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!