This sermon was written and presented by Rev’d Pamela Phillips.
I once heard a story about an elderly woman who was listening to a freshly trained young preacher talking about the Exodus. The elderly woman expressed her amazement at the parting of the Red Sea which allowed the Hebrew people to walk through and escape Pharaoh’s pursuing army. The preacher rather patronisingly told her that according to modern scholarship, there’s a place in the Red Sea where, under certain weather conditions, the water becomes shallow enough to walk through, only inches deep (it’s a pre-metric story!). The elderly woman exclaimed in amazement again. When the preacher, assuming she didn’t understand, repeated his fascinating scientific fact, she responded “How amazing that God could drown the whole Egyptian army in only a few inches of water.
As St Paul said in our Epistle reading today – “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Sometimes, we need to remember that amazement is the most appropriate response to the actions of God.
Our readings today continue the theme of the season of Epiphany – the revelation of who Jesus was. Amazement featured largely in the responses to Jesus’s teaching and actions in our Gospel reading today.
The Old Testament reading referred to God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses, to guide his people. Later on, the Jewish people came to understand it as referring to the promised Messiah, the ultimate prophet and deliverer. It became one of many Scriptures that the early Christians interpreted as referring to Jesus.
At the time, however, it was a contemporary and very real problem. Moses was clearly reaching the end of his life, and the people needed to know who was to lead them. As they entered the Promised Land, they were surrounded by pagan communities who worshipped other gods. God promises not to abandon the people to their own devices. The passage was probably originally a validation of the line of prophets that arose in Israel over the centuries. From time to time, God would call a prophet to speak God’s word to the people. The prophets in the Old Testament weren’t required so much to foretell the future as to speak the message that God gave them for their time and situation, and in many cases to act out the message as a sort of dramatic visual aid. The people often didn’t pay much attention at first to what the prophet said, but some of the prophetic actions were decidedly memorable. Amazing, in fact. God instructed many of the prophets to put aside pride and dignity in order to engage in bizarre sign-acts, such as Isaiah walking naked in the streets of Jerusalem for 3 years (Isaiah 20) or Ezekiel lying prone on the ground for months (Ezekiel 4).
At one level, the Old Testament reading and the gospel today may look like they’re talking about two different things. Deuteronomy promises a stream of prophets to come. Mark describes Jesus performing an exorcism, an act of deliverance from an invading spiritual power.
In reality, the two roles, prophet and deliverer, were one, and, indeed, were often embodied as one throughout the history of the people of Israel and into the time of Jesus. Prophets were typically raised up to speak God’s word to those in power when power had become oppressive, and so to deliver the people from such oppression, just as Moses had done. And, as we see in the case of Elijah, and more especially his protégé Elisha, prophets also often performed “mighty deeds of power,” including exorcisms, as part of their prophetic ministry.
The Gospel reading today is Mark’s first account of a specific incident in the public ministry of Jesus, which had begun after the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the arrest of John the Baptist. Last week we read about the call of the first disciples and this week’s reading follows on from that, and demonstrates Jesus’ authority, both in his teaching and in the exorcism he performed. We move from Jesus calling disciples to Jesus giving his disciples “on the job training.” Our readings from Mark’s Gospel today and for the next few weeks portray Jesus performing miracle after miracle in the presence of his disciples. Being discipled by a master means learning to say and do what the master says and does so that the disciple becomes like the master. It doesn’t mean simply enjoying the demonstrations of how amazing your master is! It took the disciples a long time to figure that out!
As with those Old Testament prophets, what Jesus actually taught on this occasion was demonstrated by the drama of his actions. It was accepted practice that any adult Jewish man could be asked to preach from the Scriptures. In itself, the invitation to teach didn’t imply any recognition of Jesus’ uniqueness. It’s possible he was asked because of curiosity about this new preacher whose reputation was spreading in Galilee. All we’re told is that he taught with an authority that was lacking in the usual interpretations offered by the scribes, who were authorised to study the law and apply it to everyday life. I think they must have been rather like lawyers, constantly referring to precedents to justify their present interpretation. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke with a convincing originality which astonished his hearers.
How we interpret demon possession today can vary depending on how we understand Scripture. It’s not the important point. A man known as demon possessed would not normally have been allowed into the synagogue, so it could have been the first time this particular affliction manifested itself. The point I think the writer of Mark’s Gospel is making is that while the rest of the community were surprised and impressed by Jesus’ authoritative teaching, it was a someone not in his right mind who first identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Demonic possession implies a supernatural recognition. In this way, it’s another step in the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus as Son of God, the Messiah.
If we turn to the Epistle, Paul was wrestling with the problem of how to apply Jesus’ teachings about love to a real-life situation in the fledgling church of Corinth. Some in the church in Corinth had no qualms about eating meat that has been offered in pagan rites (which may very well have been nearly all the meat in Corinth), because they — personally — didn’t recognize the existence of the gods to whom the meat was offered, or the validity of the rites by which they were offered. This was potentially confusing for new Christians. Did eating such meat imply taking part in the pagan sacrificial activity or not? Paul’s point was that it was a more loving course for the mature Christians whose faith was secure to go vegetarian than to risk confusing the newer Christians. There’s the very personal aspect of our responsibility to each other which Paul emphasises here. In the Christian community, it’s the opinion of the ones less certain in their faith that need to orient everyone’s decisions.
Paul never thinks of the Christian as an independent individual who would take decisions that involve him or herself only. For Paul, Christians are first and foremost involved in a community. They’re enmeshed in relationships that connect them to other Christians. This interconnectedness is the ultimate criterion for Paul. How one’s behaviour influences others is paramount.
This is how love should be understood in our Christian communities. Love must be translated into actions rather than in good feelings towards others. For Paul, love in the Christian community doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to like the other people, or that you have to agree with their choices or their worldviews. Instead, it’s your own behaviour you have to modify to avoid confusing them. The Christian community is to be noticeably different from the rest of the society in which it finds itself, because its defining characteristic is to be love.
This alternative community come close to how a well-known Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, describes the prophetic ministry of present day Christian communities. He defines the prophetic role as “a sustained effort to imagine the world as though (God) were a real character and the defining agent in the life of the world.” In other words, we need to see our lives and our world as if God is real, and really is at work in the world. In response to this reality, Brueggemann writes “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception, alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” We are to put effort into resisting the taken-for-granted way the modern consumer culture sees the world, by learning to see through different eyes and believing that God can bring about change.
This isn’t easy, as Brueggemann admits. Speaking from his American viewpoint, he says “The contemporary …church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act.” He goes on to say that this enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons.
That was written in 1978. It’s even more pertinent nearly 40 years later. And can we honestly say it isn’t true for us in Australia too?
Are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority? Do his teachings and actions still have potential to upend our assumptions about what’s possible?
The author of a book I read recently made a comment I found very striking. He said that many people believe in Jesus, but not many actually believe Jesus. In other words, we readily accept who Jesus was, but rarely act as if we believe a lot of what he said.
Do we even really believe everything that we ourselves say?
At every Eucharist service, we stand and claim:
We are the Body of Christ. His spirit is with us.
If we truly believe this, then we’re claiming to be more than just followers of Jesus. We’re saying that, together with Christians everywhere, we are the ongoing earthly presence of the Son of God, the ultimate prophet and deliverer. That’s quite an astonishing claim, if you think about it.
It means that we have the responsibility of witnessing to the need for love and justice contained in the Gospel message, a witness to be carried out in Church institutions themselves and in the lives of all of us as Christians.
It means that we, like the early Christian churches that Paul wrote to, need to consider carefully how our decisions, choices and actions impact, not only on other members of our Christian community, but also in the wider communities in which we find ourselves.
It means that we, like the ancient prophets of the Old Testament, may be called to take actions to call attention to situations which are contrary to the revealed will of God.
It means that we, as the Church, are called by God to proclaim justice on the social, national and international level, and to denounce instances of injustice, when the fundamental rights of people demand it.
It means moving beyond the values the wider community believes in – like consumerism and radical individualism – and presenting an alternative set of values based on love, acceptance, generosity and equity.
It means that we are called to act out Jesus’ message of love and deliverance in our world today, which is so desperately in need of it.
We are the Body of Christ.