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Sermon – A Failure of Imagination

Third Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Sermon Preached by Reverend Michael Hillier on Sunday, 9 June 2024.

Mark 3.20-35

Our Gospel reading. The verse before our reading tells us Jesus came to His home. We can presume this was Capernaum beside the Sea of Galilee as He had been rejected in Nazareth and now made this His base.

Once more, the crowds flocked to Him, witnessing His healing powers and hearing His powerful teaching, which was undoubtedly mesmerising. There was little entertainment then compared to today, and clearly, for many, Jesus was ‘the best act in town’!

Others were in desperate need and wanted His attention so that they might be healed. There would also have been some who were looking on thoughtfully. Equally amazed by what they were hearing and seeing, they wondered what all this might mean, and eventually, they would wonder whether Jesus might be the One who was to come. But that lay in the future.

Because He was healing a number who seemed possessed in some way, which could cover a multitude of mental illnesses in those days, it was thought that He, too, might be possessed. It was a case of ‘takes one to know one’.

Combine all this together, and you might have an emerging dangerous, explosive situation that could have social and political consequences for Jesus and His family. His family would have seen firsthand what happened in Nazareth and the attempts to kill Him by throwing Him off ‘the brow of the hill’ (Luke 4.29). So they wanted ‘to restrain Him’ (3.21).

After all, He was their brother and Mary’s son. They loved Him, cared about Him, and didn’t want to see Him get hurt. But they would have also feared for themselves and what might happen to them as a family. This was a very violent Society where any form of dissent or perceived trouble was dealt with severely. And so, just maybe, He was possessed, as they said!

They would have been very aware that officials, in this case, the Scribes, had come to take a closer look. And I am sure that would have raised alarm bells in His family’s minds! Would not you be concerned if this was a member of your family? And they would have been right! Their worst fears were about to be realised.

Like metaphorical killers, the Scribes go straight for the jugular and wonder aloud whether Jesus might be possessed, just like those He is healing!

Jesus has been expecting some form of verbal attack, and He realises what is at stake. He knows the crowd listens to the Scribes with interest and wonders how He will respond.

His response is a devastating attack on their logic. Satan would be casting out Satan! It would mean a Civil War in the world of the demonic if Jesus really was casting out demons in the name of Satan! Why on earth would He do that? It would be like an immune disorder where someone’s own immune system is killing their body. It wouldn’t make sense.

Jesus continues His attack. We will be forgiven our sins except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Over the centuries, many have pondered this and worried that they, too, might have committed the unforgivable sin. So what does this mean?

One little but important aside here: the use of the phrase ‘the Holy Spirit’. Mark may have added this phrase with hindsight years after the event. This is the beginning of Jesus’ Ministry, and the Holy Spirit was not given until after Jesus’ death, Resurrection, and Ascension. If Jesus had used that phrase, He could not have used it in the way we understand the Holy Spirit. And no one then would have understood what He meant if He did.

So what does the sin against the Holy Spirit mean? I think it means this. It is turning things on their head, making black, white and white black. It is choosing evil rather than good and delighting in it. For example, Stalin preferred the company of evil people over the good. It is lying to the point where you can no longer recognise the truth. You can expand all this in any number of ways. Most of us don’t need to worry whether we have committed this sin; there are enough others to worry about.

If Jesus’ family had not been present earlier, they are now, and they are asking for Him. (v.32) Jesus responds by asking who His family really is and telling those seated that they are His family. He is not rejecting His family, for at least some of them will become His disciples in time to come: Mary, His mother and James, who would later be a leader in the Jerusalem Church community beyond Pentecost (Galatians 1.19).

If we focus on His family, we can understand their real fears for Jesus and themselves. However, we also see a failure of imagination in them. They can’t get beyond Jesus as their son, brother, and village carpenter in Nazareth.

So, what do I mean by a ‘failure of imagination’? Edward Schillebeeckx, a theologian, was once asked to name a biblical text that spoke to our faith situation today. He chose Jesus’ resurrection appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

These two are completely disheartened by what had just happened: Jesus’ crucifixion, and then they heard He was alive (Luke 24.23). What to make of it? And so, they have chosen to walk away from their faith dream, as Schillebeeckx says, from Jerusalem to Emmaus. In many ways, he says, our situation today is like that between Good Friday and Easter Day: Holy Saturday. There is a sense of lostness about us all, whether Christian or not.

He says, for us Christians, the God we were raised on has been crucified. As with these two disciples, our imaginations have not been stretched far enough in new ways to recognise that Jesus is walking with us in our midst on our life journey. Even today!

You and I grew up during the last gasps of the age of Christendom, and in our society, that is now past. It is not yet clear what will emerge, and we are all left floundering, wondering how to find a way forward individually, as a local church, and as part of the Anglican communion.

This is not yours or my fault; it is also not the Church’s fault. It is not anything that we have done or not done. Our world today, as it has been for several decades, is going through huge convulsions and major changes. We are all deeply struggling, with few answers at every level of life – religious, political, economic, social, and community. And these upheavals will be with us for the foreseeable future and certainly beyond our time. As Christians, we live on Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday and the day before Easter Day with all its uncertainties. Our imaginations are not large enough yet, and our God is too small to quote an old book title. Most importantly, God understands this. But He walks with us.

And so, our response to this? What should it be? Certainly not the vindictive, malicious, pettiness, and point-scoring we see with the Scribes. Nor should we be like the curious crowd looking on from afar with no engagement or commitment.

Like Jesus’ family and these two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we must engage with Jesus. Talk as they did! We need to do this daily, and in fact, throughout the day. What does He wish to say to you and to me? And in all this, can you and I remain faithful to Him, trusting to the end, seeking what He would have us do? Begin this afternoon by having a long, quiet conversation with Him and seeing where this leads. And then be amazed at what emerges! God is our God, and He walks with us on this journey through life. Trust and have courage!