vintage jesus

the first in a short sermon series…

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This past week I visited a little shop over in the Plateau – a shop that has been at the corner of St. Laurent and Duluth for more than 15 years. It’s called Friperie St. Laurent and it’s actually well known in Montreal as a place where you can buy vintage clothing. They have ties and dresses and shoes and coats, and so much more – all from the 1940’s or 50’s or 60’s or 70’s.  Actually, over there at the corner of St. Laurent and Duluth there are three vintage shops in a row.

 

While I was there I looked at their collection of vintage ties – in fact I picked up the tie I’m wearing today. It is, if I may say, a lovely 1950’s silk tie. Here’s a closer-up picture… It certainly has the feel of the 1950’s. Alongside it here are two 1960’s era ties that I picked up for 2 bucks apiece at the Renaissance store just down on St. Jacques.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now it might be going too far to say that vintage is all the rage these days, but there is a wide interest in things vintage – vintage clothing, vintage jewelry, vintage accessories, vintage furniture. Of course the word ‘vintage’ has a variety of meanings, but in the sense that we are using it today it refers simply to clothing or jewelry or furniture or other items that come from and express the style of an earlier time. Today when people talk about vintage items – they are mostly talking about things that come from the period of the 1920’s through the 1970’s.

Little did you know that the plaid coat you gave away in the 1970’s would be a desirable commodity in 2012. Little did you know that the tie your grandfather wore in the 1950’s would be a hot commodity in 2012. Little did you know that the broach you gave your daughter in the 1960’s would be so desirable in 2012.

It will come as no surprise that there are websites dedicated to vintage shopping – there are blogs dedicated to the discussion of vintage things. This week I did a search on ebay using the word ‘vintage’ and it brought back over 4,000,000 items for sale there and labeled ‘vintage’. To me this cultural interest in vintage items, toward past decades, is an interesting cultural phenomenon. It’s remarkable the way many look back for an aesthetic or style that resonates today.

And over the next few weeks, we are going to work through a short sermon series I’m calling Vintage Jesus. At least a part of what we’re going to do is reflect on this cultural movement. In a broader sense, what we’re trying to do is to locate ourselves as followers of Jesus – to find our particular place in a culture that is in many ways conflicted about it’s own identity.

So I have my vintage tie on this morning, and we are looking at this broad cultural interest in the past. But the question is how we begin to relate our observations about the culture on the one hand with life in the kingdom of God on the other hand. Well, we’ll try to begin doing so by first of all pointing out that this interest in vintage items is in measure bound up with nostalgia – with warm feelings about past eras. One blogger who writes about this phenomenon defines a vintage item broadly “as anything that is from the past that inspires feelings of nostalgia, familial connection, and/or creativity.” Of course there is more to this focus on vintage things than simply nostalgia and warm feelings for the past. But a sense of comfortable and meaningful connection with the past is a big part of the vintage movement.

In this sense we can get closer to typical sermon material by looking for a moment at the image of Jesus on the screen this morning. I suspect this painting will be familiar to you – it is simply entitled The Head of Christ, and was painted back in 1941 by an artist named Warner Sallman. More than 500 million copies of this image have been sold. This painting is, in fact, a piece of vintage art – it’s a vintage item in precisely the sense we are using that word. It was painted in 1941, smack dab in the middle of the period that is thought of as vintage. We might say that this painting is vintage Jesus. This painting represents the sentiments and sensibilities of the 1940’s. Some culture critics have pointed out its similarity to shampoo advertisements of the same period. To purchase a poster like this would be to engage in a little bit of nostalgia – buying, and putting yourself in touch with, a little piece of the past. This is a vintage Jesus.

In relating this interest in vintage things to our Christian faith, I suspect that there will be two quite different responses among us. In some ways we may be very happy to embrace this orientation toward the aesthetics and sensibilities of past decades.  We may be nostalgic for a time when Christian faith was at the centre of the culture. We may be nostalgic for a time when going to church was as obvious as using a rotary dial phone. We may be nostalgic for the simpler times we associate with this 1941 painting of a cozy, back-lit Jesus. And I’m not being merely negative in saying all of this. From the perspective of Christian faith, there may indeed be things we can learn from or appropriate in this looking back to the sensibilities and aesthetics of past decades.

But there’s another response we may have to this interest in things vintage. Some of us may also wonder to ourselves – Why is it that being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus, makes me feel like I’m living in a past era? Why is it that going to church or thinking about a bible study feels like going into a vintage shop? With these questions we express more than a little frustration and even confusion. Being a follower of Jesus is a less than obvious thing to be in today’s culture. We live in a society that doesn’t have much time for the beliefs or practices of those who would follow Jesus. Whether it is done intentionally or not, we are made to feel like we really belong in previous decades if we want to be serious about Christian faith.

So in terms of our faith we may well have a mixed response to this interest in vintage things – this orientation toward the sensibilities and aesthetics of past decades. Part of us may embrace this looking back and part of us may want to escape it into a vital and authentic faith for today. In many ways, this is simply our lot. Without being fatalistic about it, and without taking our particular culture too seriously, we have to realize that these simply are the conflicted times we live in. This is our culture. This is the moment in which we are called to live our faith – and by the grace of God we are invited to face it prayerfully, and therefore with some confidence.

As we began this morning I suggested there are different meanings for the word ‘vintage’. We have focused on the word ‘vintage’ as referring to clothing and posters and furniture that express the sensibilities and aesthetics of an earlier age. But there is another common use of the word. The word ‘vintage’ also can also refer to some behaviour or attitude or style that is typical of a certain person.

Let me give an example. Let’s say you are out for dinner with a group of people including someone named Bob. And Bob is someone who likes to tell jokes but always forgets the punch line. So you are sitting at the table and once again Bob tells a joke, and once again, of course, Bob forgets the punch line. At that moment you might say, ah that’s vintage Bob – that’s classic Bob – always forgetting the punch line. In this case, the word vintage refers to some behaviour or attitude or style that is typical of a person – distinctive of that person. Oh, that’s vintage Bob – forgetting the punch line to a joke.

As we think about our Christian faith, what we want to get hold of is vintage Jesus. Not vintage Jesus in the sense of a comfortable and cozy Jesus from the past – not the back-lit Jesus of 1941. To be merely nostalgic for past expressions of Christian faith or past experiences of Jesus isn’t an answer to living our faith in today’s complex and conflicted world.

The real answer is to get hold of vintage Jesus, in the sense that we want to be reminded of his particularity. We want to be reminded of the distinctive identity of Jesus – we want to be reminded of the specific way of life manifested in Jesus. Otherwise put, we want to know the real Jesus. If there is an answer to the challenge of living an authentic faith in our day and in our culture, it will only be as we come face to face with Jesus again. If we want to know what should be embraced form the past and what really ought to be left there, we can only know this as we come face to face with Jesus again. And that’s really what we want to do in this sermon series entitled Vintage Jesus.

It has taken us a while to get there, but our New Testament passage for today tells us something distinctive about Jesus. When you read our passage from Luke chapter 2 in the context of the whole of the gospel narrative you find yourself saying – ah, that’s Jesus alright – vintage Jesus.

In this portion of the gospel narrative, Jesus is only 12 years old – and in this passage Jesus parents are represented as faithful Jews – raising their son in the traditions of their faith – raising their son to honour and worship God. They have taken Jesus up to the temple for a festival. But when they leave Jerusalem on their way home, Mary and Joseph don’t realize that Jesus isn’t with their travelling group. It is only after a day’s travel away from Jerusalem that they realize what has happened and have to go back to look for Jesus – they are more than a little anxious to find him.

And where do they find Jesus? They find him in the temple, discussing and debating with the religious leaders. That’s already vintage Jesus, isn’t it – posing questions, offering opinions, listening and learning and teaching all at once. And people are amazed. Vintage Jesus.

But the story continues with the response of Mary and Joseph to this situation. They are clearly unimpressed. Mary says to her young son: “Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus replies to her, in part, with these words: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.” Now, these words of Jesus are actually a less than subtle rebuke of his mother.

Mary speaks of herself as Jesus’ mother – she speaks of Joseph as his father – she is asserting their authority in relation to Jesus. She is insisting on Jesus’ duty to honour them. Now the text goes on to say that Jesus goes home and is in fact obedient to them. But in that initial reply, Jesus nonetheless offers a rebuke: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.”

Jesus does this all the time – its vintage Jesus. Mary speaks of his earthly parents. Jesus peaks of his heavenly Father. Jesus does this all the time. He shifts significance away from biological and familial relationships – and transfers significance to the relationships that locate us within the kingdom of God. In an important sense, for Jesus family relationships are secondary.

Many years later, when he is some 30 years old, when Jesus has begun his public life, this idea is repeated. In the third chapter of Mark’s gospel, we read of a time when Jesus was in a house teaching – and it happened that his mother and his brothers came by and wanted to speak with him. But with so many people pressing in and around the house, Jesus’ mother and brothers couldn’t get in. So they send a message through the crowd: “Tell Jesus his mother and brothers are here.”

And what does Jesus say? Looking at the people around him he says: “Here are my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” That’s vintage Jesus – he did it when he was 12 years old, and he does it again in his public teaching as an adult. He shifts significance away from biological and family relationships – and places a priority on the relationships that locate us in the kingdom of God. That puts him at odds with his own culture, and it many ways it puts him at odds with hierarchy of values that defines our lives. Jesus invites us to make his way of humble service – his way of suffering love – his way of joyful obedience to God, the centre of our lives – even if it means shifting family life away from the centre.

We live in complicated times as followers of Jesus. In some ways we may embrace a vintage faith that looks back to past decades for inspiration and reassurance – we may be nostalgic for past eras of Christian faith. On the other hand we may get quite frustrated and confused by this sense that being a Christian means having a merely vintage faith. But we want to have is an authentic and meaningful faith for today. In these complicated times, the only answer is to seek out vintage Jesus. Not merely the cozy and comfortable Jesus of past generations but the living, distinctive Jesus.

He speaks with authority, insight, and grace. He challenges us to put the ways of his kingdom first in our lives. That’s the real Jesus – that’s vintage Jesus. We may not know exactly how to locate ourselves in today’s culture – but in his presence we are where we belong.

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