Sermons from St Faith's

Acting on our Faith
Fr Mark Waters, 3rd Sunday before Lent, 2009

Mark 1. 29-39                           

‘On leaving the synagogue’, the opening words of today’s gospel and the key to understanding what the writer of the gospel is getting us to understand. Just before this passage about the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law we have heard the story of Jesus marching into the synagogue and being confronted by a man who is apparently possessed, who shrieks at him, ‘I know who you are, have you come to destroy us?’ Jesus’ response is to the man is to cast the demon out.

The way in which these stories are interpreted couldn’t be more topical, because the stories we’re talking about – of a possessed man having a demon cast out, and the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law - takes us right to the heart of a dilemma which is currently dividing the Christian church. And it’s a debate that’s been going on for about 200 years about how bible stories like these are interpreted.

So, in the red corner, we have the literalists, who say that the only way this story – and other biblical stories - can possibly make sense is if we take them at face value. Here is a man who is possessed – held in the grip of a real supernatural demon  – a spirit from another world, which is inhabiting him. And so Jesus, with a superior amount of good spiritual power than the demon’s bad spiritual power, banishes this violent spirit from the unfortunate man.

Similarly, Jesus finds that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with an unspecified illness. He cannot but respond and heals her through his touch. Once again an example of superlative supernatural power, reconfiguring the laws of nature to make her well again.

But, in the blue corner we have what have become known as liberals. They have another take on these two stories. For them, the so-called possessed man was perhaps suffering from some form of epilepsy, or, more likely, he had a psychotic mental illness making him have wild delusions and paranoia. And Jesus in the view of the liberals, by his great insight into people’s conditions, and by his enormous strength of personality, and his overflowing loving kindness, is able to calm and control this poor man, so that his manic episode comes to an end.

And with Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus by his hugely sympathetic or empathic abilities, has a way of bringing healing and wholeness to people by his very presence and his touch.

I don’t find either of these interpretations compelling. And the question I would ask of both of them is this – what sort of God does each of these approaches portray? What sort of God?

The first approach, the literalist approach – you might call it conservative, fundamentalist – portrays a God who at a whim breaks the order of the natural world. This God is a bit of a magician. Using exhibitions of supernatural power – through Jesus – to convince the first disciples, and now you and me, that he is in control of everything. He has the power to break through his own laws of creation, if we are good, and if he chooses, in order to put some things right again.

Now to me that is a rather capricious God. Able and willing to intervene like that for a few people and a few situations, as an example, while leaving so many others in the same condition to continue in their misery. This is a picture of a God who not only allows evil, but makes clear that he could do something about it but chooses not to, in order to teach us a lesson. For this God, ours is only to believe in Jesus Christ as a superman, who wields God’s supernatural power, for us to be saved.

The second approach, the liberal one, what sort of God is implied here? It seems to me that the liberal approach is to try and explain everything away. The man wasn’t possessed, he was mentally ill. So the God who is imagined here is really no God at all. Everything is part of the natural order which can be explained. And Jesus is a natural sort of healer or therapist. A wise guru who sees through the fears of simple, primitive folk and releases them from their superstition to live new lives in an explainable universe. So, there is no mystery! And probably no God.

In answer to both conservatives and liberals we have to say that Jesus wasn’t killed because he was a miracle worker or a faith healer – there were plenty of those in his day. Nor was he put to death for explaining away primitive faith.

We need to look a bit harder at the stories if we are to really understand what is going on, and to know the God who Jesus represents. And just two words in today’s story provide us with a key to our understanding. Words which we usually take little notice of, perhaps thinking of them as mere detail.

Those two words are ‘synagogue’ and ‘sabbath’. Those words tell us that the two healing accounts are not just random things that Jesus does on his travels – for people who he comes across by chance. These are not spontaneous happenings. Everything, every word in Mark’s gospel is set in a particular context. Nothing just happens. The writer has put all this together for a purpose – and every detail counts.

Synagogue and Sabbath – these healings are about Jesus’ conflict with the authorities. They are about power.

From the moment that Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum it is clear that he is in sharp conflict with the local public authorities and the order they represent. Why does he do this? Why couldn’t he just simply go about doing good and healing people without facing up to the scribes and Pharisees?

The reason is that the social codes under which the ruling authorities made people live had become corrupt and oppressive. They no longer set them free. Religious observance, and the way in which it affected everyday life – especially for the poor – had become an unbearable weight for them.

So this story is about power. It is not about casting out demons and healing people per se – the gospel is telling the story of the violent upheaval that takes place when those who control this dead, corrupt religion comes into contact with the liberation and freedom of God represented in the man Jesus. He breaks through the cultural and religious chains in which people – particularly poor people – have been bound.

So this is not the gentle Jesus meek and mild so beloved of the Victorian hymns which for some reason we keep on singing.

So what sort of God does this interpretation of the stories imply? It implies that the things which bind people in this world are not invisible, malevolent, supernatural forces out there somewhere which need to be defeated by the stronger supernatural power of God. The things that bind people in this world are the oppressive structures and systems which human beings like you and me create – often for very good initial reasons – and which then become corrupted and in need of renewal.

Mark’s gospel could not be clearer – the gospel is political with a small ‘p’. It is the story of Jesus’ willingness to challenge the status quo which is always in the process of becoming corrupt. And the gospel invites you and me into that same prophetic process.

The historian Lord Acton said (talking about the Vatican) ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Mark’s gospel, like so many of the prophets in the OT, tells us that it is the job of the people of God to critique those in power. That is one of our primary tasks. It is not the whole gospel. But it is an integral part of the gospel. This is what the bible teaches.

In Jesus’ day there was no democracy. No voting. No citizen participation strategies like we have. No real protection under the law. No freedom of speech. We do have all that and yet we seem so reluctant to use the democratic and political tools at our disposal.

Question, who is going to end child poverty in this country?
Who is going to make a real difference in reversing global warming in our world?
The answer – only people like you and me! We can’t leave it to government. They will only do what we push and push for them to do.

The gospel story this morning tells us of a God who is not dependent upon supernatural power – that is not how God in Jesus acts. So often we get so caught up in the questions about whether or not he really did heal people, or walk on the water, or whatever, that we miss the real point. And the real point is that God in Christ got his hands dirty in the murky world of real politics. Martin Luther King – another prophetic challenger of the things which bound people in his day - was to sum this up many years later when he said – ‘love without power is sentimental and anaemic’. In other words, fine religious words and fine feelings and sentiments are a complete waste of time and space unless we are also willing to act on our faith, to recognise that we need to build and use responsible power in order to heal the world and its peoples.

There was no supernatural intervention to stop those who plotted against Jesus to kill him, who brought him to trial, and who publicly executed him. The gospels tell us that is not how God works.

And the same is true for us. If we spend our time waiting for supernatural solutions to the worlds problems, and our problems, we will be waiting a long time.

I the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry
I have born my people’s pain
I have wept for love of them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord,
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if you lead me,
I will hold your people in my heart.

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