Wednesday, June 09, 2021

The First Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the First Sunday after Trinity. My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

The First Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 3:20-35

The readings for our service each week are taken from a three year cycle of readings to be found in what is known as the Revised Common Lectionary. The years are known as years A, B, and C. Once the cycle is completed, it is then repeated.

Each year in Church, as part of this three-year cycle of readings, we read through a different Gospel. This year, Year B in the lectionary, we are focusing on St Mark’s Gospel. Last year, Year A, we read from St Matthew’s Gospel. Next year, Year C, we will read from St Luke’s Gospel. On several Sundays each year, the Gospel reading is taken from St John’s Gospel instead of the Gospel for that year.

We began reading from St Mark’s Gospel on Advent Sunday, we have broken off as we have celebrated the major festivals of the Church’s year and, for the past few weeks, we have been reading from St John’s Gospel. Now that we have entered the season of Trinity, for the next few weeks, our Gospel readings will all come from St Mark’s Gospel as we read St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus.

St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels and many think it was the first. For some in the first century, who were hearing St Mark’s Gospel read for the first time, it would also have been the first time they had heard the story of Jesus. For others who already believed in Jesus, it would have been the first time they had heard the story of Jesus presented in this way. For us, however, hearing it read today, it is not the first time we have heard the story of Jesus or even St Mark’s account of it. This results in it losing some of its original freshness and impact. We need to try, then, as we read through St Mark’s Gospel, to approach it as if for the first time.

The first thing we notice as we read St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus is that it is not at all like a modern biographical account of someone. St Mark begins his Gospel with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by him. St Mark doesn’t describe Jesus’ birth or upbringing or any of the other biographical details we are interested in today when reading about someone’s life. This doesn’t mean that either St Mark or his readers weren’t themselves interested in them. For St Mark, however, his main focus is elsewhere. St Mark is more interested in Jesus’ significance for his readers and that means his focus is on Jesus’ death and why he had to die. Indeed, for St Mark, Jesus’ death is the key to understanding his life.

We also need to remember that the Gospels weren't the only source for people’s knowledge of Jesus. At the beginning of the Church, there were plenty of people alive who had met Jesus during his ministry and who knew all about the events of his life. Jesus’ disciples themselves were also alive. The apostles who had been chosen by Jesus and had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry were, to begin with, central to the life and work of the church. Stories about Jesus circulated amongst the churches as did his sayings and teachings.

Nor were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the only accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching to be written down. St Luke tells us this explicitly. St Luke writes:

‘Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’ (Luke 1:1-4)

What our Gospel writers did successfully and authoritatively was to bring together the various stories about Jesus into a coherent account and presentation of Jesus’ life and teaching that people trusted. It is important for us to remember that the Gospels are not an exhaustive account of what Jesus said and did nor are they a chronological account. St John tells us that there were many more things that Jesus did that he has not included in his Gospel (John 21:35). Papias, a Bishop who lived at the end of the first century and beginning of the second (AD c60-c130), said specifically that St Mark wrote accurately what he learnt about Jesus from St Peter ‘though not in an ordered form’.

The Gospel writers, then, are not simply trying to give us information about Jesus, but to present a message. The message they are presenting is a message about a person, but more than that, the person is the message. It is the Gospel writers’ collective hope that their presentation of the message will lead people to respond to and believe in Jesus.

St Mark’s Gospel itself is made up of small units or paragraphs. (Scholars called them pericopes.) Some of you will have an Instagram account. You will use this to post pictures and brief descriptions of events in your life. These will sometimes be of significant events such as anniversaries or holidays. Sometimes they will be when you meet with friends or simply go for a meal. They are not an exhaustive account of your life by any means, but anyone following you will get an insight from your posts into your life: who you are and and what matters to you. This is what St Mark is doing. In his Gospel, he is ‘posting’ selected incidents from Jesus’ life to give us an insight into the person of Jesus, so we can decide if we want to follow him ourselves.

In our reading this week, we have one such post. St Mark captions it for us. He writes:

‘Then he [Jesus] went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.’ (Mark 3:19-20)

Home for Jesus during his ministry is in Capernaum, a place on the Sea of Galilee. Although Jesus was originally from Nazareth, some 20 miles away, Jesus made Capernaum his base for his ministry in Galilee. Capernaum was strategically situated on a major trade route. It is also where at least two of his closest disciples, Peter and his brother Andrew, both lived (Mark 1:29).

In our Gospel reading this week, we pick up St Mark’s account at the time when Jesus is now becoming well-known. St Mark tells us that as soon as people see that Jesus is ‘at home’, a crowd gathers. Jesus and his closest disciples cannot even eat because of it. St Mark, in describing the scene, tells us something very interesting; he writes it in such a way that we almost miss it. He describes some of those present in the crowd as scribes from Jerusalem (Mark 3:22). What are religious figures from Jerusalem doing there in Capernaum so far from their own home?

Although St Mark doesn’t tell us in his Gospel, we know from St John’s Gospel that Jesus, in addition to preaching throughout Galilee, has, by this point, also spent time in Jerusalem, where he has made a significant impact - both positive and negative. The scribes from Jerusalem may originally have come across Jesus there. Again, it is a reminder to us that each of the Gospel writers have been selective in what they have included in their accounts. What they tell us is important and part of the picture, but it is not the whole picture.

So why does Jesus being at home provoke so much interest? There are principally two reasons. First of all, Jesus healed people. St Mark writes at the beginning of his account that Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases (Mark 1:34). By the time of this week’s reading, St Mark, as well as describing Jesus’ healing of people in general terms, has also given us several specific examples. St Mark relates the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-34); of a leper (Mark 1:40-45); of a paralytic (Mark 2:1-17); and, on a Sabbath, of a man with a withered hand.

Secondly, St Mark tells us that Jesus in addition to healing people who were sick also cast demons out of people who were possessed. At the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Capernaum, St Mark writes of how Jesus frees a man with an ‘unclean spirit’ (Mark 1:21-28). St Mark stresses that this was a central feature of what Jesus did. St Mark emphasizes that Jesus cast out many demons (Mark 1:34). In summarising Jesus’ ministry, St Mark writes:

‘And he [Jesus] went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.’ (Mark 1:39)

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that people are divided in their opinion of Jesus. Whatever their opinion of him, the crowds are all interested in him - as crowds always are interested in anything sensational. Jesus isn’t just going around telling people to love and forgive one another; he is dramatically healing people and confronting Satan. People didn’t know what to make of this then any more than we know what to make of it today. Amongst those who are there with Jesus at his home in Capernaum, there are two different of explanations of who Jesus is and of what he is doing.

Firstly, at the time, some try to explain it psychologically by saying that Jesus is out of his mind. In our time, we might say that it is anyone who believes Jesus cast demons out of people who is out of their mind. In whatever way we today explain what Jesus was doing, his behaviour was not seen even by people in his own day as normal, and it led many to question his sanity. This included, it seems, some of his own family. St Mark writes that they came to restrain him (Mark 3:21). Whether this was out of a concern for him, or for their family’s reputation, or both, we are not told; but whatever his family’s motive, they feel constrained to do something.

Secondly, however, the scribes who have come from Jerusalem explain Jesus’ actions theologically. The scribes acknowledge that Jesus actually is healing the sick and casting out demons. They have seen him do so for themselves. As they cannot deny what he is doing, they seek instead to offer an explanation for how he is doing it. They accuse Jesus of being in league with the Devil. It is because Jesus is in league with the Devil, they argue, that he can command the Devil’s subjects to do what he wants.

Neither the scribes nor the Pharisees can accept that Jesus is doing what he does by the power of God. The reason they can’t accept that Jesus is acting with God’s approval is, quite simply, because Jesus is claiming an authority and acting towards the Law of God in a way they think shows that he cannot be from God.

In the first place, Jesus claims he has the authority to forgive sins. This is an authority the religious leaders believe belongs only to God. Jesus, however, tells them explicitly that he does have authority on earth to forgive sins and proceeds to demonstrate it by healing someone in front of them (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus’ point is that if he has the power to heal people’s bodies, then surely he has the authority to forgive their sins? To the scribes who are present, Jesus’ claim to forgive sins sounds like blasphemy. Indeed, if it wasn’t true, it would be!

Secondly, Jesus doesn’t feel bound by the command to keep the commandment about not working on the Sabbath. This is not just about Jesus disagreeing with them about what constitutes work on the Sabbath and whether healing someone is work or not. Jesus claims that he is the Lord of the Sabbath, and so he gets to decide what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). Acting as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus, then, goes on to heal a man with a withered hand, after having first asked the Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ It is a question they refuse to answer (Mark 3:1-6).

What, then, the different opinions about Jesus come down to is that Jesus either is mad or bad. It’s one or the other.

Jesus responds directly to the accusations against him. Firstly, in response to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus tells them parables. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. In other words, if an army starts fighting against itself, it will soon lose the war. If Jesus is acting on behalf of Satan in casting out demons, it would mean Satan was fighting against himself. Jesus tells them that the only way a strong man’s house can plundered is if the strong man is bound first.

Jesus warns them that to attribute to an unclean spirit something that is the work of the Holy Spirit is to put themselves in severe spiritual danger.

Secondly, in response to being told that his family have come to take him away because people are saying he is mad, Jesus asks who his real family are. Immediately before our reading this week, St Mark has described how Jesus had gone up a mountain with those he had selected and had appointed 12 of them to be apostles (Mark 3:13-19). The role of an apostle, St Mark explains involves three things: to be with Jesus, to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.

In answering his own question about who his real family are, Jesus directs people’s attention to those sitting around him – the normal posture of a disciple with a teacher. Jesus says:

‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Mark 3:34-35)

We miss the shock of this, especially in a culture where family ties and loyalties were paramount. Jesus is saying that loyalty to him creates a family unit far more important and significant than biological attachments.

Jesus doesn’t exclude his earthly family by saying this. While we know that his ‘brothers’ did not believe in him at this stage in his ministry (John 7:5), we do know that they did eventually come to believe in him. James became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and his other brothers, travelling teachers (1 Corinthians 9:5).

The terrible irony in our Gospel reading this week, however, is that it is not those who are closest to Jesus physically or those who are spiritually the leaders of God’s people who recognize the true identity of Jesus, but those who are his spiritual opponents. The demons know immediately who he is. St Mark writes a few verses before our reading this week:

‘Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!”’ (Mark 3:11)

St Mark describes his Gospel as the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). It is, however, those for whom the Gospel was and is extremely bad news who first recognize that Jesus is the Son of God.

The irony continues in that of those who go after Jesus, fascinated by him and seeking healing, it is the ‘sinners and tax-collectors’ who respond to him. Jesus calls Levi, one of the tax-collectors, to be his disciple (Mark 2:13-14). When the scribes and Pharisees see Jesus at dinner in Levi’s house eating with other tax-collectors, they criticize Jesus to his disciples for eating with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. When Jesus hears this, he responds:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17)

St Mark tells us that it is those written off by the religious establishment but who do the will of God that are the ones who become members of Jesus’ family. St Mark would challenge us his readers to make sure, by doing the will of God, that we become members too. What is the will of God? St John writes:

‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ (John 6:29)

The first requirement of those Jesus has appointed to be apostles, St Mark writes, is that they are ‘to be with him’ (Mark 3:14). When Jesus is told his physical family are asking for him, he replies, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’ He then looks at those sitting around him: this is his family. The ‘will of God’ is that we should commit ourselves to Jesus and become part of his family.

Those Jesus called his family, this weird mixture of different people from all sorts of different backgrounds who didn’t conform to the accepted image of what God’s people should look like, went on to become the Church. They too welcomed strange people to join them and often behaved in strange ways. They ate a common meal together, and, despite their many faults and failings, loved one another.

The ‘family of God’ is an image that describes their own understanding of the Church. They saw God as their Father. All who believed in Jesus, they regarded as sons and daughters of God and their brothers and sisters. Jesus himself was their Lord, but he was also their brother.

They had many other different images of themselves. But all of them pointed to their relationship, first with God, and then also with each other. They were the body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. They, of course, realized that the Church needed leading, organizing, and financing, but they did this as a family and not as a business.

So, what is our image of the Church? Have we allowed ourselves to become more a religious organisation than a spiritual family? Are we more focused on the business of the Church than we are on our relationship with God and each other in Christ.

One of the reasons we get our understanding of the Church wrong is that we have not understood Jesus himself. Do we recognize Jesus for who he is?

The demons recognized him and the tax-collectors and sinners believed in him. The religious people and even his closest family members, however, did not. The religious people thought they knew the will of God and his family members thought they knew him, but they were both wrong.

Jesus was someone who preached the Kingdom of God and called on people to repent (Mark 1:15). He healed people and cast demons out of them. He challenged people’s understanding of what God wanted of them and associated with the least likely of people. He demanded of his followers an obedience that called into question all the normal bonds of human loyalty and family connection.

Jesus was emphatically not an easy person to have around. He was charismatic, exciting, and disturbing. And we are called, not only follow him, but to be like him.

It is no wonder that the religious people did not like him. They preferred the safety of their own way of thinking and doing things. The tax-collectors and sinners responded to him, not because he condoned their sin and accepted them as they were, but because he offered then forgiveness and the chance to change.

If Jesus came among us today, who would he be eating with? Who would he look at and call his family? We need to ask whether we have made Jesus into someone who is acceptable and respectable; someone we can understand and control; someone who won’t make too many demands of us or cause us too much trouble; someone who won’t tell us we have got it all wrong.

Jesus is the One who heals the sick, casts out demons, and challenges the status quo. He says things that make us feel uncomfortable, and he invites all who recognize him and believe in him to join his family. ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’, he also says to us today.

May God grant us to do his will.


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