The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
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.