I`ve heard this week of two archbishops. Firstly, the Archbishop of Nigeria who was reported at General Synod as calling for `self-protection- not retaliation` in face of the ruthless and deadly persecution of Christians in his country.
And I`ve heard the former Archbishop of Canterbury drawing our attention to what he called the `marginalisation` of Christianity in the life of our nation.
Things have changed haven`t they? We could reflect for a long time about how and why- but the name `Christian` is now becoming something which marks out a distinct category of people in the life of our nation- such as Muslim or Jew- whereas in time past (rightly or wrongly) there was a sense of `cultural` Christianity. And the Church of England did a lot to foster this sense of everyone being included.
The question I want us to reflect on this morning is how we respond to this sense- if it`s correct- that those who wish to be known as Christians are people who are being pushed to the margins of our common life.
I want to begin by suggesting that our Gospel reading this morning can help us in that it concludes with a picture of Christ being sent to the margins. As a result of the disobedience of the leper he had healed, we`re told that he “stayed out in the country and people came to him from every quarter”.
Now interestingly our story begins on the margins as well. This is the territory `outside the camp`- as stipulated in the Old Testament that the Leper had to occupy. And we are given a sense of the strict rules that had to be followed for re-admission into polite society.
But the first thing worth noting is the very distinct statement of faith by the Leper: `If you choose, you can make me clean`, he says. He has come in from the margins and addressed Christ- and he affirms the authority Christ. He`s at least as good as the priests. He has an insight that is worth commending.
And secondly, we notice how Jesus, we`re told, is `Moved with pity`. The Greek words here imply that he was affected deeply, in his guts, with a mixture of anger and compassion for the man`s plight. And he also breaks the boundary between them- he reaches out his hand and touches him saying `I do choose. Be made clean!`.
So firstly we see the Leper`s faith. And although he has some insight into who Jesus is we get the sense that he has a picture of a rather grudging God. `You can heal me but I`m not convinced you will`.
And secondly we have a moving picture of the compassion of Christ. There`s such lot to reflect on here is you feel yourself to be on the margins in any way.
However, there`s something more going on. What gets my attention is the way Christ `sternly warns him` not to tell anyone but to go through the official channels for re-integration into the community. What`s this about? Why should the man keep silent?
Well what`s going on is what is often referred to as the “Messianic Secret”. We see Jesus saying this kind of thing quite a lot in Mark`s Gospel. There`s a sort of spiritual `guessing game` going on about who this Jesus is.
Basically it seems that Christ is worried that he`s going to be pigeon-holed as simply a `miracle worker`. And his abrupt warning to the `ex-leper` is because he is all too well aware of how people will jump to the wrong conclusion.
The point is that the leper has a very clear agenda- anyone who is so desperate is clearly focussed just on getting well again. Jesus accepts that. He deals with that. But he wants to point the man –and us- to a bigger agenda.
In writing his Gospel Mark is trying to tell is that the healings, exorcisms and the like are not an end in themselves they point to the Kingdom of God. In other words- that this is what it`s like when God is allowed to be God in his world- boundaries like this are broken down.
What I`m suggesting is that what Jesus feared might happen, did in fact happen. The `ex-leper` disobeyed Jesus and as a consequence Jesus becomes regarded as a miracle worker, a `meet-er` of needs and he gains fame for all the wrong reasons. This was the jibe from the cross wasn`t it? `He saved others. He cannot save himself`- They still didn`t get the point.
And neither do many in our day.
I mean, we are quite right to turn to the Lord in all our challenges. The First letter of Peter reminds us `Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you`. But how easy it is for us to fall into the trap of thinking that God is simply there as a `meet-er of needs`- or a `sugar daddy`. I`ve often heard people chastise themselves for saying `I only pray or go to church when I feel the need`. Now, there`s the beginning of faith here.
But the key thing for me is that – although he probably knew the risk he was taking with the leper- Christ doesn`t differentiate. He just does the gracious thing. He acts on his compassion and heals him. He does the same with us.
But before us is the same challenge that faced the leper. Having had a glimpse of what Christ could do- and experiencing his grace and goodness- will this translate into a life of obedience?`. Sadly, in his case it didn`t- and Christ was marginalised.
Now I want to suggest that- among many other things- THIS is where the real tussle is going on. I want to suggest that what we are seeing around us is the outworking of being told for many generations: `this is my life; my choice; I`ll do it my way`.
Now, don`t misunderstand me, these things have their place but when they become the principal concern or goal in human life it`s hardly surprising that people look for a God who will fit in with this. And so, as people tell me endlessly they appreciate having a God who is there to, as they put it: `look over me`.
Now, I don`t mock this- you have to start somewhere. That`s where the leper was- `meet my need Jesus`. And again, we see that Christ does not despise this. But his compassion does not mean that he falls in with our agenda.
I may be wrong but I would suggest that part of the reason why we experience and will continue to experience tensions and a sense of marginalisation is that people are starting to realise that we are not purveyors of a God who rolls up and benignly smiles at our latest plan for our life. Could it be that distinctly calling us `Christians` and shedding the cultural baggage means that people are starting to see that Christian life is a call to discipleship- a life following God`s agenda rather than our own?
I may be wrong but I sense that the tension is because the message is getting through. I think people are disappointed. Our God is of no practical use to them.
So how do we respond?
Well clearly we`ve some educating to do about the kind of God we actually believe in.
But secondly we need our hold our nerve. Our response should be based on our faith that our Lord knows what he is about.
Thirdly, we should play the world at it`s own game. We have the vote. There are democratic processes which we should rightly use to forward a better vision for our common life. The last thing we should do is panic or metaphorically circle the wagons and feel sorry for ourselves.
But importantly I don`t think we should fear being thought to be on the margins. So often what underlies this fear is a sense that, `we won`t have power or influence` at the high table any more- as if that were Christ`s agenda. And surely, that`s questionable.
No, I would remain positive.
Firstly, because I think we will be surprised by how many people are actually looking for `discipleship`- some `way` to follow through the confusions of this world. I think the `obedient` life may have more attraction than we might think.
But secondly, I think it`s curious how our Gospel reading ends with the people coming out to Christ `from every quarter`. It`s clear that being on the margins didn`t end his ministry and it certainly won`t end ours as we seek to be faithful.
No, as someone put it- `the church often does its best work in the gutter`- In other words we do some of our best work at the margins. We do our best work among those whom our apparently enlightened and equitable society treats as lepers.