Eucharist Sermon - 5 September 2021

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Isaiah 35:4–7a; James 2:1–17; Mark 7:24–end
The Revd Canon Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity
'The Act of Faith'

Mark’s Gospel takes us to some very weird places and into some very weird situations. It takes an act of faith just to read it and grapple with what is going on. There’s the scene where the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, experiencing extreme weather and fighting for their lives as they attempt to row across to some safe harbour. Jesus comes to them in the early hours of the morning, walking on the water and, we are told, “He was going to pass by.” What are we to make of that? He does deliver them out of the danger they are in, but what of that intention to pass by them when he saw they were possibly going to drown? Then, there’s mention of a young man who runs away naked on the night Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. What’s all that about? It sounds as though the disciples formed some mysterious sect with initiation rites, and who was that young man? And, finally, there’s the famous non-ending that most commentators agree upon. The three women arrive at the tomb, it’s empty. Another young man, in a long white garment, tells them Jesus is not here and they should return to the disciples and tell them to go to Galilee where they will meet up with him again. They run off terrified and say nothing to anyone. The final words of the Gospel are “for they were afraid” but that is a translation trying to make sense of what happens to the women. The Greek says “they were afraid for…”. The Gospel ends on what grammatically is a conjunction, and everything is left hanging. “They were afraid for” what, exactly? Not explained, and that is characteristic of Mark’s Gospel: things that seem of tremendous import are not explained. Throughout the Gospel the disciples are almost ridiculed for their lack of understanding. But we, as readers or hearers of the Gospel are often left in exactly the same situation: not understanding. Though, when we reflect upon that, isn’t that precisely what the life of faith experiences? Isn’t that exactly how we sometimes feel when confronted with this or that set of circumstances?

In the passage we had read to us this morning, Jesus goes to into the territory of Tyre and Sidon. These were cities in Phoenicia – and hence he meets a Greek-speaking Syro—Phoenician woman. This land is neither Israel nor Judea. So, what is the Jewish Messiah, sent by the Father to proclaim the gospel and is himself the gospel, doing in Phoenicia trying to avoid the crowds? It’s a question any publicity agent would be asking: we can imagine him saying, “This is the wrong land and the wrong time to be taking a vacation.” Mark gives us no answer, though Jesus works a miracle there for a Gentile woman, who is low down in the pecking order for favours. Then, abruptly, he re-enters Judea by going down the Phoenician coastline and through the Roman controlled region of Decapolis. Here he performs another miracle, whether on a Jew or a Gentile we are not told, and continually in this half of Mark’s gospel we have Jesus’ insistence that no one should know about this. Do not publicise these miraculous events in any way. Of course they do; they were utterly astonished, almost traumatized. Of course they have to tell someone!

Weird, as I said. So what is going on? There is an ancient and well-known formula handing down through saints as venerable as Augustine and Anselm: faith seeks understanding. The seeking we all know about, the faith we’re all trying hard to uphold, but what is to be understood? This is crucial to our relationship to Christ: trust is one thing, but making sense of what we are presented with in life is quite another story. We can’t often make the pieces fit and see the order, the grace, God’s good providence. This presents professionals like me, preacher and theologian, with a dilemma. Surely we are here, called, trained and ordained, to explain the faith; to give some account of how all this living in Christ makes sense, is coherent. Well, that’s one way of thinking about our professional vocation: we’re some kind of divine code-breakers or spiritual problem-solvers. This is what God is doing. Be assured. Be consoled. But in my experience – which I am in no way setting out as a universal model – we are grappling to understand, with this faith in Christ, as much as anyone else. Some may have a greater understanding than those untrained and not ordained, but I confess I don’t. I have certain knowledges – of languages, the history of the Church, what previous fathers and mothers in that Church have said and experienced. But when it comes to making sense of what is going on in my life as a Christian, or anyone else’s life in Christ, I am grovelling around like so many others. I have no hotline. I do what everyone else does: pray, hope, believe and love. And every one of those acts – praying, hoping, believing and loving – goes through cycles where I seem to be nearer and seem to be much further from whatever the truth is.

There’s a corny American musical released in 1970. The plot is complicated. I’m not going to go into it. It’s basically about a scatter-brained, chain-smoker called Daisy Gamble who goes through a disturbing relationship with a psychotherapist helping her with her addiction. In the end, and it is the end that matters here, she breaks free of the relationship and leaves the psychotherapist. But this woman is played by Barbara Streisand and so the last song, which is also the title of the film, is her song about breaking free: ‘On a Clear Day I Can See Forever’. In one of those moments when I’m asking myself what I am doing here and what this is all about, the opening lyrics of Streisand’s song come to me: “On a clear day/ Rise and look around you/And you'll see who you really are.” In this particular moment I’m speaking about, I’m standing at the southern tip of the isle of Iona. It’s a beautiful day with a seaside blue sky and the Atlantic waves curl over the pebbles. I can look out and even see a pencil line on the horizon - the coast of Northern Ireland. What I don’t see is who I really am; what I am doing here. In the heat of the day, a sea mist is forming. The bay I’m in is the one St. Columba landed in with his twelve followers. Iona was, then, a barren and deserted island. When he landed and decided this was to be the place to settle in, this was one enormous act of faith that he could never have seen the consequences of the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and England. He could never have foreseen the beautiful illustrated bibles of Kells and Lindisfarne that would be produced eventually through his work. St. Columba’s act of faith became a spiritual history one and a half thousand years long, as it stands. We walk in the paths of faith others, in their acts of faith, have laid down for us. From our second lessons this morning: “if faith doesn’t lead to action, it is a lifeless thing.” Our walk of faith in seeking understanding, will never arrive at understanding. We will always and only seek and act, seek and respond to what is presented to us. The rest is Christ being faithful to us.