Preacher Canon Robert Titley
If among the several opportunities for spectator sport this afternoon you choose the Lord’s Test Match – or mismatch – between England and Australia, you may need some emotional relief. If you do, take a break and try reading Mark, the gospel we are following this year; it’s less that twenty pages long. It’s good to read the book from end to end and not just encounter it in the chunks we meet at this service.
If you do, you’ll notice that the writer doesn’t seem to have much idea when the different events happen. You get a lot of ‘and then,’ or ‘after this,’ Jesus did something; perhaps the odd ‘that evening,’ people came to see him, but not much more. Mark has stories about what Jesus did without knowing exactly when he did them, which is no surprise, because in those days people (especially poor people) had no way of dating things the way we do today.
What Mark does instead is to arrange his stuff in such a way as to get the essential truth across, a bit like in a TV documentary.
Imagine we are making a programme going behind the scenes at Lord’s cricket ground. On Friday we got good footage of the caterers working their socks off, laying up tables in the morning, washing up plates in the afternoon. On the Saturday we got some great scenes of the bigwigs (many in their extraordinary, rhubarb-and-custard-coloured ties) tucking in. And what we do is to cut the bigwig footage in between the laying-up and the washing-up. It puts the scenes out of chronological order but it gets across the truth of how the leisure of the important people depends on the toiling of the little people.
Mark’s gospel does something like this. Two Sundays ago, if we hadn’t had our patronal festival, we’d have heard Jesus sending his disciples out on a mission; today’s reading begins with them reporting back. In between these two passages comes what we’d have heard last week, if we’d not been keeping Sea Sunday, the story of King Herod’s birthday party. We’d have seen the top people in Galilee lounging and feasting in his palace, and watching his step-daughter dance – dance so amazingly that Herod offered her whatever she wanted. When she asked, ‘Bring me the head of John the Baptist,’ Herod (like some embarrassed mafia boss) made John lose his head so that he didn’t lose face in front of his guests.
Immediately after that scene of decadence and brutality we get the start of today’s reading, in which the disciples come back exhausted from a mission of teaching and healing, and even then are so harried by the crowds that they don’t have time to rest or even to eat. Jesus says, ‘Let’s get away for a bit,’ but people spot them and won’t give them peace. Jesus has compassion on the crowds and gives them even more of himself.
The links couldn’t be clearer, or the contrasts greater, between Jesus and his exhausted disciples and Herod and his indolent guests; between the people, ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, and the king who doesn’t care. Mark shows the truth about what Jesus is doing and what he is up against.
These passages remind us that we are not just souls but bodies; and our bodies often show how life is for us. Mark shows us how a body can be pampered and overfed (Herod’s guests) or hungry and overworked (the disciples); how it can be energetic (the disciples again) or weak with illness, like the ones the villagers bring out for Jesus to heal. And when we hear what happens to John the Baptist, a death that prefigures Jesus’, we see how a body can be wounded and drained of life.
Some think church should be essentially about ‘spiritual’ things, but it is remarkable how concerned Jesus is about people’s bodies, touching them, healing them, feeding them; remarkable too how central is Jesus’ own body, when the sick grab at his clothes as he passes, and when the soldiers hammer nails into his flesh. So if you want to be saved, if you want to be whole, God will work not just through your private mental world but through your actual, physical life, in which food is eaten and pain is felt, in which we use our strength and feel our weakness and make our choices.
And we know this is what we need. We may strike our poses in cyberspace, but we know we need to be hugged more than we need to be ‘liked’ (on Facebook) or ‘favourited’ (on Twitter). We are flesh and blood, with parts that not even Google (or other engines that are available) can search. We know it in other ways too. This week we get our next female bishop, and last month the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriages. These things cause such joy – and, for some, such anguish – because they mark points at which ideas get embodied, in real, physical lives. Look at the news stories today: Britain’s first FGM protection order; more buzz about doping on the Tour de France – most things that matter are in the end about bodies, what we do with our own and with other people’s.
And however stupid and mean the church can look in its debates about sex, I don’t know any other movement in our society who looks as likely to have the conversation we need to have – in economics, in medicine, in all of life: what are human beings are for? is there is a ‘grain’ to reality, and in what direction might it lead us? What is God calling us to be, us embodied creatures made in God’s image? We are doing things here in our small way. A lot of our plans for this building are aimed precisely at being hospitable to people with the bodies they inhabit, from the first days of life and for life, however long that life may be.
There is more to talk about here than we have time for this morning. And in the end, words are not enough. This is a real difference between Christian faith and those other traditions, Jewish and Muslim, with which we share so much. Each in its distinctive way sees the fullest way of knowing God to be found in words, in holy books. The faith we proclaim here today – for instance in the Creed we are about to say – goes further. It tells us that things can go so wrong that even if God delivers divine wisdom and sacred law to us, words are not enough to put us straight and heal us. For that to happen, the word must become flesh. God must come among us and share our flesh and blood. That is what we believe happens in the flesh and blood of Jesus’ life. That is the life we ask to share this morning as we share bread and wine, as he commanded us. That is how he makes us what we say we are. Just before we share the Peace we say, not ‘We are the people of the Book,’ but ‘We are the body of Christ,’ and do for each other that simple physical thing that touches the soul: a clasp of the hand; or a hug.