I often feel a chill when I read these words. Of course we are so used to hearing them in the context of the enemies of God – Pharaoh a clear example. And how when the hearts remain hard, God then hardens the heart further, that his glory might be revealed. Again Pharaoh is a prime example and Paul uses similar imagery in Romans 1.
But here the words are doubly chilling, for it is the disciples whose hearts are hard. Mark’s account is unremittingly hard on the disciples from beginning to end. They do not understand parables – presumably because of their hardness of heart? – and now we are told that their hearts were hardened evidenced in their did not understanding about the loaves. They saw Jesus walking on the water, but they hadn’t got the point about the loaves. It was as if they hadn’t seen the LORD providing Manna for his people. They, like the people of Nazareth, did not recognise the Saviour standing amongst them. But of course it is precisely in God’s saving acts that this hardness is evidenced – be it Pharaoh’s or the disciples. The close presence of God seems almost to do this as if by default.
I think we need to be careful here not to assume we do not fall into the same category. I mean, if the disciples Saw Jesus and did not believe, why do we assume that we do? Might it be that all out carefully built walls of ‘doctrine’ and ‘truth’ – our easy proclamation ‘thus saith the LORD’, is in fact nothing but our own hardness. Our towers of certitude just the projection of our own rebellion against God. For indeed He only dies for his enemies.
In every way that we make lives for ourselves at whatever level, we fail to understand about the loaves
Words, as we have noted several times already have real power. Here we see the power fo words revealed in two different ways.
Firstly we see the power of words to enslave and entrap in Herod and his foolish promise. esus himself warns us against making vows. For every careless word leads to judgement of one form or another. They create realities in which we must then live, held by the vow [Marriage is a case in point here]. Herod creates a world of promise, that is far from promising. Although he is supposedly all-powerful, he is caught by his words and John the Baptist pays.
In a sense that is what is going on in the opening chapters of Judges. The children of Israel give their devotion, that which belongs to God, to the Ba’als and so are themselves entrapped. Indeed this entrapment to idols is a repetitive theme not just throughout judges but indeed the entirety of Scripture. That which we sacrifice for in the end holds us. We make promises. We create worlds. When we lay down our lives for that which is not God, the path is one of slavery, not freedom.
Then comes Jesus to Nazareth. Here the force of Jesus words is disturbing to them who thought they knew him. Jesus is in a very real sense ‘out of place’, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ – and his words do not find a home. Here again we continue Mark’s theme of the hidden Messiah – they hear his words, but they do not See the one who speaks to them.
Words of promise lead to entrapment. Words of Freedom lead to rejection. Much to ponder
SERMON PART 2 WITH SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE FROM ORIGINAL
That our Life together brings glory to God
“Are you a real Christian?” . . . I wonder how many of us have been brought up short by such a question. I remember in my early years at University being troubled deeply by that question, usually on the lips of very eager believers, who wanted to know ‘Are you Saved?’ ‘Really Saved?’ ‘Very Very Saved so that you know deep within your heart that you are a Christian??’ One could always walk away from such well meaning folk, although the question still ran around in your mind and troubled you at night.
I remember an atheist famously questioning my faith as he knew the Bible far better than I. And so I went seeking security, I went seeking security. The story went on after I had ‘Chosen to follow Christ’, for then the question was – ‘but you were baptised as a baby! How can you Really be a Christian . . .’, so one evening I went along to a local church where we had a special service for ‘Renewal of our Baptismal vows, and full immersion’, but then . . . the questions came from another angle – ‘do you speak in tongues?’ For ‘this is The authentic sign that you Are a child of God.’ Like many of my and earlier generations I sang with Gusto the song ‘He lives he lives Christ Jesus lives today, he walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He Lives. He Lives. Salvation to impart. You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart . . .’ but all the while the questions, one after the other, and not just from individuals challenging me, but also from the pulpit.
“Are you a real Christian?” I wonder how many folk here flinched, thinking ‘here we go again! My faith is going to be called into question, is it the real thing?’ “Are you a Christian?” I hope I have not preached such a sermon here, but I know I have preached them elsewhere, and I have come to understand that this is wrong, very wrong. Not because our faith is a personal thing and shouldn’t be called into question – but because it is a meaningless question. For the measure of the Reality of the LIfe amongst us cannot be found in anything that we have done. Rather it is in what God has done in Christ and the Risen Christ is doing among us . . . “Are you a real Christian?” is actually a very poor question. It is a question which assumes we are all individuals and that the church is nothing more than a collection of individual believers, which it is most certainly not. As always, our real need is not for answers but for better questions
You will remember that last week I made reference to a friend who was troubled in this particular respect. Ruth is someone I know from my previous parish, someone who has always prayed, who has always understood herself as a child of God. Although she lived away from home, she came to her mother church to be married, and I prepared her and her fiance and found her to be a thoughtful Christian woman. But when she contacted me, she was troubled, and her worries seemed all too familiar.
Following the birth of her children had gone along to her local Anglican church to seek baptism for the child. Well they had a good priest there who invited both Ruth and her husband along to Baptism classes. To cut a long story short, Ruth now is involved in giving these classes. But she was troubled because folk in her church were saying in effect ‘to be a Real Christian, you need to have given your life entirely to Jesus’ . She wanted to know what I thought.
My response was that at the end of John’s gospel, when Jesus asks Peter the first two times, ‘Do you love me?’ he is saying in effect ‘have you given your life entirely to me?’ – and Peter responds ‘actually no, but I am trying to be a friend’. Finally Jesus asks him ‘are you trying to be my friend’ Peter says yes. Put another way – Jesus asks him twice ‘Are you a real Christian’ Peter twice shies away from it, Jesus then asks him, ‘are you any kind of christian at all?’ Peter says ‘yes this is what I’ve been saying all along, I’m a really rubbish Christian’ and Jesus makes him the first pope 🙂
We would think that Jesus would only entrust his church to someone of such monumental integrity and honour, someone who was completely ‘sold out for Jesus’, someone who had abandoned EVERYTHING, someone who WOULD die with him – but no. Jesus picks Peter to be the Rock on which he builds his church . . . And still 2000 years on, the church hasn’t begun to understand this . . . Anyway, Ruth was very happy with that answer – well I think it was my answer. It might have been my offer to punch the lights out of anyone who said she wasn’t a Christian. 🙂
Now its helpful to continue to think of Peter for a moment, it’s always helpful to think of Peter – for our reading from Acts finds him up against something which sounds very familiar . . . to put it into this ‘Are you a Christian language’ Peter is relating the story of his call to go to the house of Cornelius – called to a bunch of ‘God fearing Gentiles’ But people who could not possibly be Christians!! (Actually for Peter read ‘God’s people’) They are outsiders – they are Not God’s people. Of course they could convert and become ‘Jews’ – that is in the understanding of those first believers, there is something they could do to become ‘God’s people’.
How did you become one of God’s people? What did you have to do? To put it in the language of our question ‘How did you become a real Christian?’ The answer was – you were circumcised’ [Of course this was adult circumcision 🙂 not infant circumcision 🙂 It is strange that there never seemed to be a dispute over which type of circumcision was ‘better’ :), ‘Oh I chose to be circumcised . . .’ ‘I’ve given myself totally to God, unlike those of you who just found yourself circumcised . . .]
So when Peter goes back to Jerusalem where the Apostles, those ’really on fire for Jesus missionary Christians’ . . . whom we note haven’t got out of Jerusalem yet, even though great persecution has broken out 🙂 . . . when he goes back they don’t say – Great! The Gentiles are God’s people now also. They criticize Peter “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Why did you go to those who are not God’s people? Why did you share food with them? To put it another way, why did you share in Life with them?
So Peter tells them – he recounts the story of the dream – about not calling unclean, that which God has declared clean. And going to Joppa, and then he recounts what happens . . . And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” What does he see? He sees the LIfe of God poured out and present amongst these people – they have been made God’s people – they didn’t get circumcised, they didn’t line up and ask Jesus into their heart. They do Nothing! And God makes them his people, indiscriminately – they haven’t even prayed the sinners prayer!!!
And the sign, How does Peter know that God has made them his people? The Life of God amongst them – The Holy Spirit fell on THEM not just one or two, here or there, not those who have responded in their hearts, All of them. As God saved the people of Israel from Egypt as a job lot – warts and all – this is how he continues to work. Just making people his people. For the Proud Western individualistic mindset this is the hardest thing to accept, that we do nothing – it is all grace and it is Communal . . . remember last week? The story of the community in Fiji? How their witness was that ‘We are grateful that the gospel was sent to Us . . .’ ‘We share everything we have with one another . . .’
The Chief did not say to us ‘You must give your life to Jesus, entirely . . .’ He said – We became Christians and now we share everything we have with one another. As I said last week one of the few occasions I have Seen the Kingdom of God Clearly.
What is the sign? The life of God amongst them. What is the sign, not that ‘you’ or ‘you’ or ‘you’ is a Christian. Indeed if you are asked by that the simple reply is that by baptism I was made a member of the church, therefore I am a Christian. But that is a bad question – the real question is ‘Are we God’s people . . .’ and the evidence??
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus says, people will not know ‘You’ to be a Christian apart from your brothers and sisters – By this EVERYONE will know that you are my disciples because you love one another as i have loved you.
Jesus is not interested in you ‘being a Christian’ – he never told anyone to ‘be a Christian’. Rather he formed a community of people by commanding them to follow Him, a people whose life was his life. The question is not ‘Have I given my life to Jesus’ Actually when we truly Hear the gospel it puts an end to our questions. Peter tells the Apostles and other believers 7If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. the questions come to an end And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” It is not the question ‘have I given my life to Jesus’ It is the Fact ‘God has given his life to us. The shift from I to We – the biggest shift we need in the Church – He gives us something to do . . . get baptised? Jesus wants us to entirely give our lives . . . to each other
As I told my friend Ruth, I have yet to meet this mythical Real Christian, the one who has utterly given their life to Jesus. From time to time I hear a rumour of one, but I suspect that if one does exist, living the fully surrendered life, we would not hear of it, for only Jesus would be visible . . . no all I meet is a bunch of folks who like me are stumbling along, trying to make sense of this whole thing, but many of whom are labouring under a misapprehension, that there’s something they still haven’t done to be a Real Christian . . . but my brothers and sisters that is not the point . . . Yes, there Is something to do, not to be REALLY saved, No. NOw that God has given this Life even to us , Now he has saved us, Now He has made us christians – WE are to live it. WE.
So when I say – ‘we cannot live the Christian life on our own’, we modern individualists might hear me saying – we need each other so that as individuals we can live the life. That is not what I mean. We need each other because the Christian Life is Loving one another as Jesus has loved us. In other words, the needing one another IS the life of Jesus. Sharing Life, is Sharing HIs Life. Church is not a place where we get equipped to better go live the Christian Life – no it is the community where the Christian Life is known. And God is glorified in that way. For here, with one another, We are by Grace, God’s people. The Church is not a means to individual salvation, it is the place where Salvation is encountered. It is not a place where we come to get help with our individual lives – it is the Community where true Life is found.
Freedom is elusive and unless the Son sets you free, deceitful
As the encounter of Jesus with the demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes opens – we can readily see the one who is not free, or so it seems. The focus is on the one who ‘immediately’ meets Jesus. He is in bondage, from two related sources. Legion, who possesses him, and those of the surrounding area who chain him.
Think what a figure of fear he would have been. The endless children who would be told stories about him, to keep them in their place. They would feel secure with him chained up . . . Their ‘freedom’ is defended . . . heavily
And Jesus frees the man by giving the demons permission to enter the swine. Note carefully what happens. The demoniac begs Jesus not to send the demons away, he is in their thrall.
but after he is set free (note, once Legion is departed, there are no chains) the people beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. Ultimately they are revealed as the ones who are not free. They needed the demoniac to assure them of their Rightness – now they have no measure for it. Jesus as the truly Free one has come amongst them and they are revealed to be in shackles. He must go, or else they will not be able to maintain the illusion of freedom.
Freedom is the cry of the Revolutionary who brings tyranny, and the one who would seek we be in thrall to some other god. Only the Son of man can in truth set you free , all other freedoms are a deceit.
Following on from yesterday, there are two ways in which the conflict theme continues here in our reading from Mark.
Jesus is in hidden conflict with the crowds – for he speaks to them in parables. We are reminded that parables are not neat moral tales in which the meaning is obvious. Let us not be taken in, for all our exposure to them as moral tales in Sunday schools, what would WE make of the parable of the Sower were we to hear it for the first time?
Is not Jesus explanation to the disciples only clear to us because we have heard him explain it?
So Jesus is in conflict with the crowds. He tells them tales but as the Messiah is hidden in Mark’s gospel, so his words are also, and we must never forget this we who think we are the ‘in crowd’. Indeed Jesus is shown to be in conflict also with the disciples also. He tells them, ‘if you don’t understand this one, how will you understand any of the parables’
Herein is a point often missed. The parable of the Sower is as it were a key to unlock the meaning of all parables. If we don’t get this one, Jesus is saying, then all the others are closed to us.
So we would do well to contemplate the explanation Jesus gives, and I will resist the temptation to ‘snatch the word away’, by closing down ‘the answer’
Instead, at the danger of distracting us from this important task, I would highlight the Sower. There is nothing of careful application of the seed. Rather a divine carelessness in the true sense. The Word is spread gratuitously. Like rain it falls on the deserving and the undeserving. The deaf and the hearing alike are the ground onto which the seed is scattered.
Jesus throughout the gospels associates with those whom society reveres and those it despises. Those who have done well in the terms the world sets, and those ‘ne’er do wells’ – but it is those who have accepted the world’s values of what constitutes the Good Life, who not only accept it but in so doing close it off to others, those who act as gatekeepers, are the ones who find themslelves out of the Salvation story that Jesus is announcing.
The Sower is gratuitous – we would do well not to be too careful ourselves, to rush to close down the story.
As we read Mark 3 – we cannot escape the theme of Conflict. It has already arisen with the scribes in Chapter two – life in the forgiveness of sins is breaking into the world, and the world is disrupted.
Over and over again we see this disruption in Chapter 3 – Jesus comes into conflict of the life denying tradition of the Pharisees. As He is troubled in his gut before the tomb of Lazarus, so also he is angered before the life denying of the Pharisees. Life breaks forth and Death stalks the scene – conflict
The crowds crush in on him – Life is being squeezed out – the demons get in on the act. Seeking to push Jesus into their deadly mould – to announce himself, rather than Life.
He chooses 12, but even amongst these there is one who will be the means by which the Conflict will be brought to a head
He is accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons – Life is called Death by those that would negate it, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
And finally even his family try to restrain him. Here perhaps of all places in this passage we are challenged too. We may side with Jesus easily, and perhaps unthinkingly in all the other situations (although our actions may well betray us . . .) But here, Jesus takes that which is often most precious to so many, family and declares it a hindrance to Life. And of course it so often is. How often ‘family matters’ close us off to other people, and to the Life that is to be known in the community of Christ’s people.
Family values it strikes me, are a way in which we cloke our discipleship in a form of deceit. We say we have given up all to follow him, but our family in a sense becomes our last line of defence against this Life.
This life so evident in Christ, redefines family in terms of the Kingdom of God – we are invited to a new, huge family – one which does not act as a barrier to the outsider – but one which welcomes one and all.
That may well be the key way we find ourselves in conflict with Jesus.
But having found ourselves with him, and remember that the key question we ask is not ‘is he with me?’, but ‘am I with him?’, now we find ourselves in the midst of the same conflict – Life versus death, healing versus tradition, exclusive relationships versus open ones. [A reminder also that Jesus isn’t all that taken with marriage either – see Luke 18:29, 20:34-35 ]