There is an axiom among those who study world religions: In exploring other faiths, we see our own with fresh eyes. I recently returned from a pilgrimage to Israel. In a very real way, my trip enabled me to see the oddness of us, the Jesus followers — not oddness in a bad way, but rather oddness in a way that is strange to outsiders. Spending a week among Jewish friends in their homeland gave me new insights into the social awkwardness of God’s call on our lives.
As we waited to board our El Al flight to Tel Aviv, several ultra-Orthodox Jewish men gathered near the boarding gate at JFK International, faced Jerusalem and said their evening prayers. Yes, a bit socially awkward, but they didn’t seem to care. Somewhere over the Atlantic, those same men gathered in the galley of our plane to once again recite prayers. Since most of us were trying to sleep, I heard a Gentile complain, “Don’t they know God can hear us when we whisper a prayer?” Again, awkward.
During our time in Jerusalem, I was intrigued with the dugouts on the south side of the Temple Mount in which Jews once performed their ritual baths as a part of worship. Like our baptisteries, these pools were deep enough to accommodate immersion, with steps leading down into the water and another set of steps to exit. As I compared notes with one of our hosts, an Orthodox Jew, he was surprised that Baptists do not require our baptismal candidates to be completely naked. Offhand, I don’t know of any Baptist church doing naked baptisms, but church historian Bill Leonard has noted that this would greatly increase attendance on baptism Sundays! Simply put, those Jews believed that the experience of ritual cleansing should signify that nothing is between the person and God.
I am not arguing in favor of works-salvation or the practice of rituals as a substitute for a vibrant personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Plenty of New Testament verses in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews announce to us the good news of the sufficiency of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And those same texts declare the freedom which we, his followers, enjoy.
My point is more about the sociology of our faith practices. When forced to choose between appearing awkward or fitting in, we often pick the latter. We want to belong to this world. But do we? Should we? Which is the higher calling: being understood or being faithful? Those of us of a certain age, brought up on the King James Bible, remember Titus 2:14, in which we are described as “a peculiar people.” Peculiar. Awkward. Not quite normal.
In Mark 3:31-35, Jesus is told that his mother and siblings are outside, needing his attention. Jesus startles everyone by declaring that his mother, brothers and sisters are right in front of him. His closest family members are the ones who do the will of God. Given the deep and powerful meaning of familial kinship in Jewish life, this could only be described as an awkward moment. If I were preaching from this text, the sermon title would be “Water is Thicker than Blood.” The waters of baptism claim us as peculiar and mark us out as not quite fitting into culture. And Jesus declares that our baptismal identity is stronger than any other identity — political, ideological, racial, ethnic, social or biological.
The etymology of the word awkward is interesting, having its root in the Norse word for “turned the wrong way.” Maybe so, but for followers of Jesus, awkward might mean “turned the right way.”
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.