A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
St Mark is brilliant. I hope you are enjoying our year of reading primarily from his Gospel in our Eucharistic services. What an incredible gospel, full of excitement and urgency - it contains the word "immediately" I think 41 times. The Gospel is full of drive and direction, almost half of it given over to the accounts of the final week of Christ’s life, it fizzes with excitement and urgency, but then occasionally we get a moment of almost ridiculous understatement. We heard one of those examples this morning: Jesus has been rejected by his own people in his home synagogue, and is amazed by their lack of faith, and then St Mark tells us, “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them...!"
No deed of power except curing more than one, indeed "a few" sick people! What does Mark call a deed of power then!
There is so much in today's readings. We have things about sickness and health, we have a conversation about the nature of God’s power, we have being sent out to evangelise, to spread God’s message. We have visions of the heavenly places in our epistle, and we have the question of what on earth is this ‘thorn in the flesh’ with which Paul seems to live for the duration of his ministry.
And so, paradoxically, I'd like to start with Darkness to Light. Darkness to Light, if you are a visitor amongst us this morning in the cathedral, is our advent service. It is I suppose our most famous service. It begins in absolute darkness, into which, after a single candle is lit, a voice sings, “I look from afar”, to which a lone voice replies, “and lo, I see the power of God coming.”
I look from afar.
How does the power of God come? How does the Kingdom come?
I’d like to think, this morning, for a moment, about how we recognise the approach of God. How do we know that we are not alone? How is it that the Kingdom grows?
Because unless we actively want to stick our heads in the sand and stay where we are, I guess we all hope that God is drawing closer to us, that the Kingdom of God is growing, dawning, whatever language we choose to use. That we are getting closer to a place where the righteousness and the peace of God is the hallmark of the life of the whole world. That the world has – to put it over-simplistically – the potential to ‘get better’. It is after all a central petition in the Lord’s Prayer which we pray at every act of Christian worship, “thy Kingdom come” – that’s not a statement, after all, it is a request – bring in your kingdom - we’ll all ask God for that to happen just before we come to the altar to receive the Sacrament today. But how does the Kingdom come, and is there any evidence that that might be happening?
Both readings this morning highlight this tension between the promise of the Kingdom of God, and the reality of the world. In the reading from 2 Corinthians we have this extraordinary vision of Paradise which Paul describes – “I know a person in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven and heard things that are not to be told…” Although he describes “a person in Christ” it is clearly himself that he is talking about. Paul, this man who had such intense and profound visions of the Jesus whom of course he never knew during his time on earth, has this experience of seeing heaven – seeing in to the very heart of the reality of God. But this man also goes through life with the thorn in his flesh. Now what this “thorn” might be, people have debated for centuries – there are lots of theories – a speech impediment, or a disability of some sort, epilepsy, depression – these have all been suggested by various scholars over the years. It doesn’t really matter. The point is this: Paul is a man who is able to experience profoundly the reality of the promise of God, and at the same time suffered from something – whatever it was, which impacted his life to the point where he was praying to God to be delivered or healed from it.
That same tension is seen in our Gospel reading. When Jesus goes back home they don’t want a piece of him. They took offense at him, we learn, and so his deeds of power are less than they would otherwise be. Healing still happens - that hallmark of Jesus ministry, that where he went, people were rescued, healed, delivered. Not everyone, and not all the time, but this is a marker, a signpost, in the bible of where God is moving – people’s lives start to come back together, and that is symbolised, flagged up, by healing, very often. Not just healing of bodies but of minds, and spiritual lives, as well as relationships. When the Kingdom approaches, lives are put back together. People are, to use another biblical phrase, “clothed and in their right mind.” Order replaces chaos. But none the less, there is unbelief, offense is taken at this man preaching a Gospel of love and forgiveness. And as the disciples go out to begin their ministry, Jesus warns them that they too, will not be received well everywhere. There will be a lack of welcome. That is part of the package too.
I look from afar, and lo, I see the power of God coming.
And the temptation is therefore to see the world a bit like a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings battleground, in which God is fighting against everything else, and he might win or he might lose. And to kind of stack up wins for God and wins for whoever we think is against God – “the world”, or “the devil”, or “evil”, or just plain old apathy and human badness. But God isn’t a tennis player. God doesn’t win a point here and then lose a point there. God doesn’t get stuck, like Andy Murray, in a never ending deuce.
So if it’s not like that – God and his enemy batting it out on a supernatural tennis court, what is it like. How do we square what happened last week on that Tunisian beach with the coming of the Kingdom? Sudden arbitrary death out of nowhere. The 85 richest individuals in the world own as much as the poorest half of the entire population of the world – how do we square that with the promise of a Kingdom where Christ is able to say “blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Well Paul offers us a crucial piece of theology in today’s reading. Power is made perfect in weakness. Power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, he goes on to say, “I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then am I strong.”
Now what this doesn’t mean is several things: It doesn’t mean that God is vindictive and cruel and that he makes us suffer in order to teach us a lesson or to make our faith stronger, and then he’ll whizz in on a charger with the Kingdom and everything will be jolly again. God isn’t punishing the Greek people by collapsing their economy and making them fear for where their food will come from this week. He doesn’t do things to put ‘hair on our chests’ or toughen us up a bit. Neither does it mean that you’re not a proper Christian unless you’ve got a decent whack of suffering in your life. There is a nasty strain of extreme Christianity which kind of tries to say that – how do I know I am following Christ properly if it’s not hurting – you know. That’s not how it works either.
What it means is that there isn’t a practical difference between looking for the kingdom and living in the world. The kingdom is looked for here, in this world, because it is here in this world that the kingdom comes. So it feels like I look from afar but none the less I see the power of God coming – here. So the power of God comes into the places where I am, where you are, and slowly the very fabric of the world is changed. Like the way the colour slowly changes in those hanging lights in the porch, slowly a green gives way to a blue, or a yellow to a red, so slowly the ‘now’ of this world gives way to the approach, the advent, of God. And what we are is what is transformed. Who we are is what is transformed.
The Kingdom comes into the beach in Tunisia. Into the banks and homes of Greece, into the borderlands of Sudan and South Sudan. Into the broken and fractured parts of my life, and yours. Into the sickness and disease, into the failure and doubt, into the hopes and dreams, into the prayers, and hymns, and silences of our worship. Into the weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. That is where we find the presence of God, growing, changing and developing us from the inside out, as it grows and changes and develops the world. We don’t have to buy it in from outside. It is here. So when I am weak, then am I strong.
What that doesn’t do is make the ‘now’ any less unbearable to those who bear the harshest burden. I wouldn’t expect one of those bereaved by the terrorist atrocity in Tunisia to hear anything I have said and be particularly comforted by it. For me to try to do that anyway would be grossly insulting and pastorally inexcusable. It is not supposed to be comforting. It is simply to say that there is nowhere where God is not, because the Kingdom doesn’t come in with trumpets and riders and decisive visible victories over evil and sin. It creeps in, cell by cell, prayer by prayer, heartbeat by heartbeat, redeeming and transfiguring broken things and making them new, so I look from afar, but lo, I see the power of God coming, and whenever I am weak, then am I strong.