Sermon for First Sunday after Trinity – High Mass (Vaughan Williams Sunday) Sunday 7 June 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
There’s a lot going on in our gospel today. It is what is called, in the trade, a Markan sandwich – one story enclosed by another. The best-known Markan sandwich is probably the one in chapter 5, where the healing of Jairus’ daughter encloses the healing of the woman who has suffered a haemorrhage for twelve years. Today we have Jesus’ encounter with some hostile co-religionists enclosed by some dysfunctional family relationships. I hope that doesn’t remind you of anything.
Our text began four words later than was helpful. The sentence actually begins
Then he went home;
which makes more sense of the opening you heard:
and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went to restrain him, for people were saying ‘he has gone out of his mind’.
Jesus, we learn, had a home. And, it would seem, a home separate from his family, who have to come and see him and can’t get in.
That detail is then left hanging, while we move on to accusations of witchcraft or whatever we should call it from ‘the scribes’. Their accusation, that he is channelling the devil to cure people, leads to one of the best known passages in the gospels, Jesus’ teaching about the sin against the Holy Spirit, the so-called ‘unforgiveable sin’. Presumably this is why we’ve been given the passage from Genesis about the fall as our first reading, though there is only the superficial connection that both passages are ‘about’ sin.
Some Christians have been tortured by the fear of this sin, not least because Calvin cheerfully warned that membership of the church did not confer the assurance of salvation. Early Catholic commentators like Ambrose and Augustine had taught that this passage was in fact directed to those outside the church. Listening to this earliest version from Mark, we could even argue that it applies more narrowly to this particular group of religious opponents. But if we generalize the teaching, the most these verses will support is the condemnation of those who ascribe God’s work to the devil. On that basis, as the commentator C.E.B. Cranfield solemnly pronounced many decades ago:
Those who most particularly should heed the warning of this verse today are the theological teachers and the official leaders of the churches.
That seems fair: some Christian leaders might do well to pause before speaking. As a more general principle, refusing to ascribe bad motivation to people’s good deeds seems an unexceptionable piece of wisdom.
Two other elements seem interesting to me: the image of binding the strong man, and the interaction with (or rather redefinition of) Jesus’ family.
‘Binding the strong man’ is an image unique to Mark’s remembering of Jesus. Its meaning seems pretty clear. Jesus is adding a new angle to another famous image: that a house divided against itself will not be able to stand. Here Jesus says it is obviously foolish to imagine Satan allowing himself to be invoked against his own activities. Moreover, in order to heal people in the way that he’s been doing (see the previous chapter), Jesus himself has already overwhelmed evil. We are not to think of Jesus’ works as colluding with anyone else, least of all Satan. They are the unadulterated works of God, who defeats evil by binding it, making it ineffective. The Good News includes a promise that we need not fear evil because it has been defeated in the person of the Son of God.
So what about the family? They appear at his house with a view to sectioning him. This may be about more than his healing activities, because his return home in verse 19 follows his appointment of the twelve apostles on a mountain-top: perhaps his family fears that he has a Moses-complex (there’s a local reference lurking in that last sentence which I’d better not pursue).
After Jesus’ encounter with the scribes (in which they are roundly defeated), the family are now to be heard plaintively calling for him outside the house. In response he rudely dismisses them, claiming nearer kinship with any who obey God than with his own flesh and blood. There’s a possible narrative logic in suggesting that he might by now be so fed up with their bleating refusal to acknowledge what he’s doing that he could rhetorically disown Mary and the rest of the family (whoever these relatives are). It’s a fine flourish in a very domestic setting.
But the real question is surely, does he mean it? Of course Jesus means everything he says, but sometimes we miss his meaning because we are so keen to find our own preconceptions in what he says. We know that he teaches by hyperbole, paradox and a topsy-turvy worldview. Does he really mean that the people who follow him are closer to him than his nearest blood-relatives; or is this the same as saying, slightly more subtly, that his family is not merely defined by his blood-relationships? Given the churches’ continuing obsession with familial relationships as an expression of something called ‘Christian values’, this is surely an important question to ask and answer.
If you look at the whole trajectory of the gospels, it seems clear that Jesus does mean it. He tells us all to regard God as ‘our’ Father (in a context where he says we should call no one on earth our father). He tells Mary at the cross that John is her son in his place. He rejects any special blessedness in Mary on the basis of blood-relationship to him (while insisting that relationship with God – which she embodies – is the thing).
You really can’t construct a picture of nuclear family life as we understand it which is commended anywhere by Jesus. That is important for two reasons. First, the Church opposing or discriminating against anyone or anything on the grounds of supporting something called ‘the family’ is dangerously close to the sin against the Holy Spirit. Second, that means we have to work even harder to make our churches more relational and less dysfunctional. Jesus really does teach that this ill-assorted roomful of people, and those in relationship – communion – with us, is the most important family we have; that we, here, this morning are the basis of the values of God’s kingdom, as opposed to the worldly nation, city or even family to which we belong. Denying that and failing to prioritize our relationships here over other things is arguably a bigger sin than most of those we routinely commit. So the gospel says you do choose your family – if you choose Jesus – and after that nothing else matters as much.