What does forgiveness look like? What does it mean for us? What challenges does Jesus leave with us?
This was my sermon from last year on a well known passage, early on in the sermon series on Mark. It’s also a passage with a lot going on, and where an understanding of what ‘Son of Man’ means is necessary! It also which challenges us to think about how we need to respond. My sermon aimed to pick up on some of these themes.
Forgiveness; Reading: Mark 2:1-12
Imagine that there’s a Bible study going on at your house. The room is full, you’re just getting going, when suddenly the window breaks! A few men, teenagers perhaps, step through the hole. “The doorbell was broken” they explain “but we really wanted to join your house group”.
I’m fairly sure that, in the circumstances, you wouldn’t be particularly interested in carrying on the Bible study. You’d be much more concerned with cleaning up the glass, boarding up the window, and telling off the teenagers. Not necessarily in that order.
But, that’s pretty much what Jesus does in the passage we heard. It’s his house that all the people are gathering in. Notice the first verse “people heard he had come home”. We don’t know when Jesus moved from Nazareth, which Mark describes as Jesus’ home town, but clearly at some point he has moved here. We’re not even really sure if this was the family house or his house, or what. When Jesus goes back to Nazareth, in chapter 6, the people say that his sisters are still there, but are more vague about where Mary and his brothers are. And, in chapter 3, they appear to be in Capernaum. We’re not sure, but here and elsewhere Mark talks about ‘the house’ or ‘a house’, which is most probably Jesus’.
Anyway, Jesus has been on an exhausting and emotionally draining journey around the Galilee. He’s headed home, hoping, you’d have thought, for a cup of herbal tea and a nice sit down. But, just like the rest of the area, the people had heard about him and wanted to see him. And they knew where he lived, so they basically doorstepped him, waiting outside his house to see him, as he arrived hot and dusty from his journey. So, Jesus invites them in, sits down, and begins to preach.
Meanwhile, on the edge of the crowd, there’s a group of men who really want their friend healed. They’ve heard that this preacher and healer is back in town, but presumably rather than hurrying straight to see him, they’ve taken a detour to go and collect their paralysed friend. They’re carrying him on his sleeping mat and so can’t push through the crowd to get close enough to Jesus to ask him for his help. Which is probably when one of them has the bright idea to get up onto the roof and pull it apart.
And as Jesus carries on preaching there’s a strange noise coming from the roof. And then some bits of mud and reeds start falling to the floor. At some point, people start looking up rather than listening to Jesus. At some point, Jesus stops and starts looking up himself. Looking up at some men wrecking his house. And then the hole is big enough and a bed mat is lowered down. If people haven’t moved to get out of the way of falling roof, they somehow squeeze themselves out of the way of this.
Jesus speaks. “Son, your sins are forgiven”. Whether that includes the sin of vandalism or not isn’t entirely clear. It probably also isn’t what he or his friends were expecting, despite their faith. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why they’ve got to all that effort. But the resident theologians have got a much clearer idea of how significant this is.
“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they think, or probably mutter. And they’re right. Only God can forgive sins. It’s just that of the only two answers available to them, they choose the wrong one. Is the answer ‘A’ this is blasphemy or ‘B’ this is God? In fairness, answer ‘A’ blasphemy does seem more likely. More likely, but a lot more wrong.
“I want you to know” says Jesus “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Only then, and seemingly only for that reason, is the paralysed man healed. It’s an expression of God’s forgiveness, and it’s a reminder that forgiveness, that emotional and spiritual healing, is more important than physical healing. Which isn’t to say that physical healing isn’t important, isn’t something that we want, isn’t something that God desires for us. But, it is always limited and partial and is always something that looks forward to God’s kingdom coming in it’s fullness. So, healing is definitely something that we can and should pray for, and is a prayer that God sometimes answers, but not always and never completely. Even Lazarus died for a second time.
But we are promised that God will forgive us. And it’s the forgiving, not the healing that’s really the point of the episode we’ve just heard. And to make sense of that we need to think about how Jesus describes himself. He calls himself the Son of Man, which would have made at least the teachers of the law think of Daniel 7. Now there’s a reason that the only bit of the book of Daniel you probably know if Daniel and the lion’s den. That’s because most of the rest of the book is a lot more similar to the book of Revelation than anything else. Well, obviously, the book of Revelation is similar to the rest of the book of Daniel, but never mind. So, in Daniel 7, Daniel has a dream in which various beasts are terrorising the world until God, called the Ancient of Days, comes to sort it out. And as part of that sorting things out, God sends a son of man to rule and be worshipped.
As it says in Daniel 7:13 and 14:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
So that’s the picture behind Jesus using the phrase ‘son of man’. He’s claiming the authority given to him by the Ancient of Days, God. But it’s done in a way that’s a bit harder to grasp, not as straightforward as it might be. Jesus is making the people think and question what they know, and wonder what is going on and why. And Jesus still encourages us to do that. To explore more fully what we know, as one way of getting to know God better. And that’s a large part of the reason why we’re encouraging us all to read the whole of Mark’s gospel over the next few months.
So if all we had of the gospels were these 12 verses that would be pretty much enough. It would be enough to know that we could be forgiven, that Jesus was God-on-earth, was God-as-human, and would reign forever and be worshipped. We would know that his healing was a sign that forgiveness was possible, that his forgiveness and healing are open to us, that we are invited to his everlasting kingdom.
These 12 verses sum up a lot of what Mark wants us to understand about Jesus and that he keeps on coming back to in different ways through the gospel. So our need to daily forgive and be forgiven is all part of looking forward to God’s coming kingdom, when the whole earth will worship the Son of Man to whom the Ancient of Days has given power and authority. Which is also why we have a time of asking for forgiveness and hearing that we are forgiven as part of our services.
Because, of course, we need to ask for forgiveness and be forgiven. And it’s an important part of helping us to look forward in hope, faith and love to the future that we want to be a part of, where sins have been forgiven and death is no more. So both healing and forgiveness are part of the future, of God’s future, breaking through into the present. We look forward to the future where we are part of God’s everlasting kingdom. And we can catch glimpses of that kingdom here in the present.
And Communion is another way of looking forward to that future, another glimpse that we are given of that kingdom here in the present. That’s why it’s so important that we seek forgiveness before we receive Communion. Because Communion is about looking back to Jesus’ death and resurrection, which gives us the possibility of forgiveness. And Communion is also about looking forward, to God’s coming kingdom, where we’re all invited to the party. And the invite to that everlasting celebration is forgiveness, given and received.
And in the meantime, we’re fed by God in Communion through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And that makes us a community, made alive in the Spirit, and brought together through forgiveness.
So, in this part of the Gospel, Jesus reveals his authority, forgives and heals, and challenges the authority of other people. So what difference does that make to us? Well it means that we know whose authority we are under, that we know who we are called to worship. It means that we know that we can seek and receive forgiveness and can ask for healing. It also means that we are called to speak out on behalf of those who are oppressed, those who are persecuted, those who are suffering. And that includes those in this country. Intolerence is rising. The Windrush scandal isn’t over yet, the way citizens of other European countries are being treated is wrong. How can we stand up for those who need our support? What does this mean to you? What does this mean for you?
We’re going to pause to pray and reflect, and then if anyone would like to come up to share what it has meant, you’re very welcome.