An excellent word from Rev Graham Perry: via The Assembly’s Decision on Marriage – a personal reflection
God our refuge and strength,
you call us to give ourselves to Christ,
whether life is long or brief;
ground us in your love
and anchor us in your grace,
that we may find peace and joy
in knowing you;
this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
2 Samuel 6.1–5, 12b–19
The biblical scholars I love to read don’t go to the holy text looking for ammunition with which to win an argument or trite truisms with which to escape the day’s sorrows; they go looking for a blessing, a better way of engaging life and the world, and they don’t expect to escape that search unscathed. — Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Kindle Ed., p.28
I want to ask a deceptively simple question today:
Why do we read the Bible?
I’m reading a wonderful book by Rachel Held Evans, called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. In her book, Rachel speaks of her rediscovery of the Bible after losing her love for it for awhile.
She was brought up in the American Bible Belt, which has a fairly intense relationship with the Bible. I have had a similar experience, and I know some of you have too.
You see, after I became a Christian in 1968 at a Billy Graham rally, my best friend at school invited me to his church. So I went. His church was a Brethren congregation, which I only found out once I got there. I’d heard bad news of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’, but I was assured my friend’s church was part of the ‘Open Brethren’. I soon settled in, because I was hungry for teaching.
If you don’t know much about the Brethren, think of them as ‘Baptists on Steroids’. In particular, they are fundamentalists who generally believe the Bible is inerrant and that it cannot contradict itself. The Brethren are really heavy duty. Yet they helped me to gain an excellent Bible knowledge.
But why did I read the Bible?
Back then, my answer would be to gain knowledge. I would have said that the Bible is the only source of knowledge about God.
I soon learned that there were people who were in error, people like Anglicans and Catholics, not to mention Methodists and Presbyterians. So I read the Bible to marshal arguments against such people. The Bible became a ‘blunt instrument’ for me to whack them about the head with. I loved to win arguments against those who were just plain wrong. It could be very satisfying.
In time, I became a little tired of this, especially as I began to see how much I could hurt people. But I didn’t know what else to do.
Jesus, friend and Lord,
we limit you by our notions;
help us to go wherever your Spirit leads,
knowing that your power alone
keeps us on the road of faith
now and for ever. Amen.
2 Corinthians 12.2–10
When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, (SCM Classics), Kindle ed’n, loc. 4577
Success is important, right?
The soccer World Cup is being held in Russia at the moment, and millions throughout the world have been feverishly wishing and praying for their team to win.
It was heart-wrenching to see Australia dip out in the first round of the World Cup without winning a game, though I was happy to see England get into the quarter finals. Maybe one day they’ll learn how to play the game they invented.
Success is rewarded. Failure, not so much.
Paul spent a lot of time reflecting on success and failure. He had many critics—it wasn’t all plain sailing for him. The critics said things like
Paul’s letters are severe and strong, but when he is with us in person, he is weak, and his words are nothing! (2 Corinthians 10.10)
Paul’s critics boasted about their successes. They looked down on others they thought were not as spiritually mature as them. They included the Apostle Paul among that number. They boasted of their wonderful spiritual gifts and they would order other believers about.
Paul had successes, but he didn’t boast about them. He could not boast and proclaim Christ crucified. In 1 Corinthians 2.2, he writes
while I was with you, I made up my mind to forget everything except Jesus Christ and especially his death on the cross.
That’s the Good News Bible, a slightly unmemorable reading; the New Revised Standard Version has
I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
That wording is much more memorable, but I think the Revised English Bible is much more descriptive:
I resolved that while I was with you I would not claim to know anything but Jesus Christ—Christ nailed to the cross.
Paul had one message for the Corinthians: Christ crucified, Christ nailed to the cross.
This message is incompatible with boasting, incompatible with gathering lots of money as a Christian worker, and incompatible with abuse or manipulation of any kind.
However, the message ‘Christ and him crucified’ can live with a lack of success. It can even live with failure.
Jesus, hope of the hopeless,
give us abundant confidence in you
that we may find comfort at all times,
relief from our burdens,
and healing where it is your will;
until that day when we see you face to face,
and know you as you are for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Corinthians 8.7–15
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ — Jesus, Matthew 9.13b
[H]ow are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the ‘clean’ and expelling the ‘unclean’. Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries. — Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, Kindle edition, p.2
I want to talk today about things that are ‘clean’ and those that are ‘unclean’.
It’s important to know about if we are going to really hear this Gospel passage.
Years ago, I was working on a Sunday morning in the Casualty area of a hospital when a man came in. He’d gone on a scout camp with his son as an interested dad. He’d picked some mushrooms to fry up for Sunday breakfast. No one else wanted any, so he scoffed the lot.
But they were ‘magic’ mushrooms and he was hallucinating madly, seeing frightening things that weren’t there.
It took him about 36 hours to fully recover.
Some mushroomy-looking things are ok to eat. In biblical language, they are ‘clean’. Other mushroomy-looking things are ‘unclean’. You’ve got to know the difference if you’re going to pick your own.
We read about unclean foods in the bible, like pork, and we wonder why it should be so. (It’s about pigs having a divided hoof but not chewing the cud, but you might still wonder if that’s a good enough reason.)
We have unclean foods too. If I invited you to my place for a succulent roast horse dinner with all the trimmings, would you come or would you be busy that night? We don’t eat horses, but they do in some European countries like Italy and the Netherlands.
We don’t use the word ‘unclean’, but for us the horse is ‘unclean’. Why? It just is. (I could say that nothing could make me eat horseflesh, but my mum tells me she ate it in England during the Second World War.)
So some things are clean all the time, others are unclean all the time. But we’d probably eat some unclean things in an extreme situation.
Now, there are things that are only unclean in certain situations. Hang on, the next bit is a little gross.
Maker and Sustainer of creation,
you bring order out of chaos
and calm in the discord of our lives;
help us to trust in you,
even when all around seems to be giving way;
this we ask in our Saviour’s name. Amen.
Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real but fear is a choice. — Will Smith, After Earth (2013)
There are a number of ways of picturing the Christian church—the church is the Body of Christ, we are living stones, or a royal priesthood. Or that perennial favourite: a peculiar people.
There are other pictures too. For example, we can see the church as a boat, sailing over the waters of chaos. There are two places in the Bible where we are encouraged to see this image:
Firstly, in the story of the Flood in which Noah and his family are delivered from death through the ark; and secondly, in today’s Gospel story, in which Jesus stills the storm that threatens to send the disciples to a watery grave.
Here are two examples of nautical logos for church bodies, the National Council of Churches in Australia, and the World Council of Churches:
The inside of a traditional church building may also remind us of a boat:
Just over five years ago, Karen and I were on a boat in the Holy Land. One of our favourite parts of Israel was Lake Galilee and the surrounding areas. Our guide would take us places and say things like This is the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount, or the Feeding of the Five Thousand—and he always said that it might well not be ‘the’ place. But there’s only ever been one Sea of Galilee, and when you looked at the water and the shore and the sky you knew that Jesus himself had seen that same sea, that same shoreline, that same blue expanse of sky. There was something very special in that.
We went across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, and had Holy Communion as we went across. They say storms blow up very quickly there, and it was certainly true for us that day. We began in a calm, glassy sea and ended up in rolling waves. Our guide said he wouldn’t have allowed us to go out if the weather had been like that when we started out.
Today, we find the disciples sailing a boat across Lake Galilee, when
Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.
Yes indeed, storms blow up quickly there all right.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ’, and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ’, and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
I still can’t explain my first communion.
— Sara Miles, Take this Bread, Kindle ed., loc. 1047
Who is in? And who is out?
In the week before their wedding day, an engaged couple is killed in a fatal car accident. The very next thing, they find themselves sitting outside heaven’s pearly gates waiting for St Peter to do the paperwork so they can go through.
While waiting, they wonder if it would be possible to get married in heaven. So when St Peter finishes the paperwork, they ask him the question. Pete says, ‘I have no idea, this is the first time anyone has ever asked. Leave it with me,’ and off he goes.
Five whole years pass before they see St Peter again. He tells them, ‘I am so sorry for the delay, but there’s a slight problem. You’ll have to wait a little longer.’
Another five years pass, when Pete comes back. He is very excited. ‘Your wait is over! You may marry now. Thanks for your patience.’
So, the couple is married.
Five years after the wedding, the couple realise that they’re not really all that compatible. So they go once more to St Peter and ask if there might be any such thing as divorce in heaven.
Pete gives them a exasperated look, and says: ‘Wait a minute—it took us ten years to find a minister up here in heaven. Can you imagine how long it’ll take us to find a lawyer?’
Who is in? And who is out?
In our reading from the Gospel According to Mark today, we have a story about who is inside and who is outside. What we find is this: those who everyone expects to be on the inside are outside. And vice versa.
Who is on the inside? We see the answer in Mark 3.20:
Then Jesus went home. Again such a large crowd gathered that Jesus and his disciples had no time to eat.
Jesus and his disciples are on the inside. We expect the disciples to be on the inside, even though Mark paints a very unflattering picture of them.
And ‘a large crowd’ is also inside.
Who is the crowd?
The crowd consists of people like
- Ordinary, uneducated working folk; and
- Sinners, who may be prostitutes; or people who were ignorant of the requirements of the Law; or who simply could not afford to meet the requirements of the Law; and
- Tax collectors, who put themselves outside the Law in order to make a dollar.
The crowd includes people like
- The woman with an issue of blood, who had been unclean for twelve years; and
- The ‘lepers’, and paralysed people, and possessed folk; and
- Blind Bartimaeus, who everyone wanted to keep quiet and not bother Jesus.
The crowd are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’, and they hear Jesus gladly (Mark 12.37). After all, his yoke is easy, his burden light (Matthew 11.28–30).
If this motley group of unlikely people are on the inside, who is on the outside?
Firstly, we see the religious people, the teachers of the Law. We should sit up and take notice here. Religious faith can open our eyes to what God is doing. It can blind us too.
We can see what God is doing among us, so we may decide God can’t be working amongst other groups who do things differently. So we might close our eyes to God’s Catholic people. We might scoff at God’s pentecostal people. And, dare I say, God’s Muslim people aren’t even on our radar. (If that shocks you, recall the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Not the Good Jew. Today, it would be the Good Muslim, or Hindu, or Homosexual.)
The religious people are on the outside in this story; they can’t see what is in front of their eyes.
Also outside is Jesus’ family.
Now, this is a surprise. We’d expect the family to be on the inside. Wouldn’t we?
The family are coming to take Jesus away; it’s their responsibility. ‘He’s gone mad’, that’s what people are saying about Jesus.
Why are the religious people and Jesus’ family (including Mary!) on the outer here? They were both blind to what Jesus was doing. They wanted to restrain him.
We can accept that the family’s motivation was a misplaced sense of concern. They are worried about what people are saying. Jesus may be bringing shame upon them.
The teachers of the Law? Their motivation was concern for themselves and the status quo they benefitted so well from. They wanted to bring Jesus down.
Of course, they were worse than Jesus’ family. But Mark is telling us that the effect is the same. People who want to come to Jesus, the crowd, the sheep without a shepherd, are being sent away.
This reminds me of the question John the Baptist had his disciples ask of Jesus. (Matthew 11.3–6)
Tell us, are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?
And Jesus replies,
Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor. How happy are those who have no doubts about me!
The mark of Jesus’ ministry is that the sick are healed and the poor—including those tax collectors, who were beyond the pale—come to him.
We all know of people whose behaviour is beyond the pale. Can’t they come to Jesus, even if it’s not through our ministrations? Can’t they come to Jesus, even if it’s through the ministry of Catholics or pentecostals?
I can’t finish without a quick word about the sin against the Holy Spirit. Some of us may have worried at times if we have committed that sin. Well, if you worry about that, then believe me—you haven’t committed the sin. You have a tender conscience, that’s all. God can work with that.
Jesus was warning the religious people, though. It’s about what we’ve been talking about taken to the nth degree.
People commit the sin against the Holy Spirit when they wilfully and persistently say that that the work of God is actually the work of the evil one. They were saying,
He has Beelzebul in him! It is the chief of the demons who gives him the power to drive them out.
Jesus dismissed that ludicrous claim quickly. But he warned the teachers of the Law, Don’t stay in that way of thinking! Go on a journey of faith, open your eyes to the good things God is doing. Don’t remain unseeing.
The kingdom is here, right in front of them. The poor and the excluded are coming in.
The kingdom is here too. Let’s rejoice with the Lord, let’s join them!
Mark 2.23 to 3.6
Definitions of Sabbath seem to matter far less to Jesus than honouring the purposes of Sabbath and meeting real human need. — John Wilkinson in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Kindle ed., loc.2879
I remember being bored out of my skull on Sundays when I was a kid. There was nothing to do. My family weren’t churchgoers and that made Sunday even worse.
Anyone else remember that? Our society still ‘does’ Sunday, but not in the same way any more. We have church, but we know most people aren’t churchgoers. And we who are here now can do whatever we choose after church. I could shop for new clothes, have a meal, go to the cinema, go to a sports game…anything I wish.
Some years ago, I was in Norway for a short time. It was a Saturday, and I was leaving the next day on Sunday afternoon. I already knew the shops would be shut on Sunday; they really do Sunday there, at least in the town I was in. I had seen something that would make a good gift for someone, but I’d dithered over buying it. In the end, I decided to buy it so I went back to the shop around 4.30pm. To my dismay, I found it had shut at 4pm. They closed early to prepare for Sunday.
My first reaction was anger that they’d shut their shop—anger at myself as much as anything. My second was to try to admire their Sabbath practice. I tried hard. I have to admit that try as I might, I wasn’t really able to sincerely admire them—I would much have rather they’d been open so I’d be able to go in and buy the gift I wanted to purchase.
If keeping Sunday as a day of rest was important to those people, the Sabbath laws were absolutely central to Israel’s life. The sabbath, along with circumcision and the food laws, were the identifying marks of Israel. They are still the identifying marks of Jewish faith today.
In ancient times, no people other than the people of Israel made provision for a weekly day of rest. Why did they have the Sabbath day? There are two reasons given, one in Deuteronomy and one in Exodus.