7 June 2015
Readings 1 Sam 8:4-11, 16-20 and Mark 3:20-35
May the words of my lips reveal something of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I was ordained as a deacon in Canterbury Cathedral seven years ago this month by the former Archbishop Rowan Williams and that is an experience which will stay with me for the rest of my life. However seven years is not that long ago and, as people often tell me, I am too old for this to be my first job.
Well, as most of you know, I did have a whole other life before being ordained and I did what many people would like their children to do – I got respectable A levels, bearing in mind that A levels were a lot harder in those days, I got two degrees in law, and then I trained and qualified as a solicitor. I got married, had two children and we lived in a lovely Victorian house in an historic market town. In many ways, judged by the normal, rational, standards of our society I had done everything right.
And yet for many years, my mother tells me since I was 18, there was something else niggling away inside me. In many ways it was something that was not at all rational, and that, of course, was the call to explore the possibility of ordination.
What do I mean when I say that this was not a rational thing to do? Well, in order to be ordained in the Church of England, you first have to put yourself through an exhausting process of discernment. That meant spending a year have regular meetings with various church officials in which every aspect of your life and personality is picked over and analysed in huge detail. You then go to a three day selection conference in which you do lots of group exercises and yet more interviews. And then, if you are successful in all of that, you get to undertake a three year theology degree whilst you are still working full time in your day job. And what is the glittering prize at the end of that process? Well, on one level there was the amazing service in Canterbury Cathedral, but on another level you are rewarded with a huge pay cut in order to do one of the strangest jobs going, with lots of overtime at the evenings and weekends living in tied accommodation and with the constant media bombardment that the Church of England is doomed.
So, if rationality means making logical decisions based upon hard facts acting always in one’s own best interests then, actually, becoming ordained on the strength of a niggling feeling or a calling is a highly irrational step. I remember at the time I was going through the process that lots of people, especially other solicitors, would say things like: “That’s very brave” when you could tell that what they really meant to say was: “You must be barking mad.”
Well, if that is what they were thinking and even if I was acting irrationally by the standards of the world, then today’s Gospel tells me that I am in good company because today we heard the story of Jesus being accused of being ‘out of his mind’, possibly by his own family, and we can look at that in a moment.
But before we do I just wanted to say that I often find this somewhat difficult piece of scripture, and others like it, strangely comforting. It is difficult scripture because it does not present Jesus or his family in the most flattering of lights and the reason I find that comforting is because it speaks to me of the authenticity of the Gospel. Every Christmas and Easter Channel 4 usually presents us with another documentary telling us how the Gospels do not contain much authentic material and the basic argument runs thus: the Gospels were written a long time after the life of Jesus, that they contain inconsistencies and that they were actually composed by a church eager to promote a certain view of a divine Christ quite separate from the historical person of Jesus. However, without seeking to unpick all of that for today’s purposes I would simply observe this: if I were writing or editing a text with a view to making Jesus and his family look good – and don’t forget that Jesus’ family here includes both his mother Mary and his brother James both of whom played a very significant role in the life of the early church, I would have taken this passage and a good number of others like it out. The fact that the Gospels were not more heavily edited in order to remove the difficult bits and, yes, even the inconsistencies says to me that they are faithful reproductions of very early oral tradition and that the writers were more concerned with preserving the truth rather than spinning the story in a particular way. As a magistrate I get to hear a lot of witness evidence during the course of trials and, although it may sound counter-intuitive, I am always more suspicious of witnesses whose stories are totally fluent and consistent with one another because that always smacks of editing after the event whereas accounts that leave the difficult bits in are that bit more likely to be the whole truth.
So today’s Gospel comes from the third chapter of Mark. This is actually the first time that Mark has mentioned Jesus’s family. When reading this Gospel, we have to forget what we know from the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke because, for Mark, Jesus is a charismatic young man who appeared on the scene in a whirlwind of activity, with no background information except that he came from Nazareth and lived in Capernaum.
At this point in the Gospel Mark’s readers had some additional information: that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and was then driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. People in Mark’s story who met Jesus, however, did not know of this earlier conflict, or the source of his power, which was displayed so frequently in the early part of the Gospel. So, confronted with a miracle worker, they were confused, and asked questions, as would we.
The pace of Mark’s story is breathtaking. The charismatic Jesus drew crowds wherever he went: this is the ninth time in three chapters that Mark has reported enormous crowds around Jesus, or that he had no privacy, or was too busy to eat. He performed miracles, including exorcisms, and people flocked to be healed. Local life was turned upside down as news spread.
The religious leaders should have recognised when God was at work, but they accused Jesus of blasphemy (Mark 2.7). In response, Jesus, grieved by their hardness of heart, challenged them to weigh the evidence of his power to do good. Now, faced with more miracles, they went too far, and ascribed the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of Jesus not to God but to Satan. It was that intentional denial of the holiness of God’s Spirit, confusing good and evil, which Jesus described as unforgivable, and put him on the offensive.
However, this frenetic pace of life was unsustainable, and it seemed to take its toll on Jesus; so people questioned his mental state. Interestingly some translations of the gospel suggest that it was the people around Jesus who questioned his mental state which may have prompted his family to come and take him home in a highly protective fashion and other translations seem to suggest that it was Jesus’ family themselves who thought that Jesus had gone out of his mind and that they had, in some way, come to grab him back from this new irrational life. The Greek text is ambiguous and can be read both ways and very different sermons can be written either way.
But whatever prompted Mary to come and get Jesus she could not get into the house, and so resorted to sending a message. But Jesus was not to be distracted, and his brusque response was the passion of a young man caught up in the intensity of his mission. However, his answer was not to reject his family as his nearest kin, but to expand his family circle, drastically, to include anyone who did the will of God and wanted to follow him. This can’t have been easy for Mary and it is, in some way, a foretaste of the separation from her Son which is to come later.
So, on the one hand, we have a story about a family in crisis, worried for their son and their brother and seeking to stage an intervention to rescue him from the whirlwind of both spiritual and human activity and on the other we are told that this is the work of God breaking into a world of spiritual darkness and that the family of God includes all who seek to follow Jesus. These are words that sometimes trip off our tongues but this is an important point – we all have human families, whether they are with us now or not, but when we become followers of Christ we also become part of a much larger and much older family – adopted Children of God and brothers and sisters of one another. We are not here as individuals but as family.
But is this adventure that we are on in any way rational? Ever since the Enlightenment the church has seemed obsessed with making faith rational, as if it were in some competition with philosophy or science for objective logical truth. I think that is a wrong turning and a dead end. Jesus was not acting rationally when he left his life and career to be baptised and to start a ministry which would end on the cross, I was not acting rationally when I left my career to be ordained and in many ways none of us here are acting rationally sitting in church when we could be having a lie in or reading the papers.
Faith comes from a very different place from logic or reason and we shouldn’t be scared to admit it. Rationality of course has its place, I wouldn’t want to fly on a plane that was designed otherwise, but it also has its limits. Is the greatest of art wholly rational? Is love rational? The call of God on Jesus, on me and on each of you operates on a much deeper, more intuitive level: A level on which the soul responds to the call of love with love of its own. To those who are not in love it can look like madness but let’s rejoice and be glad that in a world governed by rational people with spreadsheets there is still room for the wonderful joyful freedom of faith which is our irrational response to the unwarranted, boundless, love of God who calls each of us into his family.