Sermon for High Mass – 2nd after Trinity Sunday 10 June 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 2 HM (Mark 3.20-35)
I’ll give you the digested read first. God loves us. He promises to forgive us. There’s no need to make excuses when we get it wrong. The truth will set us free.
There’s a Flip Wilson TV sketch from the seventies in which one of his characters, Geraldine Jones, the wife of a black Pentecostal Pastor, has to justify to her husband having bought three new dresses in one week. Her reply, ‘the devil made me do it’, became a catch-phrase in the USA. Her excuse quickly commits her to an increasingly bizarre account of various conversations with his satanic majesty, until her husband finally asks ‘how come every time the devil makes you do something it’s for your benefit; when’s the devil going to do me a favour?’ the sketch finishes with Geraldine’s reply, ‘he did already! I asked the devil about that and he said if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t even have a job’. ‘The devil made me do it’ became a lucrative marketing meme on T-shirts, mugs and posters (and probably, as in the golden age of our parish shop, polyester ties and brightly-coloured plastic combs).
This morning we’re on blame-shifting. The Genesis reading is a picture of sin as it really happens, rather than a historical account of the first humans. Sin brings shame on us: we do our best, like both the man and the woman, to blame someone else, but in the end we know that we are defenceless and naked before God. There’s no point to all that self-justification: we know what we deserve, but the wonderful thing about the biblical message is that God continues to care for us; as this story continues he himself thoughtfully makes clothes for the man and the woman to hide their embarrassment. And God promises that evil will not triumph for ever. Hard labour and pain, this story tells us, come not from divine vindictiveness but from human sinfulness: we are no longer in perfect harmony with God. If we were, our confidence in him would spare us the pain.
Today this is paired with the Gospel, implying that the serpent is a type of Satan, the Tempter. The serpent of Genesis wasn’t linked with Satan until much later, but let’s leave that aside: temptation and blame-shifting is the common thread.
As always we need to know where the gospel is heading. After today’s gospel comes the Parable of the Sower, the core parable in Mark, next week’s portion. That’s about Jesus’ rejection by the many and his fruitful acceptance by the few. Today we’re witnessing the transition from the blazing beginning of Jesus’ ministry into the teaching phase of the parables. The honeymoon is over and he’s beginning to really annoy people. He is rejected as out of his mind by his own family. He’s pigeonholed by the scribes as in league with Beelzebub. Finally, exasperated, the family come after him again, but he turns to those who are listening to him and calls them his true family.
This ‘one story inside another’ structure is Mark’s favourite technique, known in the New Testament trade as the ‘Markan sandwich’. The encounters with his family & the scribes, one story inside the other, are so placed as to illuminate each other.
Jesus turns the scribes’ blame-shifting back on them. He says that the scribes’ claim that ‘the devil made him do it’ is actually them doing the devil’s work, the unforgiveable sin. This uniquely unforgiveable sin is clearly explained: ascribing an evil motive to doing a good thing. So today we heard, first, the childlike and naive self-justifying blame-shifting of the Genesis story, then the more sophisticated and insidious blame-shifting of spinning good as bad. Both are familiar to us all. The second is worse than the first, as Jesus asserts.
Spinning good as bad is a sign of weakness, though all too often it passive-aggressively wins arguments. If even Jesus’ enemies are forced to admit that he’s good at driving out evil spirits, it must presumably be true. Their only tactic is sarcastically to ascribe his powers to the chief evil Spirit, here named Beelzebub or Beelzebul. There are two different versions of the text, but Beelzebub is probably correct. Beelzebul, ‘lord prince’ is the title of a local deity. Beelzebub means ‘lord of the flies’, a mocking nickname for that deity, which the scribes would be expected to use. Beelzebub, ‘the lord of the flies’ supplied William Golding, in his novel of the same name, with a fruitful image for the corruption of religion when people are confronted by their primal selves and run for cover into fantasy.
The encounters in our gospel depict the isolation of Jesus, which we should keep in mind when we hear the parable of the sower next week. That parable of the sower isn’t just about the diminishing returns of the gospel, or us as the faithful remnant; it is also about the pain of the Word made Flesh, the truth-teller who pays for it with his life, like Simon, the Christ-figure in Golding’s novel, who realises that the Lord of the Flies is just the corpse of a dead pilot, still entangled in the cords of his parachute.
Golding’s novel is a parable of the lonely mission of the one who, so far from driving out demons by the ruler of demons, confronts, overcomes and banishes them to their own place by the power of sacrificial love. By the logic of the parable he has to die (just like the landowner’s son in Jesus’ Parable of the Landowner and the Tenants). But it is important to realise what Golding’s character Simon realises. In an internal dialogue, the ‘lord of the flies’ tells Simon that none of them can escape him, the beast, for it is inside themselves. They are the beast. Blame-shifting never works in the end, because when we do it we are simply creating a scapegoat for ourselves; that is using Satan to cast out Satan. The cross was intended to put an end to that scapegoating with a new sort of human behaviour.
We have evolved with human behaviours based on ‘Satan casting out Satan’. Jesus, proclaiming the kingship of God, that God is in charge of the world in the things that truly matter, invited a new behaviour, a way of being human based on a new kind of kingship, on God’s priorities. Human beings, he proclaimed, can be organized around the loving service of the Forgiving Victim instead of the collective violence against a victim, which is the history of war. This new way of being human is the first step to new creation, what Paul talks about in Romans 8, the whole creation waiting in eager longing for the children of God to get their act together. This way of being human brings together all the language of salvation in the New Testament. Jesus is the inaugurator of God’s Kingdom, God’s new culture. He is the first born of a new-made humanity, the Son of Man, the New Adam. He rescues us from the deadly and sinful powers of the old anthropology and offers us a new way to be human, a new anthropology, a life lived in the Spirit instead of in the flesh.
God loves us. He promises to forgive us. There’s no need to make excuses when we get it wrong. The truth will set us free.