The family gathering didn’t exactly go to plan in our Gospel reading today. Jesus had been away for a while, preaching and healing around Galilee, gathering disciples as he went, but finally he came home. The trouble was, everyone else came home with him, a rag-tag crowd who all wanted something from him; healing, deliverance, a wise word or two. And he seemed determined to try to meet their needs. He didn’t even have time to eat.
It wasn’t that which worried his family most, though. It was what he was saying and doing that really bothered them. He’d been healing on the Sabbath, angering the religious authorities. Healing was work, and no one should work on that sacred day. There had been some angry exchanges between him and the scribes, the legal experts. His message seemed dangerously radical to them. He wasn’t respecting the traditions of the Jewish people, and his family, who loved him, could see he was heading for trouble. Was his idealism turning into extremism?
That’s a question many Muslim families in the UK have had to ask themselves recently. We regularly hear on the news about young people going off to Syria to join IS. Often their families say that they had no idea they were going to do this. They thought they were just taking an interest in their religion, and where’s the harm in that? At least they weren’t getting into drink and drugs. But too late they realise that it has all got out of hand. What’s gone wrong? Where was the tipping point? What’s got into their beloved children?
Jesus’ family had the same worries for him. They’d heard along the grapevine that people were saying “he has gone out of his mind’” Whether they agreed with that view themselves we don’t know, but they could see the danger he was putting himself in, and the shame he was bringing on them as a result. Couldn’t he just go back to being a dutiful son and brother?
They were right to be worried about the consequences of his mission. Very soon the religious authorities turned up and they had even worse allegations to throw at Jesus. They accused him of being in league with Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They believed he’d been radicalised by the forces of evil. This was a world in which demons where thought to be very real, the cause of illness and disaster. As far as these religious leaders were concerned this wasn’t just a man who was out of his mind, but a man who had let something very evil into it. He was possessed. How else could he have the power he seems to have?
Jesus’ answer to them probably didn’t help to calm things down much, but it was perfectly logical. If he was doing good things – and surely healing is a good thing – then how could he be doing them through demonic power? If demons had caused these illnesses, as people assumed at the time, then Satan was hardly going to want to fight against his own troops. That would be civil war – a kingdom divided against itself – the worst and most destructive kind of war there is. If the strong man – Satan – had been defeated, it must have been by someone stronger than Satan, and that meant God himself. End of argument, or at least round one to Jesus.
But this is the interesting thing. Jesus said that he wasn’t possessed by Satan, but he didn’t argue that he was acting on his own. He didn’t claim to be some sort of first century Superman, who was single-handedly taking on the forces of evil, a lone hero standing against Satan. What he said, here and throughout the Gospels, was that he was acting in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, doing the work of his Father. His power came from his relationship with God. He was about the family business, doing the things his Father would do, the things his Father cared about. That was why it was so effective.
Today’s collect was very relevant to this, but challenging too. “We can do no good thing without you” it said. Most of us, deep down, like to think of ourselves as the masters or mistresses of our own lives, in a self-contained bubble, at least when we like what we see. We are happy to blame our failings on others, as the Old Testament reading reminds us. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake… But our achievements, our good deeds, they are the result of our own innate talent or hard work! We are quick to claim these as our own. According to today’s Collect though, this isn’t the case; the good in our lives is as much the result of outside influences as the evil – it is the work of God, not something we just manufactured by our own will power.. The Bible doesn’t say we are mere puppets, with no free will, but it does say that we are shaped by forces outside ourselves - for good or for ill – far more than we might like to think. So the really important thing is to to choose carefully, as far as we can, what those influences are – to make sure they are of God, so that we are being shaped in the right way.
In theory it sounds as if it ought to be straightforward . Why would we choose to reject God’s help? But in practice it is often far more complicated than we expect. Here are two reasons why.
Firstly, it takes humility to admit that we need that shaping in the first place, to admit that we aren’t the rugged, self-sufficient individuals we’d like to think. The collect talks about “the weakness of our mortal nature”, which is not exactly a feel-good phrase, but it is true. There may be some lucky people who lead charmed lives in which they never fall flat on their faces, but most of us eventually find out that we are vulnerable and fallible. “Out of the depths have I called to you,” says the Psalmist. If we haven’t been in those depths yet, then sooner or later illness, family problems, or random disaster will take us there, and when that happens, its important that we don’t believe we have to go it alone.
When Charles Kennedy died this week, his family bravely acknowledged that it was his alcoholism which had caused it. It’s a problem that affects many people, but those who suffer from it often hide it not only from others but from themselves as well. They just can’t admit they need help, so it gets worse and may eventually destroy them.
Then there were those young people so badly hurt in the accident at Alton Towers this week, who will have to live with what have been described as “life-changing” injuries. They were just there for a fun day out, but in a moment the future they thought they had was taken away from them. How will they cope? We don’t know, but we can be certain that they are facing challenges which they won’t be able to handle alone by sheer will-power. They will need all the help they can get, so let’s pray that they have the wisdom and the courage to reach out for it. Whether it is through our own actions or the actions of others, “the weakness of our mortal nature” comes home to each of us at some point.
The second reason why it can be hard to let ourselves be shaped by God is that it takes discernment – we need to know how and why we are choosing the path we do. Jesus talks in this passage about the “unforgiveable sin”. That is something that has worried people endlessly through Christian history. What is this sin? Have they somehow committed it? How can anything be unforgiveable? If we read the passage carefully, though, it is clear what Jesus means. The unforgiveable sin is to do what these religious experts are doing, to call the Spirit of God demonic, to mistake good for evil, light for darkness. Healing the sick was good – but the scribes and Pharisees could only see that Jesus was breaking the law by doing this on the Sabbath. They condemned the work of God by calling it the work of Satan, and because of that they weren’t in a position where they could be forgiven because they weren’t asking for forgiveness. They weren’t asking for it because they didn’t think they needed it.
They genuinely believed they were doing the right thing, protecting the faith of their ancestors, protecting God even. But they couldn’t see the wood for the trees, they had lost sight of God’s priorities to love their neighbours and care for those who were vulnerable amidst the thicket of rules and regulations they had developed. In the same way, Jesus’ family couldn’t see beyond their own interests. Whether he was out of his mind or possessed by Satan, he was bringing shame on them, injuring their family honour. Never mind if he was doing good – he needed to be stopped.
We are not immune from the same blindness, letting narrow self-interest, tradition, the desire to fit in, or sheer prejudice get in the way of love.
These readings invite us to take a closer look at ourselves, to be honest about the forces that shape us and shape our decisions. It’s not enough to resist evil. We need consciously to embrace what is good, and that means what is loving and life-giving. We do that by making sure that our relationship with God is strong, through prayer, through reflecting on his word, through sharing our faith with others so we can see it more clearly for ourselves, through serving and loving others as God calls us to, especially those who we might be inclined to think have little to offer, or whose lives seem very different from our own. It is when we reach beyond the boundaries of what we assumed was “holy ground” that we realise that God is bigger than we thought, and as a result we become bigger too.
Gradually as we do that, the grace of God shapes us. The “inner nature is renewed” as Paul puts it. We start to become the people we were meant to be, people who are indeed possessed , people who are filled with the Spirit of God, truly ourselves because we are connected to the well-spring of God’s love.