We’ve been in Jerusalem long enough to be able to spend time with pilgrims of varying denominations from all over the world. I personally love the concept of pilgrimage. I love being able to find the spiritual world within the material one, and I love how it brings people together through a special kind of worship; because while there are many beliefs and traditions that make the groups of people we’ve met fascinatingly different, there are important ways that we are similar. One of these is that we believe that somehow in coming here we will find something of Christ that we can’t find elsewhere. Since Christ’s death believers have spent thousands of years, millions of pages and countless hours trying to understand what it means to believe in a god who has form, but who few have ever been privileged to see. And, because we don’t see, we work very hard to find meaning in not seeing. We cling to Christ’s pronouncement that it is better to believe without seeing anyway, reminding ourselves that a true believer’s responsibility is to move past such superficial needs as sight and touch. But, despite our best efforts, there is something tangible I think most of us long for when we think about Christ. The fact is we have physical bodies and our physical bodies long for physical connection. And so we pack up our hope and our longing and we travel across the world looking for him. His spirit may be everywhere, but perhaps, like Jacob, we can find the place where the heavenly voices we hear are not echoes, but the sound of heaven itself meeting us, indicating the place where earth and heaven conjoin, hoping that in reaching out there we may find something we can touch.
This was something I hoped for when I came, and I’m happy to say it’s something that I have found, in a far deeper way even than I thought I would. As we’ve traveled to the villages where Christ ministered we have seen the remains of the abject poverty in which he lived and by which he was surrounded. It has been astonishing to see the depth of difficulties in which Jesus lived. We have studied the accounts of daily life and the struggle for survival that was, tragically, a natural part of the world in which he, his family, and his friends lived. In addition, we live in an area where poverty is still common today and have seen how different such life is from anything I have experienced. In doing so I’ve come to see and touch in a way I had never considered, even though Jesus explicitly taught it over and over. I’ve found a God, not who protects and proves his power through separateness to humanity, but who saves through his radical connection to humanity. A God who abandoned his greatness to embrace vulnerability and poverty. He was not someone who served a mission to the poor or who threw a beggar the occasional coin or who used a position of power to help those less fortunate. He was not a handsome, clean, well-fed benefactor who visited and talked with and showed compassion to the poor and then went home to a bath and a change of clothes and a meal followed by a comfortable bed. He couldn’t be those things, because what he was was one of “them”. He was the less fortunate, the forgotten, the beggar. And he was these things because he was a God completely uninterested in protecting himself because he was completely committed to his hope in humanity.
In Philippians 2 the author implores the community, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Comparing Christ to a slave is no metaphorical device. This is not a linguistic tool the author is using merely to demonstrate Christ’s submission, though that is certainly integral to the message. From the beginning, one of the greatest difficulties Christ and the Christian community faced was in trying to explain, not that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, but that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. It’s hard to understand from our perspective of 2000 years of reframing Jesus in a way that emphasizes his majesty, but 1st century disciples and detractors alike understood something that we have forgotten. As far as the world’s opinion of what constitutes greatness, Jesus was nothing special. He was not just poor, he was impoverished. As Elder Holland reminds us, there were times when he was even homeless . According to Isaiah he wasn’t attractive . And while the KJV describes Jesus as a carpenter a more accurate translation would be what we might think of as a construction worker. Nazareth was a poor village, he would have grown up with no luxuries—luxuries at that time being things like furniture and clothing that didn’t itch and enough food to stave off hunger. He wasn’t physically clean—only the wealthy had access to any kind of bathing facilities. There was no soap, no change of clothes, no privacy. There wasn’t enough money and there were too many taxes and there was no one to care. It is hard to imagine the stark contrast in which Jesus would have stood to the gods of his day. From the Greco-Roman gods of indescribable beauty and privilege, whose deathlessness and power made mortals little more than toys, to the Jewish god of fire and thunder, who created worlds and broke nations with a word. Gods drastically different from each other, and yet in both cases whose immortality kept them forever unsullied from the mundane, much less real suffering. And yet it is within this very world of incomprehensible gods that Jesus and his followers boldly claimed that the God was being made known, not on mountains or in throne rooms, but in a poor, unattractive, socially marginalized, uneducated day laborer. An outrageous assertion wherein god’s power is made manifest in powerlessness and poverty and suffering and death. God was to be seen in Jesus, who did not see glory “as something to be exploited”, but as something to be emptied of so that it could be shared amongst those whom he came to save.
It is this understanding that has taught me to see and touch God. Our pilgrimage here has helped me to know Christ in a way that I didn’t before; it has given significantly more profound immediacy to his teachings. Even though he had always been very clear in stating and showing where it was he could be found, in seeing something of the world in which he lived I have come to see and understand much more clearly the literalness of those teachings. That he meant it when he said he is found in the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry and the naked. In the marginalized and the lonely and sick and the sinner. In those who suffer while the world looks on with indifference. In those to whom Christ came, among whom he lived, for whom he died, not as a great mythological hero, but as one of them. When Jesus emptied himself he did not rob God of dignity, but showed us what that dignity is. A dignity not composed of splendor and wealth and dominance, but of suffering and love and servitude. Dignity that, by emptying himself of it, was spread into the lives of all humanity, where God is perpetually reaching out to be seen, touched, and understood. Ours is not a God of distance and obscurity, but a being so tangible, so touchable and seeable, that it takes my breath away. A God who beautifully, miraculously, shockingly, can be touched and seen by simply reaching out to what is already there.
2. Isaiah 52:3