Christ beyond boxes

Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentacost
Mark 3:20-35

During most of my adolescence, my family attended the Church of the Way where I was part of a pretty solid little youth group. Our group of about a dozen kids met in someone’s home every Wednesday evening for a combination of social time, music, bible study, and discussion, and while I have to admit that the big draw tended to be hanging out with a bunch of friends in the basement rec room, we did take the study and discussion pretty seriously. One guy in particular took it very seriously… He’d grown up in a family that emphasized bible study, and he knew his Sunday School memory verses much better than the rest of us. Much, much better.

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The thing is, this sometimes came across as a slightly smug sort of proof-texting. The group leaders—one of whom was actually by older sister—would be taking us through some passage or another, encouraging us to ask questions or challenging us to sort out some piece of our faith, and this guy would sit back and say, “but what about Romans 7, verse whatever, where Paul say such and such?” And it often felt like he particularly enjoyed doing this when it seemed that his verse was contradicting what the leaders were trying to say.

Well, during one of those sessions this guy sat back in his very distinctive way and said, “But what about the unforgiveable sin?” The unforgiveable sin, we all thought. What the heck is that? And then with some horror, most of us began to wonder, “what if I’ve committed it?” He probably would have been quoting the King James Version, which has even more bite than the version we read tonight: “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” Oh man, this is seriously bad.

I don’t remember how our leaders responded that night, but I do remember him bringing up that same verse on yet another night. The leaders had arranged for Dr John White, one of the lead preachers at the church, to join us for a session of Q & A. Midway through the session, that guy sat back, opened his mouth (at which point my sister and the other leader would have tensed right up), and asked, “What about the unforgiveable sin?” I suspect the rest of us in the group must have looked like scared rabbits, because Dr. White offered what I think was the wisest response he could have given. “If you’re worried that you might have accidently committed the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, then you haven’t.” Oh, thank God… literally. He did go on to say more, but what mattered was that initial response.

In his commentary on Mark, the biblical scholar Larry Hurtado basically says the same thing that John White said to us.

The idea of an unforgiveable sin has haunted the minds of sensitive people in all Christian centuries, but all such anxiety is misdirected. As the context makes plain, Jesus’ warning is against disregarding his message by calling it Satanic, a quite specific deed. A person doing such a thing would have no concern about Christ’s forgiveness for it. So, the very anxiety lest one may have done something that cuts one off from Christ’s forgiveness is, ironically evidence that one believes Christ to be sent from God, and thus proof that one cannot have committed the sin warned against here.

“As the context makes plain,” Hurtado writes, and is so often the case it is in attending to context that we get to what is at stake. This is set quite early in Mark’s narrative, yet Jesus’ reputation as a healer has already grown to the point that a crowd constantly surrounds him. Some, though, are not convinced, including members of his family. “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” The Jerusalem scribes—think of them as being the educated and scholarly scripture experts—took it up another level, beyond mental illness to demonic possession: “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” This Jesus of Nazareth is not merely mad, he’s dangerous.

Jesus, however, will have none of it, so addresses them with a set of parabolic questions and statements:

How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Now Jesus makes clear,” says the writer and Reformed pastor Meda Stampler, “the scope of what he is doing in his freeing of the demon-possessed. Jesus is coming to plunder Satan’s household and bring about his end, not by division from within but by stealth and force from without.”

A quick side-bar here, on the satan and the demonic. A good deal of ink has been spilled trying to make sense of how these sorts of texts play out in the modern world. On the one side, there are writers who see every moment of life as being caught up in what is called “spiritual warfare”—think of Hal Lindsey’s 1972 book, Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth—and then there are those in the classic liberal tradition who see this stuff as being tied to an archaic world-view and therefore irrelevant. As I’ve mentioned before, I find C.S. Lewis to be the most sane and viable guide here, when in the introduction to his novel The Screwtape Letters he writes,

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Here’s the thing, though. Regardless of how we image spiritual evil and the satan, what Jesus offers both undermines and undoes the power of evil. Yet that was apparently utterly unintelligible to the religious scholars of Jesus’ day. They see his authority, his healings, and his “binding of the powers of evil,” and imagine that such things can only come from the satan. Jesus is a no-count, up-country, son of a carpenter… aside from drawing on the powers of the demonic, how could he possibly be doing any of this? Funny that it never seems to occur to them that it all might be coming from God. I mean seriously, these are people who knew their scriptures; did it never occur to them that many of the prophets were unschooled nobodies?

It is in looking at what is born of the Holy Spirit and calling it the work of the devil that his critics essentially box themselves in, and once they’re in that box it is pretty near impossible to get out. Put that frame on the life and work of Jesus, and that’s all you’ll be able to see. Pretty hard to confess that, “Jesus is Lord” if you’ve already decided that, “He has Beelzebul.”

The boxing in of Jesus is the problem here, and as we read the gospels it becomes clear that Jesus was thoroughly impatient with boxes. The very next thing that happens, in fact, is that when his mother and siblings come to try to rescue him from what they fear is his madness, he redefines family: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” His birth mother and his blood siblings do eventually come to recognize who he truly is and so end up a part of that redefined family, but that is an unboxed, redefined family and not one based on blood ties.

He is the Messiah of God—the God, remember, who refuses to be symbolized in any graven image, and whose name is the elusive “I am”—and throughout his life he simply refuses to behave in the way in which they assumed a self-respecting Messiah should behave. And yet as Meda Stampler emphasizes in her reflections on this passage, “Jesus’ stealthy binding of the powers of evil ultimately undermines Satan so completely that even when he appears to have succeeded in destroying Jesus in the crucifixion, the very destruction of the Son issues not in defeat but in the mysterious victory of God.” It is a subverting of the old order that it at work here.

Back for a minute to that guy from my youth group. I’ve not seen him in over thirty years, though I did hear that he’d gone off to seminary and is now pastoring a congregation somewhere out west. For the sake of his congregation, but also for his own sake, I hope he grew out of his smugness, for spiritual smugness just isn’t all that far from a boxing in of Jesus… and Jesus is so very impatient with boxes. The same goes for me, and ultimately for all of us of course. Like his mother and siblings, like the scribes who wrote him off and the people in the crowd who said he has lost his mind, we can easily create our own expectations for how a proper Christ should act. And his saving grace is found not in our expectations, categories and boxes, but in who he is, in all of his unexpected glory.

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