7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 3:7-12; 4:1-6
I wonder if you know what the letters in this picture stand for. The letters BHAG stand for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. This is a term that comes from the strategic planning process. You may have come across in your work life, if your workplace decided to review its vision and mission and discern the next steps for growing as an enterprise.
Some strategic planning gurus claim that a successful plan needs a stretch goal, something that inspires the organization to risk something of themselves, to try harder than they have ever before. This is the Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal- “a long-term, 10 to 25-year goal, guided by your company’s core values and purpose…a challenge that is so audacious, outside-thebox, and hairy that it might feel as if you’d never achieve it. We’re talking about a ‘put a man on the moon’ level goal here.” If you’ve ever watched the movie, Apollo 13, you’ll know how complex that was. By this point you might be starting to develop an allergic reaction to talk of goals and strategy, especially in the life of the church. As helpful as they can be, we sometimes wonder what they can actually achieve.
You may remember in 2019 that the St John’s community gathered together to discern what we believed God was calling us to do in light of our identity as God’s chosen people. We responded to what we heard God say by refining and recommitting to our Vision and Mission Statements. We’ve developed ministry teams as a way of bringing passionate people together so that we can “celebrate in worship, grow in faith, care for people, and tell others about Jesus.” And over the next weeks we will be focusing on the hopes that the Mission Team has for St John’s.
Behind our vision and mission lies God’s Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. I find it beautifully summarised in this book, Manna and Mercy, by the American theologian, Daniel Erlander. He humbly submits that his book is “A Brief History of God's Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe.” This is God’s goal. And the church is the means through which he intends to do this.
Another management expert says that a BHAG “should scare you a little and excite you a lot.” I think these words ring true when we talk about the mission of the church. Truth be told, there is often more fear than there is excitement. And that’s understandable if we view the church as a human organisation that relies on its wisdom and lives on its wits. Then the question is, “Are there enough smart people in the room? Do we have powerful leaders with insight and capacity?” And the answer if, of course, no. And that’s OK, because this is not our goal to achieve in our strength. We are not a start-up, the creation of a visionary entrepreneur. We are not a publicly listed company, beholden to our shareholders, selling a product that appeals to people’s needs. We are the people of God. What a remarkable title that is. Just hear what Paul has to say to us, and about us:
“God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight…In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us…he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ…to bring unity to all things in heaven and earth under Christ.”
This is God’s goal. And we are part of this, God’s call, God’s grace at work in us. The heart of it is that out of his rich mercy, “God made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions-it is by grace that you have been saved.” But that is only the half of it. Our lives have been completely transformed, reoriented by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Now we are filled with God’s own life, through the Holy Spirit who lives in us. “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.”
I arrive at the beginning of a strategic planning process nervous about what to expect and wondering what I personally can contribute. But when I read Paul’s majestic letter, my fear is transformed into excitement about what God has called you and I, and his whole church into. “Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” The very existence of the church is a key plank in God’s grand plan.
But wait, there’s more: “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the multisplendoured wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm, according to his eternal purpose, that he accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord.” God has planned nothing less than the remaking of the total universe. That’s the biggest, hairiest, most audacious goal ever. And God will succeed. Of that there is no doubt. He has done the hard yards through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ. The resurrection means that we have a living Lord who has conquered death, is alive in his kingdom, his world, and in us.
How many times do we wonder if we are up to the task? We tend to think of the church as small and insignificant, and we question whether we wield any real power or influence in our community and the wider culture, let alone globally, and certainly not cosmically. Yet as the Message translation makes clear: “through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known.”
The good news is that God is in charge of bringing his plan to completion. Paul begins the second part of his letter to the Ephesians with this appeal, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Paul feels no shame in addressing God’s people from prison. Some may have wondered how successful God’s mission would be if one of God’s key messengers was in captivity. Yet Paul sees no issue here. He’s following in the footsteps of his crucified and risen Lord.
This is the cross-shaped life into which we have been called. God has done the calling, the choosing. It’s all his work, in grace. Living a life worthy of the call is not a qualification but an outcome of the grace of God that is at work in us. We have been so incredibly blessed by God. Our perspective on what constitutes a good life has been profoundly transformed As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 4 through what God has done in us. Jesus has redefined power and how it is to be used-to serve. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Don’t big note yourself; big note God. Give glory to him. See other people not as competitors in the game of life, but fellow pilgrims on the road, and people who you are called to love.
See this sinful sort of saintly band, the church, as your enduring family, brothers and sisters in the one Lord Jesus Christ. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This peace a key gift of God in Christ.
We live in a world and at a time where there are so many fault lines, so many differences of opinion and life philosophies, that it’s hard to find something on which we can agree. Political parties often say that “disunity is death” Unity is hard to find, harder to maintain. The good new for us is that it is God who has done the uniting. “Jesus himself is our peace, who has made the two one…” What God has done through Jesus is displayed to the world in the way that the church lives and loves. Paul shares these seven ones are the heart of the church’s life, hope and future. There is:
- one body-the church, Jew or Gentiles, slave or free, male or female-one recreated humanity, with the one renewed status through Jesus.
- one Spirit-the Holy Spirit, the go-to-person of God, calling, gathering, enlivening and sanctifying us.
- one hope-an expectant orientation toward the future, confirmed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the only true hope for the whole universe.
- One Lord-Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the servant of all people, who sacrificed his life to give us life; he is Lord, and not Caesar, or money, or a secular leader, or another ideology.
- one faith-this is a trust and confidence in the God’s whose love has been revealed to us through the apostles and prophets, in his word.
- one baptism-this is where God gets personal in our lives, once, for good, for ever lovingly committed to us.
- one God and Father-the originator of the universe, the source of life for all creation, the one worthy of all praise.
God’s mission starts with God’s gifts. God doesn’t ask of us what doesn’t first give us. He has given us his love through his Son, his permanent presence through his Holy Spirit. He has called us his people and he’s given us the privilege of letting people know that he loves them and is in the process of renewing the whole creation. Amen.
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing those who were ill. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’ 8Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. 14After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:1-15
The year was 1930, the beginning of the great depression. In the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, there were over 4000 unemployed. A newspaper paper report in the Sun- Pictorial observed that: “'As there is not sufficient food to go around for relief distribution to the Brunswick unemployed today, 622 tickets bearing numbers and 200 hundred blanks will be drawn from a hat.” Those fortunate enough to get a ticket were than able to purchase some basic foodstuffs. Others went without. This was called sustenance, or more popularly 'susso'.
Perhaps there are one or two people in our community who are old enough to remember the great depression. Over 30% of the Australian workforce were unemployed. Many people were forced to live on the breadline. They had to line up for hours in the hope that they might get some food relief.
The announcement of this week’s lockdown taps into some of these primal fears. We rush the aisles of our local supermarket, even though rationally we know that there is enough to go around. To put the best construction of things, perhaps people don’t want to leave their homes under any circumstances for the next seven days. To do that safely, we need the staples: bread, milk, pasta, meat, veggies, and fruit, and of course, toilet paper. On the other hand, perhaps this points to a desire to maintain control over this current situation.
It’s not a stretch to say that the people Jesus encounters in today’s gospel were in a desperate situation, one much worse than ours. As Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.” Some of them would have been sick and hoping that Jesus would heal them. Most, if not all of them, would be poor, living day by day, not actually being sure of where the next meal might be coming from. This is the kind of fear that we don’t know, at least not in recent decades. But what fears or needs do you bring to Jesus today? I’m sure all of us are concerned about the pandemic, and how it won’t be over any time soon. Our anxiety may have increased as it has come much closer to home in the last days. We are frustrated at the slow rollout of vaccines, which will, in need, keep us safer. What do we learn today from Jesus?
First of all, we see Jesus change his plans to meet a need. He had intended to spend some private time with his disciples, bit the gathering crowd put an end to that. Perhaps we might say, to use a buzzword, Jesus pivoted to face the situation in front of him. He begins by drawing in the disciples. He asks Philip: “‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” Philip was clearly a realist: “‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’” I wonder what Jesus thought of his answer. Shouldn’t he had said, “Lord, I believe that you can deal with this, even if I don’t know how.”
Andrew seems a little more hopeful: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’” It seems inconsequential, but perhaps this little, like the little faith that Jesus calls for, will be enough for Jesus to work with.
So Jesus does get to work. He gets the disciples to order people to sit down. “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.” Jesus then orders the disciples to collect all the leftovers. Who could have believed that there would be more than enough? “So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.”
This reminds us of how God provided for his people’s needs when they were going through the desert on their exodus journey. God. God said, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”’ This manna would be their staple food for the journey.
It’s no wonder that those witnessed what happened that day got excited about the possibilities of putting Jesus in charge of the whole show. Jesus, however, resisted the temptation for power and glory. It’s not that he didn’t care for people; feeding 5000 of them shows that he certainly cared for their physical needs. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray: “Give us today our daily bread.” But of course, the very next petition alerts us to our even more desperate need: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This was the much more that Jesus speaks about in the rest of John chapter 6. Our deepest need is for a relationship with the one who created us. God wants to feed people spiritually, not just satisfy their physical needs. Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 prefigures his offering of his life for the sake of the spiritual health of all people. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
None of us will go hungry over the next seven days. Our food supply chain is working well, supermarket shelves are restocked overnight, and we can go shopping for our basic needs. But the pandemic as a whole, as well as our most recent lockdown, has uncovered a whole lot of deeper hungers. The future is very uncertain at most levels, from the personal to the global. Some of you have spoken to me about the sense that perhaps we have lived through the best years, and that the next decades will be much more fraught, and that’s not what any of us would have hoped for, especially for our children.
COVID-19 has uncovered some deep-seated insecurities, and my experience has been that people have been more willing to talk about some of the bigger life questions. We are all concerned and there is a heightened level of concern, even anxiety. What might happen if we got sick? What about our financial future? So many questions, ones that really matter for all people. And the good news is that we believe in a God who answers these deep needs and provides us with eternal security. We know a Saviour whose words and actions show, beyond doubt, that God cares for us, physically and spiritually, body and soul.
Jesus says later in John 6: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father, and I will raise him up on the last day…Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” The image Jesus uses here is of fish being dragged into a net, caught up in its sweep as the boat glides through the water. Without the prior action of God, we can't know Jesus, we can't believe his audacious claims. Luther, in preaching on this text, comments, “People may forever do as they will, they can never enter heaven unless God takes the first step with his Word, which offers them divine grace and enlightens their hearts, so as to get upon the right way.”
That’s what we have experienced in Jesus. He came down to us. Became one of us. Meets our need for a meaningful present and a hopeful future. He doesn’t wait until we are worthy. He spends his life on the cross for our sake. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Jesus' offers up his body as the perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world. In his body, he obeys the law of God and satisfies its demands on our behalf.
This is the spiritual breadline on which we live, sustained by the “bread of life.” Unlike the 'susso' about which I spoke earlier, we need have no doubts about receiving food to eat. Nor is this a restrictive diet. We who are spiritually hungry come in faith, through God's gracious initiative, to feed on the living bread. We do so through the witness of the word, and in the intimacy of a shared meal with brothers and sisters, feasting on Jesus' body and blood through bread and wine.
Living on this breadline fills us for an energetic and active life of faith. As Luther puts it, 'From that moment on (the moment of faith) he loves his neighbour and helps him as his brother; he rescues him, he gives to him, loans to him and does nothing for him but that which he would desire his neighbour to do for himself.'
We, God’s people, have the calling to love our neighbour over this time, especially these days of lockdown, checking in with them, seeing what we can do to ensure they are physically cared for. But many people in our community are spiritually hungry. In normal times they’ve been good at covering it up. But this pandemic has pulled the rug from under people’s feet. We can also care spiritually. Praying for one another, for friends and neighbours, is a good start. Praying, too, for an opportunity to speak of Jesus, the Bread of Life. The greatest act of love in which we can engage is lead the spiritually hungry to the place where they can be fed. Someone once described evangelism as “One beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” Jesus says, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.' Amen.
Here are some questions that you might like to discuss in your household. 1. What fears do you bring into this lockdown? What do you hear from other people? 2. Have you found greater opportunities to speak about spiritual matters since COVID-19 began? 3. How does feeding on Jesus, the Bread of Life, help you through this strange time?
[Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. Ephesians 2:14
The subject I disliked the most in Secondary School was English. And I thought the worst part of English was poetry. And my biggest gripe was trying to make sense of many of the poems, and to see in them all the wonderful things our teacher saw. One of the poems I found hard to follow was one by Robert Frost called ‘Mending Wall’. And that confusion began with the very first line, ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall’. Couldn’t that be made simpler and far more clear?
Yet despite my complaints about this first line, that’s exactly what comes to mind whenever I read this verse. Only I’ve got a more simplified version: There is someone who doesn’t love a wall. That’s what Paul is saying here. And he says that someone is Jesus.
Jesus is the great wall destroyer. In the OT we hear about another Jesus — only he was known by the Hebrew version of Jesus, which was Joshua. He is well known for being in charge when the walls of the city of Jericho came tumbling down. Well, what Jesus does is even greater than that. He breaks down the walls, the divisions, between us as persons.
Walls between people are pretty common. As humans we are very similar in our physical, mental, and emotional makeup. Yet we have always allowed walls to separate and divide us from each other. Particularly those of nationality and politics, religion and colour, prejudice and rivalry, guilt and shame. And some of those walls are high and strong.
Why on earth do we build these barriers?
Well, let’s go back to a time — way back — when there were no walls. One person is wandering around his unfenced back yard and notices all the gardening tools and hunting arrows and spears leaning against his neighbour’s house. The more he thinks about it, the more worried he becomes – and threatened and insecure. All those tools and hunting equipment could be used as weapons, against himself. So, he puts up a wall to protect himself and his family. When the neighbour sees this barrier go up, he wonders what may be going on behind it. He thinks he might be in danger from whatever it is that has to be hidden away behind a wall.
So he builds a wall, too, for his security and safety. And people who had been friends became enemies. That’s how walls work, isn’t it?
Today we may build different kinds of walls, but the effects are the same. I may see that another person has more money, or more friends, or has what I think are better abilities, or is more successful in life, than I am. And I may be tempted to build a wall between me and that person, to protect me from his popularity, or success – a wall of jealousy. Then that person, feeling my jealousy, will build his own wall in order to protect himself from me, and from my comments or actions of jealousy.
Or a person might hurt me, perhaps by saying something unkind, without even realising that what she said could be misunderstood. And I get angry and build a wall of indifference or hatred to protect myself from being hurt again. Or I build walls of ignorance and prejudice between me and other people because they have different beliefs or values or ways from mine.
There can be so many reasons for me, and for all of us, to build walls. And there are just as many reasons for me, and all of us, to justify keeping those walls there.
But Jesus came, and still comes, to take down those personal walls, to destroy them – all of them – wherever they are. He loves all people and wants to bring us all together.
And notice how he does this. He starts by taking down the walls I’ve built. We’d prefer him to start with the other fellow’s. That’s easier; it makes the other person take the first step in living without walls. But God doesn’t do that. He comes to me, to you, on our side, to deal with our walls.
He helps us see, and sometimes it takes some time to get through to us – he helps us see that we don’t need to be jealous, we don’t have to hate, we don’t have to be defensive, we don’t have to attack others, we don’t have to be afraid of people.
We’re free from all that because Jesus is our Saviour – our Saviour from sin, AND our Saviour from the need to be jealous, hateful, defensive, and afraid.
Since he forgives us and takes away all our guilt, we don’t have to protect ourselves from other people’s accusations. We don’t have to prove we’re in the right, we can even be in the wrong quite often. We don’t have to think we’re better than others, we can even think of others as being better than we are. That’s the results of having Jesus as our Saviour.
We don’t need to build walls to defend ourselves, because Jesus has defended us and always will. We don’t need to build walls as a means of getting back at others, because Jesus saves us from giving people what we think they deserve. And if his work as Saviour doesn’t extend into our daily life to deal with the walls we put up, then something has gone wrong – in us.
So Jesus defends us, not by destroying our enemy, or fixing up the other person, but by being our Saviour and removing our walls. Of course, he offers to do that for those who build walls against us, too. But they may want to keep their walls. And that doesn’t matter. That’s no justification for us to keep ours. We need not, we can’t, keep ours. We have Jesus to protect us; we don’t need walls – certainly not between us as fellow members of his church or as fellow citizens in our country. He’s pulled them down, and he forbids us to rebuild them.
Paul was amazed by the way Jesus brought people together. He does it by making us new persons, recreating us. He shatters the old selfish, fearful nature in us and replaces it with a new nature, a new being, which lives in love, in God’s love. And the walls come tumbling down whenever these re-created people face each other in love and trust.
Let’s put it this way. If you love Jesus and I love Jesus, we’ll find it hard to hate one another. It’s easy to hate if you believe another person is mean, vicious, cruel, lazy, and so on. But when we say, as we must, ‘that person loves Jesus just as I do’ — or more, ‘Jesus loves him or her just as Jesus loves me’ — then it becomes impossible to go on to say, ‘But I’m not going to show love to that person, I’m going to keep right away from him or her.’ Walls stand only as long as we can paint the other fellow as a villain, or as someone outside of God’s love. When the other person loves all that I hold dear, when my Saviour, who I hold dear, loves him or her, then the hand of fellowship is sure to follow.
But walls are stubborn things. They are really hard to get rid of. Nor is the shattering of walls a one-time thing, either. The old sins of hatred and prejudice, and all the rest, creep back, if we’re not on the alert, if we don’t confess them again and again. The new nature Jesus gives us is always at war with our old nature of sin.
So Jesus, the wall shatterer, is at work in our hearts constantly, helping us to search our hearts in order to have him remove, through his forgiveness, all those forces that want to put the walls up again.
Jesus doesn’t love a wall. He pulls them down — all the walls we put up. And he calls us to live without them. He gives us the power to live without them.
14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying,[[a](https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+6%3A14-29&version=NIVUK#fen-NIVUK-24422a)] ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’ 15 Others said, ‘He is Elijah.’ And still others claimed, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.’ 16 But when Herod heard this, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’ 17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled[[b](https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+6%3A14-29&version=NIVUK#fen-NIVUK-24428b)]; yet he liked to listen to him. 21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of[[c](https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+6%3A14-29&version=NIVUK#fen-NIVUK-24430c)] Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.’ 23 And he promised her with an oath, ‘Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.’ 24 She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ ‘The head of John the Baptist,’ she answered. 25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a dish.’ 26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a dish. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Mark 6:14-29
We live in an age of activism. People are unsettled and dissatisfied with the status quo. We have all witnessed the life destroying, devastating and deadly effects that abuses of power have upon both vulnerable people and the environment. In response, some people stand up, speak to power, and disrupt those who seek to abuse power. They are activists. You might be such a person. There are plenty of ways to be an activist. As an activist, what do you consider might be the most disruptive, defiant, power-shattering thing that you could do? Is it to publicly protest, is it to volunteer or donate to a cause, is it to break the law? In each case you use the power that you have to disrupt greater, maleficent power.
St Mark tells the story of four feasts. The first is Herod’s (Mark 6:14-29). At that feast Herod misused his power to sexually abuse his step-daughter and unjustly behead John the Baptist. Straight after that story we read about a feast that Jesus hosted at which he fed 5000 people who belonged to his own Jewish tradition (Mark 6:30-44). Then we read about a third feast at which Jesus fed 4000 non-Jewish people (Gentile outsiders). Finally, Mark brings his feast stories to a point of culmination where Jesus hosted a final meal with the pouring out of his life for all people, and the promise of God’s new kingdom (Mark 14:12-26). Jesus’ feasts are meals of overflowing abundance. Herod’s meal was against the background of his fear of scarcity. He feared losing power and so his actions became increasingly depraved and inhuman. Jesus feared no such loss, but offered and gave everything, and more.
So, as activists, what is the most disruptive, defiant and power-shattering thing that you can do? Eat and drink. It’s to participate in the meal that Christ Jesus prepares for you. The meal that has nothing to do with power and the fear of its loss. It’s the meal that completely disrupts that way of seeing life. It’s the meal in which Christ Jesus freely offers himself with overflowing abundance. It’s the meal that resets our views of power not as something to be savagely accumulated but as something to be given away. You and I now live and serve for the sake of the life of our neighbour and all creation. What could be more disruptive than that? Our activism is grounded in Christ’s feeding.
6 Jesus left there and went to his home town, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. ‘Where did this man get these things?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 4 Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.’ 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few people who were ill and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith. Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. 8 These were his instructions: ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed with oil many people who were ill and healed them. Mark 6:1-13
At the end of my first year of parish ministry, I was invited to preach at the centenary of a little church in country South Australia, at a place called Milendella. It featured in one of the St John’s Worship@Home videos last year. My great-great grandfather was one of the founding members of that congregation. He was one who helped build the church it over summer of 1892 leading into 1893.
My grandparents owned a farm in the district, and although they moved to Adelaide in 1954 and joined St John’s, they kept the farm, and my grandfather’s cousin looked after the sheep and the crops. I spent many school holidays there, helping my grandfather mend fences, chop wood and grub out weeds. But even though I had never lived there, preaching at the centenary of Zion Lutheran Church was a kind of homecoming. These sturdy, no nonsense people, their heritage of hard work and resoluteness in dealing with the marginal farming country in which they lived, was something I valued. Not to mention their commitment to God and their small church. I owe a great debt to these faithful people of God.
Coming to serve as your pastor felt a little the same way. I was baptised here in 1966, and so my journey with God began here, but then my parents joined another congregation in Adelaide. Returning to Adelaide, being close to my parents, and also being able to journey with my mother as she was dying was an incredible privilege. As is the ongoing call to be your pastor.
My homecoming has brought me great blessing, but that wasn’t the experience of Jesus in today’s gospel reading. Jesus returned to the town he grew up in. He was the epitome of a local boy made good. We would expect the red carpet to be rolled out. But there are signs right from the start that the reception will be rocky.
It's the Sabbath. As a travelling teacher, Jesus is given the privilege of sharing from God's word. We know from Luke's account that Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” The congregation wonder what he will make of this passage of great hope. They get both less and more than they bargained for.
Whatever Jesus said provoked amazement. Questions flew thick and fast:
• “Where did this man get these things? What is this wisdom that has been given him?” People can’t make sense of the profound words they’ve heard, from the mouth of someone they knew as a child. Is he getting too big for his boots?
• “What deeds of power are being done by his hands?' Isn't this the one about whom it is said that he stilled a storm, exorcised a demon possessed man, healed a woman, and raised a little girl from the dead? What is he going to do for us?
• “Isn’t this the carpenter?” Didn’t his hands used to saw wood and construct buildings around town? He is one of us, nothing more, nothing better.
• “Is this not the son of Mary?” We know his mother, but where’s his father. This simple question has the sting of the scandal of Jesus’ birth about it.
• “Isn’t he the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?' He’s just an ordinary bloke. Who is he, coming back to try and teach us something?
“And they took offence at him.” They were scandalised by Jesus himself, by his words and his actions, his claims, his preaching, his teaching. It simply wasn’t possible that the boy who grew up with them was a man of God. Some kind of homecoming this was.
Now it’s Jesus’ turn to be sadly amazed “at their lack of faith,” or more strictly, their unbelief. As Jesus’ ministry progresses, other people, most of them foreigners, will be amazed at what they’ve heard and seen from Jesus. Their lives will be changed, their sins will be forgiven, their sickness will be healed. But Jesus strikes something different here. “Only in their own towns, among their relatives and in their own homes are prophets without honour.” That was certainly the experience of the prophets in the Old Testament whom God called to announce to his people his judgement on their disobedience. Very few heard the call to repent and returned to God.
Jesus now walks the very same path. God’s covenant people still don’t want to hear Jesus’ message. They don’t want to acknowledge their sin, and therefore they’re not in the position to hear the good news that follows on from repentance. In doing so, they dishonour Jesus. To honour something means to “put a price or a value” on it. And there was a sad consequence to their attitude. “Jesus could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” They didn’t expect anything of Jesus. They didn’t want anything from him. In a strange way, their attitude dis-abled Jesus. If you expect nothing, you receive nothing. And any miracle that took place would be explained away, as Jesus found earlier in Mark’s gospel, when he was accused of working in league with Satan.
This incident leaves a sour taste in my mouth, and it makes me feel uncomfortable, and perhaps you also. Among all the gospels, Mark has the habit of getting under the skin of people who think they are the insiders, that they get Jesus and that they’re right on board with him. They soon find that they aren’t listening and they’re not following. Just like the disciples themselves, again and again, even Jesus’ own family, the residents of his hometown, and certainly the Pharisees.
Would it stretching this incident too far to say that the church, this congregation, is Jesus’ hometown? We believe that Jesus is present among us, his people, in each sister and brother who have been made members of his body through baptism? We hear Jesus speak to us today through his word. We confess that Jesus hosts us at his meal, and feeds us with his body and blood through bread and wine?
But what is our response to Jesus, who makes him home among us this day? What questions do we have for him? Are they the same questions as the hometown crowd?
• “What is this wisdom that has been given him?” What are to make of Jesus’ teaching, which in so many ways run counter to what our society teaches about the good life, about success, relationships, justice, and compassion? Do we dare to continue to follow Jesus, even if it means the same kind of rejection that the two-by-two disciples experienced, or are we going to follow the path of least resistance to our society?
• “What deeds of power are being done by his hands?' Do we expect Jesus to do very much today, in our world, and in our personal circumstances? Do we dare to pray for Jesus’ healing to flow through our lives, and do we pray that Jesus would heal others, including the greatest healing of all, the gift of faith that brings people back to life spiritually?
• “Isn’t this the carpenter…the son of Mary?” Do we want something, someone, more spectacular than this God in the flesh? Do we want a spiritual superhero who sweeps into our lives and saves us from difficult situations, rather than the God who had pitched his tent with us, and who will never abandon us in the storms of our lives?
• “And they took offence at him.” What about us? Are we hanging on Jesus’ words, or are we weighing them up, to see whether they fit our philosophy of life and align with our values? Are we offended by the uncompromising way that Jesus acts and teaches the love of his heavenly Father?
And then, of course, is the greatest offence of all-the cross of Jesus. As Paul says of the church's core message; “we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks.” Jesus hangs dying, defeated, utterly alone, and we confess that this is God’s crowning glory, the salvation of the world. In a world that only understands power, force, and competition, this is as objectionable as Paul boasting in his weakness and the vehicle of God’s grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Every day you and I presented with situations where we have to make a choice about following through on our commitment to follow Jesus. It might something as simple as stopping to help someone or refusing to be another link in a chain of gossip. It could be calmly and gently speaking about the way that your faith in Jesus influences what you believe about a moral issue, or how it shapes the way you spend your money, or your time. Are you even willing to risk others being offended by what you believe?
The rejection of Jesus in his hometown is a sober message to his church. First of all, it asks us where we stand in relation to our Lord, and our Saviour. Secondly, it reminds that the church itself has become an offence to the society whose values and laws Christian faith helped shape. How do we respond to that, with love and in integrity? That is the challenge of our age.
After Jesus was rejected by those who knew him, he simply got on with the job at hand, going around “teaching from village to village.” He called the “twelve, sending them out two by two and he gave them authority over evil spirits.” There was work to be done; the work of getting the good news out into the lives of all people. People did respond to the preaching of repentance and healing. The good news was still good for those who knew their need. God continues this same work of Jesus today through us, expanding the reach of his kingdom, bringing forgiveness and healing. Continue to follow him faithfully and see where he is at work in your world. Amen.
21 When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered round him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, ‘My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’ 24 So Jesus went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed round him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’ 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. 30 At once Jesus realised that power had gone out from him. He turned round in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31 ‘You see the people crowding against you,’ his disciples answered, ‘and yet you can ask, “Who touched me?”’ 32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’ 35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. ‘Your daughter is dead,’ they said. ‘Why bother the teacher anymore?’ 36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’ 37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, ‘Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.’ 40 But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat. Mark 5:21-43
Almost 25 years ago my comfortable little world was turned upside down. Two days after her birth, our daughter Emilia was fighting for her life. I will never forget what I heard from the visiting paediatrician at the hospital: “You have a very sick little girl”. Our daughter, apparently born healthy, was lying there fighting for her life. Over the next days, indeed weeks, I felt myself almost like an observer in a drama being played out in front of me. All I could do was watch, pace, agitate, question, and pray.
So today’s text hits me right between the eyes. I don’t have to work hard at entering into Jairus’ world. I’m right there with him as he runs up to Jesus and throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for his help. “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her, so that she will be healed and live.” I know that some of you here have lived through the same experience, and some of you have suffered the tragic death of a child. And many others amongst us have been backed into a corner by the illness of a loved one, or a friend or workmate. We have suffered the sickness and misfortune of others.
But there’s more to this text, because the story of Jairus and his daughter surrounds another encounter between Jesus and another person in need. Whereas the sickness of Jairus’ daughter is, in a sense, external to him, Jesus is now faced by one who has been wearied by carrying the burden of sickness within her own body for 12 long years. This sickness has drained her of both money and community. She has taken a risk even appearing in public, as her bleeding has rendered her ritually unclean, over and over again.
Perhaps this is the point that today’s text connects with you. You may be suffering the effects of chronic and ongoing illness. You’ve sought treatment from health professionals. You’ve wanted understanding from others, people who started off sympathetic but whose concern has waned over time. You may have prayed, over and over again, but have not received the physical or mental healing that you sought. Or you care for someone in this situation. You see how debilitating their sickness is, both for them and for you.
This is the world in which we live, and it’s the word that Jesus enters into. Jesus comes and touches our ordinary lives, and difficult circumstances, with his love and grace. Others may know nothing of the way we suffer in silence, of the sickness of those close to us, or of the grief that threatens to render us immobile. We need Jesus to step into this, our real world. And he does.
We know that both Jairus and the chronically ill woman have almost reached the end of hope. Meeting Jesus is the last shot they have left. Mark tells us that Jesus again “crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, [and] a large crowd gathered around him.” Jesus is back where he started, but only after a dramatic encounter with evil on the Gentile side of the lake. What started off as frightening ended up as bizarre, with a whole legion of demons driving a huge herd of pigs into the sea. Perhaps Jesus’ disciples were hoping that things might calm down back in home territory, but Jesus runs straight into yet more evidence of a broken and dysfunctional creation.
Sickness forces us to face a number of uncomfortable truths about ourselves. The deepest of these is that we are mortal, and our bodies will, over time, fail. The second is that we are not in ultimate control. We cannot heal ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Thirdly, we are dependent on others, who care for us when we can no longer do so. And connected with that, we realise how much we are created for community when illness restricts our interaction with others.
The woman who had suffered bleeding knew this only too well. How hard it must have been for her to force herself to join the crowd thronging around Jesus. She wanted to blend into the background, to be like everyone else, and to simply touch Jesus clothes, and through them to receive his healing presence. And when she did so, she thought that it was mission accomplished, without drawing any attention to herself. Her confidence in Jesus was proved right. “Immediately her bleeding stopped, and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.”
But Jesus knew what had happened that his power to heal had gone out of him. He asked the crowd, “Who touched my clothes?” And this time the woman came clean, more out of fear than anything else. But she needn’t have been afraid. Jesus didn’t want to make an example of her. He wanted to explain to her what had happened.
His words are as compassionate and grace filled as his action in healing her. “Daughter,” he addressed her with tenderness, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” A private miracle is made public, a woman is freed to live life in the fullness of health and in the middle of her community. This healing has brought wholeness of life for the first time in 12 years.
But sadly there’s no time to dwell on this gracious act. Some messengers arrive from Jairus’ house to tell him the tragic news. “Your daughter is dead.” His risk of faith has appeared to be a big gamble gone wrong. One daughter of Israel lives, but the other dies. All that’s left is fear rapidly turning to sorrow. But Jesus urges Jairus to still keep trusting, to hope for even more than he dared to hope for before. “Don’t be afraid, just trust.” Jesus has unswerving confidence in the power of God to turn this tragedy into something good. He counters the wailing and crying with a peculiar word of comfort. “The child is not dead but asleep.” It sounds like cruel comfort indeed, and the mourners mock Jesus.
But Jesus invites Jairus to continue making a leap of faith; to look beyond the reality of death and see new, astounding possibilities. Jesus takes the inner circle of the apostles, and Jairus and his wife. There are no histrionics, just a simple gesture of solidarity with this little girl in the face of death. Jesus “took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up.’ And immediately the little girl got up and began to walk around.” Tenderly, gently, but with complete authority, Jesus acts to save. No longer did Jairus face a dead end, but rather the joy of watching his daughter grow into a woman.
Jairus and the woman come to Jesus with nothing but their need. And their frustration and fear. They had both run out of options. They encountered someone who took their need seriously. Someone who didn’t mind getting involved in situations of sickness, pain and even sorrow.
Jesus broke all the religious ritual rules of the day. He allowed himself to be defiled by the touch of a woman society considered unclean. He did the same thing when he took the dead girl by the hand. In doing so, Jesus wasn’t dragged down to their level, instead, his holiness transformed their situation.
In these two events, Jesus points us to the purpose of his earthly ministry: his own encounter with sin and death in the cross, and his resurrection victory. And the healing of body and soul that comes to everyone who trusts their life to Jesus. The same living Lord Jesus still graciously encounters people today. People like us, who need him desperately. People struggling with sin, anger, unforgiveness, stress, sickness, anxiety, among many other things. People who are conscious of the uncleanness of their lives. People perhaps who have sought out other ‘doctors’ advice, other gurus, but have found it wanting. Jesus’ holy touch comes to us again today through his body and blood in Holy Communion. He gives himself to us to strengthen our faith, that we may continue to trust in him. He says to us. ‘Daughter, Son, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’
Unlike our story today, Jesus doesn’t caution us “not to let anyone know about this.” With our healing comes our commission: to share this healing with the many we today encounter who are sick, desperate, grieving and in pain. Our hands become the hands of Jesus through his healing flowing through us. God give each of us a patient faith, to suffer alongside and bring Jesus’ healing to others. Amen.
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ 41 They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ Mark 4:35-41
Cheap and trashy novels often begin something like this. ‘It was a dark and stormy night. The thunderclaps were rattling the windows of the run-down cottage. Rain was beating against the door. The timbers of the roof were creaking ominously, as if they were protesting against the deluge...’And so on. Given enough time alone with a computer, I’m sure we could come up with something equally appalling.
Storms are often used by writers and movie directors as a metaphor for the difficulties and tragedies of life. People often talk about a stormy relationship. When a relationship faces breakdown, it’s said to be on the rocks, like a ship driven by the waves on to the shore.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that the gospel writer Mark introduces a storm into the story of Jesus’ ministry as a kind of plot development. But this storm does serve God’s purpose, and it means that the disciples can see exactly who it is they’re following.
Jesus and his disciples sail straight into a storm, but Jesus has actually spent the whole day in a boat, not sailing, first of all, but preaching. The crowd listening to him grew so large that he had to get into a boat to use it as a floating pulpit, to avoid the crush. As the boat bobbed around, he let the crowd in on the secrets of the kingdom of God. When the day was ended, Jesus told the disciples that he wanted to sail across the lake, to the other side.
The other side wasn’t just geographically distinct, but culturally too. It was Gentile territory, the kind of place that held genuine fears for the average Jew. They were on their way across the lake to a place inhabited by people from whom they expected to get a stormy reception.
And then a storm sprang up. The wind reached gale-force, the sea started to pound, and waves crashed into the boat, threatening to swamp it. Some of the disciples were fisherman, and used to a bit of rough weather, but this storm really had them really worried. But what was even more worrying was Jesus’ reaction. Or indeed the lack of it. There he was, head on the leather seat, oblivious to the chaos, sleeping on the job.
They woke Jesus up. Blind panic drove then. And they weren’t polite about it. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die.” Do you really care? Are you all just talk? In the middle of the chaos, the raw fear, the howling of the wind and slapping of the waves, Jesus simply stands up and speaks. To the wind he says, “Be silent” and to the sea “Be still”, literally, be muzzled. And the wind hears these words and stops, and the roiling sea becomes calm.
You might have expected some gratitude, but instead there’s fear. Not of the storm, but of the one who spoke the storm to stillness. Jesus gets to the heart of the issue. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Faith is the issue. They don’t yet know who they are dealing with. “Who is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him?” They have just started on the journey with Jesus. They’ve heard him speak with great wisdom and insight. They call him Teacher, Rabbi. But then this happens, the kind of stuff only God alone can do. “God, you rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up, you still them.” Or right back at the beginning, the story of creation: “The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters...and God said...’ God spoke. Things happened. Jesus spoke. The same kind of things happened. The wind and the sea responded immediately. Jesus forces them to further grapple with his identity. Who is this Jesus?
As his gospel account progresses, Mark shares with us the disciple’s ongoing struggle with faith in Jesus. They can’t see how he could possibly feed 5000 people. They continually misunderstand the parables and need Jesus’ to give them a more detailed explanation. They argue about who is the best of the bunch. They are scared when Jesus talks about his impending death.
But what happens in the storm is one of the clearest indicators they’ll get of Jesus’ true identity. Despite their confusion, their lack of trust, even their anger at him, he acts to rescue them. The grace-filled God, the living, breathing God, is in the boat with them. Who can believe that?
But there’s so much more to come. There are harder, scarier times ahead. They will see their teacher, their Saviour hanging lifeless on a cross, having given up his life for the sake of this chaotic, sin-fractured world. Death has swallowed up his life. Who will rescue Jesus? They can’t. They’ve abandoned him, and so, it seems, has his Father.
But Jesus does come out of the other side of this storm of death. Death could not hold him, because he is the sinless one. He drew life from his Father. Only after the resurrection does Jesus’ life made a whole lot more sense. “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” the psalmist writes. These are words that speak of Jesus’ trust in his Father, and words that are true for us too when we place our faith in Jesus.
Our lives seem to consist of alternating periods of storm and calm, stress and success, pain and pleasure. Is now a stormy time for you? Are you in a stormy and tempestuous relationship with someone close? Is this storm characterised by harsh words exchanged in anger, or is it the ache of a cooling friendship? Sometimes it mightn’t be the ferocity of the storm but the fact it seems to go on and on, without an end in sight. It might be living with chronic pain, or raw emotions from some event in the past. Sometimes it’s the whirlwind of busyness We feel trapped by our work and family life, with so many commitments from which we can’t extricate ourselves, and we see no way out.
Who is going to rescue us? In whom can we put our trust? The disciples grabbed the sleeping Jesus by the scruff of the neck and woke him up. Perhaps more in fear than in faith. Yet Jesus responded in grace and in power. He is Lord over all creation, and even more than that, he is the Lord of love.
The same faithful Lord responds gracefully to us, even in our lack of faith. When all hell breaks loose, and when we are stretched to breaking point, we will not find a sleeping Saviour, but a living Lord. He will not, he cannot let us sink. If Jesus wasn’t in the boat that night, all hands would have been lost. If Jesus wasn't with us now, the same would be true. But he has faithfully bound himself to us, as God and man. In our baptism, God has bound himself to us through his Son, and, and that means that we will never have to face the storms of life alone. We may often wonder how we can cope, but we never need wonder about whether Jesus has the ability to save us.
This isn’t true just of each one of us personally, but also of the church. The image of the church as a boat sailing on a stormy sea has its origin in this incident. Tossed around by the pressures of society and culture, sorely tested by the power of the evil one, the church’s only hope is to call to Jesus for help.
The disciples were on their way to a place that they knew very little about, and they were scared about what might happen there. Although St John’s isn’t sailing anywhere, change and chaos surround us. The world continues to travel further and further away from God, thumbing its nose at him and celebrating the freedom to live without any constraints. We are beginning to see what a world unmoored from God looks like-no longer is all human life sacred; no longer need we respect those who disagree with us. Add to that the ongoing challenge of COVID-19, and the way that the pandemic acts like a fog that enshrouds us, and international tensions, it’s no wonder that we feel uncertain, anxious, out of sorts.
The disciples felt this way, at this point in their journey with Jesus. And they continued to face challenges as the church was born at Pentecost and grew though the power of the Holy Spirit. The tempestuous life of Paul is a case in point. But then he experienced the power of a lifechanging encounter with Jesus, and he knew, as did those disciples in the boat, that nothing would be able to separate them from the love of God that was in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We trust in the same living Lord as those first disciples. Jesus is in this boat, and he will sustain us, guide us and lead us as we call out to him for help. In your life, in the life of our congregation, in the life of the church, let your confidence rest in the faithful, storm-calming Jesus Christ, Lord of the wind and waves, Lord of the church, Lord over all. Be still with him, in the storm and the calm. Amen.
Jesus often spoke to his disciples in parables, and impressed upon them the importance of listening closely to what he had to say. On a number of occasions, he said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”. Today we might say, “If you’ve got ears, then listen up!”
God’s word is so powerful that, when it takes root, it shapes us and brings God’s light into our lives. The Holy Spirit bears fruit in us through this word as it takes hold of our hearts. This is why listening well is so important. Like a plant that flourishes in the right conditions, hearing God’s word, paying attention to it, acting on it and living by it means that God’s power and influence in our lives will grow in increasing measure.
May God open our ears to hear his word today so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Occasionally, as people reflect upon the state of Christianity both in Australia and in the West more generally, we hear them speaking about a ‘dying’ church, or even a ‘dead’ church. I am reluctant to speak this way, since the church is Christ’s bride and he will never allow her to die, and the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the most powerful, life-giving force in existence. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the pain endured by people when congregations amalgamate, churches close, or when faith seems hard to find in the world around us. Jesus’ words in Revelation 3 about ‘dead’ churches and ‘lukewarm’ churches should be enough of a warning for us to take the health of the church very seriously.
But what if something that looked dead was actually only dormant, like a seed? Jesus says in today’s Gospel that God’s kingdom is growing and will keep growing, even without our effort or help. Jesus’ parable about the seed reminds us that God’s kingdom advances automatically, that is, all by itself. Like a seed that grows in the ground without any tending by a farmer, so God’s kingdom will grow and advance throughout this world. A supposedly ‘dying’ church doesn’t mean it is time to panic; it certainly means it’s time to pray.
The great privilege we have, as Christians, is that this advancement of God’s kingdom takes place not merely around us but within us. Jesus calls us to listen carefully to his word, because the seed of his kingdom, when it takes root in our hearts, will also grow automatically, without our help, all because of God’s incredible power.
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” 23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” 30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.” 31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:20-35
This is Jodi and my collection of family history books. They tell the story of where our family has come from, mostly from the northern part of Germany, and what is now Poland. I don’t know why the English and Scottish half of my ancestry don’t have their own books, only my Lutheran forebears. I have a sense of deep gratitude for my ancestors, and for the importance they attached to passing on the faith through to the next generation. And God has called me to do the same thing in my family. That’s a heritage far more important than genetics.
“Who are you related to?” People say that this is a particularly Lutheran question, and not always a helpful one. There have been times when we have placed more stock on our ancestry than is warranted, an overweening pride about where we’ve come from.
This happened to me when I was reading through the latest family history book in my collection, “Browsing the Bormanns.” It tells the story of my mother’s father’s family. This man, Johann Gottfried Bormann, is my great-great-great grandfather. He arrived at Port Adelaide on the 27th of October 1841. Not only was he in the one of the first waves of Lutheran migration, but he was also on the same ship, the Skjold as Pastor Fritsche, one of the two key founders of the Lutheran Church in Australia. Suddenly, I could feel the pride welling up in me. I was much closer to the centre of all things Lutheran than I had imagined. Perhaps there are times when you may have felt that way, basking in the reflected glory of an esteemed lineage. “Who are you related to?” is an important question, but today Jesus invites us to answer it in a new way.
The gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus’ ministry has begun with a bang. Immediately after his temptation, Jesus is thrown into the ring, and goes the full nine rounds with evil and human brokenness. The first thing he does is exorcise a man with a demon, while preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. News about this spreads like wildfire, and soon crowds come from everywhere, wanting a piece of the action. While visiting Peter’s mother-in-law, not only does Jesus heal her, but also the many people gathered outside her door.
News about Jesus travels fast, and soon the religious authorities get wind of the impact he is making. He heals another man, again in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus makes the audacious claim that he also has the authority to forgive sins. He heals a leper on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees criticise him for breaking the Sabbath law. He does the same thing again, challenging the religious leaders, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save or to kill?” The crowds continue to grow, the anger of the authorities glows hotter. Trouble is surely not far away.
It arrives today. But it begins, somewhat surprisingly, with Jesus’ own family. Jesus is at someone’s house, and there’s such a crush that they can’t even recline at table to eat. Jesus’ family, which we hear later means his mother Mary, and his brothers, are deeply concerned for him. Their concern clearly runs deeper than the fact that he can’t eat. They wonder whether he is out of his mind, literally ‘beside himself’ and they resolve to take charge of him, to take him away. Why do they think this? It’s hard to say. Are they worried that the fame will go to his head? Is their concern the same one that the teachers of the law have?
They, too, come to Jesus. Their motive is not his welfare. They are deeply disturbed by both his teaching and the following he has gathered. They make a serious accusation against Jesus, ““He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” What an astonishing claim, but one which indicates that they believe Jesus is a clear and present danger to them, to their authority, and to the populace at large.
Jesu takes this accusation head on, and he begins with some simple logic. “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” The same is true for a household, for a government, even for a church. Divide and conquer. Jesus goes on, “If Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.” Which we would all agree would be a great outcome, but hardly one that the evil one would engineer himself.
The logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now Jesus states his case. “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” Jesus is saying that he is, in fact, the strong man. He is the one to whom God has given the power to bind Satan and tear down his rule. Jesus is the one who will break open the prison doors which sin has bound fast and release the captives from bondage. Jesus will battle sin and death on the cross and emerge victorious in resurrection on the third day. This is what the prophet Isaiah promises that God will do through his Messiah: “24 Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives be rescued from the fierce? 25 But this is what the Lord says: “Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save.”
Jesus is saying, “You’ve got this all wrong. Badly, sadly, dangerously wrong.” “Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” I remember worrying about committing the unforgiveable sin when I was younger. As a pastor told me way back then, “If you worry about committing this sin, then you haven’t committed it.”
The scandal, and the sadness, in today’s gospel, is that God’s people, the family descended from the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, wouldn’t recognise and receive the one God had sent them to rescue them from their slavery to sin. They continued to argue and attack and grumble and fight against Jesus, right to his bitter end. Jesus wanted to lead them on the new exodus, a final journey to new life, but as happened the first time, they grumbled and complained and maligned the work of God. They refused to see God’s Spirit at work in Jesus and decided not to believe in him. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit-unbelief, a repudiation of the saving work of Jesus. In making this decision. God’s chosen people, his own family, wrote themselves out of their inheritance as his children.
If that wasn’t enough controversy for one day, Jesus’ family return, still trying to take him away for his own good. Even they don’t understand his mission, at least not yet. In time they will. Mary will stand at the foot of the cross. James will lead the early church. But right now, they can’t see that there is a deeper loyalty than blood, a loyalty to the Father in heaven. This doesn’t preclude loving one’s own blood family. But as we in the sequence of commandments, loving the Lord your God, and having no gods before him, precedes every other love and action, including that of mother and father. For Jesus and for us.
Jesus gets a message out to his family, ““Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” God’s children are those “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” They are those who have thrown their lot in with Jesus as their Lord, their Saviour, their brother. This is the relationship that doesn’t end when death calls. There God calls us home, to his house, where we will live forever with our family of faith. There are no surnames in heaven.
How did this family act? What are its characteristics? “ Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” God’s will is that through the spirit we come to faith in his Son, and that we share the love that we have received through his life, death and resurrection for us. This is not to our credit; the glory belongs to God alone.
The concept of what a family is, is much debated in contemporary culture. Jesus is not speaking against the importance of family in nurturing children and providing a secure environment in which to grow up and flourish. However, he is calling his children, his church, to a deeper loyalty which goes beyond blood family. This is the family of faith, the church across space and time. Now many of us have been greatly blessed to grow up in a family where these two things came together: family and faith. We have a truly blessed heritage. But that’s not true for all of us. Some of us didn’t grow up in a family of faith. But now we are part of God’s family, the family that acknowledges that Jesus is the King, and being in his household is the best family to be part of.
Who are you related to? To Jesus your brother, God your Father, through the love of the Holy Spirit. And to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. There are no surnames in God’s family. Amen.