A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 15 September 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Reading for address: Mark 2: 1-12

At the centre of the seven Ss of the Nazareth Community is scripture. I want to be so bold as to suggest how to read the Bible as a member of the Nazareth Community. You’d think that reading the Bible was the simplest thing. But in fact it’s something we need to learn how to do. The story of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 is a good example. If you’re used to the gospels, you hardly notice the miraculous healing: Jesus seems to perform so many healings that you almost glaze over. Huh – another healing. There’s also a controversy with the scribes. But Jesus is never out of the papers, and always getting in trouble, so that seems no big deal. Your attention strays to the less regular parts of the story, the link between healing and forgiveness, and the curious entry through the roof. But if you’d never read the story before you’d immediately think – who’s this guy who can heal people, just like that? And why doesn’t everyone give him a standing ovation?

Learning to read the Bible in the Nazareth Community means avoiding both these extremes – neither reading wearily, for the 100th time, and saying ‘It’s just a healing’; nor pretending it’s the first time, and saying ‘It’s a healing – everybody!’ Learning to read the Bible in the Nazareth Community means paying close attention to the details of the story, and then setting those details in the context of the context of God’s dealing with the world. So, let’s start with the four friends carrying the paralysed man on a mat and digging through the roof to get to Jesus.

Think for a moment about the drama of this event. There are a number of barriers between the paralysed man and Jesus. One is the man’s paralysis. You could say the paralysed man represents Israel in the time of Jesus’ ministry. Does Israel need healing, in other words does Israel need cleansing of the demon Rome, the paralysing and crippling power of the alien invader, and does Israel need a Messiah to drive out the Romans, finally to end her internal Exile and restore her to fully-functioning health, to stand on her two feet again and ‘go home’ like the man at the end of the parable? Or does Israel need not healing but forgiveness, in other words are Israel’s problems not so much external as internal, in separation from God, and is Israel’s paralysis less about the Romans than about trying to operate while still estranged from God? This is a question at the very heart of the New Testament.

Another barrier between the paralysed man and Jesus is the huge crowd of people, so dense that the stretcher bearers can’t get through. And at the centre of the crowd is this infuriating group of scribes who seem to jump on Jesus every time he does something that sets people free. This story looks like a healing issue between Jesus and the paralysed man, but behind it lies a control issue between the scribes and the crowd. This is the first time in his gospel that Mark mentions the crowd, but they get another 37 mentions, so they’re pretty important to the story. It was the scribes who controlled whether sins were forgiven and debts released. This was the source of their social power. If Jesus was going to go round announcing that sins were forgiven, the social power of the scribes would be over. Jesus isn’t just setting the paralysed man free; he is setting the crowd free as well.

So paralysis, crowd and scribes are all barriers. And the last barrier is the roof itself. The roof is the easiest barrier to deal with: it takes neither authority nor miraculous power, but imagination and elbow grease. This is a story describing how the gospel takes away every barrier between us and God, and how when we finally come into God’s presence, we are set free. The four friends symbolically remove the ‘roof’ – that which stands between earth and heaven. Then Jesus, the heavenly Son of Man, takes away all that might paralyse us in every other way. The whole scene is a summary of Jesus’ mission to Israel. Jesus transforms the paralysed man from a burden into a carrier, from a person carried on a mat to a person who carries a mat, a person who is now in a position to carry others on that mat. The story shows us that if we bring people to Jesus, Jesus will do the rest.

Let’s look a little closer at what the four stretcher bearers do in coming through the roof. Jesus is ‘down there’, apparently out of reach; and they break through the barrier to reach him. You could say they break through the barrier and come down from heaven to earth. Think about this gesture. It’s a very significant one. Why? Because the whole gospel is about Jesus breaking through the

barrier between God and humanity and coming down from heaven to earth. And here the four stretcher bearers do pretty much what Jesus did. They imitate Jesus. And what is Jesus’ reaction? Jesus is charmed. You can imagine him smiling, a kind of wry, ironic smile, when he realizes these friends are imitating him. It’s almost taking the mickey. But it’s profoundly affirming to Jesus. The four ment=do in the house what Jesus does in the universe. ‘Ah, you remembered; you understand; I don’t need to explain to you’, says Jesus.

These four stretcher bearers have come from heaven to earth. They have re-enacted the incarnation. Jesus smiles. Nothing gives him greater pleasure. We should be thinking like the four stretcher bearers, ‘What is the kind of gesture that makes Jesus smile because he recognises himself in it?’ We can all think of these gestures pretty easily, especially when they have been captured in memorable photographs. Think of Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, and that man who stood still while four tanks rumbled mercilessly towards him. Jesus recognises himself in that gesture, because he stood still before the rumbling power of Roman oppression and the Jerusalem authorities’ plotting and the relentlessness of human sin. Think of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and the firefighter clambering up the stairs while thousands hurtled downwards to save their lives. Jesus recognises himself in that firefighter, because he too put his life at stake to rescue us from the wreckage of the Fall. Think of the sinking of the passenger ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise in Zeebrugge harbour in 1987 and the man who lay between two broken corridors and made himself a human bridge at the cost of his own life so that others could walk over him to safety. Jesus recognises himself in that man because he too is a bridge that others cross to safety at the cost of his own life. And think of Gordon Wilson who forgave the IRA for blowing up his daughter Marie at Enniskillen in Northern Ireland in 1987. Jesus recognises himself in this gesture because he too at the moment of his death said ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ These are all gestures that are disarming because Christ so instantly recognises them. None of those making the gestures thought what they were doing was a big deal; like the four stretcher bearers breaking through the roof, these people put their inhibitions and personal anxieties to one side and simply did what needed to be done. These people made Jesus smile, because their actions resembled his.

The four stretcher bearers in today’s gospel join a great company of those in the gospels who disarm Jesus by imitating his life in ways that make him smile. Think of the poor widow who put two small copper coins into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem, in the story often known as the ‘widow’s mite’. Jesus commends her because she gave everything she had to the Temple, the place where Jews became reconciled with God. Likewise Jesus gave everything he had to reconcile the Jews with God. Think of the Syro-Phoenician woman who tells Jesus that ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’. She reminds Jesus that there is a place in the kingdom for Gentiles. She’s the only person who ever changes Jesus’ mind, because she accepts the humiliation of speaking the truth, just as Jesus later does in Jerusalem. And think of the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany. Jesus commends her because she alone realises he is soon to die and because her extravagance imitates the extravagance of God’s love for us in him.

This is how the Nazareth Community reads the Bible. And what we find is a call to live lives, to form communities, to make gestures that imitate the shape of Jesus’ life, so imaginatively and so straightforwardly that we make Jesus smile. That’s what the Bible inspires us to do. That’s what the Nazareth Community is for. That’s why you’re a member of the Nazareth Community.