Thursday, 9 July 2015

Mark: Bread, Wine & All-Age Worship

Dali - The Sacrament of the Last Supper
As we reach the penultimate week in our parish sermon series the mood gets even darker. This week's readings concern: the cost of following Jesus; the Last Supper; and Jesus' arrest at Gethsemane.

Sunday morning's service at St John's Church is an all-age service. Presenting good news for all ages from a section of the story which Rowan Williams entitles 'The Trap Closes' will be an interesting challenge.

If it was me, I would drop the first of the three readings - together they are too long for an all-age service. Then I would start to think about friendship: specifically falling out with a close friend then trying to rebuild the friendship later.

All ages experience this.

Young children seem to be able to argue, even to shout and scream and throw a tantrum, then next day carry on as if nothing has happened. But by about 9 or 10 it seems to get nastier, as children play relationship games, excluding individuals from their clique; usually that child is back in favour after a day or two and it's someone else's turn to be the outsider. Secondary school appears to be a maelstrom of relationships, in-crowds, outsiders, and emotional turmoil. As parents we miss most of this, hearing about it later as the 'children' grow and mature, and look back.

Then it astonishes me how many middle-aged and elderly people I listen to who have old friends or family who they don't talk to any more. Something was done which was wrong, perhaps, and then something was said, and then a close and valuable relationship is lost, perhaps forever. Maybe, because it was 'their fault', it is up to them to make the first move, maybe peace overtures have been made and rebuffed so now it is their turn, or maybe what they did is simply unforgivable.

I keep going back in these posts to Mark's readers, especially those in Rome. This is because Mark wasn't trying to write an abstract history or biography, he was writing to encourage, reassure, and inspire those who had been through terrible suffering, in Rome, or who were going through terrible suffering, in Galilee and Judea, or who were afraid they were about to go through terrible suffering, in the chaos of civil war throughout the Roman Empire. Mark's Gospel was intended to be good news to people who desperately needed some, not a nice bedtime story.

There's little detail written about Nero's persecution of Christians, but from more recent historical equivalents we can make an educated guess that there will have been Christians who lay low and denied ever having followed Jesus; there will have been Christians who, from fear or under torture, betrayed fellow-Christians to Nero's thugs; and there will have been Christians who held firm and lost everything through their faithfulness.

Think about the aftermath. The persecutions in Rome come to an end: what are the relationships like between these three groups? How can those who held firm ever forgive those who denied Jesus, still less those who betrayed their friends? And how can the latter ever face up to their own guilt? Surely any renewal of the old Christian community is impossible.

Which brings us, finally, to chapter 14 and the Passover meal. Communion and the Last Supper contain a wealth of different meanings, but one of the most basic is about community and relationships: "Though we are many we are one body, because we all share in the one bread," as the Anglican liturgy puts it. This is an aspect emphasised by the nature of the Passover Meal, and by the importance of table fellowship in those days, especially amongst Jews.

So what does Jesus do? He knows Judas will betray him, yet he takes the initiative to share bread and wine with Judas; he knows Peter will deny him and the rest of the disciples will scatter, abandoning him to the Temple thugs. But Jesus shares with them all, emphasising the importance of what he was doing by his famous "This is my body" and "This is my blood" statements.

When your friend hurt you, was that worse than Judas did to Jesus? When your friend abandoned you, or wouldn't back you up, was that worse than Peter and the others did to Jesus? Yet Jesus went out of his way to accept his friends, for all their failures, and to rebuild their relationships. Is it really impossible for you to follow him in doing the same?

Jesus sets a pattern for his followers; Mark emphasises its importance in difficult times, then and now.

To finish, a personal story. About twenty years ago an old friend of mine, Howard, took off, leaving home and family, to go to Central Europe. Not long afterwards I was very poorly and he kept moving on, so we lost contact. Many years later his younger brother got in touch, on Facebook, and told me that Howard had returned to the UK because of health problems. He was living at the far end of the country, but I got in touch and made the effort to go up and see him. He and his brother made the effort to come down to see me. Then, suddenly, Howard died.

You can imagine how relieved I was that his brother had got in touch, and that we had all made the effort to meet up. What if I hadn't bothered, or if I had waited until he made the first move, then found that he'd gone and died and there was no second chance?

None of us know what tomorrow will bring, but a part of the good news of Jesus is that he frees us to renew lost relationships. Because he made the first move in coming to us, we can make the first move in reaching out to others. It won't always work out, but surely trying is better than an eternity of regrets?

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