Christ Church Cathedral
10 June 2018
Have you ever imagined what it might have been like to have known Jesus during his life among us? To have walked the hills of Palestine with him, listened as he shared the deep spiritual wisdom we now find in parables and aphorisms, and seen firsthand the healings and exorcisms described in the Gospels?
I know that I have sometimes thought I would have enjoyed that opportunity, and had a much clearer understanding of the faith.
But now I am not so sure …
Jesus according to Mark
Over a series of several weeks commencing last Sunday and extending through to the end of next month, we have a rare opportunity to engage deeply with the earliest account of Jesus’ mission and ministry.
During those 8 weeks we delve into episodes from the early chapters of the Gospel of Mark:
So far as we can tell, this Gospel was the first to be written. It was later expanded into a second edition that we know as the Gospel of Matthew, while the Gospel of Luke also seems to have built on the foundations laid by Mark, albeit with much more freedom than Matthew exercised. On the other hand, the Gospel of John shows very little evidence of sharing the way that Mark describes Jesus.
In the Year B of our three-year cycle of Gospel readings for the Sunday services, we pay special attention to Mark.
During the Great Fifty Days of Easter we have focused especially on the Gospel of John.
As we now return to Mark—which is our set Gospel for this year—we begin a series of readings that represent Jesus in conflict with people around him: his family, his hometown of Nazareth, and the Pharisees.
At the same time, Mark portrays Jesus as a man of powerful actions (healing the sick, casting out demons, even controlling the weather) and challenging spiritual wisdom (seen especially in his parables).
By the time we reach the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel in chapter 8, we shall find Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. Before we get to consider our response to that key question, we shall have several weeks of Mark raising the tension around Jesus who sometimes seems like a new Moses and at other times seems like another Elijah.
Through the chapters that set up the Jesus story for Mark’s readers, we find Jesus as a man of action, a spiritual teacher, and a healer. He is surrounded by controversy. people are divided by his actions and his words. There is conflict. As we see today, even his own family thinks he has gone too far and needs some ‘time out’.
Maybe, rather than finding all my questions answered, were I able to travel back in time to Galilee circa 28 CE, I might be more confused than ever.
We missed a chance to reflect on the passage last week as we were observing Reconciliation Sunday. To hear Lenore Parker speak was a real treat, but let me just offer a super brief summary of the confronting episode from last week.
The last paragraph of Mark 2 and the first paragraph of Mark 3 offer two stories about Jesus breaking the strict Sabbath rules that Jewish people then and now hold so sacred.
As a Jew, Jesus knew the Sabbath rules but we have these twin stories where Jesus first allows his followers to pick grains as they walk through a field on Sabbath, and then breaks the Sabbath himself by choosing to heal a person with a withered hand.
We do not ‘see’ the problem because we are used to ignoring the Sabbath. As Christians, we observe Sunday rather than Saturday as our holy day. Indeed, we are not even all that good at keeping Sunday as a day of rest. But for religious Jews this is a serious issue.
Jesus’ clever little sound bite will not have soothed their feelings one bit:
The sabbath was made for humankind,
and not humankind for the sabbath;
so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.
(Mark 2:27–28 NRSV)
With comments like that Jesus was bound to be controversial.
What God seeks from us is compassion, not compliance.
The rules are there to serve us,
we are not here to serve the rules.
If we followed Jesus with attitudes like that we might indeed find ourselves embroiled in controversy.
We tend not to do that, so we fade away into irrelevance. Anglicans will more likely disappear due to apathy than opposition or vilification.
Jesus broke the rules, and he challenges us to do the same.
But it is not very Anglican, eh?
Madness and Family Shame
Let’s now briefly note this week’s contribution to the clouds of controversy gathering around Jesus in these opening chapters of Mark.
His family thinks he has had a breakdown and they come to take him away for a rest.
His opponents think he has been possessed by an especially nasty evil spirit: Beelzebul.
Either way, Jesus has upset people.
His family thinks he has gone mad, while the religious experts think he has gone over to the Devil.
Jesus’ response is hardly reassuring, and it leaves us to wrestle with some deep personal challenges.
He begins by telling his opponents that they have just committed the unforgivable sin, and they can never be forgiven for what they have said. That seems a bit extreme. Can we imagine any thought or any words or any action that place us beyond the reach of God’s love?
His response to his family is just as extreme.
When told that his mother—and his brothers as well as his sisters—are outside and want to see him, Jesus refuses even to speak with them.
Who are my mother and my brothers?
Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is
my brother and sister and mother.
(Mark 3:33–35 NRSV)
In his culture—as in Arab and Jewish culture to this day—no-one talks about their family like that. The family is the core reality around which every other aspect of life revolves. Yet Jesus is turning his back on his own kin and embracing a new kind of family, a family created by obedience to God rather than marriage and childbirth.
It is one thing to violate the Sabbath, but this time Jesus undermines the fabric of his own society. And ours.
The Radical Jesus
A friend of mine in the USA likes to refer to Jesus as ‘Radical J”, and I think she is onto something profound here.
The Jesus portrayed by this section of Mark’s Gospel is radical, confronting, and disturbing.
Someone like that is more suited to a mental health institution than a synagogue or Cathedral.
But Mark is celebrating this aspect of Jesus. It is not something he covers up or tries to explain away. The radical edge to Jesus is part of the mystique.
So how do we deal with this radical and erratic Jesus?
How much can we domesticate him before we have lost touch with the real Jesus?
Francis of Assisi shared something of this radical and anti-social character.
Are our hearts big enough for a Jesus who turns everything we cherish upside down?
I cannot answer that question, but I invite you to reflect on it this coming week!