760–63.
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