Sermon notes for 12th Sunday after Trinity: Mark 7:31ff.
The thing that stands out in this story is what Jesus does, physically, in working this miracle.
Why put fingers in ears, and spit, and touch tongue? It is as though we won’t count it as a real miracle unless Jesus does nothing. We see the same thing in the next chapter, Mark 8, where Jesus makes spits and puts it on a blind man’s eyes — as though it would be more miraculous to simply wave a hand, or a wand.
We live in modern North America, where we don’t like bodily fluids. And there is a long history of aversion to bodies and their messy secretions. Much of this has its roots in Plato: in the Parmenides, he has Socrates rebuking himself for imagining forms of hair and dirt. They’re not shiny and clean like the forms of “triangle” or “justice”. And it seems like every little girl soon learns to squeal “gross!”
Peter Leithart says:
9. Theology is a “Victorian” enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place. Wheras the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.
10. Here’s an experiment you can do at any theological library. You even have my permission to try this at home.
Step 1: Check the indexes of any theologian you choose for any of the words mentioned in section 9 above. (Augustine does not count. Augustine’s theology is as big as reality, or bigger.)
Step 2: Check the Bible concordance for the same words.
Step 3: Ponder these questions: Do theologians talk about the world the same way the Bible does? Do theologians talk about the same WORLD the Bible does?
This spills over into our thinking about worship and our relationship to God.
First, sacraments. Would God, being pure Spirit, have anything to do with our bodies?
Watch out for Naaman the Syrian syndrome! “He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.” (2 Kings 5:11-12) Naaman does not want to do a simple thing like washing in water. He doesn’t believe it can do anything. He wants the man of God to heal him without doing anything with matter.
But as C.S. Lewis says, “God likes matter. He invented it.” It is sometimes said by well meaning theologians that God stoops and condescends to come to us in material sacraments. But a man, with a material body, is now eternally united to the Godhead in the incarnation. A man, with a material body — a body that ate fish, a body with holes in it that doubting Thomas was invited to poke — a man with a body is ruling the universe right now. God has had a body since the first Christmas day, and He will have one forever. It is not that God has stooped to interact with matter, but that He has taken matter, a human body, unto Himself.
Some medieval theologians heavily under the sway of Plato had a problem with this. Thus, we hear silly ideas about Jesus being conceived when the Holy Spirit entered Mary’s ear; or that he was born by passing right through Mary’s uterine wall in a sort of spooky, bloodless C-section. Or that He had perfectly efficient digestion so that he never had to use the bathroom. My intent in sharing these things with you is not that you should start snickering about the mention of such subjects, but to point out that Jesus was a real man, with a real body, and that such a body, like ours, was physical, got dirty, and secreted sweat and phlegm and all the other things that horrify Plato because they might pollute the perfect cleanness of His fluorescent-lit realm of forms.
Thus, Jesus comes to us in water, in bread, in wine, and it is not a degradation for him to do so. He is pleased to do so, because He loves matter, and loves bodies. He touched them and washed their dirty feet, girding himself with a towel. And He told His disciples to do likewise. More on that in a little bit.
2. A second mistake we can make about our relationship with God is to think that our relationship with God happens primarily by our thinking about him, and not by our bodies, our relationships with physical, bodily persons in the Church. “If someone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (1 John 4:20 NKJV)” Your brother, whom you can see — because he has a body! How do we love a person? James 2 tells us: “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, Depart in peace, be warmed and filled, but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15, 16 NKJV)
This man whom Jesus healed in Mark 7 could not hear, and could not speak. He was shut in and trapped in his own private world. He was unable to respond to God’s words addressed to him, and unable to speak God’s words to others. He was cut off from many of the usual avenues by which humans share love.
The Canadian founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier’s, gives a description of a young man named Eric on p. 10 of Becoming Human. (Read it.) Unable to talk, unable to hear, this young man’s life was full of emotional anguish because of a lack of love and relationship.
Speech and hearing are the primary senses in the Bible. They are not the only avenues, but they are the primary ones. God made the world by speaking, and speech is preeminently a relational act, with the power to bless, to curse, to change the world. Our speech may not be as powerful as God’s, but it is nonetheless able to change the world. By words, wars may be started or ended or avoided. By words, marriages are made and unmade; children adopted or disowned; A scientist uses speech to communicate a new way of looking at things, and the next thing you know, there is a man on the moon, or an atomic bomb, or a cure for cancer. Our speech has the power to change the world. James 3 sums up its tremendous power and its double-edged potential for good and evil alike: “Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things… With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. (James 3:5, 9 NKJV)”
But the sense of touch is perhaps even more powerful. An abused child will flinch if you reach out to touch him. But when he feels a gentle touch on his body, he realizes that you are not going to hurt him. The deaf and dumb man in Mark 7 could still feel a touch. Jesus touches this man, and touches him where he is most hurt, in his ears and on his tongue. The result was that he was healed.
Our epistle lesson speaks about the consequences of being transformed by Jesus.
In the Old Testament, the Sinai covenant was given by God via Moses. And Moses has the distinction of speaking face to face with God on the mountain. The Israelites, however, did not want to speak face to face with God, because they were afraid, knowing that they were sinful. The Torah covenant did not deal with their sins in a permanent and effective way. And so, Moses put a veil over his face “to hide from them the end of what was fading away” because “they were afraid to come near him.”
I have often said that Sora, when I first saw her in the Philippines via Skype, had a face shining Iike Moses come down from the mountain. It was shining because she had encountered Jesus in a new and living way by ministering to the poor with other Christians.
This is what happens to us as we live in Christ. It is what happened to Stephen in Acts:
“And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15 NKJV)” Why? Because he knew Jesus. That is what Paul says happens:
“For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:11-14, 18 NKJV)
We need to understand what the function of a veil is. It is to conceal the wearer, to prevent relationship. That is why women have worn veils in past cultures, and still do in Islam: to prevent unwanted relationship, social contact. (this is part of why the burqa is not a Christian garment.)
At any rate, we have abundant testimony that the Mosaic covenant was this way. The people begged not to see God or hear his voice directly, because of their sin, their guilty conscience before God. It is the same reaction as Adam and Eve: to hide from the Holy One. And God knew that their guilty consciences and bodies needed hiding: thus, He made them clothing better than their fig leaf garments.
The Torah was full of reasons why men could not have access to God: uncleanness, graded degrees of holiness among people (gentile, Israelite, Levite, priest, high priest); graded holy spaces: the world, the land of Israel, the temple, the holy place, the holy of holies. Sacrifices could not purify the conscience, and so the people approached God only rarely and haltingly and with difficulty. It’s not merely that they know that they are sinners — we all know that we are sinners too. It’s that they knew that their sin had not yet been done away with in Christ.
But we are not to be so. Our relationship is not clouded like that: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life (1 John 1:1 NKJV)” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 16, 17 NKJV)
The veil of the Holy of Holies has been torn in two. We are all priests. We have access into the holiest place through the blood of Christ. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NKJV)
This means that we must touch and speak to and interact with the human beings, the children of Adam, whom God has put us in the world to serve. The result will be that they know that we know Jesus, and that they will come to know Him too.
The Lord is the light of the City of God. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. These things were not done in a corner.
THE LORD bless us, and keep us. The LORD make his face to shine upon us — directly, with no veil interfering! –, and be gracious unto us. The LORD lift up his countenance upon us, and give us peace, both now and evermore. Amen.