A SERMON AT THE ANNUAL SERVICE FOR THE FRIENDS OF WESLEY HOUSE
Given by Professor Morna Hooker-Stacey on 16th July 2016 in All Saints’ Church, Cambridge.
Mark 7:31-37, 8:22-26
May the Word of God be on my lips, and in our hearts and minds.
You may well have noticed that our reading from the Gospel of Mark is full of problems. A man who is deaf and dumb has his hearing and speech restored.
No problem with that, of course! But then Jesus commands the onlookers – who are clearly neither deaf nor dumb – to keep silent about what they have seen. Why? Here is a story about Jesus giving a man the power to hear and speak – and we expect to be told that the miracle led to everyone speaking and hearing about what Jesus had done; Charles Wesley certainly did:
‘Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, Your loosened tongues employ.’
Yet Jesus tells them to say nothing. Why? And then Mark tells us how a blind man is brought to him for healing. Jesus takes him away from the village, where there is no-one to see what happens, and opens the man’s eyes. But here is another kind of problem, since Jesus’ first attempt to heal him seems to have been a failure. Why? And when the blind man does see, Jesus commands him to go straight home without showing himself to anyone on the way. And again we wonder, why? Why does he heal the man in private? Why does he want to keep the healing secret? Why should the saviour’s praise not be spread abroad?
By now you may well be wondering why I, given total freedom regarding which lesson I might choose for this service, have been so foolish as to choose this one! Partly, perhaps, because I like a challenge. Partly because it gives us the chance to explore beyond the confines of our lectionary. But chiefly because the theme that underlies our stories seems to be very close to what Wesley House is all about.
Mark clearly saw a link between the two miracles, and in order that we might see it, we omitted the first 20 verses of chapter 8 from our reading. But buried in that omitted section we find the clue to Mark’s understanding of these stories. First, we learn how Jesus fed a huge crowd; then Pharisees come to him and demand a sign – a sign, when they had just seen him feed thousands! Jesus and his disciples embark on a boat, and he warns them about the leaven of the Pharisees and the Herodians. A strange combination this, but of course both groups are blind to the truth about Jesus. The Pharisees think that he works in the power of Satan, and Herod has just killed John, Jesus’ herald: no wonder Jesus warns the disciples about men who cannot comprehend what they see before them. But the disciples seem to be as bad! ‘Leaven’, they say? ‘He must be talking about the fact that we’ve forgotten to bring food with us’. And Jesus says: ‘Do you still not understand? Can’t you comprehend? Are your minds closed? You have eyes – can you not see? You have ears – can you not hear? Don’t you remember what I have just done?’ It is here that we find the key to Mark’s understanding of these healing stories, for throughout his Gospel he uses blindness and deafness as symbols of the failure to comprehend. Today we might hesitate to use ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ as pejorative terms, but our Gospel writers had no such concerns, and it seemed obvious to them that many who saw and heard what Jesus did and said were nevertheless spiritually blind and deaf to the truth about him. And sadly, even those who claimed to be his followers were among them.
Let us look again at those two stories of healings. In each case, Mark stresses the contrast between hearing and not hearing, between seeing and not seeing. It is possible, we realize, to hear but not to understand, to see but not to discern; the difference depends on whether your minds are closed or open. The deaf man hears, and is given the power of speech, but those who hear his shouts of joy fail to understand the significance of what has happened, and so they are told to keep quiet. The blind man sees, but he must not allow others to see him, for they will not discern the significance of what Jesus has done. The disciples’ minds are closed to the truth. The commands to keep the healings quiet are symbols of their inability to understand and to discern their true significance.
We often miss the parallel between these two healing stories because they are separated in Mark’s narrative. But there is no missing the parallel between the healing of the blind man and the well-known story of Peter’s so-called ‘Confession’ at Caesarea Philippi which follows it. At first the blind man is partly healed – he begins to see shapes – but then the scales drop from his eyes. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter sees part of the truth – he acknowledges Jesus to be the Christ – but for now he cannot see more. And again, Jesus commands silence; the disciples are to say nothing. Why? By now we know the answer. Their minds are still closed to the implications of what they dimly see. Better to say nothing than to spread distortions of the truth. The belief that Jesus is the Messiah would cause the Jews to rise in mutiny against Rome; they needed to learn what Messiahship means.
I am sure you will have been dismayed, as I was, during the Referendum debate which we have all just endured, by the number of people who had made up their minds before any discussion began. Whatever was said on the other side, their minds were closed; whatever evidence was produced, whatever was said or spread out before them, they neither heard nor saw it. Others confessed to being unable to decide because they said they had not been given enough information; I found that difficult to believe, since it seemed to me that we were being swamped with information – or at least with propaganda – but it seems that though these people could hear what was being said, and could see what was being shown them, they neither understood nor discerned its significance.
Can you not see? asked Jesus; can you not hear? Are your minds closed? So what are the signs of an open mind? Certainly not the claim to know the whole truth. Sadly, church history is full of Christians who thought that they did, and who tried to impose their beliefs on others. Sadly, we live in a world where ardent believers in many faiths still believe that their understanding of God is the only true one, and are prepared to kill those who do not agree with them. Nor is it only those who profess faith who have closed minds. How often have we heard recently of what is described as the ‘mindless’ abuse of foreigners that is taking place in our own country? For the open mind, there is always more to discover, more to learn.
A closed mind does not necessarily lead men and women to persecute others, of course. It may simply lead to their own stunted lives. If we believe that we know what is necessary, and there is no need to explore further, we shall never discover the deep riches of God’s wisdom.
Only this week I heard of a Methodist minister who, following his ordination, promptly gave away his Greek New Testament, saying ‘Thank goodness I won’t need that again’. I trust that he had not been trained at Wesley House! His mind was clearly closed. If only his eyes and ears had been open, he would have realized that his journey of exploration should have been only just beginning.
An open mind is a mind prepared to listen and learn. Later in Mark’s Gospel, a scribe asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, and he quotes well-known words from Deuteronomy, but expands the original Hebrew slightly; one must love God not only with one’s heart and soul and strength, but with one’s mind.
Don’t say anything. Don’t show yourselves to anyone. Mark’s words puzzle us, because we believe that our calling is to spread the Gospel throughout the world and to show by our lives the love and grace of God. But of course, Mark’s story is not yet finished. It is those who are still inwardly blind and deaf who are to hide themselves and say nothing. This is why Jesus castigates them in the boat: ‘You have eyes – can you not see? You have ears – can you not hear? Don’t you understand? Can you still not comprehend? Are your minds closed? Don’t you remember?’ But they cannot see, they cannot hear, they cannot understand.
Only when we get to the closing lines of the Gospel does the message change from ‘Keep quiet’ to ‘Tell’. Women at the empty tomb are confronted by the truth that the crucified Jesus is indeed their King, and has been raised from the dead. An angel instructs them to tell the disciples to remember Jesus’ promise that he will go before them to Galilee. And if they obey, then they will see him. If they remember his words, their minds will be opened. Only as they obey and follow, will their eyes see and their ears hear; they will at last comprehend.
Why should they be sent to Galilee to see Jesus? Most of Mark’s story has been set in Galilee; at the very beginning, he told us how Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Kingdom of God, and how he called his first disciples to follow him. The word ‘disciples’ means literally ‘learners’, but in Mark’s story they have been slow to learn. But now, they are to remember Jesus’ promise, and follow him once again. Men who have failed him, run away when danger approached, and denied him, are called once more to be disciples – learners. They must begin again.
So did they obey? Did they go to Galilee? Did they really see him, really listen to him, really comprehend? Mark does not tell us, though the fact that we are gathered here today suggests that they did! Mark’s seemingly incomplete story has infuriated many, who have tried to finish it for him, by adding further verses telling us how the disciples did see Jesus. But for Mark there is really only one way to end the story, and that is for his readers to finish it for themselves; the words ‘Go, and you will see him’, are an invitation to us all – an invitation to go to Galilee, and begin again to learn what being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, means.
Do you still not understand? Can’t you see? Can’t you hear? Learning what discipleship means is a life-long process – or should be. If our eyes and ears and minds are open, then we shall be given the privilege of learning more about the depths of God’s grace and wisdom. We pray that the vision of the Wesley House trustees may be realized, and the House long continue to be a place where learning flourishes, and hearts and minds are opened to the truth.