Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 5 July 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.
Beware of thinking you know who someone is.
I imagine many of us have experience of what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. It happens a lot in family relationships, but also throughout human society: we all leap to conclusions every day based on old, fixed ideas. The people of Jesus’ home town ‘knew’ Jesus, so they did not expect much. Sadly, when we think we know someone we often seem ready to ignore their potential. We crave novelty and celebrity. We almost certainly wouldn’t want Jesus as our parish priest: we certainly think we know who he is and prefer him at a safe heavenly distance – we want someone more shiny, a glittering archangel at least. The brightest of those is Lucifer.
The Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Guitierrez, now back in favour with the Vatican, tells how, when a priest suggested to his congregation that the poor around them had much to tell them about the gospel, the answer came back,
‘Are not these peasants who barely know how to speak Spanish? What can people who spend their lives complaining, not working, tell us?’
‘We know them, therefore we disregard them.’ These are the spiritual heirs of Jesus’ fellow countrymen who didn’t believe in him. The message of today’s gospel is that we should take care not to be found in that company.
Jesus’ visit home follows directly on the two mighty works in last week’s Gospel: the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. This homecoming is a let-down after the other works and teaching in chapters 4 & 5. Afterwards Jesus sends out his twelve followers in pairs, travelling light, to share the good news of healing, repentance and the kingdom. It is as if he had to go home and try to communicate there, finally to tick that box, before he could embark on something new.
As with last week’s gospel this story is shortly to be interrupted, by the filling in the sandwich, a piece of back-story about Herod and the death of John the Baptist (which we’ll hear next week), before returning to the conclusion of the mission at verse 30:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. Mark 6: 30
This piece of Markan sandwiching leads, in turn, into the feeding of the five thousand, another mighty work, so we seem then to be back on track: presumably the size of that crowd indicates that the mission had been a success, at least in numerical terms.
That last thought expresses one of Lucifer’s shiny traps. The power of a gospel proclamation cannot be measured by the numbers of those who immediately accept or reject it. Both our first and second readings today remind us that God sends whom he will, and often in weakness. And the results may be hidden, or surprising (in keeping with Mark’s idea of the hidden kingdom, bursting out). We heard Ezekiel encouraging a preacher to be bold:
Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. Ezekiel 2: 5
And, from Paul,
Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12: 10
These are stories of calling, indeed of unlikely vocations, to warn us off being impressed by the glittering prizes. The weakness of those sent shows the power of God (because we don’t commend ourselves).
My predecessor in Sydney (whose assumption, incidentally, that he knew who I was made him a nightmare for me to follow) used to say of Anglicanism, and its individual churches, ‘our structures are so weak, it can only be by the grace of God that the Anglican Church achieves anything.’ That is worth repeating, because, whether we agree with all of them or not, Anglican Christians all over the world continue to be God’s messengers, and to be faithful worshippers; that will continue to be true whatever happens to the structures and institutions which we fight about so passionately, to the bemusement of the world.
To quote Gutierrez again,
The weakness of those sent reveals the power of the Spirit in them. The Lord shows his power in Paul’s weakness. This has nothing to do with liking contrasts and paradoxes. This is the way of a loving and tender God who invites us but does not crush us. The human weakness of those who are sent creates a space of freedom; their listeners may decide for or against them. They want the Lord to reveal himself only in grandiose actions and miracles; this would save them the trouble of discerning when and through whom the word is revealed.
This makes it difficult, of course, for those who are sent: I am not just talking personally, but for all of us, as we seek to live our baptismal commission to share the good news. If we are given a task and people misunderstand us or ignore us, or frustrate our best efforts, it hurts and discourages us. Sometimes, according to the Lord’s commission today, we just have to shake the dust from our feet and move on. But we are always to remember that our apparent lack of success should encourage us to return, humbly, to the source of our task and remember that it isn’t, in the end, about us. The cross, or rather the crucified Christ, is the most powerful parable of all to show us, in the light of Easter, that out of weakness and disaster God does mighty things. God’s call is to faith, and faithfulness, to the lifelong task of learning holiness, in which we are strengthened by Christ himself in this most holy sacrament.
That is a counsel of hope to us all. But at the same time it is a reminder never to write off anyone else. The people we think we know, and therefore tend to ignore, may have the most to teach us.