Readings Genesis 2.3.8-15; Mark 3.20-25
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
In 1999 a unique event took place in Copenhagen, the first international conference of practical jokers. What a load of fun, you might think. You’d be wrong. The conference struggled to get going because of repeated hoax alarms; then three Swedish delegates needed hospital treatment because someone had electrified the lavatory seats; and many more were taken ill at a party, when someone got at the punch and spiked it with laxative. The conference was abandoned and, as far as I know, has not been repeated.
What the group was trying to achieve was stymied by the individual members, a spectacular case of what Jesus calls a kingdom (or house) divided against itself. When we hear Jesus say this, he’s causing a stir. His family are worried about him, and his religious opponents are on the attack, saying that he casts out evil spirits (exorcisms were very much part of the culture in Jesus’ day) because he is taking orders from the most evil spirit of all.
It’s a stock response of some religious people to a thing they don’t approve of, ‘It’s the devil at work’, and Jesus follows the logic of their attack: ‘If the devil is casting out the devil, if this is just a domestic dispute in the house of Satan, then you can relax, for Satan’s days are surely numbered.’ But that’s just a debating point, and Jesus is not interested in scoring points but getting at the truth. So he invites them to go deeper. What is really at stake here? If this is not Satan self-harming, then this is the arrival of someone who is stronger than the forces of evil that Satan represents. This is the dawning of the kingdom of God, and that changes everything. Jesus warns them that in opposing what he is doing they are playing for very high stakes.
There is so much we could look at in this reading, but I want to stay with Jesus’ image of a house divided against itself, and his challenge to look deeper into things. We’ll take a short tour over the water, around this country, and into our own minds – where George and Barnaby, our candidates for baptism this morning, can help us.
Just now, there is a bit of an upside for the UK in the crisis of the Euro – expect a good exchange rate if you pop across the channel on holiday this summer – but these are frightening times, and they raise questions about our place in the European Union (EU) and what it’s for. This debate is usually about the bottom line: What do we pay in, what do we get out? What power do we gain, what powers do we lose? But is that all that is really at stake? What is the real bottom line?
Buried among last week’s Jubilee junketings there was another historical milestone: Wednesday saw the 68th anniversary of the D Day landings in 1944. The community that’s now called the EU was set up above all to ensure that the events that required D Day should never happen again: what Mr Gorbachev was to call ‘the common European house’ was less likely to be divided against itself if France and Germany (at first just West Germany) were bound together in the Treaty of Rome. That was what would restrain the strong man of fascism, and any other thugs that might try to take up residence in our continent. There is much you can criticise in the EU (as our Chancellor does in this morning’s papers) but, deep down, it has played a real part in stopping Europe yet again becoming a place of bloodshed (though we could have done better in the Balkans in the 1990s).
And the Jubilee itself. A great few days – lots of boats, more information about bladder infections than we strictly needed (congratulations to Prince Philip on his birthday today), and a lot to be grateful for, not just in the Queen’s sixty years’ reign but in all those images of togetherness up and down the country. This was only ten months after those other images, of the Summer riots, when it really looked as if Britain was a kingdom divided against itself. To get somewhere near a true picture of the state we’re in, we need to hold both sets of images in our minds, as well as the words of the Bishop of London in a Jubilee pamphlet that ‘Britain is now a more unequal society now than at almost any time since the post-war period’.
What Christian faith can bring to these discussions is a suspicion of stock responses and shallow explanation, and also some realism about human nature. Seeking your own good in the good of others, that seems to be a natural instinct in us, yet the human house has always been in danger of dividing against itself: as soon as humanity emerged into consciousness, men and women felt self-conscious and scared, and quick to blame each other. So in the wonderful Genesis story of the archetypal man and woman, the man hides from God, gets found out and blames the woman, and she blames the snake. We’ve all been there.
We’ve all been there because each of us is a house divided against itself. Two millennia ago,St Paul wrote these contemporary-sounding words: ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Romans 7.15). My best self so wants to be good and do good, but other bits of me keep getting in the way and stymieing things. More recently, Sigmund Freud tried to untangle the puzzle, and suggested that each of us is a three-storey house: in the basement, dark lusts and fears, what he called the Id; upstairs, the superego, trying to control them; and on the ground floor, the conscious mind, the ego, pulled between the residents upstairs and down.
Well, this is gloomy stuff! Think like this for too long and no-one would ever have children at all. But I’m delighted that Rufus and Erica, and Owen and Anna, have dared to do so, and today Barnaby and George come to be baptised. They have been born into a world more connected than ever and divided as ever. And as they grow they will begin to look deeper into things and puzzle away at the riddle of being human, like Freud and Paul before them. And I hope that in time their parents and godparents will remind them of this day, when God showed us what is most deeply true of all, which is not that we are a muddle but that we are loved.
Here, as the water of Christian meaning is poured on two young lives, we see that beneath all the tangles of life, each of them – and each of us – is the focus of God’s delight and grace and infinite love. And through baptism they will become part of the church, the body of Christ, the household of God, where God shows us that secret of life, that we find happiness and true self-fulfilment in the well-being of each other. All that is contained in a few words and a little water, as we shall see now.
Bishop of London Bible Society pamphlet Jubilee Then and Now. A big idea for the 21st century http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/images/jubilee/jubilee-leaflet.pdf
Freud’s three storey house Listen to Richard Holloway’s Honest Doubt – Caught in the middle http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b01jhnz4 10 mins 47secs.
Self-fulfilment These thoughts owe much to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at the Diamond Jubilee thanksgiving service at St Paul’s http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2514/archbishops-sermon-at-st-pauls-for-national-service-of-thanksgiving