2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 7, 2015
What frames the central truth of our lives?
Imagine a picture that has been beautifully matted and framed. The matting material has been cut with great precision, and sets off the picture from its frame with a color that both contrasts and complements the colors in the painting. The frame itself gives structure to the artwork. Its form is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The overall effect is satisfying and complete. The painting looks finished. Its frame and matting are not distracting. They focus attention on the artwork itself.
In today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, we are given a beautifully framed and matted picture. Mark has taken great care to frame the central idea inside a pair of contrasting, yet complementary ideas. We pick up the story just after Jesus has chosen his twelve disciples. As we join these disciples at Jesus’ feet, we are about to witness our Lord face opposition from two different camps.
Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 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. 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.
“Truly I tell you, 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”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:19b-35)
What frames our lives? What holds together the picture of faith we present to the world? What kind of matting gives contrast to our inner truth, drawing attention to the core of our faith? And just what is that central thing we hold most dear? When the eye of the world is drawn toward the center of our being, what will it find there?
In this story from Mark’s gospel, family forms the outer frame. The story begins with Jesus “going home” and we can guess that this is probably Peter & Andrew’s house in Capernaum. The pressures of ministry have already grown so great that Jesus doesn’t even have time to eat. His brothers and his mother are worried about his mental and physical health, so they come over to Capernaum from Nazareth to check up on him. But when they get there, the crowd is so thick they can’t get through. This only raises their alarm. They wonder if Jesus is starting to lose it. Though they mean well, and are only concerned with Jesus’ well-being, their concern is actually an obstacle to the mission Jesus is pursuing.
Like his family, the scribes are also concerned. But they don’t care about Jesus’ health and well-being so much as they care about the way he challenges their authority. They accuse him of being possessed by demons, apparently trying to discredit Jesus in front of the crowds that have gathered. While the people closest to Jesus, his mother and brothers, question his mental health, these scribes –who have traveled from Jerusalem to check out the rumors they have heard – question his very soul. The family of Jesus form an obstacle to his ministry through their concern for him, but the scribes oppose his purpose by questioning the source of his power. The frame and the matting are in place. Let’s look at the picture itself. Let’s see what Jesus has to say to his opposition.
It should come as no surprise to us that Jesus starts talking in parables. A house divided against itself, a kingdom divided against itself, a strong man’s house being plundered – these are all illustrations of the key truth Jesus is trying to explain. Satan cannot drive out Satan, and the accusation that Jesus is acting under Satan’s power is very close to blasphemy. When the scribes accuse Jesus of working with Beelzebub, they don’t realize that they have given Jesus precisely the words he needs to prove them wrong.
The name Beelzebub comes from a Hebrew play on words. By the time the scribes use it, Beelzebub is just another name for the devil, and they may not have even known about its origins. Be-el-ze-vuv sounds an awful lot like Be-el-ze-vul, which means “Ba-al the exalted.” It’s what the Canaanites called their god, Baal, back in First and Second Kings. While Be-el-ze-vuv sounds a lot like Be-el-ze-vul, it means something completely different. It means “lord of the flies.” And we all know where flies like to congregate. Around dead, smelly things.
Did any of you ever read the novel by William Golding called Lord of the Flies? It’s about a bunch of English school boys who end up on a deserted island when their plane goes down somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. The boys try to organize themselves in order to survive, but competition for leadership of the group divides them, and they quickly regress to an uncivilized state. A house divided against itself cannot stand. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Satan cannot cast out Satan.
Beelzebub is defeated by division. That is what Jesus came to do. He names the blasphemy of the scribes for what it is: defiance against God. Claiming that God’s saving grace is the work of demons puts the scribes in opposition to the One who saves.
But what about the division in Jesus’ own family? This outer frame asks “who is my brother? who is my sister?” and the answer is larger than our families of human origin. Jesus redefines “family” and we need to be clear, as Christ’s church, that this different kind of family requires more of us than showing up for dinner. Cynthia Hallas writes, “For people wounded by their families of origin, or by divorce or abandonment, the idea of church as family can be very off-putting. For people whose families were havens of comfort and a refuge from the world, the idea of church as family can create expectations that the church was not created to meet. … Christ’s church must always be a place where all are welcome, and where those who commit to following Christ become brothers and sisters regardless of how little else they may have in common. “Blood is thicker than water”, we say. That may be true of ordinary water; but blood is never thicker than the waters of baptism, where all who desire to follow Christ and do the will of God become part of the household of God.
The central truth framed by these ideas about family and division is Unity. Not necessarily unanimity, but the commitment to stand together, even when we disagree. IF you grew up with siblings, you probably can remember a time when you argued with your brothers or sisters, but also found yourself defending them against outsiders from time to time. Christ calls us to unity in the family of God, so that we can participate in the kingdom of God.
But there is another picture inside this picture of unity in Christ. Not only does Christ call his body, the church, to be one with him and the Father, he also calls each of us individually to have integrity of heart.
The psalmist writes, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name” (Ps 86:11).
What frames our lives? What holds together the picture of faith we present to the world? What kind of matting gives contrast to our inner truth, drawing attention to the core of our faith? And just what is that central thing we hold most dear? When the eye of the world is drawn toward the center of our being, what will the world find there?
The question becomes a very personal one, and as we prepare to approach this Table, we need to ask ourselves for honest answers. A couple of weeks ago, on Pentecost Sunday, I told the children of how John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed when he suddenly felt sure of his own salvation. Do you know for sure where your salvation lies? Have you trusted completely in God’s grace, and made him Lord of your life? Or are you stuck under the spell of the lord of the flies?
Do you not only believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but publicly claim him as the ruler of your life? Have you turned your life over to Christ, and asked him to take control? I knew a young man once who told me, “I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. I know he died to save me. But I’m not ready to give him control, because I know if I do, I will have to keep giving him control every day for the rest of my life, and I like to be in control.”
The emperor Constantine wasn’t baptized until he was on his deathbed, twenty-five years after he was supposed to have had a conversion experience. Some think he waited until he was near death to be baptized for the same reason as my young friend – he knew that becoming a Christian meant more than just saying he was a Christian. It meant changing the way he lived.
If you are ready to make that change, Christ is ready to receive you. If your heart was strangely warmed years ago, but you’ve lost the glow, Christ is ready to rekindle the flame of faith and lead you in the way of discipleship. No matter how you’ve framed your life up to this point, you are welcome to be part of the family of God, to follow Jesus with an undivided heart.
So come. Come to this Table, and as you come, let the body of Christ, broken for youo, frame your life. The outer matting of our human frailty offers a stark contrast to Christ’s great sacrifice, but it also draws attention to what lies at the very center of our being. Let us approach this Table with undivided hearts, hearts devoted to Jesus Christ. Amen.