Feast Day: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 2:23-3:6; Deuteronomy 5:12-15
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mk 2:27-28)
The Christian life has a certain goal—to know God in and through and with Jesus Christ. To know and love and adore the One from whom all goodness, truth, and beauty are derived. And so Christians are called daily to let go of our attempts to be our own masters so that the Holy Spirit might begin to re-order our lives in light of Christ’s love. This is why human creatures are given life at all, so that our life can be taken up into God’s life.
Yet the Christian life is challenging, difficult even. For example, there are so many things that a Christian ought to do. Consider one of my favourite portions of the Prayer Book, the Rule of Life tucked away on the bottom half of a page towards the back. It basically says that every now and then Christian men and women ought to examine their lives and consider if they are living in accordance with the gospel. Here is basically what the Prayer Book counsels: go to church, make a practice of praying, reading the Bible, and disciplining yourself, integrate the teaching of Christ into your daily life, share your faith with others, serve others both in the Church and in the community, and offer your hard-earned coin to support the work of the Church both at home and abroad. Do these things and you will live a Christian life says the Prayer Book.
Now, here’s my point. From one vantage these can seem simply like a rather long list of to-dos and quickly become burdensome and constraining, like some sort of spiritual straigh-jacket. But from another vantage, the Holy Spirit can open your eyes to see these disciplines for what they truly are, things that help you grow in your life in Christ by connecting you to the life of Christ.
It’s not that you were made for these various Christian practices and disciplines, as if you have to uncomfortably try and squeeze yourself into some mold and if you don’t then you’ve failed. Rather, these disciplines and practices were made for you that you might know the love of God in Christ and be set free and transformed by it. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
Yesterday afternoon I took our eldest out to learn how to ride a two-wheeler. She has been wanting to learn for a while now but was always a bit timid so we didn’t press the issue. She wasn’t made for that bike, after all. But let me tell you that bike, with the handlebar streamers and all, that bike was made for her. And when it all came together and clicked yesterday she must have done one-hundred laps of the basketball court down the street. Smile ear-to-ear as she proclaimed, “I feel like I’ve been riding for years! I love the feel of the wind on my face!”
See, the goal for us was never simply to get her riding a bike. The goal was the joy and freedom that learning to ride a bike can unlock for a child. In a similar way, the goal of the Christian life is to experience the joy and freedom of knowing God. The goal isn’t simply to pray more, to read your Bible more, to be more generous with your time and money. Those are just the practices that get us there. And once you begin to get a glimpse of that let me tell you the feel of the wind on your face, it is good. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
This is what is at the crux of the conflict that we encounter this morning between Jesus and the Pharisees. It’s the sabbath day and what is Jesus doing but plucking grain with his disciples in one instance and performing an act of healing on the other. Doesn’t Jesus know there are six other days in the week in which he can work? Doesn’t Jesus know the Law of Moses? We heard it ourselves this morning: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” And the Pharisees are furious. Because the Pharisees are very. serious. people. They know the rules and they’re going to hold people to them.
But the question must be asked, did Jesus break the sabbath law here by, for example, healing a crippled man’s hand? And if he did break the Law, does that mean that the Law has been done away with altogether, abolished?
It is possible, I think, in a very narrow sense to say that Jesus violated the law. After all, the Pharisees would have made the point that this was not an emergency and the man could have been healed the following day. So, say Jesus did violate the sabbath law. Was it because he simply disregarded the law? Jesus isn’t one to act quite so carelessly. One of the keys to understanding this passage lies elsewhere in the gospels and those of us who have been reading the Bible together on Tuesday nights read this a few weeks ago. Towards the beginning of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” (Mt 5:17).
Jesus does not disregard the law rather he fulfills it, perfects it, brings it to its true and proper end. Jesus reveals that to which the Law points: human life incorporated into Divine joy. That’s why the sabbath and the law of Moses is there, to remind human creatures of the grace of God’s saving love that has now appeared in Jesus Christ.
The Pharisees missed this. They had become so weighed down in the minutia of the Law that they somehow forgot about the intention of the Law. The sabbath is about life with God, the joy of eternal life. Yet the Pharisees had managed to twist it into an instrument for stifling life: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asks. The sabbath is for life.
So here is Jesus, a man longing to be healed standing in front of him, and he looks around at the Pharisees and Mark tells us that he was grieved at the hardness of their hearts. He sees that though they are scrupulous with respect to the Law they have lost sight of the kindness of God. And now here they would actually hinder this man from knowing the healing love of God. And Jesus is angry.
Now, I know that none of this sort of thing ever happens in church anymore. And let me say, quite honestly, that I rejoice and give thanks for the last ten months since I have arrived in this parish. I love serving you as your pastor and I hope we get to do this together for a while yet. These last ten months I have been inspired by your faith and love of Christ. By your generosity and warmth. By your patience, not least of all with me! I love how you seek to serve those who are outside the walls of this church and welcome every one who walks through those doors.
But like I said, I know that a church like this one probably doesn’t suffer much from church politics. Let me tell you though that in other churches there can be a complex set of rules that build up over time, sometimes spoken but more-often-than-not unspoken. And these rules, they mark out and distinguish who is in and who is not yet in. They determine what is and what is not appropriate. They determine who has power and who doesn’t and who gets to make decisions and who gets to veto the decisions of others and so on and so forth
This is all well and good and frankly unavoidable but I think Jesus wants us to keep something in mind—this church community exists for the glory of his name and for the good of his people. The end goal is not simply to make good and respectable members of St. Paul’s/John’s. The goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us not ever get so caught up in our own little rules that we lose sight of the wideness and beauty of Christ’s love. Let us never hinder people coming to know the love of Christ here in this place. Let us never discourage anyone who comes here seeking Christ. Let us never heap burdens on others that we would not willingly help them carry. Let us not lose sight of the joy of the gospel and let us not dampen the joy of others. Let us make every effort to widen the circle and invite some of those folks that are out on the edges into the middle. Let us go out of our way and bend over backwards to extend the same hospitality to others that God has extended to each one of us in his well beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Because the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. And when we fix our eyes on the Lord of the sabbath we begin to see what it’s all about. And the feel of that wind on your face, let me tell you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.