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Sermon – 9th June

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    Readings: Genesis 3: 8-15 and Mark 3: 20-end

    It seems to be a common aspiration among young people to become a celebrity. I can’t think of anything worse, and I suspect that most of you would same the same. Leaving aside for a moment what is actually meant by ‘celebrity’ – you have to be a certain type of person to cope with all the attention, the adulation, and the lack of privacy even when out apparently away from it all. Who would want to be in the shoes of Meghan Markle, Nigel Farage or Taylor Swift?  I recall one American President who said how much he wished he had the freedom just to walk out on his own down to the local store to buy a magazine.

    We get just a hint of the pressures on a celebrity in the gospel for today. We’re in the fifth chapter of Mark, and already, Jesus is being followed by large crowds wherever he goes. Of course, being a celebrity has an impact on those closest to you as well. So here we read that the family of Jesus go out to restrain him. His antics are annoying the neighbours and getting the family a bad name. People were saying that he’d gone out of his mind.

    This is one step in the sometimes uncomfortable transition of Jesus moving from being the carpenter’s son to the itinerant preacher who causes so much trouble that the authorities have to plot to be rid of him. In several places in the gospels, we get the impression that Jesus’s family weren’t wholeheartedly behind his mission, and that he, in some senses, had outgrown his family. Today’s passage raises some quite uncomfortable questions. Jesus was gathering a new family around him – the twelve disciples first, then a larger group, who were to become the fledgling Christian church.

    Incidentally, and it might seem strange to say this, the family as the ideal human community is not a common theme in the bible, which is more concerned with the community of the people of God, both before and after the time of Jesus. One writer has said that ‘the churches collude with the uncritical idolatry of the family’ in the ways they sometimes assume that everybody will be part of a respectable mum, dad and 2.5 children set-up.

    Jesus almost dismisses his family at the end of the passage we’re considering. The point being made is that he doesn’t so much belong to his own human family any more, and will not be seen in terms of them. He is pioneering God’s new work, God’s restored Israel. Its membership isn’t defined in terms of human parentage, or brothers and sisters by blood. It is defined in terms of doing God’s will. We should say, of course, that Mary is constantly loving towards her son, though his actions may sometimes have been difficult for her to understand. And she is still there as he dies on the cross.

    If Jesus’s family didn’t understand what he was about, then the authorities certainly didn’t, either. The Scribes were appalled that large numbers of people had started to believe in Jesus. This was dangerous, in their view, because Jesus had already made it clear that he wouldn’t dutifully follow the rules. He was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, and was healing people on the Sabbath. In their eyes he had to be wrong, for this was clearly against scripture. It didn’t matter to them what the crowds thought; they simply judged Jesus by the wonderful things that were happening. The Scribes and Pharisees could only think of two sources of power for these miracles – God or the devil. The power couldn’t have come from God, so they judged, because God could only work according to scripture. So the power must have come from the devil. So they thought. You might think any belief in demon possession is a thing of the past, and that we now describe such conditions in terms of mental illness – psychosis or delusional – ‘internal chaos’ I believe it has called. But sadly it can still happen that children being suspected of being possessed by an evil spirit experience physical and mental abuse through ritual exorcism

    But the simple fact of the matter in today’ gospel is that everything Jesus did was good. For the authorities to claim that  the powers of evil that lay behind Jesus’ powers wasn’t just a malicious statement, it amounted to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Scribes were saying that Jesus was in league with Beelzebul, a pagan god, whose name means ‘Lord of the flies.’ The Scribes thus suggested that Jesus worked for Satan, the ruler of demons.

    On hearing that charge, Jesus uttered one of his harshest judgments: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness.” I’ve always considered that this sin against the Holy Spirit is the sin of calling black, white. If you completely deny truth and goodness, you won’t recognise them when they’re offered to you. If you begin to rely on the power of darkness with its lies and deceits, the light won’t be able to come to your aid. Another commentary says – ‘The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the willingness to confuse God’s living, liberating Spirit with the death-dealing, imprisoning spirit of evil. You cannot confuse them by accident.’

    So it was with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which we heard about in the first reading today. There was only one thing in the garden they were told not to do, and they did it. It’s become known as ‘The Fall’ – and its legacy is found in all human beings. Adam and Eve put their wishes above what God had told them to do; all wickedness comes from this first sin – disobedience born of wanting our own way. Once the bad decision had been taken, things fell apart. Adam blamed his wife, and she blamed the serpent. Adam could have owned-up in the first instance, but didn’t. Was that the first sin against the Holy Spirit? For any fearful that they have committed ‘the unforgiveable sin’, there is relief: the very fact that the reality of sin occurs to you suggests an openness to the Holy Spirit, rather than resistance against the Spirit.

    Jesus’ apparent disregard for his family ties may have been exaggerated by the gospel-writer to emphasize how important his new God-centred family was. Now, of course, we are part of that family. For some people, especially the single, the lonely, those who feel they don’t fit into society’s expectations, the Church has become their family, and praise God for that! The Church is the place and the community where we learn to live in love and with respect for others with whom we will have our differences of opinion, and sometimes nothing much else in common except our faith. We will experience tensions, so that sometimes we may have to remain tight-lipped for the common good, so as to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Membership of the Church is not just about what we can get out of it. The Church will be a community in which we acknowledge that we will only be forgiven if we forgive; that we are all flawed human beings. But it is also a place where we rejoice together in the saving redemption of Jesus. So let us pledge ourselves to the continual building-up of the body of Christ in this place.

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