The blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable…. What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognise, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes. — Juan Luis Segundo, Capitalism versus Socialism
When we grab hold of ‘correct’ thinking for dear life, when we refuse to let go because we think that doing so means letting go of God, when we dig in our heels and stay firmly planted even when we sense that we need to let go and move on, at that point we are trusting our thoughts rather than God. We have turned away from God’s invitation to trust in order to cling to an idol. — Pete Enns, The Sin of Certainty
Let me tell you about one time when some older men thought they’d speak to me in the name of God and God’s will. They believed I needed to hear a Word From God. I was probably around 23, and about to graduate from medicine.
This Word From God was about (of all things!) my beard. You heard me right.
I first started growing my beard in the mid 70s. A year or so later, I was a young leader at a children’s camp. There, I was taken aside by a group of older men. They took me to a little room (no kidding!) so they could impress on me that my wearing a beard as a sign of rebellion. I was too young to wear a beard, according to them. (Remember, I would have been about 23.)
They saw it as their Christian duty to convince me to shave it off, so I could conform to what they thought God wanted. It was an intense discussion, and my refusal to remove my beard only served to cement their opinion that I was in rebellion against God. That I was identifying with all those rebellious rock ’n’ roll stars. (If they’d only asked me, I would have told them I was into folk music back then. Although Peter and Paul, if not Mary, did have beards …)
I left that church within the year; later I heard that some people were saying that it had seemed in the past that I was a Christian, but now I’d left I couldn’t ever have been a ‘true’ Christian.
You know, back then I was still young enough to wonder if they were right. After all, they claimed the authority to speak for God.
We met some men who claimed the authority to speak for God today. They were ‘the scribes who came down from Jerusalem’. They had a Word From God for Jesus.
Not about his beard, thankfully.
Mark’s Jesus has been rubbing up against religious authority from the beginning. Let me give you an overview:
Chapter 1: Jesus is in the synagogue at Capernaum, where
They were astounded at [Jesus’] teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. [Mark 1.22]
A line in the sand is being drawn here. Jesus is on one side, the scribes — the authoritative religious teachers, the men who speak for God — are on the other.
Chapter 2: Jesus heals a paralysed man with the words ‘Your sins are forgiven’. This shocks the scribes again, who say that only God can forgive sins.
In the same chapter, Jesus calls Levi the tax collector to follow him, and he eats in Levi’s house with ‘many tax collectors and sinners’.
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ [Mark 2.16-17]
Jesus is popular with the ordinary people, the ones Mark’s Gospel calls ‘the crowd’. At the same time, he is becoming a notorious figure in the eyes of the religious establishment.
Then, Jesus’ disciples are challenged about why they don’t fast. And the Pharisees imply that Jesus is a sabbath breaker, when he and his disciples walk through a wheat field on the sabbath and pick the grain to chew on. Jesus tells them that human need trumps any religious law.
And as chapter 3 begins, Jesus enters the Capernaum synagogue and heals a man with a ‘withered hand’.
This time Jesus challenges the Pharisees:
Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. [Mark 3.4]
They didn’t want to encourage healing on the sabbath day; after all, God had given six days a week in which people could be healed. The sabbath was not a day in which the work of healing should be done. For his part, Jesus was angry at them and saddened by their hard hearts.
For the Pharisees’ part,
they went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy him. [Mark 3.6]
Jesus is becoming well known across the Galilee region, in the north of the country. Two groups are concerned: his family, because people were saying he’s beside himself, he’s gone mad; and the good old scribes.
The word has got out so much that a heavy mob comes from the south, from Jerusalem, from head office. These VIP scribes have come to sort this mess out for good. Nip it in the bud.
They have a great line of attack, so they think, one that would destroy Jesus’ reputation:
He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.
It’s a conspiracy theory, folks! You’re being fooled — Jesus is an agent of Satan himself!
One of the frightening things these days is that some Christian people are being fed conspiracy theories. People on the inside of a conspiracy theory have been let in on a secret. They are the chosen ones. These theories often involve predicting the date of the second coming, the sign of the beast or one-world government. The conspiracy theory du jour is Q-Anon, which has become the topic of an argument between the federal government and the ABC.
Jesus shoots down the conspiracy theory the scribes propose:
How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.…
He then tells them a parable which features him — Jesus — as a home invader:
no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
Satan is the strong man, Jesus is the burglar who is stronger still.
The scribes are in disarray. I’m sure that the crowd looking on just loved Jesus getting the better of them.
God can speak through wit and clever talk, but God is speaking much more clearly still in this story. And it’s not through those we might expect, like Jesus’ family.
They want to take him away from the public gaze. People were saying Jesus was beside himself, he’d gone mad. Maybe the family were also concerned that the heavies from Jerusalem were gunning for him, and wanted to protect him.
Their motives may have been more caring than those of the scribes, but the result would have been the same: Jesus would have had to give up the mission of God.
We haven’t talked of the scene in today’s story yet. Jesus has gone ‘home’. We’re not actually sure where home was. It could be Capernaum, where he’d made his base, or it may have been back in Nazareth.
People are crowding around him. People who want to hear what he has to say, people who want to be near him. And Jesus welcomes this crowd with open arms.
That’s the only qualification anyone needs to be here today. We want to hear Jesus. We want him to come near to us.
We sang earlier,
Draw the circle wide.
Draw it wider still.
Let this be our song,
no one stands alone,
standing side by side,
draw the circle wide.
This song was inspired by the American poet Edwin Markham, who wrote
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Yet: there seems to be an edge to this circle. Jesus speaks of a sin that can’t be forgiven. Is that possible? What could it be?
It appears to be about refusing to see something of God in others. The scribes damned Jesus to hell. His family couldn’t see God acting in him. Both groups were unable to hear God speak in and through Jesus. They refused to see God in him.
We too can refuse to see that which is of God in others. We can consider others to be worthless because of their political or theological positions.
We’re in a time when social media encourages people to see things in black and white, and even see black as white. We need to have eyes that see the greys. We need such eyes to see something of God in others.
My task is to see something of God in the men who wanted me to shave my beard off. Can I see a concern, however misplaced, for my soul? Can I appreciate their zeal, though it is misplaced? I can learn.
Soon, we’ll sing
Who is my mother, who is my brother?
All those who gather round Jesus Christ:
Spirit-blown people born from the Gospel
sit at the table, round Jesus Christ.
Of course, these words are inspired by our Gospel passage today. We gather today, blown together by the Spirit, to hear a word from God and gather at the Table of Jesus.
We gather as graced people; we have sensed the grace of God in our lives. That’s faith.
We gather here because Jesus welcomes us as his family. Let us seek to draw others, and look for that which is of God within everyone we meet. Amen.
West End Uniting Church, 6 June 2021