It Takes Two to Tango
Based on readings from 2 Corinthians 12.2-10 and Mark 6.1-13
It’s no exaggeration to say that the gospels would be nothing without the miracle stories.
Miracles were the chief means by which Jesus announced that things were changing; that
relief for the poor, the imprisoned and the oppressed was at hand. Take the miracles away and you don’t have a gospel
Whatever the literal historic truth of Jesus’ deeds it’s clear that he was a man of extraordinary, unprecedented (before and since) power and charisma. I use the word charisma advisedly, “charism” being the Greek word for “gift”. Without this it’s hard to see why he would earn any place in history, let alone the one that he has.
But in today’s gospel we discover – in what’s almost a throw-away line – that there was a limit to his power. We are clearly told: “He could do no deed of power there….and he was amazed at their unbelief”. In other words, Jesus’ deeds of power were dependent upon the willing and faithful participation of those seeking to help. This vital point is so often overlooked when we proclaim J as “saviour of the world” and yet it points to precisely the way in which he is our saviour. And that’s a way – for all our pious protestations - that is often at odds with what we so often want from a saviour.
As some of you know, I broke my elbow badly almost 3 years ago now and had to go through months of often painful physiotherapy. Much more important than the time I spent with the physio were the exercises I was given to do. I was astonished to hear from my Physio that many receiving treatment don’t get better for the simple reason they don’t do the exercises. In other words, they expect their Physio to do it all for them.
So often in life we want someone to come and save us. Look at the papers last week. You’d think from the headlines that England’s football team had just one man in it – Harry Kane.
“Yes he Kane” as one headline writer lamely put it. And yet the truth of England’s success has been its remarkable team spirit which has come in sharp contrast to the feted heroes of former failures who too often behaved – and were treated - as if it was all about them as individuals.
And of course, the desire for a strong leader is at its most dangerous in the world of politics.
The history of the 20C bears terrible, horrifying witness to this. But do we learn? It seems not. To those of us in the Old World Donald Trump’s bombast may seem preposterous but it’s going down a storm amongst the large numbers that support him. And what about us? Surveying the seemingly parlous state of the Brexit negotiations don’t you yearn for some powerful leader to just come and sort this thing out? I do whilst also really knowing that the world doesn’t work that way.
And that, I think, is what the gospel is trying to tell us. It’s telling us to get real. When Jesus came on the scene with his amazing deeds of power what everyone thought they were getting was a mighty leader, one who’d kick the Romans out and restore Israel’s pride.
To say there was disappointment when it looked like he was just another bloke tortured on a cross would be an understatement.
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the distinctive feature of the Judeo-Christian God is that he makes space for us. He invites us to be participants in the work of creation and salvation. He will not do this work on his own and this confers on us a remarkable dignity. We are not helpless children wholly dependent on mummy or daddy to come and sort things out but adults with real agency if we are but willing to be God’s co-workers.
And this, of course, is where the Holy Spirit comes in. When Jesus ascended to heaven he left his earthly work for us to continue. That would be a daunting, terrifying prospect if we were left to our own devices. But we are not. For Jesus promised us access to the same spirit of power that had filled his mission and that’s what happened at Pentecost.
I suggest to you that the mark of the Christian is his or her belief in this power that is external to us and to which we have access. There are lots of people who subscribe to Jesus’ teaching and the values implicit in it but it’s the Holy Spirit and belief in the power of the Spirit that marks the Christian as different. I was reminded of this at Nick’s priesting the other week when Bishop Rob reminded those being priested that in all the things they were being charged to do they could not do it in their own power.
I say all this aware that such belief doesn’t come easily to us. There’s a simple reason for this. It’s called pride. You see it in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. St.Paul was also by any human standards a powerful, brilliant, charismatic man. What’s more he knew this.
Today’s reading is a typically contorted passage from Paul. He’d love to boast about himself and what a spiritually gifted man he is but has to content himself with saying that he won’t boast. But then he says ““…if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth.” Talk about having your cake and eating it! But then, at the end of the passage he reveals something of great importance about himself. He tells us that God has given him a “thorn in the flesh” to stop him from being too pleased with himself. We don’t know what the affliction was but it was serious enough for him to pray repeatedly for it to be removed.
But God refused to do so – it was the only way of ensuring that Paul would practice true humility and know that it was in God’s power that he must act.
Of course, for many the problem isn’t that we believe too much in our own strength but too little. But the root cause of the problem is the same: we don’t realise or accept in either our assumed strength or weakness that as Christians we should seek access to the power from on high.
So, my challenge to you today is this: where is the Holy Spirit in your life; when and where in your life do you experience this power from outside yourself; and what would your life look like if you truly opened yourself to the power of the Holy Spirit?
For make no mistake, no worthwhile human enterprise is undertaken by us acting alone. We work best in concert with others and best of all, as Christians, when we individually and collectively open ourselves to the blessing and power of the Holy Spirit.
And that is something to ponder as we pray for that miracle of miracles, that ultimate miracle that one day, hopefully one day very soon, England will win the football world cup.