A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

John 3:20-35

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

The Cathedral is, today, dressed in green. It will be dressed in green for almost every Sunday for the remainder of this liturgical year. We have journeyed together through Lent and Holy Week to Easter Day. That day at night we said farewell to Dean Frank and Christine and, on the Second Sunday of Easter, we welcomed our Locum Dean Adrian and Jeannie. We are in an “in between time”, an Inter Regnum as it is known, but this is a holy time, an important time of reflection, and we are profoundly grateful for Adrian’s leadership with us. We have heard and reflected upon the stories of the resurrection, the story of Jesus’ Ascension and the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, as we do on one occasion each year, we have pondered the nature of God in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The liturgical colours in our Cathedral shed light on the seasons of the year. Purple for Lent, White and Gold for Easter and Trinity, Red for Pentecost. But this Sunday the colour has turned to green. It is as if we have climbed a mountain, struggled with Jesus’s death, reached the summit in his resurrection and now, now we have returned to the plain. The precious ordinary days when we walk the way of God with Jesus the Way. The drama may have calmed for a time but we are not left alone. As we walk this path, we have with us a story, a book, a Gospel. This year it is the Gospel of Mark. Through the green Sundays, the ordinary Sundays, Mark will be our companion. The writings in his gospel will be our guide.

Mark’s Gospel cracks a pace. Mark tells the Jesus story in sixteen chapters, Matthew, for example, takes twenty eight. The word “immediately” appears often, everything seems to happen “immediately” in this gospel. We wondered about that before Lent when we had a few Sundays on which to begin our time with Mark as our companion. We wondered about the speed of it. About God almost feeling an urgency about bringing God’s love in Jesus, about Jesus sensing the speed with which he needed to act. As if he knew his time was short. Mark’s Gospel gives us that sense. That Jesus’ time is short.

Today we are in Chapter 3. A strange passage at first sight. Very strange indeed. In the verses before those we heard read, Jesus has been healing and casting our demons and, after appointing his twelve apostles and giving them authority to do the same sort of freeing of people that he does, he goes home. In the passage we heard this morning we witness the attacks on Jesus begin. The attacks come from two directions and the literary structure of our gospel passage sheds light on this. The passage is like a literary sandwich, technically known as an intercalation. The passage begins and ends with Jesus’ interaction with his family. And in the middle of the literary sandwich, the action is interrupted with Jesus’ interaction with the religious leaders. Mark loves using literary patterns like this and they always have a theological purpose. They are always used to highlight something. This passage is written to highlight attack. And attack from two arenas where Jesus would hope to be nurtured, would hope to be given life. The attacks come from his family and the leaders of his faith.

Jesus’ family accuses him of having gone out of his mind. They want him to stop what he is doing. The religious leaders go further. They accuse him of being in the power of evil. Jesus has been casting out demons from people, setting them free from the negativity that has power over them and the religious leaders say, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Jesus responds to the religious leaders’ attack firstly with logic and then with a story, a parable. So often, it is Jesus’ stories that drive home his point. The parable goes like this:

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.(Mark 3:27)

A strange little story. It is about a theft. Jesus’ is likening his bringing in the Kingdom of God to a house break-in. This story is one that biblical scholar Ched Myers viewed as so significant that he named an entire commentary on Mark’s Gospel using its language.

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.

Ched Myers’ book on the Gospel of Mark is entitled Binding the Strong Man.

This short parable tells us how Jesus sees what he is doing. He is breaking into a house where those he would save are captured by, are the property of, the strong man, the evil one. Jesus sees those he heals and teaches and frees from the powers of evil as if they were held in the strong man’s house. His task is to bind the strong man, to overpower evil in the world, and only then can he set all people, all creation, in fact, free. This might seem an extreme way of describing his ministry but Ched Myers reminds his readers when he analyses this parable that the early writers (eg Matthew 24:43) described the Lord’s Advent as a thief coming in the night.[1]

This parable is Jesus’ response to accusation of the religious leaders that when he frees people from evil, he is in the power of evil himself. He says more than this, though. He says more than this about those who name him in the power of evil.

‘Truly I tell you, [Jesus says to them], people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

Jesus raises the deeply troubling idea of a sin that can never be forgiven, sometimes called the “unforgivable sin” or the “sin against the Holy Spirit”.  And Jesus accuses the religious leaders of this sin when they say he is acting on behalf of evil. Ched Myers describes the unforgivable sin in this way:

“The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with “theological” joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.” [2]

Another way of putting this is to say that the unforgivable sin involves seeing God at work, knowing this is God at work, and naming it evil. We may wonder if it is possible that there are any sins that God would not forgive. And we might remember that Jesus often spoke dramatically to catch our attention. But, forgivable or not, this sin is serious enough for us to spend a moment reflecting on what it means for us.

“The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with “theological” joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.” Ched Myers wrote.

What is Jesus saying to us?

Jesus, I think, is encouraging us, to take seriously the reflective life. He is encouraging us to notice what is happening in our own life and the lives of those around us and to notice with God’s eyes. One spiritual writer said that Jesus is really saying one thing …“Wake up!” God is about liberation, about setting free. Setting free from sickness and fear and anxiety and from what the people of the time thought of as “possession by demons”. What we might think of the powerful negativity that can bind us, to use Jesus’ language, constrain us, overwhelm us at times. Views of ourselves that are not God’s view of ourselves. That we are not worthwhile, we don’t look right, we don’t achieve enough. God is about liberation. About helping us see ourselves as God sees us. Beloved, always beloved. And if we long for this in some part of our lives or if we long for this in some aspect of our world, we are longing for God to God’s work, God’s work that we see in Jesus’ encounters during his three brief years of ministry …”the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepersare cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” [3], as Jesus put it himself one day. Jesus wants us to wake up to the work of God in all this.

When Jesus has finished speaking the religious leaders, he is told that his family is looking for him. The story returns where it began, with his family. But they think he is mad and they want him to stop what he is doing. As members of families we might well understand how troubling Jesus was to them, but he needs those around him to believe in him, needs us to believe in him. And so he redefines family:

‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Here we are in our inter regnum, our precious “in between” time, walking along, as the green Sundays begin, with Mark’s Gospel as our guide. Invited, I think, to live a reflective life, to keep awake, looking for our longings for liberation in our own lives, in the lives of our communities and in the world. And, when we glimpse this liberation happening, knowing it, naming it, rejoicing in it, as signs of the life-giving presence of God.

[1] Ched Myers Binding the Strong Man p165.

[2] Ched Myers p167.

[3] Matthew 11:5