I had myself pretty well persuaded that the churches claiming to follow in the patterns and practices of Jesus – and that covers almost all of them – were off-base by focusing their programmatic life on worship.
As far as I could tell from reading the accounts in the Gospels, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time in church – read: temple or synagogue.
Most of the time he was outside and at a distance from those religious buildings doing things that we don’t usually tally up as “worship” – things like healing the sick, telling stories and generally breaking convention.
All of that non-churchy kind of stuff was based, it seemed, on Jesus being persuaded that God was drawing near to usher in a new order for every dimension of life, in which all the established rules and regulations would be reversed and revised based on the law of love.
So it was disappointing, to say the least, to read again the familiar words from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke – the part where Jesus, now back in Galilee after his temptation in the wilderness, quotes the prophesy of Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and so on – and realize that going to the synagogue on the Sabbath was his “custom.”
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom” (Luke 4:16).
Well, there went my thesis about a non-churchgoing Jesus!
Until I reflected on the fact that “custom” has two quite different meanings. On the one hand, in keeping with what seems to be reported about Jesus in this passage, it has to do with following traditional practices – practices that are routine, almost habitual, and can be virtually lawlike.
But “custom” can also mean, at least in English, making or performing in a manner that is genuinely distinctive or according to unique specifications – as in “custom-made.” In this latter sense of “customizing,” there is virtually “custom-breaking” going on.
Could that dual meaning for “custom” salvage my insight about the misplaced emphasis on worship as practiced by the church early on, and then on and on over the centuries, and continuing on today?
Both of those meanings seem to operate in understandings of religion and the way faith communities and faith leaders operate: One conserving, maintaining and preserving; the other liberating, originating, transforming and sometimes even disrupting what is well in place.
A recent New York Times article, for example, reports professors in academic communities understand themselves as largely liberal (43 percent) and only a relatively small number (9 percent) as conservative whereas workers in religious communities now see themselves in the opposite way: 15 percent as liberal and 46 percent as conservative.
Professors, of course, have “cover” for their liberating, originating, transforming and even disrupting ideas and theories that overturn existing intellectual “customs,” which religious leaders tend not to enjoy. So maybe it makes sense that religious leaders as well as the communities they guide will be more tied to custom in the conserving sense than to customizing in the transforming sense.
And that would mean that those religious leaders who are more liberally expansive about where and how authentic religious faith is to be lived out – beyond worship, for example – or who employ worship to direct followers to the activities that they believe constitute authentic religious faith, these religious leaders will often meet resistance and opposition and even anger and rage for disrupting what is understood to be the centrality and importance of “custom” in the individual and communal religious life.
Aha! There it is! There’s the connection with Jesus and his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
Yes, Jesus did follow the custom of attending the synagogue on the days of the Sabbath. But when he did so on that Sabbath day in Nazareth, he broke the customary way of worshiping – of reading from and commenting on the Scriptures in keeping with traditional interpretations – and customized it all to his own specific and distinctive message. He announced that he, Jesus of Nazareth, was the recipient of the Holy Spirit, in keeping with his being anointed to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah.
That meant that “custom” was to be customized to a new reality in the immediate present – that the poor would no longer have to wait for some good news, that the captives would no longer have to wait for release, that the blind would no longer have to wait to recover their sight, that the oppressed would no longer have to wait to be free.
As the anointed one of God, empowered by the Spirit, Jesus was in the business of making all this happen as the essential component of authentic faith and true religion.
Now “custom” itself would have to be recast in terms of this new understanding of what God is continually doing in the world: to follow this new custom, one would have to join Jesus in the Luke 4 proclamation.
The place of worship? I stand corrected by the Scriptures. It turns out that it is very important, but not central nor an end in itself. It is an instrument and a means to inspire and prepare the followers of Jesus to be about his anointed work, his anointed calling, his anointed ministry.
Yes, it’s true that the worshipping community there in Nazareth was outraged by the way Jesus had customized their custom of worship and turned it into something that would require them to reorient their whole understanding of authentic faith. In fact, they were fully prepared to hurl him off a cliff at Nazareth’s edge and leave him for dead.
But that’s often what’s at stake in disrupting “custom” and customizing it to God’s end of a dynamic new community, a community where there should only be the custom of mutual care and mutual justice and mutual peacemaking in an ever-changing world.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.