St Michael’s and St Barnabas 10th August 2014
Reading – Mark 3:20-35
We all know what it’s like to come down to earth with a bump. You go away on the holiday of a lifetime and you come back really refreshed with a suitcase full of memories. But the next day you turn up at work and there’s a whole pile of jobs just waiting for you, which your boss wants done yesterday, and your inbox is clogged up with hundreds of e-mails. Or perhaps you have a wonderful time of fellowship on a Sunday morning, only for the heavens to open just as soon as you come out of church, and you discover you forgot to switch the oven on before you left home. One way or another, it seems you just can’t have the highs without the lows.
So imagine what it must have been like for Jesus’ disciples. They had enjoyed a wonderful time with their Master out on a lonely hillside somewhere in Galilee. It was a chance to get away from the crowds, to draw breath and be refreshed. And although we have no details, the fellowship and teaching they received from Jesus must have been wonderful, a very special experience that they would draw upon again and again in the months and years ahead, particularly for those Jesus had called to Himself to be apostles in His church.
As they made their way back down into civilisation, I wonder what the disciples thought would happen next? Their hearts must have been full of joy, perhaps with thoughts of God’s kingdom coming and His glory being revealed. But if that was the case, they were in for a terrible shock. Because the first thing they experience is not another miracle or another wonderful healing. It’s misunderstanding, opposition, accusation.
We’ll look at what form this opposition takes in a moment, but before we plunge into the details of the passage, it’s important to stop and realise that even such opposition is all part of the message Jesus wants to teach His disciples. Yes, it’s great to spend time with Jesus, being taught and nourished by Him. But following Jesus means going with Him out into the world, being ready to face those who disbelieve you and your faith. And although in today’s passage Jesus’ opponents say some particularly cruel things about Him, actually this opposition is just a foretaste of what Jesus and, later on, His disciples will suffer. Jesus’ aim is to help His followers be ready for the inevitable conflict that their allegiance to Him will bring.
I hope you can see that there is also a lesson for us here. At the moment the opposition to our faith in this country is mostly in the form of words. But even as we gather here this morning, there are millions of our brothers and sisters around the world who are wrestling with the question of whether they are willing to lay down their lives for their faith. Now, please God, there is no indication that we will face immediate persecution for what we believe, but if we do, will be ready?
So let’s look more closely at our gospel reading. Where exactly does the opposition to Jesus come from?
First of all, it comes from His family.
Mark 3:20-21: Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
Now there is some debate about the phrase which our Bibles translate as “His family”. It literally means “those around Him” – or perhaps, as we might say, His nearest and dearest. They may have been family; they may also have been close friends. Whoever exactly they were, these were people from whom Jesus should have expected to receive most support and encouragement. But when they hear Jesus has no time even to grab a quick bite to eat, their response is not to offer protection or to help Him get some food. They want to physically restrain Him and prevent Him from attracting more publicity. They have no real understanding of His mission and no sympathy for what He’s trying to achieve.
I guess there are many people here this morning who know what it’s like to have family and friends who find our faith incomprehensible. It’s hard living day by day with folk who, for example, shut you down every time you talk about Jesus or cannot understand why church is such a priority in your life. If that’s the case for you, then I hope at least Jesus’ experience here reminds you that your Lord and Saviour knows exactly that kind of rejection. It seems that at this point even His mother Mary failed to grasp the significance of what her Son was doing and I am sure that on a human level this must have been immensely painful for Jesus.
So there is opposition from Jesus’ nearest and dearest. There is also, as we have already seen, opposition from the religious leaders of the day – which, if you think about it, is more than a little strange. After all, these were the people who knew the prophecies of the Old Testament. They should have seen that Jesus was the hope they were looking for and they should have realised that God had at last come to save His people. Yet when their Messiah actually comes among them with the good news of salvation, they remain tragically hard of heart, unable to see the good Jesus was doing, unable to put their faith and trust in Him. You see, although they did not realise it, they were more interested in clinging on to their power and their privilege than serving the God they claimed to worship.
Sadly the attitude of these religious experts is one that has been repeated all too often throughout church history. All too frequently when there has been a fresh move of the Spirit, established churches have responded with suspicion or dismay. Why? Because when the Spirit of Jesus is at work, you have to accept you are no longer in control and some find that deeply, deeply threatening. So, for example, in the 18th century when the Methodist revival was in full swing under John and Charles Wesley, the fiercest opposition came not from the crowds who flocked to hear them preach but from the established church. They were dismissed by one correspondent, for example, as “mad enthusiasts who teach…sedition, heresies and contempt of the ordinances of God and man”1. I mention this only because if we are serious about wanting revival in our church, we have to accept that sometimes opposition will come from the most unexpected quarters, even those we might assume would welcome it most.
And as that quote shows, when opposition comes, it is both personal and painful. Jesus’ family heard what was going on and decided that He was out of His mind (verse 21). It’s always quite tough to take, isn’t it, when those you love decide you are mad? But sadly Jesus and His followers have all too often been accused of madness. When the apostle Paul was put on trial before King Agrippa, the governor called Festus told him he was out of his mind and that his great learning had driven him insane (Acts 26:24). Or again, in the times of the Soviet Union Christians were often exposed to the most cruel and barbaric psychiatric treatments. And even today there are people like Richard Dawkins who see faith as a form of madness. To quote: “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness”.2
Then there are the Pharisees who do not see Jesus so much as mad as bad. Listen to what they say in verse 22: “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” Although people today may not use such language, there are, it seems, plenty who doubt whether the Christian faith really is a force for good, who lazily assume that religion is the root cause of conflict in the world (even though Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, to name but three, were atheists), who associate the Christian faith with the rise of empire and forced conversions of indigenous people. Indeed as the Western world grows increasingly ignorant of who Jesus really is, so we must expect the Christian faith to be more and more dismissed and the positive contribution it has made to so many areas of our life ignored.
So, when we follow Jesus, we must expect to face opposition. This opposition will be both painful and personal. What then can we learn from the way Jesus dealt with those who were accusing Him?
Well, Jesus responds in two different ways to His critics.
First of all, He uses a parable to show that He’s neither mad nor bad. Listen again to what He says in verses 23-26:
How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.
You have to admit, there is a very sane logic in these words. It would be completely counterproductive for Satan to drive out Satan, because it would only weaken and undermine whatever power he might already possess, and hasten his downfall. In fact it is those who are ascribing His miracles to some malign force are being illogical. But Jesus, as ever gracious and loving, does not say this directly. After all, when it comes to defending your faith, then there really is little point in responding with personal accusation of your own. Jesus makes His point clearly and logically, and leaves His hearers to make their own conclusions.
But Jesus doesn’t leave the matter there. Because, you see, His hearers need to realise that what they are saying is not only illogical, but also blasphemous. Jesus’ mission is not to use the power of Satan, but to bind the power of Satan. He is the person He is talking about in verse 27 who ties up the strong man and robs his house. And if you want any evidence of what He is saying, then you only have to look at the crowds pressing around Him who are coming to a true and living faith, and being wonderfully and miraculous healed. Jesus has come only to do good because He is the living Son of God, and to call His work evil is in fact the one sin that is unforgiveable.
It’s important to stress that it’s in this sense we must understand verse 29: But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin. Sadly, this verse is all too often taken out of context and leaves people feeling worried about their eternal salvation. What Jesus is saying here is very specific and only part of His wider argument, that calling what is good evil is the greatest offence you could ever commit against the Lord Almighty. So if you are here today wondering if you have committed the unforgiveable sin – let me reassure you, you haven’t. Not that is, unless you really believe Jesus is evil and His work a deception, but then again I guess, there’s no reason for you to be here in the first place.
So Jesus uses a parable to respond directly to His accusers. And I think there is much we can learn from the way He responds and what He does and does not say. He is not personal and He does not respond directly with a counter-charge. But He is logical. He is clear. He points out the flaws in His opponents’ arguments and forces them to face up to the consequences of what they are saying. And we as believers too should know how to answer challenges and questions according to Jesus’ example. That’s one reason why on my blog recently I have been seeking to answer some common questions I encounter about the Christian faith. Of course knowing what to say and how to say can at times be immensely difficult. That’s why when we are under attack for our faith, we need to pray more than ever for the gift of the Holy Spirit to provide us with the wisdom and discernment that we need, that Jesus would supply us with the words we need.
Jesus gives a parable. Secondly, he also gives a picture.
Now in verses 31-35 the focus switches back to Jesus’ family. In verse 21 they set out to take charge of him (the word there literally means to seize or restrain) and in verse 31 they arrive at the house where Jesus is staying. Only there is such a large crowd they are unable to get inside. So they send someone in with the message that they’re waiting outside, presumably to take Jesus home and make sure He doesn’t cause any more trouble.
So how does Jesus reply? Let’s take a moment to consider His response in verses 33-35:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
I guess Jesus’ family must have been pretty shocked when they heard these words, as well as the people who were sat around Him. It is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments to honour your father and mother, and to disobey your mother quite so publicly would have provoked an instant reaction.
But Jesus is making a very important point, that when we become a follower of Jesus we have a new loyalty to a different kind of family, the church. And when there is a conflict between our family and the church, we need to remember that actually there is nothing more important than being part of the body of Christ. Our attitude as believers so often is to put the family first, and the church. Jesus wants to challenge that attitude and help us see just how important are the bonds that unite us as a church. That person who is sitting next to you this morning is your brother or your sister in Christ. You are called to get to know them, to pray for them, to serve them as if you were serving Jesus Himself.
And it really is just so important we promote this sense of belonging – particularly I might add, when so many of us are away on holiday! Because, as we have seen, following Jesus will lead us into opposition. If we are clear about what we believe and set on doing God’s will, we will be constantly challenged about our faith. We will be challenged by those we love. We will be challenged by those who consider themselves religious. The opposition we encounter will be painful and it will be personal. We may well be considered mad or even bad. Yes, we need to be able to answer our opponents with grace and wisdom, but we cannot stand alone. Others to need be praying for us, and we need to be praying for others. Because, you see, belonging to each other is not an optional extra but an integral part of belonging to Him.
So today, after the service, as you share a cup of coffee, talk to that person you’ve been sitting next to, listen to the challenges they face as a disciple of Christ and commit yourself to pray for that person. And for all of us, as we go out from here, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2) So that in whatever we face we may be known as His followers, united and strong for His name’s sake. Amen.
1 Quoted by Gary Best, a biography of Charles Wesley p.128, Epworth Press, 2006.