Mark 1.21-28: Male authority/Queer Jesus

 

Lets face it this is a passage which has essentially two themes; the over whelming authority of the man Jesus and his exorcism of an evil spirit.  Male authority?  The healing of mental illness through exorcism?  Maybe we should just give up now!

The first thing that strikes you is that Mark is desperate to show that everyone was amazed by Jesus’ authority but reading this in England in 2018 it is difficult to be impressed by a man showing authority and status.

 

It feels like we are going through a time of great change in our understanding of authority, of status, of hierarchy.  When I was little I knew that across the world they celebrated Australia day and I felt in a comforting kind of a way that this might be a nod towards the British Empire and my own country and monarchy.  But when I opened the paper on Saturday I discover that 60,000 marched through Melbourne calling it ‘Invasion Day’ and that the protests were joined by a huge group of ‘Queer Activists’ making parallels between LBGT oppression and the oppression of the indigenous population by the British. It turns out, unsurprisingly that not everyone celebrates the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip.

I do understand and affirm this rage – I am not one of the new Right trendies who think this is Political correctness gone mad, but I still feel a little bit in transition from one world to another.  As if narratives of what it means to be human are being newly created and I am a bit behind the curve.

I was delighted by the rage about how woman have been treated in Westminster over the years, delighted that the behaviour at the so called ‘Presidents Club Dinner’ last week was condemned.  But I also got that sense of being a new place where things that had been accepted where now being condemned.  I think its because I remember living and sharing in a culture which joked about or spoke disparagingly about women or individuals who were LBGT.  A kind of uneasy feeling that I had been part of the problem, that I was still in transition to this new place.

 

This new world which we are now inhabiting tells a new story about equality and inclusivity but it is a story which can make us cynical of people who seem to represent any kind of authority or status or hierarchy.  I really don’t think it is enough for us to say ‘Hey kids, look at Jesus he was really cool, always standing with the outsider and the marginalised, he supported women and if he’d known he would have loved LGBT folk too’.

 

No, the whole thing about amazement at Jesus’ authority leaves me cold.  But what does excite me, because it runs counter to this tired ‘Jesus as a sandal wearing good guy’ narrative is the spiritual nature of this story, the supernatural element.  Did you notice how Jesus doesn’t talk to the man who is ill he talks to the spirits?  And when the spirits say ‘I know who you are, you are the Holy one of God’, Jesus rebukes him saying ‘Be silent and come out of him’.

Jesus calls for silence, a silence which is partly about rebuking God’s enemies, but also the first strike in the spiritual battle which is ever present in Mark.  The whole notion of spiritual battle is can make us feel uneasy, but ‘spiritual battle’ can be a way of describing the engagement with hidden and negative powers both in ourselves and in the community which need to be overcome.  This is not me saying that we all start having to be obsessed by the spiritual as some hidden realm that we as Christians have special access to.  What I mean is that there is more to life than we see, that realty is bigger than we can perceive, that we need humility in the face of a world we don’t fully understand.

But the silence is also the beginning of another huge theme in Mark, that of Messianic secrecy.  That Jesus in Mark’s Gospel wants to keep secret who he is, that he is God’s son.

What is exciting about Jesus rebuking the spirit with the command to be Silent is that it is about Jesus maintaining the mystery surrounding his identity.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel there is a demand for silence alongside a total failure of everyone around Jesus to understand what is being said.

It seems to me that the great changes taking place in our society today.  The huge changes in relation to the status and respect for women – something that I as the father of three women am eternally grateful for.  The huge changes in relation to LBBT rights – again something that I am grateful for as so many of those who I dearly love are part of that community.  But also the moving on from the division between ‘Identity politics’ and so called ‘real economic’ politics – the fact that now we see the link between development economics and questions of gender, race and sexuality.

So looking again at this passage and seeing my initial disappointment that this was Mark’s story about people being amazed at his authority and status – something that didn’t seem so amazing or exciting to me – Now, I read it and see something different.  I see a Jesus who places himself as the heart of a narrative about the mystery of his identity and invites me to enter into a conversation about the mystery of my identity.  An invitation that begins with a questioning of old authorities, even a silencing of old authorities in the face of the new, the alien, the divine.

At evening prayer this week we had that verse from the letter to the Colossians which always confuses me, where Paul says: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church”.  It confuses me because it seems to suggest that I have to kind of ‘top up’ Christs sufferings with some of my own.  But what the verse really means is that we are all ‘In Christ’, that is, in the suffering and pain of being human we are with Christ.  Being Christian is not about avoiding pain and suffering but rather about sharing in it with Christ.

We share too in the mystery of identity, of what it might mean to be human, to be part of the changing narratives of how we relate to and love each other.  About how we can, despite our many failings, our many past and present prejudices and past and present wounds and dysfunctionalism, still be seeking to be made whole both as individuals and as the community of the Church.

Maybe all of us need to start by being silent, that we might better enter an examination of ourselves as people called to participate in the divine life, a life where status finally gives way to a unity and an inclusivity which is beyond our present imagining.  Amen.

 

Sermon for January 14th 2018: Fr. Benson Commemoration.

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Relying heavily on M.L.Smith’s essay “The theological vision of Father Benson” in “Benson of Cowley” OUP 1980

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”

One of the joys of getting older is that you forget things far more often, but I had forgotten just how miserable January can be.  Days where it never quite gets light properly, where one struggles with some new variant of flu, where the problems and anxieties you left in the last year wake you in the night to remind you just what a mess you’ve made of things.  Positive thinking, like the cold fog, seems next to impossible.

 

So maybe it wouldn’t be your first choice to come to church today to celebrate the memory of the founder of the Cowley Fathers and first Vicar of this Church, who was once described as being made of ‘cat gut and iron’, a man who inherited much of the sober austerity of his hero Edward Pusey, a man who in one version of the story made the Cowley Fathers so gloomy and life denying that they sent him off to America so others could inject a bit of joy.

 

If that’s how you feel then its worth remembering that we don’t come here to meet people we like, we come here to meet people we are called to love – and we might end up liking them in the process – maybe.

Benson, our first vicar, is worth spending time with because he shares so many of our hopes and fears.  He once said, a very January thought I think, “Christian Dogma is often spoken of as dead and dry and indeed as men are apt to fight for it, it is dead and dry…It remains a dogma of the faith but no more like the original dogma of the faith than an empty husk that lies on the ground identical with the fruit once found upon the tree”.  Benson shares our January grumpiness.  He is also critical of the conventional concept of faith as an assent to propositions.  The divine Mystery is not mere knowledge says Benson but ‘the continuous apprehension of a continuous realty, a living receptivity’.  He goes on to say the Beatific vision will not be a stationary contemplation of a fixed form… we are called to rejoice in God’s truth as a continually progressive acquisition’.

 

And I hope by now you are warming to Benson, to his desire not to be static but to an elastic, and energised faith.  It turns out that Benson is quite Tiggerish, and invites us to some theological tiggerishness in this dark time of the year.

And as we all know The wonderful thing about tiggers / Is tiggers are wonderful things / Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs / They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun / But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one / IIIII’m the only one!

Benson, like Tigger, is a man on the move, he has an ecstatic and dynamic understanding of human beings and this feeds all his writings.  He bemoans those whose antagonism to faith lacks ‘the clothing, the atmosphere, the elasticity, the emotions of the divine life’.  Benson is forever ‘stepping forth’, rising up or breaking bonds.

In our most gloomy January moments God seems so static, so brittle but Benson speaks of ‘the relative energy of God within himself’ – the word energy keeps coming up in his attempts to give utterance to the Divine life.  In talking about God’s creative act, God’s outpouring of himself into creation he speaks of God “Having burst the bonds of his own Divine existence”.  What an amazing thing to say – God bursting the bonds of his own divine existence, as if even God can’t keep God in – the creative energy bursts forth, it must be proclaimed, like a kind of undiluted joy.

At the heart of Benson’s thinking about God was a great devotion to the mysteries of the Ascension.  I love reading about this because I am deeply fearful of a Christian community that has so lost its elasticity, its bounce, that it has fragmented the birth of Jesus from his death and from his resurrection and ascension.  This is Benson at his most beautiful, talking about the Ascension, about Jesus’ joy in his exaltation: “His humanity rejoices to be welcomed and rewarded as the Father’s son with the infinity of eternal love flowing forth in the perfected consciousness of his human nature”.

In Baptism, in the Eucharist, in our life together in the Church we are caught up in Christ, we inhabit the space of the risen and ascended Christ.  Benson writes: “We do not, I think, dwell as we ought on the present glorification of our natures, in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ”.

It is January, it is gloomy but we are here, we are members of the glorified body of Christ.  As its my birthday indulge me by listening to this much over used quote from Thomas Merton when he, it seems, had a revelation of our common calling:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Benson was fascinated by the 10 days between Pentecost and the Ascension – days when Benson imagined Christ moving through the nine angelic orders in an intensifying process of glorification.  Even here Benson cannot let Christ stand still, his glory is intensifying.  We are singing two of Benson’s hymns today – they don’t write them like that anymore – wow, that last verse:

“Oh the depths of Joy divine

Thrilling through those orders nine

When the lost are found again

When the banished come to reign.”

On this day when we honour Fr Benson’s memory, may we too be filled with the energy, the bounce, the elasticity, the light and the Joy of the ascended Lord, with a Spirit filled faith that recognises our salvation as rooted not in personal good works but in the grace we find in the community of the Church.  Angelic Light, illumination not of our own making but, in Fr Benson’s words, ‘an inherent participation in Divine self knowledge’.  Amen.