Lectionary Sermon for 8 February 2015 on Mark 1: 29 – 39

On Clicking the “I agree” Box
Some time back I read a comment on Twitter which said
To most Christians, the Bible is like a software licence. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree” @almightygod on Twitter

While this is demonstrably true for many, it seems to me that this is only part of the problem. Colin Morris once stated in an address to the Methodist Conference in the UK that he hoped that we might move beyond the days where: “…….the liberal’s ignorance of the Bible was only matched by the evangelical’s ignorance of the world to which it might be applied”

Bible reading must always be related to context – and this includes an acknowledgement that since the days of the Bible our context has changed. If a few more took the first step and actually read it – including the fine print – they might notice that many of the common misconceptions about Jesus in the world, as it was then, are simply not supported by the record.

To watch some of his modern day imitators, we might assume that Jesus was into grand occasions and liked performing for the crowd with dramatic action? Not here into today’s gospel – or indeed for almost all of his reported encounters with people. Here he is just as prepared to help those in a small house – without even room for a big audience. And what is more, his help is very low key indeed. In Jesus day the obsession with exorcists was so great that there were elaborate ceremonies laid down. For example for a woman with a burning fever, the procedure should have been the complicated ritual laid down in Exodus Ch 3 verses 2 – 5 in which a iron knife is tied by a braid of hair to a thorn bush, to be repeated three times over the next three days – and then followed by a magic incantation – which would presumably be thought to produce the desired cure.

A modern cynical scientist might observe that since the release of pyrogens into the blood to raise the temperature to kill the bugs is the body’s natural way of dealing with pathogens, three days fever would usually abate by itself with or without an iron knife or incantation. Yet for whatever reason Jesus simply ignores the detailed “cure” laid down by the law and takes a much simpler and less dramatic path.

Jesus solves everyone’s problem? Well sorry – not according to the record. Today we find Jesus getting involved with physical healing – that much is in the record. Perhaps it needs spelling out that here he starts by ministering to an unnamed woman with a fever. Her temperature may have come down – but certainly as far as Mark is concerned, she is still not worth naming after the event and no doubt to the horror of feminists today she has been apparently healed so that she can resume her tasks of serving the men. Jesus may be the initiator of a system that ultimately will contribute to the freedom of women but he appears in his day almost as much constrained by the traditional rules of his society and culture as we are by ours today.

In this respect, perhaps I should add, Paul appears to suffer the same constraints when he asks not for the freedom of slaves, but rather their humane treatment, and in another place also insists that women should keep silence in Church.

Jesus heals everybody? Well, no actually. Mark in today’s reading, records him ministering to many who came that day, but presumably only ministering to those who happened by good fortune to live close enough to turn up. Those in the next village might just as well been living at the other side of the world for all the good Jesus was able to do for them.

What about the thought Jesus had God-like strengths and gifts? Note the record in this instance implies he seems worn out by the end of the day which might help explain sneaking off early the next morning for some meditation. Jesus again according to the record showed many of the standard human weaknesses and limitations. He reportedly could preach a great sermon, but not all who heard him were affected to the extent their lives were changed. He reportedly was a great debater, but his replies enraged some as well as convinced others.

But beneath all there is of course the question we would prefer that was not asked. In his healing was Jesus actually doing what is popularly known as miracles? There is a common belief that Jesus could do actual miracles in which the laws of nature were suspended at will. Yet if so, since the laws of nature are very firmly in place for us today, does that mean that whatever Jesus was doing is actually beyond our reach? Some get angry when this is questioned because they say it is not right to even raise such matters where faith is sufficient. But we must at least be truthful with ourselves and at the very least allow the answer that there is no way of knowing. Whatever Jesus was doing was in fact recorded years after the event – and those who stated what happened were not there.

We also know that many claimed miracles today turn out to be based on false claims, and that it is extremely difficult to establish evidence that laws of nature can in effect be suspended. Honesty also demands that we admit in Jesus day accurate diagnosis was virtually impossible. Leprosy was associated with many skin conditions other than Hansen’s disease, and temporary conditions like an epileptic fit would be expected to get better at least in the short term as would many natural diseases. Even death was hard to establish without stethoscopes and a host of modern techniques. When someone is reported as recovering, if you don’t know whether they had a condition not able to be dealt with by natural processes of the body’s immune system, and if you have no way of checking whether the cure was effective for the following days, certainty about miracles is misplaced.

We already know that different versions of the same event in the gospels can and do differ in some details so we know that there is unreliability in the record. If we remove all stories where a degree of exaggeration might have crept into the retelling, there may be few, if any, stories that show Jesus was operating outside the standard constraints of nature. Clearly miracles were part of the thinking in those days when demons and strange happenings were rationalized with a different mind-set to what we might consider today and there is a sense that we can only appreciate what is written if we try to see it with the ancient mind rather than with a modern analysis. We might also note in passing that while miracles are frequently mentioned by the gospel writers, the most prolific New Testament writer Paul does not consider it important enough to even mention one miracle of Jesus outside the resurrection.

Well no doubt this may irritate extreme conservatives, but as far as I am concerned, to find that Jesus was not some all powerful magician who could click his fingers and heal with a touch would not cause me to abandon my faith. If Jesus were indeed superhuman and could deal to every situation, this is so far from the realities I face and the weaknesses I experience, I would be forever consigned to casually ticking the I agree box and leaving it to others to attempt the actual Christian walk.

There is for example a caricature of Christian witness you too may have encountered, that has large groups of people gathering in worship to chant repetitious flattering phrases pointing out to God or alternately to Jesus how great he is – and enjoining him to fix all the current problems. There is probably no harm in this when those present are actually doing their best in becoming involved in dealing with day to day problems for which they are praying. There are always situations of injustice, the need for visiting the sick and the prisoners, feeding the poor, making peace, righting injustice or perhaps ministering to the deranged. If we use our prayer to focus on such situations as a prerequisite for involvement, this can only be positive. There is no shame in genuinely praying for the strength to do that which is beyond us and using the prayer to sort out our thinking. But prayer removed from a willingness to do anymore than offer support in the prayer chorus line approaches hypocrisy. Simply using prayer as a substitute for action and landing all problems on a faulty memory of how Jesus actually went about his tasks seems a parody of what Jesus showed mission to be. I suspect that there may even be a degree of escapism in worship that extols Jesus and presents great lists of problems to lay at his feet in prayer rather than following his lead and struggling with actual problems within the constraints of reality.

I guess what I am really calling for is a careful examination of this particular software agreement before anything gets signed.

My reading of this particular subsection in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus had to cope with some very realistic problems and that even he did not bring all the answers by way of complete solutions. If we are indeed signing up to follow in his footsteps – and what is more following into a world which has probably changed almost beyond recognition, there is every probability that the problems have become even more complex and intractable. In this case, the “I agree” box does not mean that our tick will mean everything is done and dusted.

I believe it was Mark Twain who observed that: In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

We do need to examine the questions for ourselves – and not be afraid of the answers. Perhaps it should be before we can say “ I agree to” the basis of our faith, we need to acknowledge that we are signing up for a journey (not an achieved destination), and one for which each step needs thought and planning to deal with actual not ethereal realities.

We may also need to reflect that Jesus was subject to the limitations of his world and recognized reality – only helping where he could help. That is a positive message for us today, for although our context is different, the gospel does not make other worldly demands. To follow in his way, we too must help where we can. We should not be surprised that we cannot walk on water, or summon a genie to banish an incurable cancer. What we are called to do is to offer support and friendship to the afflicted – and like Jesus be prepared to grasp the near edge of the problems that come our way.

And yes, we are called to faith, which is very different to a cheap acknowledgement of belief. In belief someone else has done the thinking for us. Faith is what we are genuinely prepared to trust because we have worked it out for ourselves – and sometimes with fear and trembling.

There is just one last thing. Before you are permitted to use the software agreement you must sign. Hopefully, you have read – you have thought – and finally a genuine decision is called for.

David acknowledged that the time we have is not infinite when he said to Jonathan, “there is but one step between me and death”.

You may recall the famous story of the rabbi who was asked by his disciple, “when should I make a decision to follow God?” The rabbi thought for a moment. “Exactly one moment before you die.”

Hold on Master” – protested his disciple. “ How could I possibly know when I am going to die”.

Exactly”, said the rabbi. “ Do it now while you still have time”.

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