by Karen Turner.
You may have seen in the news last week the sobering results of a study showing that almost a quarter of University students feel lonely most or all of the time. Of course, isolation can affect all age groups and demographics but it seems particularly acute among young adults at the moment, and this is despite there being hundreds of shared-interest groups and societies on most campuses, as well as countless on-line opportunities to connect. What are people looking for?
Today, out of the blue, a student asked me what it felt like to be part of a Christian community. She said, ‘I assume that you all feel an individual connection to God and that you all have that in common with one another and that must be quite nice.’
I replied that it was, but that it wasn’t the whole of the experience. What I tried to explain was that when when church is at its best there is a sense of being part of a ‘found family’ more than a group of people with something in common. In that context of difference there is a sense of something more bubbling up amongst us that is hard to explain: creativity, deeper understanding, profound love, prayer. A sense of God with us.
In A Nazareth Manifesto[i], Sam Wells explores in depth the idea of God with us, and how we are called to be ‘with’ one another. We can so easily get caught in a pattern of doing things for other people that we forget that being with them is really what love is about, as the ministry of Jesus shows us in encounter after encounter.
As part of his exploration, Sam Wells puts forward a minority reading of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. One way of understanding Jesus’ story is to see it directed at Israel. It is Israel who has been robbed, beaten and is lying in a desperate state in the gutter. Who will help it? Will the priests and the teachers of the law? It is Jesus, as the despised Samaritan in the story, who offers practical assistance, healing and hope and takes Israel into the city, at considerable risk to himself, promising to return at a later time.
The way that we normally read this story and teach it to our children is about being a good neighbour and being kind to strangers, putting our faith into action, unlike the priest and the Levite. It is this reading that gives me a nudge every time I walk past someone begging, and plagues me the times I see myself ‘just walking by’.
Before coming across this reading, I don’t think I’d ever considered putting myself in the story as the person desperate and vulnerable, lying on the side of the road. That changes things considerably. Although in global terms, we may be rich, we are also needy; longing for relationship, forgiveness, reconciliation, life.
“…we would be happy to accept these things from the priest or the Levite… They have security. They have social esteem. They have resources. But the story is telling us those people cannot help us. They cannot give us what we so desperately need.” [ii]
The person walking down the road to help us is the last person we would expect; and not someone we would ever have anything to do with. The answer to the question of ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ is not a moralistic story about avoiding hypocrisy, but instead a recognition that we are desperate.
“Open your eyes to the form Jesus takes in coming to save you. Swallow your pride and accept that your salvation comes from the ones you have despised. And let your heart be converted and your life be newly shaped to receiving the grace that can only come from them.” [iii]
If what people are most looking for is the knowledge that they are not alone, it is in God’s ‘found family’ of real relationships, shared meals and honest conversation that they might have the courage to reach out and take Jesus’ hand. This isn’t a community that has chosen one another. It isn’t a a shared-interest society (or assumed-ideology) group. It’s just people who know they’re desperate enough to be ‘with’ one another, believing that God is with them too.
[i] Samuel Wells A Nazareth Manifesto (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015). See a previous Theology Everywhere article also including comment on Wells’ interpretaion of the parable – Who is the Good Samritan?
[ii] p. 93