From Madness to Ministry

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Originally posted at my other blog, Soul in Paraphrase

The Gerasene Demoniac

They travelled by boat that day, over the sea, and into the country of the Gerasenes, a pagan people. In this strange place, stranger things occur, and as they leave their boat, a madman greets them. He came from the tombs, for he lived with the dead. A strong man, no one could restrain him, he tore away the iron shackles and heavy chains they used to bind him. No one had the strength to tame him. Over and over, night and day, his screams echoed among the graves and upon the hillside while he cut himself with sharp stones.

From far off, he saw Jesus approach, and rushed towards him, flinging himself to the ground. “Why? What have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, stop torturing me!” for Jesus was ordering the unclean spirit from him.

“What’s your name?” Jesus asked.

“My name is Legion, for we are many,” said the spirits in the man, and they begged Jesus not to throw them out of the country. On the hillside, a herd of pigs were grazing, and the spirits pleaded, “send us into the pigs!”

So Jesus gave them permission to do just that. The spirits left the man, and entered the pigs, and all at once the pigs charged, down the hillside, and straight into the sea. Around two thousand pigs drowned.

The pig-herders ran to tell of what had happened. They told it in the town, and they told it in the countryside, and people came to see what had happened. There they saw the man, the one called “Legion”, and he was sitting, dressed and in his right mind! They were frightened, and when this man’s story was explained to them, they begged Jesus to leave.

And so Jesus prepared to leave the country. As he was getting back into his boat, the once-possessed man asked to go with him – but Jesus wouldn’t let him.

“Go home,” he said, “back to your own people. Tell them what the Lord has done for you, and how he had pity on you.”

And so the man went off, and proclaimed throughout the Decapolis what Jesus had done. And the people were amazed.


This is the story of Mark 5:1-20, a tale of transformation, of madness turned into sanity, of a man freed, redeemed, and restored. This is a story of a man who could not be controlled with bonds of iron, but who could be changed completely by the word of the Messiah.

Themes of Purity, Self-Harm and the Gentiles

ThedecapolisThis is an unusually long and detailed passage for Mark, and there are similar incidents recorded in Matthew (8:28-34) and Luke (8:26-39). There is some debate about the geographical location of the story (Gerasa is 30 miles away from the sea – rather a long way for this narrative, though Gadara, only 5 miles from the sea, is a variant reading, as is Gergesa, a town now lost, but possibly the town of Kursa).

Wherever the actual region is, it seems we are now in gentile territory. The people here are pig-farmers, an activity forbidden to Jews (m. B. Qam. 7:7) and, by the biblical period, pigs have become almost a symbol of paganism (cf Matt 7:6; Luke 15:15-16; 2 Pet 2:22), and refraining from pig-flesh a sign of Judaism. Under the oppressive rule of the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes, Jews had been forced to sacrifice and eat pigs (1 Macc 1:47; 2 Macc 6:2-5), though some of them resisted at the cost of their lives (2 Macc 6:18-7:42). Being among an enormous group of pigs is not Jewish.

Just as pigs are unclean animals (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8) so are tombs (Lev 21:1, 22:4-6; Num 19:16-18). The man with an unclean spirit has been driven to live in an unclean place and, as a gentile, he is unclean even without the spirits assaulting him. The demons within him have a distinctly gentile flavour, too, addressing Jesus as the “Son of the Most High God”, which is only used by gentiles or in a gentile setting (Gen 14:18-20; Num 24:16; Is 14:14; Dan 3:26, 42; Acts 16:17).

Jesus himself never led a full-scale mission to the gentiles, but this passage shows a precedent – he has come among them, has healed the unclean, and has removed the source of uncleanliness (both demons and pigs) from the land. He has left the demoniac fully and finally cured – strong man that he was (Mark 3:27), he was no match for the stronger man, Christ.

The formerly-ostracised and formerly-demonised man has been restored. Although he wants to follow Jesus, and give up his life to be a disciple, Jesus refuses. Instead, the man is to go back to his society, become part of his family again – and be a witness to what God has done. He proclaims Jesus throughout the Decapolis, becoming the “first apostle to the Gentiles.” [1]

This is one of very few mentions in the Bible of self-injury (others being the mention of ‘cutting for the dead’ and the self-harm of the priests of Baal, both in the Old Testament). Here, it isn’t a practice associated with pagan religions, but a sign of the deep distress of the suffering man. The cutting itself is not addressed by Jesus (or the narrator), because it is a symptom, not the cause. That cause is identified by Mark as the man being possessed by many unclean spirits, or demons.

For those who preach or teach this passage: Self-injury is a common phenomenon, occurring in all age groups and genders, an often hidden issue which may affect those around you without you being aware of it. It is particularly common among young people (a UK study estimated that 1 in 3 young people have self-harmed), the elderly, and prisoners. Motivations for self-harm include the release of feelings of anger, depression, anxiety, self-loathing and numbness. Care should be taken when interpreting this passage – it has often been used to argue that self-injury is the result of demonic possession, but bear in mind that the biblical account does not specifically connect the two. It describes for us a man in torment, screaming in the graveyard, whose distress also leads to self-harm.

Interpretation

adbde-gerasene_demon_by_toonfedIt’s difficult to know what to make of this passage, and to see how to apply it to us today. As someone who formerly self-harmed, and who has a now-dormant mental illness, I am sensitive to connotations of impurity and evil, to possessions and exorcism being applied to people suffering mental ill-health. Yet, this passage unambiguously identifies the man, whose actions we would call “mentally ill”, as demon-possessed and in need of exorcism from Christ.

My opinion, for what that’s worth, is that at least some of the exorcism narratives of the New Testament are describing things we now give another name to – like epilepsy (Matt 17:14-20), musculoskeletal disorders (Luke 13:10-17) or the variety of mental ill-health diagnoses. The biblical authors were not writing for us – their audience was the people around them, and they interpreted the world around them through their own cultural vision. In the Ancient Near East, demon possession was a common diagnosis for things we have other terms for now, and the casting-out of those demons was an effective ritual to bring relief to sufferers. I’m reminded, when it comes to psychiatric disorders, of how a diagnosis of mental illness is made based on its effects on the person, rather than the thing itself. For example, the Mental Health Foundation estimates that between 5% and 28% of people hear voices, but only around 25% of those have a mental disorder. For me, the name of the problem is of less import than how it affects people, and an effective treatment is a great thing, regardless of the methodology behind it. So, I don’t think mental illness is demon-possession, but I think that, within the cultural context of 1st century Palestine, that was a good diagnosis, and Jesus’ treatment was 100% effective, as we see here.

One interesting way of interpreting this passage is through a political lens, where our demon-possessed man functions as the inarticulate protest of his people under Roman rule.

legio_x_fretensis_vexillum_by_aquelion-dbxuu2uThere are many parts of this narrative which tie the Romans into this story, even though they don’t appear in person. The name Jesus elicits from the demon is Legion – the name, of course, for a Roman regiment of around 6,000 men. The connotation that this man is possessed by the Roman oppressors is one that would not have been lost on the hearers of this story, particularly as the Roman legion (Legio X Fretensis) which occupied Jerusalem (and Gerasa) after the Jewish War had among its standards a boar!

Alongside “Legion”, there are other military undertones here, too. Mark refers to a “herd” (agele) of pigs – but pigs are not herd animals. The term agele, however, was used to refer to a band of military recruits. Jesus “gave them permission” to enter the pigs – using a term (epetrepseri) used for a military command, and the pigs subsequently charge (oremesen) into the sea like troops charging into battle.

People, by and large, are not very keen on being subjugated, conquered by a stronger nation. To go from being a sovereign country to being one of many client states of a large empire is difficult, particularly when that empire has the military resources to crush you if you attempt to gain your freedom. When the Jews revolted against the Romans (66–73AD) that struggle ended with the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Gerasa itself was sacked twice – first by the Jewish rebels and then by the Romans.

What happens when you are trapped in a situation you cannot escape? The philosopher Frantz Fanon, who specialised in the psychopathology of colonised peoples, argued that colonised people ‘mystify’ their plight, making something else responsible for their struggle. They may identify God, or demons as the author of their oppression, rather than the coloniser whose power seems too great to fight. Mental illnesses increase under colonisation as people struggle to integrate the presence of their oppressors with their inability to resist them – and that psychological disintegration continues even under revolution.

Taking that idea as a model, what we can see here is a man whose personhood has disintegrated under the strain of the Roman colonisation of his land. The strain of living under subjugation has, quite literally, sent him mad as a “form of oblique protest against, or escape from, oppression.” [2] Only when Christ comes, demonstrating that he is stronger than any Roman legion is the demon-possessed man able to be made whole.

8343a44f06e650643378771e4ad65071To take the idea even further, once he has descended into madness, the demon-possessed man can do what the townspeople dare not. He symbolically shatters the chains of Roman authority, acting out the pain of his people in visible (though damaging and isolating) ways. Jesus removes the mystification from him, forcing him to name his oppressors – Legion – and showing who the struggle is really against. His madness has a function in his society – like a scapegoat, he bears the pain of his people, and “the townspeople need him to act out their own violence. He bears their collective madness personally, freeing them from their symptoms.” [3]

Jesus, in restoring the scapegoat to wholeness, naming and then throwing out the Legion, having them drown in the sea (rather reminiscent of Exodus) is a threat. Without the release for the community that the demon-possessed man provides, and with the oppressor now named, what will they do, and how will it be seen? Will the Romans realise this is a symbolic casting out of their troops? And so the townspeople ask Jesus to leave, though he leaves the formerly-possessed man behind, a witness to what has gone on, and the hope that Christ brings.

Application

You may be wondering what exactly this has to do with us, today, particularly if you are someone who has a mental illness, or who is self-injuring.

Self-injury is often the acting-out of deep feelings, and many experiences of mental illness are also the mind’s way of dealing with hard situations. Think of the legacy of child abuse in disorders like borderline personality disorder, or of the depression and anxiety that can result from bullying, poverty, domestic abuse, or frustration with everyday life. Sometimes it is less helpful to point to the disorder than it is to look for the causes of that disorder. For some people, psychological disintegration can be the result of what’s around us, either personally or politically. Naming those things, even a legion of them, might help us cast them away, ‘drowning’ them.

For others, mental illness can come out of nowhere, and doesn’t seem to be linked to any personal or political situation. That was my own experience – three deep episodes of bipolar depression, and then nothing, despite frustrating and difficult times since. For me, the story of the Gerasene demoniac tells a different narrative. Here we have a man who has been stigmatised and isolated, whose only contact with the people he knows is when they come to chain him up like an animal. He knows torture from his own mind, and from others, and his first response to Jesus reveals he expects nothing but torture now. Where others are violent, Jesus is not. Others try to chain him away – but Jesus brings him out into the open, and talks to him. He doesn’t recoil from him, nor condemn him, but comes to his aid. He restores him to the man he was, and gives him a story and a purpose. This madman from the tombs, the social outcast, is now a preacher, an apostle, a “sent-one” who goes to tell the world about Jesus.

Food for Thought

We who are not ill have something to learn here.

  • When we see someone behaving oddly, madly, destructively, do we see a demon, or do we see someone who might lead others into faith?
  • Can we look at the visibly mentally-unwell person and see a future church leader, or do we see someone who needs to be put away?
  • Do we shy away from those who behave differently?
  • Are we isolating anyone in our own communities?
  • How do we see, and how do we behave towards those who are mentally ill?
  • Is there anything that we are doing, as individuals, as church, or as society that might be contributing to mental ill-health?

For those who are ill.

There may be a comfort here for you. This is our Lord of Compassion in action – not condemning but restoring, not pushing away but redeeming. Others might have not wanted anything to do with the demon-possessed man, but Jesus didn’t turn him away. This man was restored instantly – which may not be the case for all of us (it wasn’t for me), but, no matter how deep our illness may seem, no matter how far away from others we have wandered – the Lord is here, and his Spirit is with you.

The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18)

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Footnotes

[1] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, 2001, p. 57
[2] P Hollenbach, cited in Binding the Strong Man, p 192
[3]Walter Wink, cited in My Name is Legion, p76

References

  • Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus” Ched Myers (New York: Orbis Books, 1988, 2008)
  • My Name is Legion: The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac” Michael Willett Newheart (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2004)
  • Mark 1-8:26” Robert A Guelich, vol 34A, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989)
  • The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary” Ben Witherington III (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2001)
  • Mark for Everyone” Tom Wright (SPCK Publishing, 2001)
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Depression in the Desert

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Originally posted at my other blog, Soul in Paraphrase

At his prayer the fire had fallen; at his word four hundred and fifty enemies had perished. Rain fell on a parched land; victory was his. But at the gates of the city he heard the news, the rulers still fought him, and swore on their gods to take his life.

From victor to victim: fear drove him, running, to the city of the desert. There he left his servant, and continued on alone, into the arid wastes. Finally, he could flee no more, and came to rest under a tree.

“I’ve had enough. I can’t go on. Lord, take my life – I’m no better than my ancestors.”

And then he slept, under the tree. While sleeping, an angel came, touched him, and said,

“Get up, and eat.”

Beside his head was bread, still warm from the fire, and a jar of fresh water. The man ate and drank, and slept once more.

Again, an angel came, touched him, saying,

“Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.”

He ate and drank, and that food sustained him for forty days and forty nights, as he travelled to God’s mountain. There, he sheltered in a cave.

Then God said,

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And the man replied,

“I have been passionate for you, Lord, but your people have broken their covenant with you, broken down your altars, and killed all your prophets – I’m the only one left. Now they’re seeking my life, too.”

“Go and stand on the mountain, for I am coming.”

And a mighty wind split the mountains and shattered rocks into pieces. But God was not in the wind. Then a tremendous earthquake shook the world – but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire – but God wasn’t there either. Finally, there was a sound of sheer silence…

The man wrapped his face in his cloak and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said again,

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Again, the man said,

“I have been passionate for you, Lord, but your people have broken their covenant with you, broken down your altars, and killed all your prophets – I’m the only one left. Now they’re seeking my life, too.”

Now God said to him,

“Go back the way you came, to the wilderness of Damascus. Anoint Hazael to be king of Aram and Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel. Then anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Anyone who escapes from Hazael will be killed by Jehu, and those who escape Jehu will be killed by Elisha. But I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all those who haven’t bowed to Baal, all those who have never kissed him.”


This is part of the story of the prophet Elijah, a story from 1 Kings 19:1-18.

9acf5818c4e4284865e281308757b46fWhen the story begins, Elijah has just won a contest against the prophets of the Levantine weather-god Baal. He challenged the people to choose to worship either Yahweh, the God of Israel, or Baal, the god favoured by the royal family. He had challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to prove their god existed by means of a contest. Two altars would be set up, and a bull sacrificed on each. Then he, the prophet of Yahweh, and the prophets of Baal would call upon their respective gods to send fire down on the altars. The prophets of Baal had called and danced for hours to raise their god (causing Elijah to make some rather cutting remarks about whether he was on the toilet, and couldn’t hear them!). They had even cut themselves to get their god’s attention – but nothing happened. Then Elijah had his altar drenched with water, and cried out to his God, who answered with fire that consumed the sacrifice, and the entire altar. The people had immediately worshipped God and, at Elijah’s command, had slaughtered the prophets of Baal.

With that victory, a drought that had been plaguing Israel ended, and the rains came. But the king, Ahab, told his wife Jezebel what had happened. She was a worshipper of Baal, and the main promoter of the gods Baal and Asherah in Israel. She was less than pleased that her god’s prophets had been killed, and that Elijah had given such a demonstration of the power of Yahweh. She sent a message to Elijah, swearing by her gods that she would kill him as he had killed those prophets. This was what caused Elijah to run away, first to Beersheba (the desert city where he left his servant), and then into the desert itself.

Depression in the Desert

AmeenIn the desert, Elijah is a broken man. The joy from his great victory has been suddenly overwhelmed by the threat from Jezebel. He is terrified, and dejected, and now he’s sitting under a scrubby tree, praying for death. His words are like those of Samson, in Milton’s play:

Hopeless are all my evils, all remediless;
This one prayer yet remains, might I be heard,
No long petition, speedy death,
The close of all my miseries, and the balm.

There might be a number of reasons that Elijah ended up like this – the Bible doesn’t state any. My suspicion is that he was exhausted – first by the contest, and then by the fear Jezebel’s threat gave him (he ran a long way before collapsing in the desert). My own experience is that a great ‘high’ after something amazing has happened, can easily be followed by a flatness, a sort of disappointment afterwards, and especially so if, as here, the thing you wanted to happen afterwards (the conversion of the royal family) didn’t happen. My experience during illness is that the hypomania which was part of my bipolar disorder might have been euphoric and wonderful – but was quickly followed by a nasty depression. Elijah sent his servant away from him – something I find significant from my own experience of depression. When depressed, I can easily push away my friends and those who might help me, thinking myself unworthy, or just from the same instinct that leads a wounded animal to crawl into a hole to either die or recover.

We may have different reasons for entering a ‘down’, ‘flat’, or depressive state, but many people have experienced being alone in a mental desert, praying for death to come. Some of us have experienced not just praying for death, but attempting to cause it. It’s a painful place to be.

God in the Desert

It’s interesting to look at God’s response to his dejected prophet. Elijah is done with everything, done with life, done with his calling – all he wants to do is die, and be at peace. He’s done with God, really, but God isn’t done with him!

Our God is persistent, searching us out, calling us to him, and staying with us.

“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
(Ezek 34:16a, cf Josh 1:9; Is 41:10, 46:4; Lk 19:10; John 15:16-17)

So, God does not grant Elijah’s death-prayer, but he also does not rebuke Elijah. Instead, he sends a messenger – an angel, this time, rather than the messenger from Jezebel! You could describe this angel as “the prodding angel”, because that’s what he does – he prods Elijah, twice, to get up and eat.

Ferdinand_Bol_-_Elijah_Fed_by_an_Angel_-_WGA2360-1035x900God’s first step with Elijah is a simple one – food and water, and sleep. Only after he is rested and fed will Elijah have the strength to carry on his journey. God treats Elijah’s physical needs before he treats his spiritual ones, and that is perhaps something we should remember.

During my first experience of depression, I was in quite a state. The clanging of my emotions and thoughts in my mind was getting too much to bear, I was regularly self-harming, and had made two suicide attempts. In that maelstrom, my parents invited me to stay with them for a fortnight while they were house-sitting. Those two weeks certainly saved my degree, and they may even have saved my life. I spent them doing nothing. My parents fed and watered me, and otherwise I just lay on the grass, listening to music, and watching rabbits playing. I thought of nothing at all, and it was incredibly beneficial, a rest for an overworked mind.

Now, in my wellness, I have been on a few retreats – mostly to the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, though I have once been to Iona, too. There, your physical needs (shelter, food, drink) are attended to, and what you choose to do otherwise is up to you. At Mirfield, I have enjoyed the monastic cycle of prayer, and otherwise enjoyed the grounds, and just ‘being’. It is a restorative, and something that helps us re-emerge into the world refreshed. I would recommend both these types of restfulness to anyone, ill or well, as a way of recovering from life, and particularly from strenuous events (like challenging the prophets of Baal.)

Viaticum

There is another aspect, for me, to Elijah’s experience in the desert. In the bread and water that the angel gives him, I can see an echo of the Eucharist.

eucharist-51Christians have differing views on the Eucharist. For me, when we take the bread and wine offered during Holy Communion, we are participating in the one great Sacrifice of Calvary, when our Lord died for us. In that bread and wine (‘which earth has given and human hands have made’) we meet with Christ, becoming part of him, and he part of us, and all of us together become ‘one body, because we all share in one bread’. It is nourishing to our faith and quest for holiness, and, as the title ‘viaticum’ implies, it is food for our journey – the journey through life.

That is why I see the provision of water and bread by the angel as being a shadow of the Eucharist to come – it is the gift from God to sustain Elijah in his forty day and forty night journey through the desert.

In my own spirituality, the regular reception of the Eucharist is an important way of renewing and sustaining my faith, of being given strength in my own life’s journey.

To the Mountain

So Elijah has been fed, watered, and slept. Now it’s time for him to return to his journey. He spends the biblically significant time of forty days and nights in the wilderness (a time, perhaps, for contemplation), and then arrives at Mount Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, the place where Moses met with God, and received the commandments.

52657_N_21-07-12-22-02-42Elijah will also meet with God here. First, he is asked “What are you doing here?” Elijah has been given strength enough that he is not suicidal, but he is still rather dejected. He pours out his troubles to God, saying that he has done his best, but “the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

At this point, Elijah cannot see the good for the bad. Elijah knows that 1,000 prophets of Yahweh have been rescued by Obadiah and hidden in caves (1 Kings 18:4, 13) and has himself has seen the people of Israel worshipping God as a result of his victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:39). Yet Elijah’s vision is clouded by his desolation, as our own visions often are when we our emotions are disordered.

So, God reveals himself, but in an unexpected way. Elijah has already seen the power of the Lord – he had called down fire on the altar during the contest – yet God is not in the fire, nor the earthquake, nor the mighty wind. They are spectacular demonstrations of God’s might, but when God does reveal himself, it is in “the sound of sheer silence”, in the calm after the storm. Elijah was strong and determined during the storm of the contest, but frightened and dejected in the calm thereafter. Perhaps Elijah was feeling like the prophet Isaiah did,

I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me
(Is 63:3a)

He has gone from being surrounded by people, amazed at the work God has done through him, to alone and dejected in the desert. Yet he wasn’t alone, for an angel was with him even while he slept, and here is God, revealing himself to be present in the quiet, just as much as in the mighty deeds of power.

That is a comfort for me – who has never performed any mighty deeds of power, and who certainly isn’t a prophet! God is present in ways we don’t expect, in quiet voices, in stillness, and in calm.

Finally, after the maintenance of his physical needs, and the attention to his spiritual ones, God gives Elijah tasks. He is, in a sense, recommissioning him in his vocation – he is to anoint kings, and he is to choose a successor, Elisha. Eventually, Elijah will be taken up to heaven bodily, and be revered as one of the greatest prophets of Israel, and yet, as the Epistle of James says, “Elijah was a human being like us” (James 5:17), as we can see from this episode in his life.

Summation

To wrap up this rather long post, my conclusions from my meditation on Elijah in the desert are: physical needs are important. We should not ignore exhaustion, nor should we neglect eating, drinking, and rest. I find it spiritually and mentally healing to go on retreat, or for a break away, in a somewhat similar manner to Elijah being cared for in the wilderness. I also find it spiritually nourishing to regularly receive the Eucharist.

Overall, we can see again our God of Compassion at work here. He has a care for physical and mental health, he does not condemn the suicidal but works to comfort them, and he is revealed in gentleness towards a man who needs it. Only after Elijah’s physical and spiritual needs are attended to does the Lord give him a task – but this is a task that comes with help, for he is to have Elisha with him thereafter. Elijah’s depression and suicidal feelings never stopped him from being the mighty prophet, the favoured one of God – and that gives hope to all of us.

Points to Ponder

  • Do you push people away when feeling overwhelmed or depressed?
  • Do you minister things like food, or other physical needs to people when they are ill, and do you accept that ministry to you when you are ill?
  • Do you ensure you get enough rest in your life?
  • Do we get enough silence and quiet in our lives?
  • Are we always gentle with those who are dejected and forlorn?
  • What tasks might be helpful to us if we are recovering or in the midst of depression?
  • What are your feelings about receiving the Eucharist?

Resources

I have fewer books on the Old Testament than I have the New, and this was more in the way of a contemplative post, but here are some things that I used in creating it:

 

Following Jesus: No Turning Back

A sketch of a man pointing at the viewer with speech bubbles saying "John the Baptist", "Elijah", "One of the Prophets" and the words "But who do YOU say I am?" and the words "Following Jesus: No Turning Back" Mark 8.22-38

Now that the busy celebration of Christmas is just a memory, and the joy of Easter is yet to come, we find ourselves in the quiet season of Lent. This is our time to gather ourselves, to reflect on ourselves as God’s pilgrim people – and to walk beside Jesus in his journey to the cross.

Today, we look at Mark 8:22-38. This passage marks a turning point. Jesus travels to Caesarea Philippi in the northernmost part of Palestine. From here he will begin his final journey to Jerusalem, and to the death that awaits him there. Jesus’ words pose a challenge to us today, just as they did to his first hearers, in the two questions: who do we say Jesus is? and what does it mean for us to follow him?

messiah-sing-along-programsWe begin with Peter, always so very human – eager, impetuous, often failing but ever striving to be who Jesus wants him to be. When Jesus asks, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ the disciples name a variety of prophetic figures, but when the question changes to, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter seems almost to blurt out his confession of faith: ‘You are the Messiah’.

It is a significant declaration: Jesus is more than a good teacher, more even than a prophet, he is the chosen one of God, the coming king who is going to rescue his people and, apparently alone of the disciples, Peter has seen that. What comes next, though, reveals that Peter has much in common with the blind man of Bethsaida, the story of whose healing we have just read: he sees, but not very well just yet.

Poor sight can lead us into all sorts of trouble. I wear contact lenses, and see very poorly without them. When I was a teenager, I visited a water slide place near where I lived. You can’t wear contact lenses while swimming, so did without. All was well, for a while, until I got on one slide where I couldn’t quite see to read the sign. Had I been able to, I would have found out it was called the kamikaze…I got a bit of a shock when unexpectedly plunging down a near-vertical 80ft drop at 30mph!

Bad physical eyesight can cause us problems, but Peter’s poor spiritual sight leads him in a dangerous direction.

Jesus talks about what the end of this journey to Jerusalem will be: suffering, rejection from religious leaders, death, and resurrection. This isn’t what people expect of the Messiah – it shouldn’t be he who suffers, but those who oppress Israel. He’s a triumphant hero, a conquering revolutionary who will make Israel great again, not a man who suffers, who has come to die. Surely, Jesus must be mistaken, a bit confused, he hasn’t understood who he is supposed to be.

followSo Peter takes it upon himself to rebuke the leader he follows, perhaps out of shock at what Jesus has predicted. It’s a stunning act of disrespect, implying that Peter knows better than Jesus, and has the authority to rebuke him just as Jesus rebuked evil spirits earlier in the Gospel.

It provokes an equally harsh reaction from Jesus: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ for Peter’s public rebuke has made him an adversary, a satan, when he should instead be a follower. He has attempted to teach his teacher, but his thoughts are merely human, and he cannot see the divine plan.

We have heard about Jesus’ baptism, which was followed by a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s Son. Immediately afterwards Jesus faced temptation from Satan. Here, too, we see Jesus’ identity proclaimed, but then Peter argues for a different path for Jesus, one that doesn’t end in pain and death. We know that Jesus didn’t run gleefully to the cross – he prayed in deep grief in Gethsemane for his fate to be averted, and here Peter is tempting him with a different way, just as Satan did, in those forty days in the wilderness that Lent commemorates.

Who-Do-You-Say-I-AmPeter’s human ‘eyesight’ leads him, like the man of Bethsaida, to see blurrily, through a glass darkly when it comes to Jesus’ purpose. His error wasn’t his ignorance, shock, or even misunderstanding, but his attempt to dictate who Jesus should be. We might like to think, this Lenten season, about who Jesus is to us, and whether he is saying anything to us that we are resisting hearing.

The second question for us in this passage is, what does it mean for us to follow Jesus? Jesus calls on everyone present to listen to him, speaking to the whole crowd, not just his disciples. This message is aimed at any and every follower and would-be follower of Christ. His ‘discipleship in a nutshell’ is in his statement, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Self-denial is a Lenten theme, of course, and lots of us give up chocolate, or alcohol, or other treats during Lent in imitation of Christ, disciplining the body and bringing it under subjection to the soul. Talking about having ‘a cross to bear’ is also quite common – often an annoying neighbour or co-worker, an illness or injury – something unpleasant which we have to put up with.

I think that neither Lenten self-denial, nor forbearance with difficulties is quite what Jesus meant here. Jesus’ words are bound before and after with talk of death. His own death is in sight, and his earliest disciples – including Peter – will die for their faith in him. There was only one connotation of ‘cross’ in the Roman Empire: a shameful death, reserved for the lowest of the low, for outcasts, criminals, and slaves. This is not an appealing call to discipleship, nor the familiar metaphor we use today, but an invitation to martyrdom, and to disgrace.

Jesus’ call to deny ourselves runs deeper than denying ourselves certain comforts, useful though that may be. To follow Christ is to be prepared to give up everything, even life itself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’ Martyrdom for our faith seems a very long way off, here in 21st Century Britain, but the sort of no-half-measures abandonment to God is not simply a matter of being executed for our beliefs.

The early Irish church described three types of martyr: red, white and blue. Red martyrs were those who were put to death for their faith; white martyrs separated themselves from everything and everyone that they loved for the sake of Christ, as St Columba did in exiling himself to Iona. Blue martyrs were those who did not withdraw from their worlds by death or exile, but persistently denied themselves, their wants and desires, in favour of more closely imitating Christ, and following his will for their lives.

It’s a frightening level of commitment, to obey Jesus’ words“Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” This is what Jesus calls discipleship – a change of priority: God first, ourselves second, even to death. A priority which was lived out in his own life, in this journey to the cross we are following, and in his prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

It seems impossible to be strong enough to practice that kind of radical self-denial, to imitate Christ who refused to save his life even during the agonies of the cross. Impossible – but nothing is impossible with God, and another reading, from Romans 4:13-25, might help us to find our way. Paul discusses Abraham, to whom God made a promise, a covenant with him to make from him a mighty nation, though he and his wife had no children. Fifteen years after that, the Lord renewed his promise, telling them they would have a son. Ten years after that, their son Isaac was born. Abraham is a model of faith – he believed God, and followed him despite the delay, despite the frustration and difficulty. Faith makes everything possible, whether that is becoming the father of a multitude, or facing our own fear, our death, and our transformation through following Christ.

Our faith is our provision for the journey of our discipleship, and it is faith that causes us to strive to be what God wants us to be. That is the key to this reading: we don’t seek to dictate what God must be, like Peter, but take him on his own terms, and follow wherever he leads us, trusting, through faith, that God will help us give all our lives over to him. As the song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus; The world behind me, the cross before me; No turning back, no turning back.”

Lent is our quiet time of reflection and renewal. A time to reflect on who Jesus is to us, and how he calls us to follow him. A time to renew and deepen our faith, a practice which the church commemorates with a renewal of our baptismal vows on the night before Easter Day, in imitation of some of the earliest Christians. May our faith strengthen us on the journey, and help us to give to Christ all that he asks of us.

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A sermon preached on 25th February 2018

 

 

Saint Guinefort

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Near this spot
Are deposited the Remains of one
Who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the virtues of Man, without his Vices.

These words were Lord Byron’s tribute to his dog, Boatswain, but the sentiment might be familiar to many dog-owners. Mankind’s association with dogs goes back a long way, and they’ve been used for hunting and herding, as well as protection, companionship and a whole host of tasks that have led to them being called “man’s best friend”. They are regularly anthropomorphised, and, in mythology and folklore a dog could be your protector, your guide, or you friend. He might even be holy, which is where our story starts.

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The Churching of Women

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Growing up, I occasionally heard women talking about an old and sexist type of church service, one they had refused to take part in. When a woman had a baby, she could not leave her home, visit anyone, or go to church until nearly a month and a half had passed. When she did go to church, she had to undergo a special ceremony, because giving birth had made her sinful, and she had to be cleansed before being fit for worship. That special service was called Churching, and when I looked into it, I found some surprising things.

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