“Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a stretch of level ground with a great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people…” (Luke 6:17)
For some reason these words jumped out at me when I began to reflect on today’s gospel passage. Maybe it’s because of all that’s going on in our world, in our church, and even in our parish. It seems to me that more and more we are tempted into a way of being in the world such that every experience is one of intensity. Whether the experience is positive or negative, or whether our disposition is positive or negative, everything that happens seems to be a crisis of some kind or another for someone. A few weeks ago our country was caught in a “Polar Vortex”. When I heard the phrase (it was my first time to hear it) being used, I had images of the entire midwest being sucked up in some kind of winter maelstrom, and whisked away to some other universe. There was an other-worldly sense to the whole thing. The rains that we’ve experienced here in Northridge were a huge to-do for so many. I grew up in weather like that, but I’ve been in California so long that I found myself wondering why I wasn’t as frantic as some others with whom I was speaking. It’s become more prevalent in our media to whip people up into some chaotic concern for something… whether its weather, or a community issue, or politics, or an actual human tragedy.
I contrast my usual experience with the first line of today’s gospel. Here we read that Jesus “came down” with the twelve. In other words, he met people where they were at. He didn’t get all up in anyone’s face. He just came to be with people. One of the things I notice more and more is how little this actually happens in other ways in life than call or visit with someone. . We’re more tempted to email or text rather than call. We’re more tempted to gossip with others, than do the work of dealing with someone face-to-face. We’re more tempted to post stuff online (whether it's true or not) rather than engage with another person. We’re more tempted to believe stuff rather than to check the truthfulness of what we hear or say. In other words, we tempted to be apart from people rather than engage with them. In this gospel, Jesus leads by example and comes down to the people to be with them, to engage them, and to open himself up to the possibility of relating with them.
The gospel goes on to note that he met them on a stretch of level ground. It’s the author’s way of telling us that Jesus didn’t think of himself as being any better or more important than anyone else. He wasn’t trying to curry favor or score popularity points. He wasn’t lording it over them. For Jesus, it seems to me, discipleship involves a simple but crucial characteristic. Discipleship involves “being with” It involves accompanying. It involves companionship.
In my own experience, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. The day I was ordained my great-uncle Ger began to call me “Father”. From that day to the day he passed away, this man who had known me when I was in diapers never once used my given name without the title of respect he felt was appropriate. I don’t disavow the title of respect that comes with being a priest, but I appreciate that such respect is given and received, shared, when people have relationships that are meaningful. But for some people, that title can be a barrier, a wall between us. There is usually no shared experience or relationship in such cases. I remember meeting someone who used to call me by my first name, but who didn’t know me at all. We had no relationship between us. Some people saw him as being disrespectful. I thought it a bit odd, given we didn’t know one another, but gave it no other thought.
As a priest in the community, I am privileged to “be with” people in some of the most wonderful and intense moments of life. At moments of birth and death, at moments of healing and forgiveness, at moments of loving commitment and at moments of distressing separation, I find myself graced by God’s people. I see the God of Incarnation in the lives of those alongside whom I journey along the pilgrim paths of time.
This great Mystery of the Incarnation - the mystery of God becoming flesh with us and for us - is foundational to our relationship with God in Christ. As John’s gospel puts it: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us… and we have seen his glory.” We cannot come to know Jesus by worshipping him from afar. We can’t enter into a relationship with Jesus without spending time with him. We can’t spend time with him unless we’re willing to explore our scriptures and to participate in the communal life of service with and for our brothers and sisters in faith. Ours is not a savior at a distance, but a savior who comes down with us, and joins us on level ground. It is a blessed grace to be among the crowd of his disciples.