An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Religion v’s Life

A sermon on Mark 2:1 – 3:6 by Nathan Nettleton

One of the things that Christians have been notorious for, and for which we stand in need of mercy, is for being party poopers. People have frequently seen us as some kind of thought police who were out to make sure nobody had any fun. We have been characterised as urban ascetics, fasting and flogging ourselves, avoiding parties, movies, the beach, sex, and anything else that everybody else enjoys. 

Now this perception has been bad enough, and it is probably changing slowly, but there is worse to come in our public image. We have also been seen as people who are heavily into guilt and division and legalism. People feel that one of the reasons they don’t want to be Christians is because they have enough guilt already and being Christian means having to feel guilty about every involuntary flush of hormones. What’s more it will separate you from your friends. Everyone knows that Christians only associate with other Christians and so if you want to stay in touch with your friends you don’t become a Christian. Finally, people reckon, you don’t become a Christian because you could never cope with all the laws and requirements that make your life colourless, lifeless, boring, and irrelevant to the real world.

The practice of religion and the fullness of life are seen as being at odds with one another. Religion, at best, is seen as something that was good once but never kept pace with the modern world, and is always trying to turn us back into Palestinian peasants. Unfortunately, if we actually became Palestinian peasants we’d probably still have many of the same problems. Jesus confronted many of the same stereotypes about what religion meant. In the five short stories that make up the second chapter of Mark’s gospel we see Jesus confronting and addressing these prevalent attitudes about what it meant to be a godly person.

Story No.1, Mark 2: 1-12. Jesus is at home in Capernaum and a huge crowd gathers round at his place, inside and out, to hear him teaching. And some people brought a paralysed man along in the hope that Jesus would heal him. And since there was no way to get through the crowd, they climbed up on the roof, ripped a hole in the ceiling and lowered the bloke down in a hammock. But when Jesus looked at the man, he didn’t see a man paralysed by a crippling disease, he saw a man paralysed by guilt and a sense of unworthiness. Probably a man who had lived his life under the doctrine of divine retribution, the theory that his physical condition was God’s punishment for his sins. He felt that he was paralysed because he deserved to be, and that consequentially everyone could see that he deserved to be. He felt that his inability to walk was like a big sign hung around his neck saying “I’m being punished by God. I’m too evil to be allowed to walk.”

Jesus looked at the man, and saw the pain of that burning shame, and offered him words of life, “My friend, your sins are forgiven.” The words came like a sudden gush of cool water to a man dying of thirst. At best he had hoped for Jesus to alleviate the punishment, but with a word he had blown away the need for punishment. “Your sins are forgiven, you are clean, pure, restored to the favour of God.”

The atmosphere is one of euphoric grace. Peace and joy have come to a tormented heart. But through the warmth, from left field, cut cold, hard, angry words. “Why does this fellow speak like this? It’s blasphemy! No-one can forgive sins but God alone.” Religion rears its ugly head. Life must fit the system. Mercy and forgiveness are very difficult to fit into a religious system. They defy accurate prescription. You can’t assess when and who they will touch. They are irrational and uncontrollable. So theology seeks to take them out of human hands. God alone can forgive sins and therefore all you guilt-ridden people can do is seek to earn it. Buckle down, keep the commandments, do as your told, don’t take any risks, earn it by the sweat of your brow. Deny your life, and if your lucky God might just save it for you.

But Jesus says “No” to that kind of religion. Jesus calls us to follow him and be a people of mercy. To be a people who offer grace and forgiveness to those who are weighed down and hurting. Yes God forgives sins, but it is done through us. How can people know forgiveness unless someone tells them they are forgiven. There can be no freedom if we have to wait till the end for God’s final word of judgment. So Jesus sweeps aside the watertight religious view and offers life. And just in case anyone thought it was just empty words, he healed the mans legs as well. If religion calls for anxious guilt, then Jesus Christ stands among the guilty and calls for mercy and fullness of life.

Story No.2 Mark 2:13-17. Jesus went out again and a big crowd followed him. As he walked along he met a man named Levi sitting in his office. Levi was a despised man and he knew it. Everyone considered him a traitor, a man who made big money by co-operating with the enemy occupation forces. Levi was scum in the eyes of most respectable people. His only friends were other people who were seen as scum. The fellowship of thieves. But Jesus says to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed. That night there is a party at Levi’s house. Every disreputable irreligious character in Capernaum is there. Just about everybody has been chucked out of the church for something. And sure enough Jesus is there, and that gets the religious purists muttering again. You see, who you have dinner with is extremely important. Who’s parties your seen at is big news to everyone, then and now. Just remember for a moment when you were a teenager how your parents wanted to check on who’s parties you were going to. “Your not going to his party, his older brother is a drug addict.” “Your not going to her party, her mother is having an affair with her boss.” “Your not going to dinner there, that family are followers of the Rajneesh.”

“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why does he condone and legitimise their behaviour with his presence? You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. If he is a man of God, why does he not keep company with the people of God? Why does he shun the righteous and cavort with the corrupt?”

But again Jesus rejects their religious opinions. “The healthy don’t need a doctor, the righteous don’t need a priest. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Jesus rejects as sinful pride anything that deepens the divisions between people. The Spirit of God calls us to build bridges, to break down hostility, to celebrate and share and party. Jesus shows no fear of being polluted by the impure. And why should we either? Is our goodness so fragile that we might easily be sucked into hatred and injustice and destructiveness. Or might it be that like Jesus, our love and freedom and graciousness might be contagious? Maybe instead of others being a threat to our purity, we might be a threat to their corruption. Perhaps love is more contagious than hate, peace more contagious than bitterness, freedom more contagious than oppression.

Those who are despised and rejected like Levi don’t need to be told that their lives aren’t up to standard. They know only too well. They don’t need to hear that we’ll associate with them when they clean their acts up, they need our acceptance and our example so they can see how to clean their acts up. If religion calls for casting out of the unrighteous, then Jesus Christ stands among the outcasts and calls for acceptance and fullness of life.

Story No.3. Mark 2:18-20. The disciples of John and the disciples of the pharisees were fasting. It was part of their religious tradition. There were times set for feasting and there were times set for fasting, and this was a time for fasting. And people came to Jesus and said, “How come your disciples are not fasting when all the rest of the religious people are fasting?” A fair question you might think. These traditions have been passed down from generation to generation and everybody knows that they are honouring to God. Observing the rituals is an act of love and respect to God. They don’t hurt anyone and they promote an awareness of the Spirit and of our devotion to God. So why are the followers of Jesus tossing aside the traditions?

Jesus replies, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is still with them, can they? As long as the bridegroom is with them, they will celebrate. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast.” The great prophet Bob Dylan put it simply, “The times they are a-changin’.” This is not a blanket condemnation of religious tradition. Tradition and ritual are important so long as they still means something. The distortion comes in when we maintain the practices after they have lost their relevance. Things which are fresh and lively and liberating in one time or context may be stale and lifeless and oppressive in another. And when that happens we find out what we are really committed to. Are we committed to the symbol or the meaning? Some will legislate the practice and press everyone into conformity. Others will create new patterns to fit the changed circumstances. Some will sow old patches onto new clothes. Others create new wine to fit the new wineskins. When religion calls for oppressive and meaningless conformity, Jesus stands with the oppressed and calls for freedom and fullness of life.

Story No.4. Mark 2:23-28. On the Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field. And as they walked the disciples casually plucked a few heads of grain and ate them. Now it would appear that the pharisees had their spies out, because in no time at all the charge is laid. “Look, why are they doing what the law says is not legal on the Sabbath day?” You see there were, and still are, very strict laws about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath day. It was the holy day, the day dedicated to God, a celebration of God’s creation. And no-one was to work on the Sabbath, and the law went into detail about what was work and what wasn’t work. And harvesting grain was definitely work. Now anyone can see that there is a big difference between plucking a few grains as you walk past on your way to church and putting in eight hours in the combine harvester, but what is at stake here is an understanding of God and of the way God regards human beings.

You see if God is a rigid legislator who loves the law above all things, and who demands precise obedience to the letter of the law, then there is no theoretical difference between those two things and God will condemn those who break the Sabbath law and harvest grain. The only way to stay in favour with God is to play safe, allow a good margin for error, and don’t risk plucking any grains at all. But if God is a celebratory lover of life and longs to bring people to fullness of life, then there is a world of difference between relentlessly pursuing your business and grabbing a snack on the way to church. And so Jesus defends his followers against their accusers saying “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

The Sabbath law, and for that matter the rest of the law, was intended to be a guarantee of freedom not a trip wire into a prison cell. The Sabbath law ensured that no-one could be forced to work seven days a week, and everyone could have a chance to relax and rest in the presence of God. And there is nothing wrong with grabbing a snack on your day of rest. But there are still those who want to make religious observance a matter of rigid adherence to set expectations. They would measure your devotion to God by the height of your hemline or the length of your quiet time or the firmness of your belief in the virgin birth. Jesus rejects this and asks us to relax and celebrate life to the full. When religion calls for strict and fundamental observance of law, Jesus stands with the accused and calls for liberty and fullness of life.

Story No.5. Mark 3:1-6. The climactic story, the one that says it all. The story where Jesus gets heartily sick of the pious inquisition that sought to drain life of all colour and music in the name of true religion. The story where Jesus goes on the attack and decides to expose their heartless hypocrisy. It is still the Sabbath and Jesus arrives at the synagogue with his friends and his ever present band of observers watching for a mistake to condemn him by. The was a man in the synagogue who had a withered hand. A good and faithful man, a man who loved God and whose only regret in life was the degenerative disease that had robbed him of the use of his hand. Jesus knew only too well that healing on the Sabbath in the synagogue would be regarded even more harshly than grabbing a snack on the way there. But Jesus was angry and was ready to press the issue. He called the man forward. A hush fell. All eyes were upon him. The tension in the air made it hard to breathe.

“What do you say,” said Jesus, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or to do harm? Is it lawful to save life on the Sabbath or to bring death?” The gauntlet is thrown. The question that summarises the issues of all five stories. What is your religion about? Does it bring life or does it stand in its way? Is it a source of healing and hope or a prison of denial and enslavement? If religion denies healing to this man and breaking the law offers him healing, then which is from God, the religion or the lawlessness? “Is it lawful to enhance life on the Sabbath, or to perpetuate suffering?” The tension becomes more and more stifling and the priests refuse to reply. Jesus snorts in anger and grief at their callous piety and says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and it was restored to fullness of health. And in a massive turn of irony, Mark tells us that the Pharisees immediately went out and conspired with the Herodians about how to kill him. The question is left hanging in the air. “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or to conspire to kill a man on the Sabbath?”

The same basic question hangs over all of us as we seek to live our lives in ways that honour God. Does our faith and our practice always serve to enhance life and promote wholeness and freedom and celebration, or does it sometimes become a source of guilt or restrictions, and stifle the creative enthusiasm of those around us? In Jesus Christ, God’s cards have been laid on the table. God values mercy over guilt. God values acceptance over exclusion. God values change over loss of meaning. God values freedom over fundamentalism. God values life over law. We live in a constantly changing world and our faith needs to keep redefining its requirements to reflect the changing reality. When anyone calls for religion for religions sake, Jesus calls for fullness of life.


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