2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Pentecost 2.21 “Lunatics” Mark 3:20-35
You know how much I love C.S. Lewis. But my love is not blind. Concerning his famous observation in “Mere Christianity” that the whole modernist fad of seeing Jesus as a “Great Teacher” (but not divine!) is actually pretty stupid, Lewis says: “A man who was merely a man and went around and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg [not hugely uncommon in England!]—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…” So far, so brilliant, I would say. “Lunatic or Lord” is one of the more quotable bits from the extremely quotable Oxford don.
But then Lewis goes on to say the part that bothers me: “Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of madness or conceit.”
And maybe they didn’t, in Lewis’ circles, but I would say plenty of people today think Jesus is a lunatic or worse!
This is something worth thinking about for a few minutes because it is behind the rather troubling question of “the sin against the Holy Spirit”, aka the ‘unforgivable sin’—and what is that, exactly? I bet there are one or two of you who wouldn’t mind a few minutes of exegesis on what exactly that’s all about—in a purely “asking for a friend” sort of way, of course!
OK, here’s what you can tell your “friend” about the sin against the Holy Spirit that never has forgiveness: 1) It’s unbelief, plain and simple. 2) If you’re worried about that, you’re probably fine. 3) Because faith isn’t the absence of doubt but is simply the non-rejection of Jesus.
A.N. Wilson, in his excellent biography of C.S. Lewis (well worth reading!) uncovers a fun little nugget—that the apologetic works of Lewis from the early to mid 1940’s (like “Mere Christianity” from which the “lunatic or lord, not Great Teacher” quote is from (Book II, Chapter 3 “The Shocking Alternative”) came to seem, in Lewis’ view, as problematic, at best. As he disturbingly quipped in the late 40’s: “No doctrine of Christianity seems so shaky in one’s own eyes as one he has just successfully ‘defended’ on the BBC”. By the late 40’s, Lewis had slipped back into a dark place—something like his old agnosticism, and his efforts rationally to ‘defend’ the faith seem to have been the chief culprit. So, don’t try that at home, kids!
It was writing the Narnia books which he began in 1949, that, Wilson thinks, helped restore Lewis’ robust Christian faith—moving from rational arguments about the faith to narrative appropriations of the Faith…
I actually went to a good pastor’s conference last week in Hickory with the Rev. Dr. Arthur A. Just, Jr. Dr. Just observed how a rational, systematic approach to Christian truth seems nearly useless today (if not actually harmful to genuine Xn faith!). The Bible, as our old teacher Hans Frei liked to observe, is a story, not a scientific theory. It enchants rather than argues you into faith. Christianity is not a better System; it’s a better Narrative—a “loosely organized non-fiction novel from an edgy, independent press” as Frei liked to say. It’s much more like the Narnia stories, in other words, than like apologetic works such as “Mere Christianity”.
Dr. Just implored us “to focus on the resurrection of the body as the heart of the Xn faith”, because he thinks we are far less troubled by guilt over some abstract moral sin we’ve done than by shame that is rooted in our bodily flaws, and torments us far more—physical, emotional ills that expose a deep flaw in who we are as people.
Dr. Just talked about being on the committee that put out Lutheran Service Book; how they argued vehemently about having Luther’s rite of Baptism in the hymnal. Dr. Just (like me) loves Luther’s rite, but the appointees of President Kieschnick (who came on the hymnal committee halfway through the project) utterly despised Luther’s rite because it contained an exorcism of the evil spirit plaguing the child or adult being baptized. They didn’t think that would sell. [That a supposed “Lutheran” can’t stand the Lutheran rite of baptism should cause soul-searching about why and if one really should be in the Lutheran Church at all (!), much less on a Lutheran hymnal committee! Jimmie’s starting to get a little bit upset!]
Anyway, this, I think, is the problem in our Gospel today. Jesus has gone around casting out demons right and left. So, his own family decides he’s a lunatic; while the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees decide he is a demon in league with Beelzebub (there’s decision theology for you!). No one doubts the demons are a real problem that Jesus is solving. What no one wants to admit is that it’s a problem we all have—we all have an unclean spirit that makes our bodies broken and flawed and shameful to ourselves. But it is so painful to bear that shame, that we just can’t admit we need such drastic help, but would rather shoot the Messenger of Light and Life than admit we’re sick.
We’d rather accuse Jesus of having an unclean spirit than admit the source of our own deep shame is the unclean spirit that pollutes us body and soul and makes us liable to weakness, sickness, death. This (perhaps?) is what made the pandemic so terrifying—realizing how fragile we all are. This is why we are so concerned about how we look—our bodies are always betraying us and showing the rot that lurks within.
If we had not sinned, if our spirits had not become unclean, our bodies would never die, age, or fail. The Bible teaches this, and—deep down—we all know it’s true. But we deny it. We try to make sickness and death natural things we can manage, when they’re really the sickness of the spirit eating away at us all from inside.
Put bluntly: we’d rather die of an unclean spirit than admit how deeply flawed we are— spiritually, physically—and let Jesus heal us. When we see a Perfect Man, no bodily ailments, no sadness or despair, just perfect peace and happiness, it’s too much. And when he promises to “take away our shame”, we lash out: “You’re the Shameful One! You’re a lunatic—and probably worse!” And we killed him. Which is true lunacy—to murder the Lord of Life! But he willingly took our sin and shame to the Cross so that…
[As one of my favorite hymns goes] “Now from that tree of Jesus’ shame/ Flows life eternal in His name;/ For all who trust and will believe/ Salvation’s living fruit receive./ And of this fruit so pure and sweet/ The Lord invites the world to eat./ To find within this cross of wood/ The Tree of Life with every good.”
By bearing our shame: naked, wounded, crowned with thorns, bleeding, dying, utterly humiliated, Jesus takes away our shame. Because, if the Lord of Life suffers like this—for us—then suffering is suddenly not so shameful, but rather, becomes redemptive. Our bodily ailments, our weaknesses [as Paul discovered!] become badges of honor; because in Jesus’ weakness, strength is made PERFECT—soul and body become whole, divinely, eternally so…
The spirit is the engine of the body. Now, if we refuse the Holy Spirit, refuse the exorcism of our unclean spirits, the joy of redemption ever eludes us. But here, under words, water, bread, wine, is the pure, sweet fruit of the Tree of Life with every Good. This is the world’s true Story, which, by faith, enchants, renews, restores us. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.