The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Father Dan: Continued:
Everywhere Jesus goes people flock to him, and he heals them. It gets to the point that “whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’” even though Jesus sternly ordered them not to reveal his identity. Very strange and sure to attract suspicious authorities!
The first three chapters of Mark record all kinds of things that’ve happened prior to Jesus’ returning to Capernaum; and when he does return, the crowds that gather at this house are so big, he and his disciples can’t even eat. From Jesus’ family’s point of view, he’s saying and doing things he shouldn’t. It’s going to get him into trouble. They’re afraid for him and in order to protect him, they say he’s out of his mind, and they’ve come to take control and take him back home to Nazareth.
Already he’s attracted the legal experts from the National Church up in Jerusalem who over and over again say, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” It’s a very dangerous accusation and his family’s right to be concerned.
Jesus calls the legal experts to him and speaks to them in riddles. In Mark’s Gospel a parable is more like a riddle. His family looks on in horror as Jesus addresses his accusers. They’re probably thinking, “Don’t talk to those people! You’ll just get into more trouble!” “How can Satan cast out Satan?” he asks the experts. “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.” What’s the meaning of this riddle? Is Satan pitted against himself? You betya! Let me explain.
In the New Testament, and actually, throughout the Bible, Satan is the accuser, the one who points the condemning finger. (The most offensive finger gesture is not what we think of, the middle finger, but the pointing index finger.) Satan stirs people up by means of accusation, setting person against person and group against group. He whispers, “You’re good, and he’s evil. You must push him to the margins or get rid of him to make the world safe again, to make the world great again.” Sound familiar? Each side says this of the other and so both sides are thrust into conflict with each other.
Perhaps you’ve seen this cartoon, I believe it may have been in the New Yorker. Three people are sitting at the table with plates of cookies. The best dressed of the three is telling the others “Beware, he’s trying to get your cookies.” And so, the two end up fighting with each other over the few cookie crumbs left on their plates, while the first one pigs out on the big plate of cookies he now has.
“United, we stand. Divided, we fall.” is a famous slogan from the American Revolution that gets at the same point.
Having stirred folks up through false accusation,..sheesh! Our politicians do this to us, or at least try to, all the time, don’t they? Having stirred folks up through false accusation, and in order to keep this conflict from spreading and destroying everyone, Satan now uses accusation to contain it. A scapegoat is found to blame things on. We fight fire with fire and it works. It worked in World War I and World War II and in the wars since, but it’s inherently unstable and never provides a lasting solution. It’s accusation throwing out accusation and in the process always breeding more accusation. Dr. King said, violence multiplies violence, no matter who wields it. This is how Satan throws out Satan. Jesus knows that such division can’t last and will inevitably collapse. He says, “...if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”
Satan is done for. He can’t endure. Accusation and division are on the way out and something new has already come to take their place and he stands among us. His name is Jesus. That sounds wonderful but how does Jesus expect to accomplish this new thing? His riddle shifts to address this question. It’s a strange image that’s baffled people for centuries. He says, “...no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man;..”
Some Modern English translations of this text use the term “strong person,” but I don’t like it. The translators are trying too hard to be politically correct. I prefer the punch of “strong man” used in our translation. “...no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man;..” How will Jesus tie him up?
The strong man is Satan and we humans live in his house. We all live in the house of accusation. Every system in our culture is filled with anxiety and the fear of being blamed, and we try to protect ourselves from it. Jesus is going to steal us out of this house, but first he must bind the strong man. In a strange twist of metaphor, like Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Jesus names himself as the burglar. The world belongs to the strong man and Jesus will tie him up so that he can steal humanity from his clutches. Can you see why his family thought he was nuts?
And the way he ties up the strong man, oh, this is almost beyond imagination! Jesus allows the strong man to point his accusing finger at Jesus himself and falsely condemn him, and murder him on the cross,.. but God vindicates him by raising Him up. Jesus doesn’t kill the strong man, though the gospel is clear that he could. Instead, he allows himself to be killed by the strong man. This reveals the strong man’s accusing way and the revelation ties his hands. Binding the strong man happens as his accusing way is shown for what it is: a lie! In fact, part of the work of the Holy Spirit in history is to expose how the accuser works, thereby binding him.
Jesus again shifts his riddle, leaving us bewildered. He begins, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;..” It’s a flat and comprehensive pronouncement of forgiveness directed to all human beings. So far, I can follow Jesus’ argument, but the next verse leaves me bewildered. “...but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” This verse has been a source of anxiety for millions of people who ask themselves if they’ve sinned against the Holy Spirit and are condemned for eternity. A countless number of people have come to me over the years seeking pastoral assurance because they were convinced that they had committed an unforgivable sin and God would never forgive them. But notice that the preceding verse says all are forgiven. To be consistent, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit” can’t refer to human beings. It refers to the Satan, the strong man. The strong man is the one condemned eternally. When it says, “that person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever,” that person is the Satan; no particular human being at all.
There’s no room for accusation in the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom Jesus brings. A huge gap separates accusation and love. They’re diametrically opposed to one another and that will never change. Unlike the strong man, Jesus and the Spirit he set loose, do not accuse. In fact, throughout the New Testament, the Spirit is the advocate for the accused, the Paraclete St. John calls the Spirit. Accusation, the pointing finger, is characteristic of the strong man’s house, and Jesus has stolen us out of there. Don’t you just hate it when a politician, or a preacher even, points their finger at you? I want to go up to them a grab that finger and say, “Stop it!” Haha!
At this point Jesus’ family arrives. They stand outside and pass in the word to have Jesus come out. They want to take their crazy boy home where he’ll be of no harm to himself or anyone else. The scene inside the house has a crowd seated around with Jesus himself in the middle. In a sense three concentric circles surround him. There are those on the inside listening to Jesus, taking in what he has to say and wanting to learn from him. There’s no accusing finger here. Their feelings toward Jesus are positive and receptive.
Outside of this inner circle stands Jesus’ family accusing him of being a little nuts. They believe they’re protecting him from the danger they know is gathering against him.
And then in the outermost circle are the legal authorities from the Vatican up in Jerusalem, who gather to point their finger saying “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” They think they’re doing God’s work, and their accusation carries the threat of death.
We currently live in a world of accusation to the extent that we live in the world; nation against nation, politician against politician, neighbor against neighbor, sometimes spouse against spouse, brother against sister, and so on and so on. The courts are full of it, and we buy insurance to protect ourselves. But Jesus stands in the middle of the finger-pointers at the center of history and around him sit those who find him life-giving. No accusation disturbs their peace and all look to Jesus as their model. He tells them accusation is done for; tied up and defeated by love. He asks us to become his family by living his non-accusing love in the world. When we do he says we are his brothers and sisters and join him in defeating the power of accusation, the power Mark’s gospel calls “the House of the Strong man”.
Sermon by Revs. Thomas L. and Laura C. Truby
June 6, 2015