St Michael’s, O’Fallon—Mark 4:20-35, II Corinthians 4:13-18, Genesis 3:1-21
I guess you could say that anyone who wears the sort of funny collar that Fr Ian and I both wear has a professional interest, a built-in curiosity, about how people out in the world think and feel about what we do, about the institutions and the beliefs and practices that our daily working lives are soaked in. We tend to notice when people say things, or put stuff on the internet, that have to do with what we might call questions of “ultimate meaning”—Who am I? Why am I here? How am I supposed to be behaving? What happens when I die? —those sorts of things. We are especially curious when the people making these statements or asking these questions do not share our commitment to Christian faith. I have to tell you, my friends, it’s bleak out there. Just read comments on any online article that has anything to do with anything Christian—not the actual article so much, but the comments. You will see truckloads of bitter faithlessness, a sense of abandonment by God, a testimony of feeling crushed by the weight of human suffering.
What we see when we look at anything, of course, is governed by the “lens” that we look through. Whenever I go to my optometrist, they have me look through lenses that show me a cartoon-like scene with green grass and a road and a house and a picket fence, and they move things around and I’m supposed to let them know when something lines up with something else. If I were to just look at the projection on the wall with the naked eye, I wouldn’t see the things they want me to be seeing. Only the lenses give me that view. So, without the “lenses” that are provided by active faith and diligent religious practice—faith and religious practice of whatever sort; I’m not necessarily talking just about Christianity here—without faith and religious practice, our perception is governed by what St Paul, as he writes to the Corinthians, calls our “outer nature,” which he says is “wasting away.”
This “wasting away” of our “outer nature” causes us to not see what we’re supposed to be seeing. It’s like trying to read the eye chart without looking through the proper lenses; it doesn’t help the doctor write the correct prescription for us. In fact, you could say that it causes us to slowly go blind. We look, but we don’t see. We suffer from the same sort of blindness that afflicted most of the characters in the passage from the third chapter of St Mark’s gospel that we just heard. Jesus’ blood relatives think he’s a taco short of a combination plate, and they begin to plot an intervention. The Pharisees think he’s demon-possessed, literally in league with the Devil. None of them even begin to understand who Jesus is and what his ministry is about.
As we read on, then, we see that Jesus proceeds to flip the script. In response to the Pharisees, he uses pure logic: “If I’m in league with the Devil, then why am I casting demons out of people every time I turn around? I’m doing so many exorcisms they’re going to make a movie about me!” And for the benefit of his blood relatives, he points to the crowd, the crowd gathered to be touched by him, healed by him, and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” Jesus’ responses here provide us with a path toward flipping that same oppressive script in our own lives. It’s about not just looking, but seeing. The whole of Jesus’ ministry is against anything that oppresses human flourishing, anything that prevents human thriving. That’s the critical lens that the Pharisees, and Jesus’ family, were not looking through.
Another way to speak of this is to talk about exercising the gift of faith, faith being the proper lens through which to view the world, the proper lens by which to make sense of human suffering, faith that understands who Jesus is and what he has accomplished. It is through this lens of faith that Paul can say, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Such faith is self-replicating; it breeds more of itself. As we grow in faith—that is, as we persist in viewing the world through the proper lens—we eventually begin to see Jesus more clearly, in greater light. Particularly in his acts of compassionate healing, and even more especially when those acts of healing involve liberating people from an oppressing spirit, something that has prevented the joy and the peace that God wants for all of us from invading their lives even in the midst of their afflictions—in these acts of healing we see the working of the Spirit of God. In that, we have better vision than the Pharisees. And we also have an advantage on Jesus’ blood relatives in this scene, because we come to know the disciples of Jesus—that is, the community of the baptized, which is to say, us—we come to see ourselves as the true and enduring and eternal family of God.
Eventually, our growth in faith enables us to see the big picture, the picture that is cosmic in scope, of what God is doing to redeem the entirety of creation. Our first reading today, which is the timeless account in Genesis of the “fall” of humankind, the introduction of sin into the world, concludes with a cryptic promise from God as he addresses the serpent who had successfully tempted the Woman to eat the forbidden fruit: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In this one sentence is a compressed version of the entire story of redemption: The Woman’s offspring—Jesus, given human nature through the Virgin Mary—will crush the head of the Evil One, beginning by casting demons out of oppressed human beings one by one, and consummated by his defeat of Death itself by his own death and resurrection. I cannot say it any better than St Paul does to the Corinthians: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.