[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
I recently finished reading through the four canonical gospels. I didn’t embark on this scripture study project because the church is studying the New Testament in gospel doctrine class this year, but because, after having completed both another family and a personal read of the Book of Mormon, I thought I should do something different. I thought about reading the Old Testament, which I’ve never completed all the way through (the closest I ever came was more than 20 years ago, on my mission, when I made it all the way to Lamentations when I just gave up). I thought about the Doctrines and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, but the truth is they’re my least favorite books of scripture; much better, to my mind, for occasional study, both historical and theological, than for devotional reading. And that’s what I’ve come to view my own scripture reading as: an act of ritual and repetition, a brief, daily, meditation upon The Word. The New Testament presented the obvious text of choice. And in reading through the gospels, one point seemed to me to be clearly hammered home by the text, again and again: Jesus seriously freaked people out.
Consider the story that prompted the passage that I use in the title of this post, in Luke 5:16-26. The word of Jesus’s healings and miracles have spread like wildfire from one small village to the next, and rumors abounded about Him. People were leaving their fields and homes and places of work, following Him about, pleading for healings and desperate to hear whatever controversial thing He may say next, and Jesus had to travel into the wilderness to find some peace and quiet in which to pray. Local authorities passed the word when He was spotted teaching, and showed up to watch and challenge him.
And, behold, men brought in a bed a man which was taken with a palsy: and they sought means to bring him in, and to lay him before him.
And when they could not find by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went upon the housetop, and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus.
And when he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.
And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?
But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answering said unto them, What reason ye in your hearts?
Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk?
But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house.
And immediately he rose up before them, and took up that whereon he lay, and departed to his own house, glorifying God.
And they were all amazed, and they glorified God, and were filled with fear, saying, We have seen strange things to day.
Fear, amazement, confusion, curiosity, hysteria, awe: those emotions seem to be a constant in the gospel narratives. In reading those texts for the first time in many years, and eschewing all commentaries or debates over authorship and intentionality, what I saw, again and again, were ordinary people feeling a kind of panic, desperate to stay near this man who was demonstrating such power, hungry for His miraculous touch, begging for His approval and forgiveness, ecstatic over feeling the divine amongst them, and slightly terrified at what Jesus’s words and actions seemed to imply. It was very difficult for me to avoid thinking about how I would have responded–or not responded–to the appearance of a savior, a god, in my own midst. No doubt I would rationalize, contextualize, and express my doubts. But if I saw it, with my own eyes? I would like to think I would have a presence of mind to speak honestly and directly, as the story has Peter doing just a short while the aforementioned story: “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me: for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). But more likely I would be found in the admiring, demanding, wary crowds surrounding Him, praising God for every good thing and asking for more, but fearful of whatever unexpected, unaccountable, outrageous, miraculous thing might come next.
I substitute for our regular Sunday school teacher today, and took a class of about 40 members of our congregation through Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is so much in there–it is one of the few New Testament epistles that is truly all about doctrinal teachings, as opposed to resolving ecclesiastical problems and offering pastoral care–that obviously one can only scratch the surface in a single day. But if anything, I hope those in the class came away with an impression of the deepness, the power, and mystery of what these men, living and writing in the first couple of decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection, we’re trying to make sense of. Grace, law, spirit, flesh, death, righteousness: all strange things indeed. I’ve mentioned before Romans 8:38-39, as perhaps my favorite passage in the whole New Testament. I love it, because of its finality, its comprehensiveness: it’s a passage that, in our very act of reading it, reminds us simultaneously that we are invariably not seeing the whole program, the big picture…and that we, strangely enough, somehow have a place in it all the same.