Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after Trinity, 29th May 2016Mark 3:7-19 
‘But Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea.’ What do you think the beach was like? Are we thinking about Hastings or Bognor, or perhaps a little cove in Devon? Or is it one of those rather more formal beaches in the south of France, or in the Ligurian Riviera, perhaps, with a café and some lifeguards, and people wandering about selling you refreshments?
There was quite a crowd. It was so busy that Jesus thought that he might need to get into a boat to avoid being swallowed up in the crowd. Quite a lot of people. I don’t think that they had turned out simply on the bank holiday to have a nice day in the sun by the seaside. They had come for the specific purpose of listening to Jesus and watching him at work performing miraculous cures, especially, on this occasion, in the area of mental health.
He was dealing with people who had unclean spirits, as the Bible puts it. It is generally reckoned to refer to people who had some form of mental illness. The ‘unclean spirits’ recognised Jesus. They had a very clear vision, perhaps in the way in which those people do, whom we call idiot savants. These can be people who may be unable to cope with life in general but are extremely brilliant in some specific areas. Think about Rain Man or the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, for example. 
‘You are the son of God’, they said. No theological reflection what it is to be God or what it is to be a God who has a son. Or whether the son is in some sense part of the Godhead rather than being a creature; none of the stuff which was going to become controversial in Christianity bothered the unclean spirits on the beach that day. 
And notice that, as Jesus often did after he had healed people, once he had dealt with the people with the unclean spirits, once he had set their minds at rest, ‘… he straitly charged them that they should not make him known,’ which sounds a bit unlikely, if he was doing this great work of healing in front of so many people. Nevertheless, Jesus wanted to try to keep it quiet.
The people were there with Jesus not because they all happened to be there on holiday, but because they had all gone to listen to Jesus in the synagogue. They were his disciples, which really means, his students. He was teaching them. Some of them had been with him in the synagogue, and presumably the crowds got so great that there wasn’t room in the synagogue for them so they went out on to the beach. There was a man with a withered hand that he healed in the synagogue. It was on the Sabbath day, and there was an argument with the Pharisees about whether, according to the Jewish law, Jesus could lawfully heal the man on the sabbath, which seems extraordinary to us, because, surely, healing the man would trump any legal obligation. And indeed, that’s the way that Jesus himself interpreted things. Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do evil? To save life or to kill? That’s what he said.
So he already had a large group of followers, who were disciples, who were studying what he had to say. Bear in mind that, in Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher as much as he is a priest; taking out the scroll of scripture and then interpreting it for the benefit of the congregation. The congregation was there almost as much to learn as to worship.
Interesting that, in modern times, the Taliban in Afghanistan are the extreme religious party; the name ‘Taliban’ means ‘students’, so there also there is a connection between being religious and being a student: studying ultimate truth, divine reality. You can perhaps understand why the Romans were nervous about the Christians. If instead of the word ‘disciples’, you substitute the word ‘Taliban’, that might give you an idea how the Christians were viewed in the eyes of the Roman authorities – and, to some extent, in the eyes of the Jewish authorities, who had devolved power under the Romans. Christians were sometimes seen as extremists, as zealots.
When Jesus decided that his mission needed some administration, some organisation, and he needed some colleagues to work with, to help him to spread his gospel, his good news, his interpretation of Holy Scripture, and his healing ministry, he picked his A team, his ‘apostles’, as he called them. The word means, ‘the ones he sent out’. 
It’s interesting that the authorised version of the Bible uses the word ‘ordained’ for what he did: he ‘ordained twelve, that they should be with him and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out devils.’ The Greek original doesn’t actually have the word ‘ordained’: it just says he ‘made’ twelve, whom he called ‘apostles’, so that they would be with him, and so on. ‘Ordained’ in the seventeenth century didn’t necessarily have the specific connotation of making into a priest. It could just mean ‘appointed’.
At this stage we don’t know very much about the apostles. Take the description of John and James as Sons of Thunder – it’s a marvellous description which reminds me a bit of Brian Blessed in ‘Flash Gordon’ – ‘Gordon’s alive…!’ I think Brian Blessed must be a son of thunder. And Simon the Canaanite, as he’s described in St Mark’s Gospel; but in St Luke’s Gospel, where the story of the choosing of the apostles also occurs, Simon is described as ‘the Zealot’, which suggests that he was a member of an extreme sect who were dedicated to the overthrow of the Roman occupation. He was indeed a Taliban.
There was also Matthew, who, we know from other passages, was a tax collector, a ‘publican’ in the Authorised Version, a tax collector who bought a franchise from the Romans, a franchise under which he had the right to collect tax and deduct a collection fee. Just as it’s not universally popular today when things which used to be government activities are privatised, so in those days, tax collectors, privatised tax collectors, were not regarded as being a good thing. In the Authorised Version you always get the word ‘sinners’ coupled with the word ‘publican’. Publicans and sinners.
Jesus was accused of keeping bad company. He associated with, he sat down to eat with, publicans and sinners. Matthew was a publican, a tax collector: a private tax collector. Even today, we don’t have anything like that. Better not give George Osborne any ideas!
So the apostles were the prototype of the Christian church. They were the first church leaders. They were a mixed bunch. They were sent out to preach, to proclaim the gospel; and they were spectacularly successful. Christianity as a religion grew like wildfire. What a heady time. 
But we, we today, have been brought back to earth with a bump this week with the publication of yet another gloomy report on the extent of religious belief in this country, showing that in England there are now more people who say they have no religion than there are who profess any religion. 
We, we in the church, are the disciples today. What does that mean? Are we no good? Time was when the Church of England used to send missionaries all over the world. We were the ones who were spreading the Gospel. Nowadays the growth in the Christian church seems to be coming from where the missionaries went. Christianity as a worldwide religion is still far and away the biggest religion and the fastest growing one, but the growth is in China, in Africa, in South America. They could send missionaries to us!
Why is Christianity not growing in Northern Europe? This week Dr Giles Fraser, in a newspaper article, suggested that perhaps people turn to Christ when they are poor and in need, but they tend not to have time for God if they feel themselves to be self-sufficient: so in the richer parts of the world there is a cult of self-reliance and material success, which has pushed out any recognition that we are all God’s creatures. There is no feeling that we need God’s love. You cannot serve God and mammon.
But nevertheless, faith is still alive here. It is very noticeable that it is the Christians, and Christianity, which are still at the root of much of the charitable activity in our Western world. Jesus’ command, to love one another, and his parable, of the Good Samaritan, still have tremendous traction.
Think of the fantastic work being done by the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean at the moment. I think we could assume that quite a lot of the sailors who did such a marvellous job in rescuing hundreds of refugees who had been tipped into the sea or trapped inside the hull when their boat capsized the other day, in those horrifying pictures – apparently, of five hundred people aboard, they think that only perhaps five were lost – those rescuers were either Catholics, or certainly they came from a very Catholic country. I’m sure they all knew the story of the Good Samaritan.
Let us pray that there will still be many apostles to preach that gospel, and to teach that wonderful parable. All sorts and conditions will be welcome. Publicans, sinners. We can all do it.

Advertisements