08 July 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Canon Simon Cowling
2 Corinthians 12. 2-10; Mark 6. 1-13
The Golden Summer of 2012. The United Kingdom welcomed the world to the London Olympics and the home athletes rose to the occasion: the twenty-nine gold medals which the athletes won ensured that the UK finished third in the overall medal table. The Royal Mail played its part in the celebrations by promising to paint one post box gold in the home town of each gold medal winner. However, the law of unintended consequences ensured that this commitment was not without controversy, as those of us who live in these parts may remember. Alastair Brownlee, who won a gold medal in the Triathlon, was born in Horsforth and spent his early years there. A gold post box duly appeared on New Road Side in Horsforth. But by the time Brownlee won his gold medal he had moved to Bramhope, a few miles north. One resident was so irritated by Horsforth’s claim to the vicarious glory of the gold post box that he took it upon himself to paint one gold in Bramhope as well. The Royal Mail promptly painted it red again.
You may be starting to see a marked contrast between this minor skirmish over bragging rights to a local hero with the first few verses of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus arrives in his home town of Nazareth with his newly minted group of disciples. Our Lord has already given ample indications of his true status: most recently, as we heard in last week’s Gospel reading, he has restored a young girl to life and healed a woman whose haemorrhages had rendered her ritually unclean for twelve years. He has also stilled a storm and healed a man of his demonic possession. We might say he is in gold medal position for the status of local lad made good. And the crowd in his home town does seem, initially, to be sufficiently impressed to want Jesus on the podium: many who heard him were astounded. Mark tells us. Where did this man get all this? The crowd goes on to ask. What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hand? In view of what Jesus has accomplished so far in his ministry these are the right questions to ask, questions that offer rich possibilities for exploration. But then it as though a switch is thrown. The crowd suddenly changes tack. People abandon any notion of exploring the questions they have and choose instead to draw easy conclusions from what they already know about Jesus’s origins: Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. Jesus is subjected to a ‘who does he think he is’ moment. How could a tradesman from their obscure town in Galilee, whose origins and family were perfectly well known, how could such a person possibly have any claim to speak and act under the direct authority of God? Jesus is, as it were, relegated from gold medal position to being an also-ran. A prophet without honour in his home town.
It is sometimes helpful for us to remember that the Gospels were written several decades after the events they describe. The apparently fleeting reference in today’s Gospel reading to Jesus’s reception in his home town takes on much weightier significance when we remember that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel, about forty years later, the early Church was already in a state of puzzlement about why the Jewish people had refused to accept Jesus as Lord when the mission to the non-Jewish world was already starting to bear fruit. Throughout Mark’s Gospel the linked questions of who Jesus is, why he is able to do what he does, and how people are to respond to him is a persistent theme. It’s rather like the cantus firmus, the fixed song that forms the basis of so much medieval polyphonic music, running through it like a golden thread: Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? ask the disciples after Jesus has stilled the storm. They were overcome with amazement Mark writes of the family of Jairus when Jesus brings the little girl back to life. Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi after he has healed the blind man at Bethsaida. Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one? the high priest mockingly asks Jesus on the night of his arrest. At the end of the Gospel the questions remain, hanging with Jesus on the cross.
In his novel The Brothers Karamozov Fyodor Dostoevsky has one of his characters, Ivan Karamazov, narrate a parable. Jesus has returned to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles. The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt at the stake the following day. The Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The Inquisitor does not believe that most of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. It is better for them to be kept in happy ignorance even though this will lead them, as the Inquisitor puts it, to ‘death and destruction’. Jesus’s wordless response is to kiss the Grand Inquisitor. Ivan Karamazov remarks: the kiss burns in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea. The parable ends.
I wonder if this parable might help us to unlock the mystery of Jesus’s ultimate rejection, and its foreshadowing by the negative attitude he encountered in his home town. Always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse wrote Hilaire Belloc in one of his cautionary tales. Ivan Karamazov suggests in his parable that, for Christians in the middle ages, it was the Church in the guise of its priestly caste that functioned as nurse. The clergy saw it as their task to take on the unsettling burden of freedom that Jesus offered so that humanity was not required to do so. For the Jewish people, who ultimately found Jesus’s claims about himself to be such a stumbling block, it seems to have been the Jewish Law that was nurse. Because of its strict boundaries the Law removed the need for its adherents to attend to the responsibilities of the new and unsettling, even frightening, freedom that Jesus offered. This is one way of interpreting the abrupt change in attitude of the crowd in Nazareth.The offence that Mark tells us they took was rooted in fear as they began to take in the implications of what people had already experienced through Jesus’s ministry.
Who, or what, is the nurse that we keep hold of? Are there ways in which we, too, resist the unsettling freedom that Jesus offers us? Customs, practices, assumptions which become barriers to our full embrace of that freedom? Fears, too deep for words, which hold us back? When the kiss of Christ burns our heart will we continue to adhere to our old ideas, like the Grand Inquisitor, or listen to St Paul as he tells the young church at Corinth: the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.