And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. (Luke 6:19)
Everybody was trying to touch him! What was it about that man? If you and I could have been there, what would it have been like? What was that incredible power that drew people to him like metal filings to a magnet? You’ve known people something like that. In Newport News one time, a high powered businessman moved in from Oklahoma City to head up a large company. He was there for just three years, but such was his charisma that he became a major force in the community: he instinctively attracted all the people of power and influence; all the non-profits sought him out to be on their boards; he spoke at our church, and most of the others; he became a kind of celebrity that people just wanted to be seen and associated with.
But Jesus’ charisma, and the way he used it, were very different. Who were the people most drawn to him? It wasn’t the powerful! Listen to his words on that occasion and you get some clues: “Blessed are you who are poor. for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry…Blessed are you who weep…Blessed are you when people hate you, and…exclude you, revile you and defame you….” Those were the kinds of people most drawn to Jesus! They were the people who were desperate for healing and hope. And they detected in him the kind of warmth and acceptance and care and understanding that invited their trust and drew them to his side.
Consequently, other kinds of people looked down on him, shunned him, and avoided anyone who associated with him. That’s what happens when we’re in the presence of unconditional love and acceptance. It arouses in us a keen awareness—an uncomfortable awareness—of what we are not. And we either give in and let ourselves be changed and healed—or we jump to our defenses and resist any intrusions on our selfish ways. And believe me, I’ve done both! When I was in college, a well known charismatic clergyman, Sam Shoemaker, visited the campus, and students flocked to him right and left, such was his disarming warmth and openness. But I was not about to be disarmed! I was far too protective of my politically correct lifestyle, and I looked down on him and on the students who were so captivated by him.
On the other hand, I was totally disarmed by another encounter during my college years, when I attended a conference led by a priest named Paul Moore. Paul had grown up in extreme wealth in Montclair, New Jersey. But when I met him, you wouldn’t think he had two cents to rub together. He wore a rumpled black shirt and clerical collar, and shoes well worn from tramping the slums of Jersey City, where he was vicar of Grace Church. I engaged him in conversation and remarked at his quiet passion for his Lord, for his Church, and for the poor among whom he lived and ministered. His response, which has been stamped on my soul ever since, was, “Doug, either you believe this thing called the Gospel, or you don’t.” As you may know, Paul later became one of the great bishops of New York. He was one of my real heroes, someone whose love for God spilled out in passion for the poor.
“Either you believe this thing called the Gospel, or you don’t.” That’s the perennial question—indeed the daily question—for you and me. As I think about that huge crowd in today’s reading—all that multitude from Judea and Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon—I’d like to believe I’d be so aware of my own need for healing and wholeness that I’d do anything to get next to Jesus. But I know my weaknesses. And I’ve come to the honest conclusion that, for me at least, being a follower of Jesus is a question every day of letting God “get at me”—and in very specific ways: Will I let God get at the part of me that fears failure? Or the part that preserves appearances at all costs? Or the part that won’t take risks with money or energy for the sake of serving others?
And I need to remind myself every day of the woes that Jesus attaches to those who console themselves with fat pocketbooks, or full stomachs, or idle pleasures, or the flattery that feeds fragile egos. I’ve been there too—and experienced the emptiness that comes from living for self. But the great thing is that God doesn’t give up on us! As John the Divine, in the name of God, reminds those young Christians in the 3rd Chapter of Revelation, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Or, as the slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous puts it (and Sam Shoemaker had a lot to do with starting AA), “Let go and let God!”
God is always, always there, with that incredible healing power of love issuing forth, drawing us, wooing us, romancing us—until we can hold out no longer but can only respond, Here I am, Lord, poor mortal that I am—Here I am, Lord, take me!