"Let’s not get ourselves distracted from the big picture of what a small number of Christians in a small town anywhere can do when, freed from distraction, they live and share their faith in unity."
Over the past few years one of the complaints about the Church, and that’s Church with a capital ‘C’ is that it has been so preoccupied with arguing and discussing issues like women bishops and homosexuality that it’s lost sight of its real mission which is the preaching of the gospel and being seen to be relevant to a generation growing up with no real understanding of what Christianity is really all about.
In other words, the Church has become distracted, and that’s what people are reading about us in the newspapers.
It’s not good news!
And that seems to me to be an underlying theme in the two readings we’ve got this morning. The distraction in Paul’s letter is over what people should eat or not, and in Mark’s gospel Jesus is distracted by a disturbed man shouting out while he’s teaching in the synagogue.
It’s interesting to see how each of these distractions are handled and to think about how that might influence our own behaviour when we find ourselves getting into similar situations, because any congregation, big or small, can find itself getting bogged down in issues which really shouldn’t take as long as they do to overcome – and while we’re doing that we can lose track of what we’re really here for. We lose focus. We suffer and our mission and outreach suffers.
So let’s start with Mark and a story which comes right at the start of Jesus’ active ministry, just after he had chosen his first disciples. Now the question is where does he go next to spread his message of good news? Well, the obvious place is going to be where people who might be most likely to respond might be gathering. The Synagogue.
A synagogue is not quite the same as a church. We’d certainly find differences in the service held there. For a start there would be no singing, just prayer, reading God’s word and listening to teaching about what had been read. There would be no regular or permanent teacher, any competent person could be asked by the synagogue official to lead the teaching. Obviously word had already spread around about this Jesus chap as someone who might be interesting to listen to, which is presumably why he got his invitation to teach.
And we’re told that Jesus taught like no one else (in a positive way!)
When the experts and the scribes taught they referred to the Torah, the Law, and the many rules of life that had evolved from their understanding of how God’s Law should be applied to everyday life. Their teaching would begin by saying something like “This is what Moses said….” Or “This is what the Rabbis say….”
Jesus had no need to refer to how others interpreted God’s word. He spoke as if God’s word was speaking directly to the people gathered there, which of course was true. No wonder that they could say that he spoke with such authority, it must have been like a breath of fresh air to those listening.
But then there’s a distraction in the room, a heckler if you like, possibly someone known to the people, a regular at the synagogue, but a persistent and obviously disturbed heckler who is stopping Jesus from speaking.
Mark is in no doubt that the man is possessed by an evil spirit, and Jesus has no hesitation in dealing immediately with the situation so he can get on with his teaching. He doesn’t stop to explain what he’s about to do, and the healing though miraculous is not done for show, but simply emphasises the authority that Jesus is unconsciously claiming when he speaks and acts, and which the people recognise and talk about later.
Belief in demons was widespread in the ancient world, it was nothing new. There are cemeteries in the area where skulls have been found with small holes drilled into them to allow evil spirits to escape – trepanning. A whole mythology had grown up about demons, and for us in the 21st century it matters little about what our views are, because this was the reality that Jesus faced.
The man certainly thought he was possessed, he was hearing the voices in his head, a split personality. Jesus didn’t argue whether or not this was a psychological problem rather than demons, he met the man where he was and offered healing, which was far more important.
This distraction started as a negative moment at the start of Jesus’ ministry – his first recorded sermon! But his actions turned it around into a positive one because it demonstrated the authority by which Jesus taught and lived. Jesus, who presumably was not really known that well at this time.
People talked and wondered! Not a bad start to his mission and work!
I wonder what people say about the church today when they talk and wonder – I’m guessing it’s not quite such a positive conversation as it was outside that synagogue!
Jesus was not challenging their views on demonology, just showing that he had come to bring healing, wholeness and the good news of God’s Kingdom – and that’s what he did before moving on to somewhere else with his disciples.
The Church does have a habit of getting tied up in controversy over issues that the world has moved on from, and not only gets distracted but starts to appear irrelevant. It needs to follow Jesus’ example of just dealing directly and with authority with distractions and then moving on to continue the mission of living and sharing the good news of the gospel.
The church in Corinth is a great example of what can happen, and Paul is brilliant in his approach to just cutting straight through to what really matters and getting them to both see what’s wrong and sort it out!
It’s interesting that the Lectionary reading should be about the kind of meat that should or shouldn’t be eaten, whether the way in which it had been offered in sacrifice (here to idols) made it a “no go” area for the Christian Church.
Recently in the newspaper there was an article about the large percentage of the meat we buy in the supermarkets which is now slaughtered according to halal rules through pressure from Moslem groups (it’s not labelled as such)
Although it’s not exactly the same problem, it’s similar enough to perhaps help us empathise with the problems that the Corinthian church were having.
In Paul’s day opinion was divided over whether to eat meat offered in sacrifice to idols. To some this was not a problem. They no longer believed these heathen gods existed, so they argued therefore that the food was fine to eat.
Others however had worshipped these foreign gods all their lives and it was very difficult for them to get rid of the idea that these idols were nothing at all, or simply wrong. Their consciences still would not let them eat the meat, they needed to make a complete break from their past beliefs, and that included what they felt comfortable eating. This meat just didn’t seem right.
Paul takes an analytical view of the whole issue, which has obviously become a distraction to the effective mission of the church in Corinth, and obviously feels the need to knock a few heads together!
Firstly, and most importantly, Paul says to those who are happy to eat this meat that it’s really not about the rights and wrongs of eating this at all. Even Paul might side with them in denying the existence of these gods and therefore be happy to eat this meat, but the real problem is not the meat, it’s about their attitude to people and particularly their brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling conscience-wise with the issue.
One of the fundamentals of following Christ, says Paul, is that we shouldn’t trip people up, cause them to stumble in their walk of faith. This meat thing may not be an issue to you, he tells them, but it’s a real hot topic to these other good folk, and that must dictate your actions. Show some love and compassion, he tells them. Think of others.
If something is OK for you but not for someone else, then maybe it’s you that has to make the first move, to pull back, acknowledge that what you are saying or doing is causing others pain or distress and simply make that small sacrifice of giving up eating that meat – for the sake of unity, for the sake of God’s kingdom in this place.
Forget knowledge and thinking you know best, concentrate on showing love and understanding.
Several of the big issues that the Church at large has tied itself up with for some years have cause real division and hurt among ordinary Christians.
I wonder whether Paul might have a similar response to the Church today as he had for those folk at Corinth if he were able to contribute to the various debates – to not be so concerned about the argument that you lose track of what being the family of God is all about, showing love and understanding, being prepared to let go of issues that at the end of the day are distracting the Church from its core mission which is to carry the good news of the gospel to the world, to show love and understanding and bring healing and wholeness to a very fragile world.
That’s the point at which Paul and Mark’s message come together. What is most important at this time in our history is that people see a Church united in love and speaking God’s word with authority – that would be an effective church, and that is as important at local level as it is nationally.
Let’s not get ourselves distracted from the big picture of what a small number of Christians in a small town anywhere can do when, freed from distraction, they live and share their faith in unity.