For some of my early years, my heart would sink when I was invited to join a bible study group. My mind would start screaming, and my body sometimes even began twitching. Maybe you, or others you know, have had that kind of experience - of bible studies, or another avenue of faith exploration? For me, it wasn’t that the people who asked me were often a little unctuous, or patronising about my existing faith. Sometimes they were wonderful, beautiful, humble, with an open and expansive love of God and others. It was just that so many bible studies seemed so very narrow. Where they weren’t working with extraordinary assumptions about sin, God, and the way the world is created, they were often, frankly, simply a little boring. My experience in many Christian groups was that the scriptures were typically read as if they were flat in nature: straightforward and easy to interpret. This was because simplistic frameworks, or sets of formulae, were constantly applied to every passage. After I’d been to one bible study, I pretty much picked up the central message. Just repeating it again and again seemed neither interesting nor life-giving. When it was full of shame and guilt-inducing misdirection it was particularly alienating. Yet what an awful misuse that is of the Bible, and not least, Jesus’ own use of Scripture…
I think Jesus had had a rough few days and was not feeling the best. By the time we reach the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel they had taught extensively about the kingdom, healed many and called disciples. But Jesus is feeling that they just can’t win – if they try to be an ascetic like John they’ll say, ‘he has a demon’; and, as it is they are accusing Jesus of being a ‘glutton and a drunkard’. So, Jesus is not feeling over happy, and from that place of discouragement he reproaches the cities that will not welcome them. It is perhaps a comfort to realise that even Jesus can have a bad day. For Jesus, the embodiment of God, experienced the full range of our human emotions and was not afraid of them...
“He breathed on them and said, ’Receive the Holy Spirit’”
- Oh my: it’s to be hoped they were all at 1.5metres distance and wearing masks!...
By now most of us have seen the photos of many notable landmarks, especially in Europe, virtually deserted. Among them, and symbolic of the tragedy that has come upon northern Italy, is the great St. Mark’s Square in Venice, dedicated to that most audacious saint whom we commemorate today. Everywhere in Venice you see the symbol of the winged lion, his paw on the gospel; the symbol of Mark the evangelist - the gospel writer.
Mark wrote the first gospel. That sounds quite commonplace to us two thousand years on. We know that the other two synoptic writers, Matthew and Luke, took his work as their model and added to it, but Mark wrote the first one. The very act of writing was extraordinary. He did something that had never been done before. There had been other kinds of similar writing – lives of the great heroes of Greece and Rome – but no one had ever written a gospel before. It was an audacious act to try and set down what had happened and who Jesus was. Mark was brave and did something entirely new.
We don’t know for sure, but it seems likely that he wrote his gospel around 70AD - the time that the first Christians were being expelled from the Jewish synagogues and undergoing persecution following the fall of Jerusalem. That event was cataclysmic at the time. He writes because he feels he has to. He writes because there is a danger that if he does not the story will be lost, perhaps forever. The threat of imminent death inspires extraordinary acts of bravery, as we are seeing in the world today. Fear can beget bravery.
However, fear can also beget timidity and we see that in the gospel story we just read. It is thought that Mark actually ended his gospel at verse 8 ‘and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid’ – in the Greek text it actually ends with the tiny word ‘gar’, meaning ‘for’. The first gospel ends with a tender little conjunction – a joining word. It was for the pens of later writers to finish the text – and to join Mark’s brave, first testimony, to the future trajectory of the church, commissioned by their version of the risen Christ to ‘go out and proclaim the gospel’. Mark told the truth, tender as a young leaf – at first the wonder, the audacity of the resurrection could not be believed. It was just too new; too incredible to be trusted.
We like Mark, are facing dangers. We like Mark, are being challenged to do things we have never done before. We like Mark recognize that the way out of here requires hope and trust in things we cannot yet fully see or believe. Can we, as individuals, as churches, as society, be like Mark? Can we be brave enough to attempt the new, and bold enough to hold the tender green leaf and not crush it? For this is God’s call to us in our time. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for St Mark's Day, celebrated Sunday 26 April 2020
Two questions and a deceptively simple answer!
What are you looking for? Where are you staying?
Come and see.
We could meditate on those three simple phrases for a month – or a lifetime! What John gives us here is not so much history, as theology and spirituality. He gives us an introduction in this opening chapter of his gospel to themes that he is going to explore throughout – the theme of seeing and the theme of staying.
Let’s spend a little time with each of these phrases. ‘What are you looking for?’ asks Jesus, when he realizes that Andrew and his friend are stalking him. Now this isn’t like Petrina’s polite enquiry to someone in the fresh produce department at Woolies! This is the question we might all ask ourselves as we think about our relationship with Jesus. What are we actually looking for when we come to church, or try to pray? What are we looking for along our life’s journey?...
Sometimes the message of Jesus is inflammatory – there are no two ways about it! Today Jesus expresses this very directly as he says, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it was already kindled!” Now this is not at all comfortable. Most of us prefer to avoid conflict and live life peaceably. We are much more at home with Jesus’s messages about love and peace and kindness, treating everyone with respect and seeking to welcome everyone. So, what are we to do with today’s story about how Jesus comes to bring division, even into the intimate unit of the family?...
As I feel sure many of you will remember, in the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian”, Jesus at one point is discovered by Brian teaching the people. There is a huge crowd gathered around him – very much as described in our passage today – so huge that some of the people on the outer edge of the crowd cannot hear what he is saying. As Jesus pronounces what have become known as the Beatitudes -the declaration of those who are blessed – one of the characters in the movie, desperate to know what Jesus is saying asks a man ahead of him in the crowd, ‘what is he saying – what’s he saying.’ The man checks with someone in front of him, who in turn checks with someone else and then the message is relayed back, rather as in the game of Chinese whispers - “The Master says, “Blessed are the cheesemakers”
Well that was obviously a joke! – but it also a good reminder to us about how easily we misunderstand what Jesus has said, and how often we misunderstand about blessing. I was talking with you last week a little bit about the dangers of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ and about how it is easy to assume that when things are going well God is blessing us and conversely when things are hard that somehow, we have lost God’s favour. There really could not be a clearer reversal of that thinking than today’s Gospel passage (Luke 6.17-26)...
The great and much maligned former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, used to say, “We are not up to it, but thank God, God gets down to it.” Today we have heard the stories of three quite ordinary people, Isaiah, Paul and Peter, who did not feel up to it; yet by the grace of God, they found themselves caught up in God’s work; despite their own feelings of weakness and inadequacy.
I don’t know what your own experience has been, but I have certainly learned that following God's call is not a single event. Rather it is a life - long process filled with much failure punctuated with occasional bright points of something that felt like ‘success’, but not success as most people would measure it...
Some of us may have heard that, on the same night as this year’s Sydney Mardi Gras, a gay man was beaten up in the centre of Toowoomba. This should not take the gloss off the rightfully joyful celebrations of 40 years of Mardi Gras, or the recent advance with marriage equality and all that that symbolises. Yet it is a vivid reminder, if we needed it, that there is still more to do. I say that with deep sadness, for after ministering for over six years in Toowoomba, I have seen that city become increasingly broad and beautiful, in its affirmation, not just tolerance, of our amazing Australian human diversity. So I am not despondent about Toowoomba, or anywhere else in Australia, even though we have just been recalled to the powerful forces of rage in our society…
What do you think makes for a great political slogan? Whatever you think about him, I think Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ was pretty effective. Other catchy slogans which have famously worked well in the USA have been Lyndon Johnson’s ‘All the Way with LBJ’, Bill Clinton’s ‘Its the Economy stupid’, and the clever response to Barry Goldwater’s ‘In your heart, you know he’s right’ which was ‘In your guts, you know he’s nuts’. In the UK, the one slogan everyone remembers was Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Labout isn’t working’. What about Australia? My guess is that Whitlam’s ‘Its Time’ has probably been the most effective, with ‘Kevin 07’ perhaps a catchy runner-up as most recently memorable. It is hardly a new phenomenon of course. Leaders were coining political slogans from ancient times, not least the Roman Emperors. So too with Jesus. For, whilst Jesus’ proclamation – his evangelion, his ‘gospel’ - was much more than political, as we hear it again in today’s reading, it most certainly had its political dimension. It is something important that we can easily miss with the passing of time…