Monday, 16 May 2016

Belief & Unbelief

Thoughts from a Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 16th of May, 2016, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Mark 9:14-29

14 As they were rejoining the disciples they saw a large crowd round them and some scribes arguing with them.

15 At once, when they saw him, the whole crowd were struck with amazement and ran to greet him.

16 And he asked them, 'What are you arguing about with them?'

17 A man answered him from the crowd, 'Master, I have brought my son to you; there is a spirit of dumbness in him,

18 and when it takes hold of him it throws him to the ground, and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and goes rigid. And I asked your disciples to drive it out and they were unable to.'

19 In reply he said to them, 'Faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.'

20 They brought the boy to him, and at once the spirit of dumbness threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell to the ground and lay writhing there, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the father, 'How long has this been happening to him?' 'From childhood,' he said,

22 'and it has often thrown him into fire and into water, in order to destroy him.

23 But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.'

24 'If you can?' retorted Jesus. 'Everything is possible for one who has faith.' At once the father of the boy cried out, 'I have faith. Help my lack of faith!'

25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd was gathering, he rebuked the unclean spirit. 'Deaf and dumb spirit,' he said, 'I command you: come out of him and never enter him again.'

26 Then it threw the boy into violent convulsions and came out shouting, and the boy lay there so like a corpse that most of them said, 'He is dead.'

27 But Jesus took him by the hand and helped him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had gone indoors, his disciples asked him when they were by themselves, 'Why were we unable to drive it out?'

29 He answered, 'This is the kind that can be driven out only by prayer.'

Belief & Unbelief

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Mindful of the stern admonition in yesterday’s Sunday programme on Radio 4 that the faithful do not want to hear sermons with jokes and personal anecdotes, and thus consigning 95% of my homiletic output to the bin, I shall confine myself to the Gospel. I shall not be telling you what happened on this day in 1942, for which a certain person was lastingly thankful; nor the amusing story of the man who spoke Latin with a German accent; nor even about the cuckoo I heard on Saturday morning, in Barton. No indeed. No monkeying about. We’re having the Gospel, plain and simple.

Turning to this morning’s reading was a rather amusing contrast after yesterday’s Pentecost (or Whitsun, in the old money) fun and games. Then, we were being assured that Jesus loved us so much he’d send his best friend, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to look after us, and keep as safe, and lead us into all truth. Today’s Gospel strongly implies that Jesus doesn’t really like us very much at all. Mark’s Gospel, and the Jesus he portrays, is often like that, if we put ourselves in the role of the disciples, “how long must I put up with you?”.

Consider how he berates their lack of faith, and the reading ends with “this kind can only be cast out by prayer”. It’s hard not to imagine the disciples scratching their heads at that point and thinking “isn’t that what we were doing?” But no, it wasn’t, or if it was, they were doing it wrong.

The only real love in this story is between the father and his son, and even there we find compromise. He challenges Jesus with “IF you can do anything …” and gets challenged back, evincing the plaintive response “I do have faith, help the little faith I have” (Jerusalem Bible, from the Daily Missal of the English Roman Catholic Church). This got me thinking, because I am more familiar with the older, Authorized Version rendering “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief”, so I did a rare thing and went to my Greek New Testament, scrubbing the dust off it, and had a look. The word is – not sure how to pronounce it (see how the amusing anecdote about Latin with a German accent would have fitted?) – “apistia”. It’s unbelief. Not little belief. So our translation misses something rather important, which is that we believe, and we don’t believe. Contrary to the spirit of the present age, we live in a world not of fifty shades of grey, but of black AND white. Spiritual – and perhaps emotional and all other kinds of – maturity is to be found in understanding and accepting this, that there is light, and shade.

But wasn’t the whole point of Easter that the light has won? Yes, it’s true, the Paschal Light shines for all eternity – in eternity – but we’re not there yet. We live in time. And time has light and shade. It’s why a sun dial works. “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief”.

Whilst not for a moment wishing to discount the challenge to our faith, and to our prayers, that this story poses, might I suggest for a moment that we make a mistake if we place ourselves in the position of the disciples. It’s a weakness we have, to identify with the heroes of the faith – and that’s what the disciples became, the apostles on whose heroic words and deeds the church was built. But maybe we’re not heroes. Rowan Williams observes in “The Wound of Knowledge”, summing up the theology of Saint Augustine, that God wants “not heroes, but lovers”. It’s the sort of thing he could say back then, and now can again, having laid down the burden of Canterbury. And he’s right, not heroes, but lovers.

So let’s cast ourselves in the story not in the role of the hopeless disciples, who have no faith, and can’t pray, and are a bit rubbish, but of the harmless, helpless, child who needs to be cared for, to be loved. We don’t much like being harmless, because we like to be thought of as people with a bit of an edge, and we don’t want to be helpless, because we’d much rather be the people doing the helping. But let that go. And then we become the people, the afflicted child, that Jesus unconditionally helps and heals and restores to a live more abundant.

Belief, or unbelief, light or shade, he loves us anyway, and always. And that is the Good News. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2016

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