Watching the evening news, preparing for extended family gatherings, or parish meetings it is hard not to be aware of the divisions between us, the distance between the ideal of family and faith, community and church, and the reality of our relationships. It would seem from this week’s readings that this is not a new conundrum but as old as the human story itself. (RCL Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; and Mark 3:20-35)
The Genesis reading reminds us that one of the consequences of the first named sin was for division to come into the created world. Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and experienced for the first time separateness from God. In trying to defend themselves they blamed one another and having been made of the same stuff they now experienced themselves as separate. They also came to experience separateness between themselves and the serpent, one of the creatures. In what had been a seamlessly interconnected world there was now a perception of difference and separateness which introduced pain and fear into their relationship with God, with each other, and with God’s creation. And the Genesis story tells us that this separateness came to express itself in the terrible events of Cain and Abel and on through the stories of our forefathers and foremothers of faith and the establishment of the house of Israel in which division remained rife.
However despite the fractures within family and tribe the strong bonds of family and group identity became one of the strongest social belongings which helped a semi nomadic people come to inhabit their promised homeland and survive against exile and oppression. And Jesus, born into this strong vulnerable chosen people, affirms the value of family and yet also critiques it. His words, as reported by Mark (and the other two synoptic gospel writers do not dare to include these words they are so contentious) are at first quite shocking. And whenever we are shocked by Scripture I think we are being invited to dig deep and find the treasure.
All of this week’s reading from Mark 3:20-35 is shocking but in particular because the family of Jesus express their concern for him by questioning his sanity! So we see separation and division at every level around Jesus: within his family; between the religious leaders and his ministry; and there is the hint that his newly chosen disciples are going to be divided among themselves and from Jesus by competition and betrayal.
And Paul’s letter to the conflicted church in Corinth is all about separation and division as well: probably between the converts and the locals (both Jewish and Gentile); among the converts between one faction and another; and between Paul and the other teachers.
So if the unifying theme of our readings this week is division then let us circle back and focus on the teachings of Jesus so that we may be alerted to what is dangerous and what we may be called to instead that is healthier and more life honouring.
Clearly the family of Jesus and the religious of the day find something about the ministry of Jesus – his teaching and healing – to be dangerous, even demonic?! His family are probably concerned for his wellbeing and mental health; they seem to think that he has lost his mind in his zeal. The religious, the scribes, were more likely to be concerned because his teaching and powerful healing ability unsettles their understanding of how religious matters should work. The response of Jesus, which is to turn their own convenient “diagnosis” of demon possession back on them, is to effectively say “your theory doesn’t make sense for why would the leader of demonic powers enable me to cast out demons?” Jesus then links this point to the wisdom that a family divided against itself cannot withstand attack.
Jesus then takes his reproof a step further and effectively says, ‘Hey you who are concerned about by what power I am able to teach and heal like this need to look to your own spiritual affiliations and health for you are at risk of grieving the Holy Spirit from which there is no coming back. Everything else, all that you do to yourself and to others, can be forgiven but not sinning against the Holy Spirit!’ So what is this terrible sin, most to be feared? It is certainly not simply swearing using the Lord’s name in vain (which is certainly a sin by the standard of the Ten Commandments but not the unforgiveable sin). The sin against the Holy Spirit is to not believe that the Spirit of God is in Jesus because if you do not discern the Spirit of God at work in Jesus then you will not be changed and participate in the life of the Spirit yourself. (Marcus J. Borg, “Meeting Jesus in Mark”, SPCK, 2011) It is also worth acknowledging that some Jewish texts described the Holy Spirit as the divine power that brought the new community into existence so to sin against the community is to sin against the Holy Spirit! (Amy Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler editors of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament NRSV Bible Translations, Oxford University Press, 2011)
So being convicted of how bad it is for us and for others to be divided how are we to respond in the real world to which we belong? The real world in which we find ourselves in small and irritating differences with our family and neighbours and sometimes in very – even life and death – differences with others? Jesus does not answer directly (although he shortly after embarks on a series of parables and more healings) but the portion of Scripture we study this week does have some significant hints.
Firstly this portion of the gospel begins with the choosing of the twelve disciples and therefore we too are being invited onto a life long journey of learning and following. Whenever we are confronted by matters that confuse, irritate, and threaten us it is good to remember that we are called to be lifelong learners ever going deeper and higher in our understanding. Therefore we need to be curious rather than automatically threatened and judging; we need to be humble for what we know today is greater than what we thought we knew last year and is less than what we might know next year; and most of all we need to remember whose followers and students we are. Even when we don’t easily know what the answer is we need to ask “What would Jesus do?” And the answer will usually be – love, have dinner with, heal, encourage, and forgive.
Secondly we need to remember that if we think of ourselves as family we need to cautious about being divided! Now I don’t think that Jesus was teaching against robust discussion and debate – after all Jesus was Jewish and thrived on sitting around discussing matters: “On the one hand .... On the other hand ...” or “You have heard it said ... but I say ...” Difference is not automatically division. But it is true that I find some Christian perspectives so unlike the Christ I have come to know that I cannot support their views. Mostly I can ignore but sometimes I do feel the need to make a clear contrary statement. It is very important that when I distance myself from a position or a world view that I not curse the holder of that view but rather advocate for my position on the basis of love and inclusion. And hold in my heart the other protagonist in the full knowledge that they also are a beloved son or daughter regardless of which one of us is theologically the more correct.
And thirdly we all need to get more comfortable in being in relationship with people who do not think, vote, and live the same as ourselves. We may need to have some boundaries that we cannot cross for our physical and mental health but we need to keep these as few as possible. Church membership certainly requires this of us: theologically because we are called into the most universal belonging of all – the kingdom or dream of God; and practically because we will always find difference.
While we cannot go back to the garden of our innocence and unquestioning unity we can in moments glimpse that we still, through communion with God and God’s people and creation, belong in a seamlessly interconnected world. We are invited into the kingdom or dream of God so that a new heaven may come upon this earth. And we are called to live out this truth.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and teach us how to love and live as you would have us do.