Friday, July 23, 2021

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

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

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Earlier in chapter 6, St Mark has told us how Jesus sent the apostles out in twos having given them authority over unclean spirits. St Mark writes of how the apostles preach that people should repent; they cast out demons and heal the sick. In other words, as we saw on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, the apostles acted in persona Christi. They represented Christ and acted on his behalf. This was all in preparation for the ministry that Jesus would give them after his resurrection and ascension to heaven.

St Mark interrupts his account of the apostles’ ministry to tell us how Jesus is becoming well-known and to inform us of what people are saying about Jesus as well as to relate the circumstances of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. Jesus and John have so much in common that King Herod, along with many people in Israel, associates them both with Elijah.

Now in our Gospel reading this week, St Mark writes about the apostles’ return and how they report to Jesus all that they have taught and done. We are not told what they taught, and, indeed, what it was that they taught is an interesting question. It is clear from what we have read about the disciples so far in St Mark’s Gospel that they have not yet themselves come to a full understanding of who Jesus is. Presumably then, their teaching was about the nearness of the coming of the Kingdom of God and the need for people to be prepared for it. In all likelihood, in many ways, their teaching would have been a continuation of the message of John the Baptist.

Jesus decides the apostles need a rest and, as it is so busy where they are because of the number of people wanting to see Jesus, Jesus says to them:

‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ (Mark 6:31)

In an attempt to get to a deserted place, they cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat. Precisely where they go to, St Mark does not tell us. St Luke gives the location as ‘Bethsaida’ (Luke 9:10) and St John ‘up a mountain’ (John 6:3). (Somewhat confusing, however, is that St Mark writes that, after the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples leave where they are, again by boat, to go to Bethsaida.)

St Mark’s reference notwithstanding, we probably are not far wrong in thinking that the place Jesus takes the disciples to, in a forlorn attempt for them to get some rest, is up a mountain in the region near Bethsaida! It is at this location that the feeding of the five thousand will take place. Interestingly, in St John’s account, Jesus says to Philip:

‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ (John 6:5)

Philip, St John tells us twice in his Gospel, is himself from Bethsaida (John 1:44; 12:21), so this is perhaps why Jesus asks this question of Philip.

Unfortunately, the deserted place that they hoped to go to isn’t deserted by the time they get there. People spot them in the boat and, seeing where they are heading, rush there ahead of them. When Jesus goes ashore, he finds a great crowd waiting for him. St Mark describes Jesus’ reaction:

‘… and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Mark 6:34)

When evening comes, Jesus will perform one of his most well-known miracles. It is, in fact, the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. The lectionary for this week leaves it out of our Gospel reading and passes over to what happened after it. The reason for this omission is that next week, for three weeks in the lectionary, we are going to be thinking about the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ teaching after it in John chapter 6. So, we will be returning to the miracle and its meaning.

St Mark in his account of the feeding of the five thousand, however, links the apostles’ ministry with the people for whom Jesus has compassion and whom Jesus teaches and feeds, so this week we will not be ignoring what St Mark has to say in his account of the miracle.

St Mark describes the crowd who gather to meet Jesus and his disciples when they land as being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. There is more to this description than at first meets the eye. It links this episode in Jesus’ ministry with what we read about Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Firstly, in Numbers, chapter 27, we read of how God takes Moses up a mountain to show him the Promised Land that God has given to the Israelites. God tells Moses that after Moses has seen it, Moses will die. Moses says to God:

‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ (Numbers 27:16-17)

It is Joshua, which is Jesus’ name in Hebrew, whom God appoints to lead his people into the Promised Land. In future, however, when the leadership of Israel proves inadequate, the people will again be described as ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (see, for example, 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Ezekiel 34:5; Zechariah 34:5; Judith 11:19).

Secondly, the prophets spoke of a day when God himself would shepherd his people (Ezekiel 34:12-15). Like a shepherd, God promises to seek out the lost and scattered sheep and to lead and provide for them. God will set his servant David over them to be their shepherd (Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23). St Mark presents Jesus as fulfilling this role. Jesus does this, first, by teaching people and giving them guidance, but then, secondly, by feeding them. St Mark writes:

‘Then he [Jesus] ordered them [the disciples] to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.’ (Mark 6:39-40)

It is very easy to miss two significant references here. First, St Mark stresses that the disciples got all the people to sit down on the ‘green grass’. The most popular Psalm in the Bible is the Psalm 23 in which the Lord is described by the Psalmist as his shepherd, and because the Lord is his shepherd, he ‘shall not want’. The Lord makes him to ‘lie down in green pastures’ (Psalm 23:2). The Lord ‘prepares a table’ for him (Psalm 23:5), that is, the Lord feeds him.

Secondly, St Mark’s account of the people sitting in rows of hundreds and fifties would immediately remind anyone who knew their Hebrew Scriptures of how the tribes of Israel were arranged in the desert.

In Exodus, chapter 18, we read of how, when the people of Israel are in the wilderness, they go to Moses for advice and judgement in any disputes they have with each other. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, seeing Moses working hard from morning to night, tells Moses that he will wear himself out if he goes on like this. Jethro’s advice is that Moses should teach the people the way they should live. Jethro’s thinking seems to be that if they learn how they should behave, they will, hopefully, have fewer disputes. Jethro continues his advice:

‘You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.’ (Exodus 18:21)

St Mark is telling us that God is fulfilling his promise to be the shepherd of his people in the person of Jesus. Jesus is, in turn, entrusting his work of shepherding God’s people to his apostles, just as Moses entrusted his shepherding of God’s people to men he had chosen. Jesus is going to go on to feed the people with bread here in the wilderness, again as the people of Israel led by Moses, were fed in the wilderness with manna from heaven.

Moses taught the people God’s laws in the wilderness; Jesus teaches them in the wilderness. Moses appointed men to look after the people for him; Jesus does the same. In the wilderness, under Moses, the people are miraculously fed with bread; now Jesus too performs a miracle and feeds the people with bread.

In the next few weeks, in our readings, from St John’s Gospel we will look at both the miracle and at Jesus’ teaching following it. In his teaching, Jesus discusses the relationship between the bread that he gives and the manna that people ate in the wilderness. While the crowd all love the miracle, it is what Jesus teaches after the miracle that causes problems for people and, not least, for Jesus’ disciples themselves. St Mark himself, however, concludes his account of the feeding of the five thousand and what happens after it simply by telling us:

‘And they [the disciples] were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.’ (Mark 6:51-52)

The crowd’s enthusiasm to see Jesus, however, has not been diminished and our Gospel reading describes how people continue to seek Jesus out, primarily in the hope that he will heal those who are sick.

The first thing that we learn from all this is that Jesus cares for us holistically, including our physical, psychological, and emotional needs. Jesus isn’t just interested in us spiritually, important though the spiritual dimension of our being is. Jesus also cared for people physically. He was concerned that the disciples needed rest; he made sure that the people had something to eat; he healed the sick. St Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd that was waiting for him and his disciples that he had compassion on them. And he has compassion on us too.

This means that we can bring all our needs to Jesus knowing that he cares for us. We can bring him our problems, worries, failures, sins, guilt, regrets, difficulties, and offer them all to him. At the beginning of each service, I read the ‘comfortable words’, one of which is a saying of Jesus, ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28).

The invitation Jesus offered to people then, still stands today.

Secondly, however, Jesus wants us to prioritize our relationship with him. It used to be said that there was a danger of believers becoming so focused on people’s spiritual needs that they ignored their physical needs. This, in the past, was undoubtedly a warning that some in the Church needed to hear. Jesus provided food for people who needed it and healed their bodies from sickness.

To the credit of the Church today, we are very much aware of people’s physical needs, and we do genuinely try to help alleviate them. There is a real danger, however, of the Church becoming so focused on people’s physical needs that the Church can appear to people as little more than a religious NGO.

What is striking in what we read in our Gospel reading this week is how Jesus puts teaching first. When he sees that the people who meet him and his disciples are like sheep without a shepherd, he teaches them. Jesus is well aware that the people have come seeking him, not to be taught, but for him to meet their other needs. In St John’s Gospel, after the feeding of the five thousand and seeing the crowds looking for him, Jesus says to them that they are only searching for him because they ate their fill of the loaves (John 6:26).

When Jesus was alone in the wilderness after being baptized by John the Baptist, the devil tested Jesus by suggesting that Jesus turn the stones to bread. St Matthew tells us that Jesus answers him:

‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ (Matthew 4:4)

In John, chapter 6, Jesus tells the crowd the same thing:

‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ (John 6:27)

Jesus makes plain that he sees his teaching of the Word of God, and our need to hear it, as something that is fundamental to our well-being. Sadly, I would suggest, that is not how most of us see it. Congregations don’t really value teaching and hearing the Word of God. This lack of enthusiasm for preaching and teaching has, in turn, a knock-on effect on the clergy.

Now, I hope you will agree that I know a little about what is involved in being a Vicar. There are many different aspects of the role: from leading services to looking after the buildings that they take place in. It includes both pastoral care and fund-raising. All these are important, and I wouldn’t want you to take what I am saying as suggesting that they are not. The problem, however, is where exactly preaching and teaching fits into all this.

Preaching and teaching, if it is to be of any good, takes time. By good, I don’t mean popular. Sadly, preaching can often be more about performance than it is about content. So, when people say the sermon was good, what they mean is that they enjoyed it. I don’t imagine that Jesus’ teaching was always enjoyable to hear. While it may always have been effective, I don’t think you could describe it as having always been enjoyable to listen to; indeed, people would sometimes try to kill Jesus because of what he taught (Luke 4:28; John 8:59; John 10:31-32). By good, then, I mean effective at communicating the Word of God.

For a sermon to be any good, there needs to be time spent on preparation. A rule of thumb when it comes to preparing for a sermon is that there needs to be about an hour of preparation for every minute of the sermon, and that doesn’t include the general study that clergy need to do if they are to be effective in their ministry. Proper preparation won’t of itself guarantee that a sermon will be good, but a sermon is unlikely to be good without it.

Now realistically, if you are to spend that amount of time on a sermon, you have to be convinced that it is worth it. But if, as a clergyman, you are not convinced that it’s worth it and your congregation are also not convinced that it is, then when all the different demands come in, and come in they do, then, as a clergyman, you are going to be tempted to neglect the time spent in preparation. And when you discover that you can get away with spending less time on preparation and that the congregation doesn’t seem to mind too much when you spend less time, then the pressure to spend time on other things becomes overwhelming. Something you will never hear a clergyman say is that they can’t go to a meeting, or whatever, because they are busy preparing a sermon! It’s just not seen as important enough to take precedence over other things.

I am not going to attempt an answer to this problem this week. Quite simply, despite my years in the ministry, I still haven’t found one. All I would say is that if Jesus and the apostles are our model for ministry, we all need to take preaching and teaching the Word of God more seriously than we do, and be willing, both as clergy and congregation, to spend more time on it.

Congregations have a real role to play here. To an extent, congregations get the sermons they deserve. If a congregation doesn’t value preaching and teaching, it can be hard for clergy to value it. As preachers, we should, but it is hard to value it when it feels like no-one else does! If, however, a congregation is eager to hear the Word of God and to learn more about their faith, it is a great encouragement to a preacher to make sure that what he preaches is the Word of God and is worthy of it.

Jesus was concerned to train people to continue his ministry. I talked a bit about this on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity. Jesus saw that the people were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. When the evening comes and the people have had nothing to eat, the disciples ask Jesus to send the people away that they may buy food in the surrounding villages. Jesus answers the disciples:

‘You give them something to eat.’ (Mark 6:37)

Jesus is inviting the apostles to share in his ministry of caring for his sheep. After the resurrection, St Peter will be charged by Jesus to ‘feed his sheep’. St Peter will himself write to leaders of the Church:

‘… I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it …’ (1 Peter 5:1-2)

St Paul, fearing he was about to be killed, wrote to his co-worker St Timothy:

‘In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.’ (2 Timothy 4:2)

May God grant us, then, to take preaching and teaching seriously. May we be hungry for the Word of God and take time to feed on it.


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

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

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 6:14-29

St Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by him. John the Baptist, however, immediately disappears from the scene in the Gospel until our Gospel reading this week. St Mark tells us that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee begins after John the Baptist has been arrested by King Herod. Our Gospel reading this week describes the subsequent execution of John the Baptist. This means that much we have been reading about in our Gospel readings over the past few weeks occurred while John the Baptist was in prison.

What is all too easy to miss in all this is the gap between Jesus’ baptism by John and Jesus’ appearance in Galilee. St Mark describes Jesus’ appearance this way:

‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God …’ (Mark 1:14)

What St Mark doesn’t tell us is what happened after Jesus’ baptism, but before his appearance in Galilee after John’s arrest. Fortunately, St John does. St John, who, it would seem, is familiar with St Mark’s Gospel (or at least the stories about Jesus in it), tells us explicitly in his Gospel that he is describing this period between Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ ministry in Galilee after John the Baptist’s arrest. St John writes:

‘After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.’ (John 3:22-24)

St John has described Jesus’ first miracle in Cana of Galilee, his setting up home in Capernaum, and then a time of ministry in Jerusalem and Judea. This period of extended ministry in Judea explains why, in St Mark’s account of Jesus’ appearance in Galilee, Jesus attracts people from so wide an area. St Mark writes:

‘… hearing all that he [Jesus] was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.’ (Mark 3:8)

It also explains why from the very beginning of St Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus attracts the attention of the scribes and Pharisees. St Mark’s focus on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee can lead us to missing his ministry outside of Galilee and to think that Jesus confined himself to Galilee.

(The reason why books on Jesus’ life also give this impression is that scholars refuse to take St John’s Gospel into account when reconstructing the ministry of Jesus. St John, however, provides important historical information about this period between Jesus’ baptism and John the Baptist’s arrest.)

We learn from St John’s Gospel that, before John is arrested, Jesus conducts something of a parallel ministry to John the Baptist in Judea. This includes baptizing people in the way John the Baptist baptizes people. St John tells us it is actually Jesus’ disciples, and not Jesus, who do the baptizing, but it is clear that it is on Jesus’ authority and behalf (John 3:22-23; 4:1-2). John the Baptist’s arrest coincides with mounting opposition to Jesus in Judea (John 4:1-3).

The reason for Jesus not going to Galilee while John the Baptist is still free seems to be because he does not want to detract from John the Baptist’s own ministry. When John the Baptist is arrested, however, this is no longer an issue, and so Jesus goes to Galilee where St Mark takes up the story. St Mark’s account and St John’s will come together again for the feeding of the 5,000 as we will see in a couple of weeks’ time.

John the Baptist and Jesus, then, are closely linked in both St Mark’s and St John’s Gospel. St Luke, in his Gospel, also links Jesus and John the Baptist, explaining that their mothers are related. This relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is probably an added reason that, after King Herod has had John the Baptist beheaded, people think Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead. It is what King Herod himself thinks. There are obviously clear similarities between Jesus and John the Baptist, regardless of the differences in their appearance and approach (Luke 7:18-35).

St Mark uses his account of John the Baptist’s arrest and murder as an opportunity to pause his account of Jesus’ ministry and to reflect on what people are saying about Jesus. Jesus has become well-known and people have different opinions about him. As well as those who think Jesus is John the Baptist returning from the dead, some think it is Elijah. People also thought that John the Baptist was Elijah. Again, this confirms the similarity between Jesus and John the Baptist that they can both be likened to the same famous figure from Israel’s history. Others, however, see Jesus as a prophet like the prophets God has sent to Israel in the past.

Everything Jesus is doing in his teaching, exorcisms, and healings, however, is challenging people to make a decision concerning his identity and who they think he is. When Jesus calmed the storm, St Mark tells us that the disciples asked:

‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41)

The dominant answer given to this question by those who are not his disciples is that Jesus is a prophet of some kind, whether John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one in his own right. What is clear is that, with the exception of those in Nazareth where he grew up, people think Jesus is someone special. Even in Nazareth, they can’t make him out. On the one hand, Jesus is doing all these amazing things; on the other, however, he is the carpenter, the son of Mary, whose family they know (Mark 6:1-6). Jesus will ask his disciples directly who they think he is after he has given them more time and information to help them make their mind up.

Significantly, at this stage in St Mark’s Gospel, St Mark doesn’t record anyone as thinking or saying that Jesus is the Messiah. The demons recognize him, but he tells them to be quiet! The first person to recognize Jesus as the Messiah will be Peter. But that’s not for a couple of chapters yet, and even then, it’s complicated!

St Mark, however, has told us, his readers, at the very beginning of his Gospel who Jesus is. St Mark writes:

‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (Mark 1:1)

St Mark in his Gospel presents Jesus’ ministry to us as it was experienced by people at first, St Mark invites us to come to this conclusion ourselves.

So, what do we think of what St Mark has told us about Jesus so far?

Jesus has cast out demons, healed people, worked a miracle, and taught about the Kingdom of God. The question for us then is, ‘Who do we think Jesus is?’ Strangely, even after 2,000 years or so, our answers reflect the same sort of confusion that we see in the minds of those who first encountered Jesus.

I want to look briefly at three of the answers that are often given to this question of who Jesus is. Interestingly, the answers given today mirror the answers of people at the time of Jesus.

1. Just a man like any other

The first answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ is that Jesus was ‘just a man like any other’.

There are those, like the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, who cannot accept that Jesus was anything other than an ordinary human being, that and nothing more. For them, Jesus was someone who was in every way just another member of the human race. They cannot accept that Jesus was in any way different to anyone else. As they said in Nazareth, ‘We know his family.’ Jesus may have made an impression, but plenty of people make an impression. It doesn’t make them anything other than human.

Those who answer like this are prepared to admit that it is surprising that the movement Jesus started continued after his death, especially when it was such a humiliating death. They will concede that it is also surprising that those who knew Jesus best believed that he was not only alive, but had all along been God made man. Nevertheless, the conviction of those who give the answer that Jesus was only one of us trumps all that. They will not entertain any other possibility. Their minds are made up.

If our answer is that Jesus was just a man like any other, then Jesus would be as amazed at our unbelief as he was amazed at the unbelief of those at Nazareth. The irony, of course, is that those who take this position often accuse those of us who believe in Jesus of being irrational, dogmatic, and bigoted. The accusation frequently made against believers is that we have closed minds. It is, however, the minds of those who refuse to consider any alternative to their belief that Jesus was just a man that are closed.

To those who think like this, all that I would ask of you is that you at least consider the evidence and the possibility that there may be more to Jesus than you have so far been willing to allow. Open your mind!

2. A great prophet and teacher

The second answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ is that Jesus was a great prophet and teacher.

The first answer to the question of Jesus’ identity, which is one of outright dismissal of Jesus, is not, however, the most common. Much more common is the view that Jesus was a prophet, indeed a great prophet, one like Elijah even. Those who take this view see Jesus as a religious teacher who can take his place alongside others they see as prophets or religious teachers, people such as Buddha, Mohammed, and Gandhi.

Those giving this second type of answer acknowledge Jesus’ influence and even his greatness. They may even accept some of his teaching. Not, of course, his teaching about the need for us to believe in him exclusively and commit ourselves to him wholeheartedly, nor his teaching about judgement and the consequences of not believing in him. They focus instead on what they see as Jesus’ teaching about being kind, like the Good Samaritan, and of thinking of the needs of others as well as our own.

If, however, all that was special about Jesus was that he taught us that we should be nice, it is hard to see why he would inspire his followers to be willing to die for him, as many of the first disciples who had known him personally were willing to do. You can still believe in being nice without having to die for the person who told you that you should be.

What is more, if someone tells you that you will go to hell if you don't believe in them and make a life changing commitment to them, you wouldn’t normally think them nice. Indeed, if this is what they taught, would you take the slightest bit of notice of anything else they said? Wouldn't you think them either mad or bad?

To those who think like this, I would ask, ‘How is it possible to think Jesus was a great prophet and teacher when you ignore what was central to his teaching, namely his claims about himself.’

3. A God approved man

The third answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ is that Jesus was a God approved man.

The previous two answers assume that Jesus’ life ended with his death. There are those, who while not believing in Jesus’ resurrection in the way the first believers believed in it, who, nevertheless, think that in some sense at least, Jesus came back from the dead. They don’t, of course, think like King Herod that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life again, but they are willing to go so far as to say that Jesus himself has come back from the dead. They are convinced that Jesus was more than just some mother’s son; he wasn’t simply a carpenter no different to anyone else. They also accept that Jesus demanded commitment both to himself personally and to his message.

They won't, though, go as far as the first disciples were willing to go. Instead, like those who give the first answer to the question, they prefer to think of Jesus as entirely human. Like those who give the second answer, they too think Jesus was a prophet. They also believe, however, that because of the goodness of Jesus’ life as an ordinary human being and in recognition of his teaching and achievements as a prophet, God honoured Jesus by, making it possible for him to live on after his death. God gave his seal of approval to Jesus, so that Jesus can be said still to be alive.

Those who give this third answer don’t think that God’s approval means that Jesus got it all right in his earthly life. No human does. Nevertheless, they think Jesus got a sufficient amount right for people to believe in him. Of course, it is they who get to decide what it is he got right. And it is perhaps no surprise that those who take this approach think that what Jesus got right is what they have already decided is right.

In some ways, this third approach is the most dangerous for it appears to take Jesus seriously when it does no such thing. Jesus, on this understanding of who he is, becomes someone we honour but take little notice of. Why should we? We have ourselves already decided what it is that Jesus said and taught.

The identity of Jesus remains the great question of history. Was Jesus just a man who seemed to be able to make an impression? Was he simply another prophet, even a great prophet? What was it about him that made him so special that God enabled him to live on after his death?

The reality is that most people don’t care. It’s not a question that bothers them. They think there are far more important and pressing questions.

The Gospel writers all want us to see that the question the disciples asked themselves, Who is this … ?’ is one of the most important questions we will ever be asked.

The three answers to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ all focus on who Jesus was. The Gospel writers all answer the question by telling us who he is. Jesus is not simply a person or prophet in the past; he is very much alive and living in the present.

This means that it is not enough simply to answer the question. We need both to answer it AND to act upon it. The Gospels make it plain that we don’t follow Jesus’ teaching, we follow Jesus. Jesus’ teaching is only of interest to us because we are his followers and believe he is who he claimed to be and who the Gospels describe him as being. If you don’t want to believe in Jesus as the Gospels present him, that is, as God become man, the Word made flesh, who died and rose again, and who is alive and will return, then there is not much point bothering with him. If Jesus isn’t who the Gospel writers tell us he is, then, at best, he is indeed just another religious prophet, and there are more than enough of them.

St John speaks for all the Gospel writers when he tells his readers why he wrote his Gospel. St John writes:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

St Mark too hopes that as we read his account of the life of Jesus, we also will come to believe in Jesus and that through believing we may have life in his name.


Friday, July 09, 2021

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

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

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 6:1-13

One of the most famous quotes about the New Testament from the twentieth century comes from one of the most well-known theologians of the twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann. He wrote:

‘We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.’

Bultmann’s point was that if we have a modern understanding of our world based on science, which is most of us, then we can’t accept the worldview of the New Testament, and can’t then believe, for example, in exorcism and miracles.

This, if true, creates a bit of a problem for, as we have seen in our reading of St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry isn’t just about preaching that the Kingdom of God is near; it is also about casting demons out of people who are believed to be possessed and healing people who are often seriously sick or disabled.

So far, St Mark has given us several specific examples of Jesus healing people: Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31); the leper (Mark 1:40-45); the paralysed man who is let down through the roof (Mark 2:1-12); the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6); Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the haemorrhage (Mark 5:21-43). As St Mark makes clear, these are by no means isolated examples (Mark 1:34; 3:9-10). Healing was an integral part of Jesus’ ministry. It is a major reason why the crowds gather to see and hear him.

Many, nevertheless, can live with the idea of Jesus healing people, even if it is part of the ‘wonder world of the New Testament’ and reflects an ancient worldview. After all, Jesus was the Son of God and that surely means he was capable of doing some things that were out of the ordinary.

What is more, we still get ill today, and even if medical science has advanced dramatically since the time when the woman with a haemorrhage spent all her money on doctors, we still have to spend all our money on doctors (some things do not change), and there is still much doctors cannot do. We would like to think there is at least the possibility of a religious fall-back in case doctors cannot help us. Even amongst those who are not particularly religious, there is a hope that there may also be alternative cures that can be tried when modern medicine doesn’t seem to be working. We still haven’t, it seems, put all our faith in ‘medical and clinical means’ of healing.

However, while many of us can live with both an ancient and modern worldview when it comes to sickness, when, however, it comes to exorcisms and demon possession, we are far less tolerant. We are fascinated by such things when they appear in films and in books, but we don’t take them very seriously otherwise. Although churches still include prayers for healing in their intercessions, even if they are somewhat vague about what it is they are praying for, they don’t generally include prayers for people to be delivered from unclean spirits. And yet St Mark makes it plain that exorcism was just as much part of Jesus’ ministry as teaching and healing people.

Jesus’ ministry in St Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus being tested by Satan in the wilderness (Mark 1:13). Jesus’ first act in St Mark’s Gospel is in Capernaum, the place where he makes his home and the base for his ministry. It is in the synagogue in Capernaum that Jesus casts an unclean spirit out of a possessed man (Mark 1:21-28). It is this act that initially gets Jesus well-known. St Mark describes Jesus’ ministry like this. He writes:

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

In my podcast last week, I talked about St Mark’s account of the deliverance by Jesus of a man possessed by a ‘legion’ of demons (Mark 5:1-20).

So why am I talking about this today?

We are in the season of Petertide. This is when the Church often ordains people to its ministry, and at this time there will be many people being ordained priest or deacon throughout the church worldwide. These are the future leaders of the Church.

In chapter 3 of St Mark’s Gospel, we read how Jesus chose 12 of his disciples to be his apostles. These men were to be the first leaders of the movement that Jesus is starting. They were to be with him and learn from him in preparation for the work he wanted them to do. In our Gospel reading today, we read of how Jesus sends them out in twos to gain some practical experience.

It is a bit like someone learning to be a teacher today. They spend time with educators in college and then get sent to schools on teaching practice. While on teaching practice, they are given authority to work as teachers. When Jesus sends the apostles out, he specifically gives them authority over the ‘unclean spirits’. He also tells them that if anywhere refuses to welcome them, they are to have nothing more to do with that place. It will suffer the consequences in the future.

St Mark tells us that that the apostles then go out and do three things: they tell people to repent; they cast out demons; and they heal people. This is exactly what Jesus has been doing, and it is what the apostles are being prepared by Jesus to do more fully when he leaves them.

My own church, like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, sees priests sharing in this apostolic ministry of representing Christ and continuing his ministry – in theory, at least. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church has this to say about the priesthood. In paragraph 1548, we read:

‘1548 In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis:

It is the same priest, Christ Jesus, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).

Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ.’

I have to tell you, though, that this past week, for example, I have not to my knowledge healed anyone or cast out any demons. I don’t, however, expect to be told off by the Bishops as I doubt if they have either. We all quietly ignore this part of the apostolic ministry.

So where am I going with all this?

There are still those who don’t want to reject the idea that Jesus’ healings, and even his exorcisms, actually happened. There are those who want to believe the Bible, and who accept that, in principle at least, Jesus could have done such things while physically in this world. Even these believers, however, have largely followed those like Bultmann in rejecting the worldview that goes with believing that such things are possible. Bultmann himself argued that we needed to ‘demythologize’ the New Testament. By this he meant that while we couldn’t believe in miracles and healing today, they still had a message for today. It was a message that just needed to be re-expressed to fit our own worldview.

We all know, for example, that the world of fairy stories doesn’t exist. We don’t believe in wizards and witches, fairies and elves, and all the other wonderful things that happen in the stories. This doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate fairy stories. There is a moral to the tales that still has meaning for us.

This is increasingly how the Gospel stories are themselves being approached. We want to present the teaching of Jesus to people today without it looking like we share the worldview of Jesus and his disciples. To put it another way: we seek to repackage Jesus and the Gospel for own day, leaving out in the process of repackaging any of the stuff that is likely to put off people who have a modern worldview. A worldview which, in fact, we ourselves share. We don’t quite know what to do with two thirds of Jesus’ earthly ministry, so we focus instead on Jesus’ teaching and what he did for us in his death and resurrection.

Or do we?

Traditionally, Jesus death and resurrection has been at the heart of the Church’s faith. Many people in churches today, however, are arguing that we should not focus in our preaching and teaching on the death and resurrection of Jesus, which have never been popular with people outside the Church. Instead, it is said, we should talk more about his life and teaching. Focusing on Jesus’ life and teaching might not be quite so bad, if we kept faithful to Jesus’ teaching. But, as it turns out, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t fit our modern worldview any more than healings and exorcisms fit it.

Jesus, again St Mark tells us, begins his ministry by telling people to repent and believe his message (Mark 1:15). The disciples likewise when they are sent out by Jesus tell people to repent and to expect to suffer the consequences if they don’t. This is definitely not what we want to tell people when they come to church. They may not want to come again if we do, and then where would we be?

So, the repackaged Jesus we present is not Jesus as he lived and talked, but Jesus as we would have liked him to live and talk. We select the bits that go with the image that we want to present and quietly pass over the bits we don’t.

We keep the passages about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them because this fits our emphasis on inclusivity and diversity. We definitely keep the not condemning and forgiving people bits because these fit with our emphasis on accepting people just as they are. We also include the stories about Jesus breaking conventions and challenging those in authority for we too want to reject tradition, speak ‘truth to power’, and be politically relevant.

Some of the parables we also like because who doesn’t love a good story? The parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches us to be kind to everyone, is always popular as is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which tells of the Father who welcomes home the son who has messed up and, rather than telling him off, throws a party for him instead.

And we certainly think sayings of Jesus such as ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Matthew 7:12) need to be part of what we tell people because one thing you have to be seen to be today is nice. What is more, other religious figures have said similar things, so we have something in common with other religions. This means we can engage in inter-faith dialogue and not appear exclusive and bigoted in the way the Church has appeared in the past.

There are, however, huge problems with this repackaged version of Jesus and the Gospel.

Firstly, in addition to ignoring Jesus’ call to repent, it also means leaving out of our repackaged Gospel all Jesus says about the consequences of not repenting and his teaching about future judgement and eternal punishment. It rightly captures the forgiveness that Jesus offers, but not the change he brought to people’s lives and, indeed, demanded from them. Jesus did speak truth to power, but he also renounced power for himself and taught his disciples that they should do the same. Jesus resolutely refused to be involved in the politics of his day. His Kingdom, he told Pilate, was not of this world (John 18:36).

Secondly, while we may find the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son inspiring, what about the parable of the Wicked Tenants who the owner of the vineyard murders (Mark 12:1-12); or of the Wedding Banquet, where a wedding guest is thrown into outer darkness for not wearing the right clothes to the wedding (Matthew 22:1-14); or of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, where the foolish are excluded from the wedding (Matthew 25:1-13)?

Thirdly, our desire to make Jesus a role model of inclusivity and diversity is also fraught with problems given that the 12 apostles Jesus chooses are all men and ethnically the same. And our defence, that culturally Jesus didn’t have a choice, raises more questions than it solves. What happens now to our image of the Jesus who speaks truth to power and challenges tradition? One moment we are claiming Jesus is a radical who won’t be bound by convention and who isn’t afraid to upset people, the next we are arguing that the reason he won’t do something we passionately believe to be right is because of his fear of what people will think and the trouble it will cause.

So where does this leave us?

We need to face up to the problem. Not the problem we are always told is the problem, that of the difference between our worldview and theirs, but the problem of our uncritical acceptance of a modern secular worldview and our changing of our message to fit in with it.

We have to ask whether the Jesus we are presenting to people is remotely like the Jesus who actually lived in Eretz Israel two thousand years ago. After stripping Jesus and his teaching of all the elements that belong to what we see as a first century ‘wonder world’ and leaving out those parts of Jesus’ life and teaching that we find uncongenial, we have to ask who and what is left.

Our Jesus may now appear like a prophet and teacher who is very much at home in the present age, but there is now the issue of what the relationship is between Jesus as he was and Jesus as we have made him. Apart from anything else, looking at our Jesus raises the question of why God needed to become human in the first place. If Jesus, God become man, is this person, a prophet like other prophets, why couldn’t God have simply sent a prophet?

Did we need, for example, the incarnation to tell us that God is loving and forgiving. Isn’t that what he had always been? Did we need the incarnation to happen for us to know that we should be nice to everyone? Isn’t that the whole point of the ten commandments? After all, that’s what Jesus himself said the message of the ten commandments was (Matthew 7:12).

Taking Jesus out of his world and making him at home in ours may solve one problem, but it creates a whole lot more. St Paul says:

‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman …’ (Galatians 4:4)

We need to consider the possibility that God chose the time he did to send his Son because it was in every way the right time – the fulness of time. If we are to believe in his Son, we need to see his Son as he is in his time and not as we would like him to be in ours.

We are being constantly being presented with a choice. We are being told it is either our worldview or theirs and that we have to choose between abandoning what we read in the Gospels or believing things we know not to be true. Choosing not to abandon the Biblical account is, we are led to believe, like pretending we believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden and that unicorns really do exist.

It is, however, a false choice. What we need is a Biblical worldview. This is a worldview that celebrates the fact that the physical world is God’s creation to be studied and understood by the physical sciences, but which doesn’t think that this world is all there is. A Biblical worldview recognizes that God is active and at work in his creation but is not limited by it. God can act in whatever way he chooses, ‘for nothing will be impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37) It is a worldview that believes in the existence and power of evil and acknowledges that evil causes suffering and sickness and, yes, possesses people and takes over their lives.

Such a worldview means that it is not enough for us to tell people that God forgives them without also telling them what it is that they need to be forgiven of. It is not enough to tell people that they must be nice without telling them how to be nice.

We will find as we discover the Biblical worldview that the message we need to preach in the 21st century is much the same as the message Jesus gave his first disciples to preach in the first century. We will also discover that the sort of church leaders we need are not ones who can make the Gospel sound relevant to people today, but leaders who tell people to repent, who cast out unclean spirits, and who heal people. In other words, ministers who will truly act ‘in the person of Christ’.

The writer to the Hebrews writes:

‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ (Hebrews 13:8)

And his message is still the same:

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.’ (Mark 1:14)

May this be the message that we as a Church have the courage to proclaim.


Thursday, July 01, 2021

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

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

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 5:1-20

Last week, my podcast was about Jesus’ calming of the storm. This was a storm that threatened to cause the death of Jesus and his disciples as they crossed in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This week in the lectionary, our Gospel reading moves on to the healing of Jairus’ daughter and of the woman with the haemorrhage who touches Jesus wanting to be healed. These healings take place after Jesus and his disciples have returned from the other side. The lectionary passes over St Mark’s account of the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac. This took place while they were still on the other side! However, as Jesus’ exorcisms are such a feature in St Mark’s Gospel, I want in the podcast this week to look at what St Mark tells us about Jesus’ encounter with the man who is possessed and ask what we can learn from it.

After the calming of the storm, then, Jesus and his disciples arrive at the ‘other side’ of the Sea of Galilee, which St Mark identifies as the country of the ‘Gerasenes’. We are not sure exactly where this was, and there have been several suggestions. We do know, however, that it was in the geographical area of the Decapolis. (Decapolis is, literally, ‘ten cities’.) This was a region that included what is today northwest Jordan and southern Syria. The area corresponds roughly with the Old Testament region of Gilead and was thus part of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). This is important because many commentators say that Jesus is going into Gentile territory, which is misleading. It was certainly a Hellenized region with a strong pagan presence, but, nevertheless, it was still part of the Promised Land with Jews living in it.

Commentators assume that the possessed man was a Gentile, which may be a fair interpretation, but St Mark himself does not tell us what the man’s ethnicity was. Undoubtedly, the presence of pigs indicates a strong pagan influence in the area as pigs were ‘unclean animals and Jews were forbidden to eat or keep pigs (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8; see also: Isaiah 65:4; 66:17). This was something that was taken extremely seriously by Jews in Jesus’ day on account of the horrendous suffering that Jews had experienced for refusing to eat pork at the time of the Maccabees in the second century BC.

If Jesus’ disciples had originally hoped that they were going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee for a bit of a break, they were going to be disappointed. As soon as they arrive ‘on the other side’, Jesus is confronted by a man who is seriously possessed. St Mark tells us that the man is in a desperate state. He lives amongst the tombs of the dead, uncontrollable, howling, and given to self-harm. Questioned by Jesus, the man reveals that he is possessed by a great many demons. He gives his name as ‘Legion’. A Roman legion was made up of some 6,000 soldiers. The name is being used metaphorically to describe how great is the man’s possession.

It can also be seen as symbolizing both the possession of the Land of Israel by pagan forces and also the spiritual battle that is taking place between the Kingdom of God, in the ministry and person of Jesus, and the Kingdom of Satan, the ruler of this world. Previously in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has said when accused of being in league with Satan:

‘But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.’ (Mark 3:27)

Jesus now demonstrates his strength as he confronts the amassed forces of Satan occupying this man, whose possession makes him so strong that none have been able to restrain him. The demons know that they have now met their match and bow down before Jesus, acknowledging Jesus’ power and authority. The demons beg Jesus not to send them out of the country, but to send them instead into the herd of pigs nearby. The unclean spirits beg to be sent into the unclean animals!

We need to guard against sentimentality over this. Many of us who happily eat pork get upset that the pigs rush into the Sea and are drowned. For Jews, however, this would be a vivid demonstration both that the man was delivered and of Jesus’ authority. It would also suggest that the Land of Israel was itself being cleansed. The disciples, whatever else their reaction, would have probably cheered to see the pigs being destroyed.

Those responsible for looking after the pigs rush off to tell people what has happened. Apart from anything else, the destruction of a herd of 2,000 pigs would have represented a huge economic loss. Hearing the reports of what has taken place, the locals come to see what is going on. What they see is shocking. The man who has been possessed and whom no-one was able to control is now sitting there ‘clothed and in his right mind’.

Seeing the man, the people respond in the same way the disciples had responded when Jesus calmed the storm: they are afraid. Perhaps they wonder what someone so powerful is going to do next. In their fear, they too now beg just as the demons begged. The demons begged not to be made to leave the area; now the locals beg Jesus to do precisely that.

The man who had been possessed also begs. He begs to be allowed to be with Jesus. Jesus agrees to the what the demons and the locals ask of him, but, ironically, he refuses the man’s request. Instead, Jesus tells him:

‘Go home to your family [?], and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ (Mark 5:19)

The previously possessed man wants to become one of Jesus’ disciples. St Mark uses the same words here that he used when describing Jesus’ choosing of the 12 apostles (Mark 3:14). During his ministry, Jesus did call people to follow him as his disciples in addition to the 12 who were chosen to be apostles, but he tells this man that he should go home. In Greek, Jesus tells him literally that he should go home ‘to his own’ and tell them all that God has done for him. Jesus’ words are often taken as Jesus initiating a mission to the Gentiles. ‘His own’ being understood as ‘his own people’. St Mark himself, however, does not give us this interpretation of Jesus’ words. Jesus’ words may simply mean that Jesus tells the man to go home and show his family that he has been made well in much the same way that Jesus told the leper to go and show himself to the priest (Mark 1:40-45).

St Mark tells us, however, that the man instead of going home went away and told everyone in the region of the Decapolis how much Jesus has done for him.

In our reading of St Mark’s Gospel, we have been seeing how Jesus by forgiving sins, interpreting the Law, and calming the storm has been acting as only God himself was believed to have the authority to act. Now the man makes the connection explicit. As far as he is concerned, it is indeed God who has acted, and he has done so in the person of Jesus, the One who has delivered him, and he wants to tell everyone about it. Given how terrible was his former condition, it is not surprising that everyone is amazed.

But what does such a strange story have to say to us today?

1. ‘My name is Legion; for we are many’

While we are fascinated by such stories, and although movies about exorcism continue to be good box office, we don’t take them particularly seriously. Such beliefs, we think, belong to a pre-scientific age. At best, they may be a vivid way of talking about the power of evil and the destructive forces to which humans are prone, but the idea of someone being possessed by an evil spiritual being is not one we give much credence to. Even believers who believe that demons did exist, and that Jesus cast them out in the way St Mark describes, don’t think that such things happen nowadays or, at least, very rarely. If we are honest, we find it all a bit embarrassing.

We need to get over it. For we are still engaged in a spiritual battle today. The Jews at the time of Jesus, if asked, would have seen the Roman legions occupying the Land of Israel as the enemy and have longed for the day when they would be gone. St Mark, by describing Jesus’ exorcisms in such vivid detail, points to the real enemy. Political powers and armies in this world are not the real enemy, the real enemy is the ruler of this world who is happy to hide behind them and who doesn’t much mind if we believe in him or not as long as he can get on with his destructive work of opposing the purposes of God and keeping people in his power.

St Paul writes of those outside of Christ:

‘In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:4)

We don’t give all this too much thought. Sadly, even those who do accept the reality of demonic possession don’t realize how serious the situation is. Satan’s possession and control of people in this world is not confined to isolated cases of individual possession, but extends over all people and over all human institutions and structures. St Paul again writes of just how serious this is. He writes:

‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 6:12)

Interestingly, St John in his Gospel does not include any account of Jesus’ exorcisms. It is clear that he believes in the reality of the devil and of demon possession, but he does not describe individuals having demons cast out of them. A major reason why St John doesn’t include any of Jesus’ exorcisms in his Gospel is precisely because St John wants to stress how it is the whole world and everyone in it that is in darkness, opposed to God, and under the power of evil, and not just parts of it or select individuals within it.

The only hope for this world and its inhabitants, as all the New Testament writers stress, lies solely in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But this is a message that, because of their subjection to the god of this world, people in this world are not able to understand or accept. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that people are all possessed in the way the man in the story was possessed, but, whether they realize it or not, people outside of Christ are all just as much under the power and control of Satan as was the possessed man. There is a very real sense in which the only way anyone can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus is by themselves being exorcised.

We all need to be freed from Satan’s control and this can only happen by a direct intervention and act of God in our lives. St Paul writes:

‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The Gospel has the power to deliver people from Satan and from the power of sin and evil that controls them and threatens to destroy them. This is what makes it so essential that we, as believers, preach the Gospel. It is also vital that we do not allow ourselves to be side-tracked from telling people about Jesus and become focused instead on other issues no matter how worthy.

The Church at the moment, for example, is much occupied about its historical involvement with slavery, and it is right that we admit and face up to our failure in the past, but we need to be careful that in so doing we fail to see the slavery that all are under in the present.

2. ‘Clothed and in his right mind’

When the locals come to see what has happened, they see the man who has been possessed ‘clothed and in his right mind’. Many have suggested that what the Gospel writers describe as demon possession was, in fact, a form of mental illness and that demon possession was just the Gospel writers’ way of describing something they did not understand. Our arrogance and ability to be patronising towards people in the past knows no bounds! What is right is that all forms of demonic control result in problems with people’s minds. Where we go wrong is in thinking that this only affects a certain category of people. On the contrary, it affects us all. Outside of Christ, all of us are not in a right mind!

The problem goes back to the beginning of the human race. St Paul describes what happened when human beings rejected their Creator. He writes:

‘ … for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’ (Romans 1:21-22)

‘Claiming to be wise’ very accurately, and in just a few words, describes people in the present. We think ourselves to be so wise and so enlightened. We have freed ourselves, or so we claim, from the primitive superstitions of the past and have become masters of our own destiny. We are unlocking the secrets of life and are marching to a bright future without any worry about being accountable to anyone or anything except ourselves. We make the rules now.

No outside force could control the demon possessed man either. But, we protest, we are not howling, or self-harming, or living among the tombs. Well, as a pure matter of fact, many are self-harming. MindHK on their website describes self-harm this way:

‘Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences.’ 

In the US, one recent study suggests that as many as one in five children between 10 and 18 years old are engaging in intentional self-harm.

Others of us, though, are self-harming through drink, drugs, and various types of destructive behaviour. We may not be howling out loud, but many are howling on the inside, crying in pain that manifests itself in depression and despair. Like the possessed man we too live among the dead for outside of Christ all of us are dead in our sin, enslaved to the one who controls us. St Paul writes:

‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.’ (Ephesians 2:1-2)

We exist in a state that St Paul describes as ‘having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12). Like the demon possessed man, we too won’t accept any limitations or control on our behaviour. We seek to free ourselves from any societal constraints and we cast off the ‘clothes’ that inhibit our freedom. We too are not in our right mind. It is by keeping people’s minds darkened that Satan keeps us in his power. We encourage people to make their own minds up, forgetting that people’s minds are not their own to make up.

This is why St Paul, in telling the believers in Rome how they should respond to God’s mercies, begins by urging them:

‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:2)

It is only when our minds are transformed by the renewing power of the Spirit that we are able to know the will of God for our lives. Our worldview, how we think, and what we believe all matter. This is why false teaching is such a threat both to the Church and to individual believers, and why St John, for example, sees false teaching in the Church as demonic and why he so adamant that it must not be tolerated (2 John 7). By tolerating false teaching as believers, we are giving the devil a foothold in our churches. We are allowing him a place where he can get a good view of whom he may devour, as St Peter puts it (1 Peter 5:8).

The devil is strong, as he demonstrated in his possession of the demon possessed man, but Jesus is stronger. ‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world’, as St John writes (1 John 4:4). But we need to be careful and on our guard. This is why, at the end of every service, I pronounce the blessing, which is also a prayer, that the peace of God will ‘keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God’ (Philippians 4:6-7) for it is only in God that we find peace and protection.

3. ‘Tell them how much the Lord has done for you’

The man who was possessed wants to become one of Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus tells him instead to go home. The man can’t help himself, however. We don’t know how he came to be possessed or anything else about his personal history, but he has been given a new life and he wants to tell people how Jesus is the One who has given it to him. He simply has to share what has happened to him and how he has been delivered and set free.

Those of us who have come to know God in Christ have also been delivered and set free from the Kingdom of darkness. St Paul writes to the believers in Colossae:

‘He [God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1:13-14)

Interestingly, St Mark is with St Paul when he writes these words (Colossians 3:10).

God has done great things for us. He has drawn us to himself in Christ and has caused the light of the Gospel of Christ to shine in our lives. We too have been forgiven and freed from the power of sin that enslaved us and held us captive. We were sin addicts, possessed by the sin we were powerless to control, and the devil used that addiction to keep us in his power.

But we are in his power no longer. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray ‘deliver us from evil’. It is only by God’s power that we can be delivered from evil, both the evil in us and the evil in the world around us.

We still sing about this in our hymns each Sunday, but it is not generally how we think or, if we are truthful, what we really believe. In our hearts we think: ‘Me, a sinner, held captive by evil forces, and part of the Kingdom of darkness? I don’t think so!’ Maybe this is why we don’t particularly feel the need to tell people how amazing what has happened to us is. Our message, such as it is, is that Jesus loves us and accepts us just as we are. If he has done anything for us, we believe, it is to help us to realize our potential and follow our dreams.

But, like the possessed man, the only potential we have is for self-harm and self-destruction. We may dream of freedom, but we are powerless to experience it. Our life is a life of darkness amongst the tombs. We cannot save ourselves for left to ourselves we are lost. This is what makes the freedom we find in Christ so amazing, and when we experience it, it is impossible to keep quiet about it.

When something amazing happens to us we generally want to share it. Nowadays, we take to social media to do it, sharing it with our family and friends. We take pictures and post descriptions of it. Understandably, we want to communicate our happiness with others.

Over the pandemic, there has been much tragedy and loss. But there have been positive stories too. People who contracted Covid and feared for their lives are overwhelmingly grateful to the doctors and nurses who looked after them and nursed them back to health. They want to share the good news and their gratitude to those who cared for them with people.

We are not afraid to share with people the most intimate details of our lives and relationships, even sharing them with people we hardly know, and yet a strange reticence comes over us when it comes to our relationship and life with Christ. We are not all called to be evangelists or to get ordained. Jesus does call some people to these roles, but not all. He does, however, tell us to go home and at least tell those who are closest to us.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the Church grew quickly. This was partly because of the faithfulness and commitment of the apostles and martyrs who ‘loved not their lives unto death’, but it was also because ordinary believers shared what had happened to them with their family and friends.

We may find it hard to articulate our faith or to put in words what has happened to us, but we can at least invite those we know to come to Church where it can be explained to them. And we can certainly let people know we are believers without being ashamed of it.

However, we cannot share what we do not have, and if we haven’t experienced what God wants to do for us and in us, the first thing that needs to happen is for us to experience it for ourselves. And if Jesus can transform the life of a man possessed with a legion of demons, he can transform our life too. When he has, we too will want to share the good news with others.

This was the experience of John Newton, a slave trader who came to Christ. He shared his experience in the well-known hymn, Amazing Grace:
‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.’

May God grant us to experience his grace and give us the desire to share it with others.