Sermon preached on Corpus Christi Sunday (10th June 2012) by Jan Betts
The bible strikes us in different ways. Sometimes there is something there which speaks to us very openly and easily, really seems to hit the point we are at and to offer challenge or comfort in ways which are pretty immediate. Sometimes I find myself thinking that I don’t understand what I’m reading. To start with this passage feels like that. In my childhood we used to have that thing about opening your bible for guidance at a random verse. I chuckled to myself as I thought who might like to have the verse ‘when his relations heard of this they said he was out of his mind!’ as their guidance?
Today I have had to worry away at this passage and do a bit of reading to help so I want to do two things . One is to share some thoughts from that reading. The other is to wonder what that thing about the sin against the holy ghost is, an idea which used to terrify me as a youngster because I absolutely didn’t want to do it but I didn’t know what it was. And I find that the real focus of this reading is the way Jesus is challenging, although in quite coded ways, several established orders, including some of ours.
The outline of today’s reading is a kind of sandwich which is a trick Mark uses to help make a point. The story starts with something about Jesus’ family, goes on to something about the scribes then returns to the family question. Jesus is beginning to challenge in his ministry. The challenge began when Jesus goes home for a meal, for table fellowship and this is disrupted by his followers. His home is beginning to suffer, his family life, so important in Jewish culture, is under threat. So his family think that this has gone too far, that Jesus is ‘out of his mind’ and needs taking care of for his own safety, and for their own comfort. Jesus should be taken charge of!! Well that’s a brave thought – they didn’t quite know what they were up against. In our own way we can often do this to distance someone who is doing something which appears very strange to us. They’re nuts, they’re mad, they’re whatever – but they are making me feel uncomfortable and I don’t like it and I want to take charge of them and re arrange them to suit me or have someone else re-arrange them and put them away somewhere far from me.
And then we have a similar charge from the scribes. Jesus is out of his mind, or rather Jesus is suffering from someone taking over his mind. Again it’s a distancing strategy. It was linked not to a simple family concern but to something much bigger and more threatening, an apocalyptic kind of statement, that Jesus was not on the side of the angels! Jesus has the gauntlet thrown down to him. How does he respond? He calls the scribes, doesn’t run away or mutter to himself or talk to his disciples. He meets the challenge from them, as from his family, head on as a way of saying yes this is what I’m about.
The exchange is, according to Ched Myers, riven through with references which the scribes would understand. Jesus didn’t say to them that they were rude or wrong, he entered the grounds of their argument, to say ‘yes, we are talking about the same thing here, I understand what you are challenging me with and I reject it.’ That’s such a good way to meet criticism: to make it clear to the one who is criticizing that you have listened and show you understand. It also makes your rejection so much stronger. He says I understand you are saying I am challenging the Jewish establishment in two ways. I am challenging your purity code. I’m saying that it’s not me that is impure but you who are calling me the Accuser, doing what you are accusing me of, distancing me, putting me outside your own created walls, saying that I am against God. (For those of you who would like to do more reading, Ched Myers book “Binding the Strong Man” helps here). And I am also, said Jesus, challenging your debt code. All sin doesn’t have to be paid for the way you say it has to. There’s only one sin which isn’t forgivable. You are wrong to be so restrictive. The circle of the love of God is much wider than you think and you put burdens on people if you restrict it. I am here to bring in a different Kingdom, with different boundaries and different rules.
The sandwich closes with Jesus encountering his family again and saying that in the same way as he is challenging the Jewish authorities, he is challenging to family. His true family is not the blood relationship but the new Kingdom order, all those who do the will of God. Pretty shocking in Jewish society, to widen the circle again like that.
But there is more than this. Jesus tells the Scribes things they understand, but he is also much more deeply, through the ‘riddle he sets them of how can Satan cast out Satan, telling both them and his disciples something much more fundamental about the nature of the kingdom he is bringing. At another level of saying Satan cannot cast out Satan, Jesus is saying no of course Satan cannot cast out Satan but REALLY this is what you try to do all the time. You try to make other people, people who challenge you, into something demonic, to make them your scapegoat for the things which you don’t want to face up to. Someone says something uncomfortable and you put it instantly into the box of ‘wrong’ and ‘guilty’. You scribes, along with all humanity in the way we try to organize our societies, build this constant round of self protection by making others into demons. And Satan can’t cast out Satan – the round just keeps going on. As Auden says
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
Jesus is saying I am going to show you a different way. Satan, the Accuser, needs to be dealt with by non violence, by accepting the instinct to demonise and to respond to it otherwise, to show that there is a way of dealing with your fear of attack, of change, of losing your rank and your status and your rightness. I will show you that. I am bringing in a different Kingdom to yours.
I want to come back to this idea of a sin against the holy spirit because it rather haunted me on holiday as I was thinking about this and I think these two connected themes really helped me to think about it a bit more.
I think here that Jesus is saying what we mustn’t do is to say in the name of God that something is evil when it is liberating and holy and good. I tried to think of other times Jesus had been angry in this way. In the temple, the money changers were, in the name of God, oppressing people: saying that they had, in the name of God and because that’s the way God had to be served, to give extortionately, otherwise their offering was not acceptable. It’s about saying to someone else in the name of God , claiming to know God better than they do, that they are not acceptable in what they are doing which actually is acceptable. It’s that doing it in the name of God that means that you in effect bypass God’s grace for yourself. Jesus said harsh words about those who make little ones stumble, and I think that’s related as well. If we try to put passport control on the gates of heaven in the name of God, then we have no idea of what the kingdom is about.
I was made thoughtful about this recently. We went into a church in Italy where so often as in this country there was a beggar, an old woman shaking a little cup. Usually they are on the steps outside. They make us feel uncomfortable as begging often does, and is indeed designed to do, to shake up rich people out of our complacency. This woman however was just inside the door, sitting down in the church, murmuring her soft plea and shaking the cup. The person I was with said to her crossly ‘you shouldn’t be begging in church, it’s disrespectful’ and I was brought up short immediately and objected to this. Is it disrespectful to beg in church? I felt it was precisely the right place to be begging, not imposing, simply sitting and asking for alms. But my companion also felt that church was a place where one should be respectful. Where was the line here? Was I saying that his instinct to respect was wrong or was he wrong to say that beggars shouldn’t be in church?
The questions I finish up with here are how do I ever in the name of God, but really in the name of my need to be right or my arrogance or my fear or whatever crushing the Spirit in someone else? How do we as an established church with a building which may be alien or unwelcoming to others, tell them that in some way their worship or their stretching out to God is unacceptable? We have a challenge before us today and in the months to come. May God be with us as we meet it. Amen