Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 29 May 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Mark 3.7 The first words from today’s second lesson: Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea and a great multitude from Galilee followed.
What are you expecting Jesus to do for you in your life? St Mark rings true to me: crowds gathering to see what’s up, rumours of healings. Maybe he can cure me, sort me out? St Mark is clear that Jesus is not drawing the crowds because they know he’s the Son of God. We won’t know that until after the crucifixion; only the cross can show us the truth. Yet there is a hint here of what is truly happening, because the demons know who Jesus is, they can sense the power that is stronger than human power, they see the ultimate victory over evil, but in the tradition of the time, the tradition of exorcism, Jesus silences the demons, “he strictly ordered them not to make him known.” So the crowd have to come to their own conclusions; some follow, many don’t.
So, in our own way, we are part of a much larger crowd, wondering what He can do for us. It makes sense to go with the crowd. Cynics stay alone. It is difficult to be cynical about religion when we are part of a larger group or of a thriving church. I know that it will be quite easy for me to believe in God’s presence tomorrow, when I’m in an outdoor procession with a hundred priests at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, even if some of them do crack jokes at inappropriate moments, and even if it rains – easier to see God then, than when on one’s own with all the self-obsession of modern life. The story of Cain and Abel, which we heard in tonight’s first lesson, shows how dangerous we can be when doubts and jealousies fester. It shows our tendency to wriggle out of all responsibility for what we get up to. The Lord said to Cain, where is Abel your brother? Cain said, I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?
So what are we expecting Jesus to do for us? See if you can identify with this human dilemma. In Genesis, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. The fruit was forbidden, but it was the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In other words, to live a human life means disobedience, eating that forbidden fruit, though the fruit itself is not evil because all that God has made is good. There is no other way of being human, this way of life, and of death, as God warns. In Genesis, the story is told with the images of nakedness and clothes. What the story is about, for you and me, using the imagery of disobedience, is our separation from the God we know was there once, and it’s also the story of growing up, from childhood to adolescence, the necessary separation from our mother and father. So we have a sense of wholeness – that we do belong somewhere – but we are also aware of our brokenness, that we’ve messed up somewhere and it’s all gone wrong. So we’ve lost something – and we are seeking something. We are lost, and we are hoping to be found. Many of the Gospel stories are about losing and finding, being lost and then found, lost sheep, lost coins, Jesus withdrawing, being searched for, waiting in the upper room for something, looking up to heaven. The search for wholeness continues, through prayer, through pilgrimage, our own pilgrims’ progress, drawn to wholeness, to holiness.
This duality, we call it, caught between wholeness and brokenness, can exhaust the human pilgrim, because we cannot sort ourselves out; this is how we are. Religion is our road to recovery. Christianity is a way of healing, a way of liberation from this double bind, and we call this salvation. This is old wisdom we are tapping into. Religion is not about dogma, complicated beliefs; it’s about recovery, re-connecting with what is true, and, above all, being absolved from the guilt we have that somehow we’ve messed up and can’t put things right.
So this is what we as Christians can expect Jesus to do for us when we join the crowds who follow him. He will be our guide on this road to recovery. “I have come to bear witness to the truth”, He said, and truth is always about connecting or reconnecting on a higher level.
The first step is self-knowledge, the starting point of all prayer, admitting who we are. Tonight’s psalm is in this tradition. “I will take heed to my ways… man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain …I am a stranger with thee.”
What is this road to recovery, this absolution we shall know at last, the healing that Jesus alone can give? It is the last thing we would expect, particularly in a world encouraging self-promotion and gratification. We must lose our life to gain it. That is the path on which Jesus takes us, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding it a stony path at times, apparently leading nowhere. But Jesus is our way, truth and life. He takes our guilt away, by accepting us now as we are, not as we want to be. When we meet the Risen Jesus in the Spirit, that is to say when we know him to be within us, faithful to us, we replace our ego with God’s life, replace our Cain-like behaviour with the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control. That is union with God again, and maybe that is what we are looking for when we follow Jesus in a great multitude from Galilee.