Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sermon: Divided Houses and Rearranged Families

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 7, 2015; Ordinary 10B
Mark 3:20-35

Divided Houses and Rearranged Families

It’s been a while since we’ve been in the Gospel of Mark, and (at least when I’m here preaching) we’re going to be in this gospel for a while. It seems proper then to reacquint ourselves with the beginning of the book and how we got to the place where we find ourselves today. You might remember that this gospel jumps directly into the story, with no birth narratives or any kind of preliminary material; we find John the Baptizer proclaiming in the wilderness and Jesus coming to be baptized by him; after a spell in the desert Jesus kicks off his public ministry with the proclamation that might well serve as the thesis statement for the whole gospel, found in verse 15 – “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (If you’re the type who finds it useful to memorize verses of scripture, I’d suggest adding this one to your memory banks if only because we’re going to come back to it over and over again in the upcoming weeks.)
Jesus then calls his first handful of disciples, and soon follows his first miracle, an exorcism performed in the synagogue, followed by the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Word spread quickly, and multitudes came to be healed by him, whereupon he set out to preach around Galilee, only to come upon a leper seeking healing; when he did so, the leper (disobeying Jesus’s order) spread the word all around, so that Jesus couldn’t even go into the towns or cities due to the crush of people seeking healing from him. That’s roughly the first chapter, about where we left off.
In chapter two and the early part of chapter three, we start to see the first opposition to Jesus, coming not from the common folk but from the religious authorities. When a group of friends pulls a hole in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus, a group of scribes objects to his words to the man, “your sins are forgiven.” Then the scribes and Pharisees object to Jesus’s eating with “tax collectors and sinners” after the call of the tax collector Levi to be a disciple, and then they object to the disciples not fasting, and then they object to the disciples’ plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Finally, after daring to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees are already seeking to conspire with the Herodians to have Jesus killed, and that’s only in chapter three, verse six. So you could say that things have gone south very quickly.
At the same time, though, despite the opposition of the religious leaders, the people continue to turn out in droves to see Jesus; today’s story starts (rather in the middle of things) with the observation that the crowds were so deep that no one could even eat. But the crowds aren’t the only ones who show up (uninvited, it might be said) at this apparent dinnertime. There are two different groups who have come for Jesus, and we get the stories of their appearances told in “sandwich” form, one inside the other. Wrapped around the appearance of the scribes from Jerusalem is an attempted intervention by Jesus’s family; specifically his mother and his brothers. Let’s deal with the scribes first.
It is no small deal that these scribes have appeared, and that they have come from Jerusalem. Imagine the Vatican itself sending out a delegation to investigate a kerfuffle in one of the local Catholic churches in Gainesville. Just in case the reader hasn’t been paying attention, the very appearance of these scribes from the seat of Jewish practice should alert us that Jesus’s activities are causing serious concern among the religious authorities.
We’ve already noticed that the Pharisees and Herodians are in conspiracy against Jesus; these scribes, who may or may not be part of that plot, seem to have come to this remote town for the particular purpose of discrediting Jesus. Since the crowd knew all about the healings and exorcisms Jesus had been performing (quite possibly the crowd contained some of those people who had been healed or had had demons cast out), these scribes sought to discredit those healings. In doing so, though, they put themselves in a position for Jesus’s most direct, most stinging charge against them.
Apparently, according to these scribes, Jesus was able to cast out demons by the power of…none other than the head demon, here called Beelzebub.  It must have sounded like a great rhetorical flourish, and one of those unanswerable and unassailable ways to discredit a troublesome character forever; “he’s in league with the devil…” has sometimes been an effective charge for whipping up a mindless frenzy against a person, almost as good as “she’s a witch!”
They weren’t counting on Jesus being ready for that kind of charge, though, and frankly they weren’t counting on Jesus being better at rhetorical argument than they were. For one thing, accusing someone of being in league with the devil might be intimidating, but when the subject is what power by which Jesus is casting out demons, the accusation doesn’t hold up very well once you look at it rationally. Why would Beelzebub be working through Jesus, or anyone for that matter, to cast out his own demons? How does that even make sense? Jesus of course tears apart the very idea with a line that would be often cited throughout history, by the likes of no less than Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War – “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” If the devil is casting out demons, then the devil is already defeated.
But that’s not all Jesus has to say; he then launches into a parable about breaking into the house of a “strong man” and binding him up in order to plunder the house. This might sound odd in this context, until you put it together with its context; the strong man is no less than Beelzebub, and the one binding the strong man and plundering his house is Jesus himself. It’s not just that Jesus is not casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub; Jesus has power over not just the demons but Beelzebub himself. 
Finally, though, comes the most powerful charge against these scribes, one which has become one of the most misused and abused verses of scripture ever. After saying that people can be forgiven for “whatever blasphemies they utter” in verse 28, Jesus continues that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, for it is an eternal sin.”
There are two problems with how this passage gets used as a “clobber verse,” one with which certain types of Christians beat up their perceived enemies. First of all, know your Greek. Whoever blasphemes, whoever is blaspheming, whoever is continuing to blaspheme the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven – how can you be reconciled to the God whom you are calling demonic? But whoever ceases to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? 
And secondly, don’t invent new and convenient meanings for “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.” This isn’t a random verse inserted into the story. This act is defined by its context; the scribes see Jesus doing the works of the Holy Spirit, and attribute them to the devil. They see people being healed of all manner of illnesses, they see people being delivered from the demons that torment them, and they refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit in it. This isn’t about “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” or committing suicide, or any number of other things we presumed Christians are eager to condemn.
Far from the kind of sin that it is easy to read into others, this is the kind of thing we had better be extremely careful about engaging in ourselves. Christians have a pretty bad habit of condemning based on particular beliefs or doctrines. We are pretty good heresy hunters. But when we become so obsessed with doctrinal purity that we refuse – not fail, but refuse – to see the work of the Holy Spirit in those “others” we are just as guilty as those scribes who got so hung up on Sabbath laws that they accused Jesus of having a devil in him.
Meanwhile, Jesus’s family is also present, trying to get into this crowded house, apparently to take Jesus away. The NRSV suggests that “people” were saying that Jesus had lost his mind, but in truth the people who were saying this were most likely Jesus’s family themselves.
Jesus’s response to the news that his family was coming for him sounds like the worst nightmare of “family values” crusaders. Jesus basically ignores them. Doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. Instead, he turns to the crowd, the healed and the demon-dispossessed, the poor and the outcast, the sinners and the tax collectors – and sees his family. “Here are my mother and my brothers!” he says. He then offers the counterpart to that difficult verse 29: “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
And there’s the crux of the story. Beyond dogmas and rules, beyond even family ties and blood relations, there is the imperative to live into this “kingdom of God come near,” to echo Jesus’s claim from chapter one. There is this imperative to be led of the Holy Spirit. There is the imperative to follow Christ, to live like Jesus, to be truly Christlike instead of merely Christian. To participate in the healing of the world and its people; to be a part of the casting out of those demons that torture us in the modern world, whatever name they may take; to be instruments of God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s love; this is what it means to be a brother or a sister of Jesus, a “joint-heir” with Christ to borrow Paul’s phrase from last week.
This is how the Holy Spirit is seen to be in you. This is how the world knows you are followers of Christ. When people are healed, rescued, restored, reconciled, and brought to new life, let us never, ever be the ones giving credit to the devil. No; be Jesus’s family. Be the one doing the will of God, and so be Christ’s mother and sister and mother.
For the call to be part of the family of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “This Is My Father’s World” (293), “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” (383), “Come, Risen Lord” (503), “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” (369)

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