Which ethnic community in the UK suffers the most abuse do you think? Nine out of 10 children from this community have suffered racial abuse, and two thirds have also been bullied or physically attacked and are scared to go to school. How do you feel about that? Which community are we talking about? Friday’s Guardian ran a report entitled, “It’s time to end ‘the last acceptable racism’ – against Gypsies and Travellers” How do you feel now you know? Shocked or not surprised?
Having been bullied at secondary school myself I have a low tolerance of bullying when I witness it – and intervening gets me into trouble sometimes. And having helped raise three lovely daughters, I have a low tolerance of discrimination against women as well. Our common imago dei – that is – that we are created in the image and likeness of God means that it is sub-Christian to mistreat, abuse, or denigrate any person, irrespective of their race, colour, age, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Let me repeat that.
That is why I am glad the final Communique of the Anglican Primates meeting in Canterbury last week, spoke compassionately about another group who suffer abuse.
“The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.”
The Primates concluded their Communique with a reaffirmation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel. We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.”
The theme of the Conference was “Walking Together in the Service of God in the World”. The controversy surrounding the Primates meeting had to do with conflicting, mutually exclusive definitions of the gospel – “the truth revealed in Jesus Christ”. Clearly the Primates and the Provinces they represent are not all “walking together” and this was formally acknowledged. Played out before the world’s secular media I believe the final communique was gracious but essential.
The greatest sin you can commit today it seems is offending people. The temptation therefore is to soften the gospel. How can we avoid being offensive while sharing our faith? How do we share our passion without prejudice? Our convictions with compassion? In our Bible reading today we observe Jesus doing so and showing us how. As people encountered Jesus, three kinds of faith were exposed. Only one will do. Doubting Faith, Unbelieving Faith and Saving Faith. Lets consider each and decide which one best describes yours. Which of the three are you relying on today?
A Doubting Faith: Some People Questioned Jesus
“Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!” (Mark 6:1-2)
It is not wrong to have doubts or ask questions. The relationship of faith to doubt is closer to that of courage to fear. Fear need be no threat to courage. Take a mountain climber, a racing driver or Army officer. Each needs a courage which can control their fear so that risks are minimized and decisions calculated wisely. It is the same with faith and doubt. From the moment we are born, we are all doubters. The first sound we make is a cry of terror. “What is this strange world I am entering?” we cry. “Will my needs be met? Why has my warm secure world changed? Who will care for me?” The baby wants proof now – I’m hungry! I’m cold! I’m wet! I’m confused! I’m afraid! Those secure arms, that gentle voice and that eye contact provide assurance. Then and only then will a baby eventually begin to trust and smile. Underneath everything we are and do lies trust. From friendships between small children to agreements between nations, community depends on trust. Counting on people is trust. Enjoying people is trust. Trust is the shared silence, the exchanged look, the expressive touch. A cry for help is someone seeking trust, a hug, a kiss, shaking hands are signs of trust. Relationships depend on trust. There are no more important questions in life than, “Who can I trust?” And none more than the ultimate. “Can I trust God?”
Jesus returned to the community in which he had been raised as a boy. Even though just a year before He had been ejected from the synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). He probably knew everyone in that small town by name. This time, they did not evict Him: they simply did not take Him seriously. Asking questions but not finding answers. Two things amazed them: His miracles and wisdom. Jesus claims to have existed before the world was created. He claims to be our creator. He claims to be both God and man. He claims to have come to earth to rescue us from sin and evil. He claims he will come and live with you to enable you to become like him. He claims to hold your eternal destiny in his hands. If you don’t find that amazing, if you have never had any doubts about these claims, then perhaps its time to join our next Christianity Explored Course starting Thursday 4th February. Jesus invites analysis. The value of doubt is that it can detect error. All is not true, so not everything should be believed. Doubt is the acid test for truth. Doubt is the best solvent for error. It is the Geiger counter for detecting falsehood, the sieve to catch unwanted lumps of irrationality. Doubt acts like a sparring partner to both truth and error. It keeps faith trim and helps shed the flabbiness of false ideas. Like a terrier, doubt worries at weak ideas until they escape reinvigorated or collapse exhausted.
If anyone says “Just believe” don’t. If anyone has to say “Don’t you trust me?” Ask for proof. I encouraged my children to question assumptions, to test theories, to doubt strangers. And I encourage you to do the same. But I also invite you to consider the wisdom of Jesus; consider the miracles of Jesus and ask yourself the same question these Nazarenes asked, “Where did this man get these things? What is this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!” But don’t be satisfied with a doubting faith based on rhetorical questions. Search for an answer until you find it and test them until they become your personal deeply held convictions. The search for an answer will lead a doubting faith in one of two directions. The facts will either drive you to a saving faith or an unbelieving faith. For Jesus demands a response. He calls us to repent, to trust and obey, to surrender and follow. Jesus calls for a whole change of lifestyle from what we want, to what he wants, and that isn’t popular. A doubting faith. A good place to start, but not to remain.
An Unbelieving Faith: Some Were Offended by Jesus
“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.” (Mark 6:3-4)
Is there such a thing as unbelieving faith? Everyone has some kind of faith. Martin Robinson has written an excellent book, “The Faith of the Unbeliever“.
He points out that unbelievers do not believe in nothing. On the contrary they often have a very definite set of beliefs, which they may hold just as passionately as we may hold to ours. Research has shown that typically, the faith of unbelievers is centred around the following tenets.
- Good actions are more important than right beliefs
- Religion is intensely private
- The church is largely irrelevant
We could debate the relative merits of these beliefs. The issue that cuts through all the fog is what are we to make of Jesus Christ? And that brings us back to our story. What was the problem for the Nazarenes? Why were they unable to trust Him? Because like many people today, they thought they knew who Jesus was, when in fact they didn’t know him at all. They asked the right questions but with the wrong attitude.
Prejudice overrules the evidence of his miracles and wisdom that they answer their question themselves, “Is not this the carpenter? the son of Mary?” The people were “offended at Him.” That literally means “they stumbled over Him.” The Greek word gives us our English word scandalize. “They could not explain Him, so they rejected Him.” This is where skepticism becomes cynicism. Where doubt turns into unbelief. How ironic, they claimed to worship God yet rejected God’s Son. Jesus says of them:
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ” ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ (Mark 7:6-7)
In Mark 7:13 he added, “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:13). These people were very religious. They attended services in the Temple or the Synagogue. But they preferred the views of their contemporaries over the Word of God. This is why Jesus was amazed at them.
“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5-6)
That is why Jesus offended them. He called them hypocrites. They believed one thing and did another. The kindest, most loving thing Jesus can say, is the truth. People will be offended by the gospel. Just make sure it is only Jesus who offends them, not our behavior or lack of compassion. This passage also shows that it is futile to argue with someone who will not face the facts, because they are no longer looking for an answer but for an excuse. So don’t give them one. In Nazareth, just as in Virginia Water, there were some who had a doubting faith – they rightly questioned Jesus. But among some it became an unbelieving faith. The hypocrites were offended by Jesus. There is a third kind of faith demonstrated in this passage.
A Saving Faith – The Disciples Followed Jesus
Where is the evidence of genuine faith in this passage?
Following Jesus Inspires a Saving Faith.
It’s there – can you see it? Mark 6:1. “The Disciples followed Jesus.” Don’t ignore these profound words. Obedience to the Son of God is the path to saving faith. Jesus is making it very clear that it is following him that we experience a saving faith. On another occasion, Jesus made his own words the test of faith.
“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him… If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:21, 23)
Following Jesus inspires a saving faith.
Following Jesus Intensifies a Deepening Faith
“Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two.” (Mark 6:6-7)
Faith is never static. It is either growing or shrinking depending on how close we stay to Jesus. The disciples followed Jesus and saw his wise teaching and compassionate miracles transform the lives of those who trusted in Him. Jesus was inviting experimentation among those who had already begun to believe in Him.
Jesus challenged them to choose between the word of God and their man-made religion. Indeed, he warned them that they could not keep both. “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:8). I do not say this lightly, but some within the Anglican Communion have done so also. At the end of the day we become what we eat. And the same applies to our spiritual diet. Remember it was,
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Following Jesus inspires a saving faith. Following Jesus intensifies a deepening faith.
Following Jesus Ignites an Infectious Faith.
“Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” (Mark 6:7-13)
Jesus began to train them, instruct them, trust them, delegate authority to them, and share his ministry with them. This was a short term training exercise.
In the last week of his life on earth Jesus gave them another set of instructions because they were not coming back. What did Jesus commission them to do? Demonstrate in word and deed that the Kingdom of God had arrived – preaching repentance, driving out demons and bringing healing and wholeness to the sick and disabled. Liberating especially the marginalized, the poorest and oppressed from sin, from sickness and from Satan. A foretaste of heaven. Does following Jesus ignite your desire to share your faith? On the back wall are a list of the ways we seek to serve one another and reach our community. We expect everyone who is following Jesus to serve him on one or more of our teams according to our talents and abilities. If you are not, then lets have a conversation. The qualifications are simple. A saving faith. A servant heart and a compassion for all but especially the most vulnerable. Today we have considered three kinds of faith. Only one will do. A doubting faith is a good place to start but an unbelieving or hypocritical faith will not do. Make sure yours is a saving faith, a deepening faith, an infectious faith. A faith that is placed firmly and securely in Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Let us pray.