Saturday 25 July 2015

Mark: Why?

I've been working quite intensively with Mark's Gospel over several months now, in detail and - especially - as a whole, and I'm left with the feeling that I never really knew it before. It is so much less a simple history or biography and so much more an open-ended account filled with pace and emotion, confusion, uncertainty and pain. So I wonder, why did Mark write it?

Something we may not realise about those days is that written records of people and events were seen as much less reliable than an oral history. A document is written by just one person, often with an axe to grind, whereas an oral record is owned and protected by the community. An oral record will typically be formed and shaped by eye-witnesses, then told and retold amongst people who have heard it before and will complain about changes and inaccuracies. So why would Mark write down what Jesus did?

In many ways I am still in mid-ponder on this, but my initial thoughts are that Mark had two reasons for doing so: because the communities which had safeguarded the oral record that far were being disrupted, and because the communities were being disrupted.

As I said above, an oral record is trusted because it is owned and protected by its community. During the early-to-mid sixties AD the community in Rome was heavily persecuted, its leaders executed, and its members scattered. Then the communities in Galilee and Judea got caught up in the Jewish rebellion from 66 AD. And in 68 and 69 AD, following Nero's suicide, the empire as a whole faced an ensuing civil war, including Antioch and Alexandria, two more centres of Christian community.

So the oral record was being damaged, at just the time that key eye witnesses were being killed (or just dying). Mark had been very close to Peter and Paul in Rome and knew their stories about Jesus well ... but there was no guarantee he would survive himself. So a written record is the lesser of two evils: at least there would still have been enough eye witnesses, and those who had heard the eye witness stories, to attest to the truthfulness of Mark's retelling.

But Mark's Gospel is about more than that.

From Paul's early letters it is clear that many in the early churches expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes - thirty-odd years had gone by since Jesus' resurrection, what was going on?

More important though would have been the terrible suffering the Christian community in Rome had gone through, that the communities in Galilee and Judea were going through, and that communities in Syria and Egypt would have been afraid would come to them soon. These were people living good lives as they followed Jesus together and awaited his return; why were they suffering?

I think that is the key question behind Mark's telling of the events of Jesus' ministry. One person's written record may be less reliable than a community's telling, but it is more useful for making a point.

Mark's Gospel account says it is the beginning of good news, not the end. It says it is about Jesus who is the Messiah, the Son of God, affirmed by God and by man. But this Jesus suffered and died, and tells his followers that they too will suffer and die. Following Jesus doesn't protect you from suffering and persecution, it makes it more likely!

Mark's account shows the disciples permanently confused, always a step or two behind, often afraid. Jesus, meanwhile, keeps talking about an upside down Kingdom where death is the path to life and humiliation is the path to glory - exactly the kind of things which had been happening in Rome.

Mark is telling his readers not to get discouraged, their experience is not a sign that God's plan has gone wrong, but a sign that it is progressing.

If the disciples were shown as confused and afraid, how much more was Peter the one who always seemed to get things wrong. Yet Mark's readers had known a Peter who was the strong leader of their church; Peter had denied Jesus once, now he had willingly given his life for him. If Peter can change like that then so can any of them.

Mark leaves his writing open-ended: will the women overcome their fear and confusion and tell their story? Will the disciples go back to Galilee, to meet Jesus in their daily lives and to continue to follow him there? Will the Christian community in Rome, and throughout the empire, be able to go back to their lives? Will they be able to find Jesus there, in the midst of devastation, and can they walk with him again?

"Why?" remains a live question today. Mark provides no simple answer, but points to a person; a person who leads us through an upside-down world toward a Kingdom of justice and peace. His question is: "Will you follow?".

Monday 20 July 2015


Tim Farron, the new Lib-Dem leader seems to be getting a lot of stick for being an evangelical Christian. In particular, he has been quizzed on his views on homosexuality and been seen as evasive because when asked if homosexual sex is a sin he would only answer that "my firm belief is that we are all sinners." It doesn't help that he has apparently abstained on an earlier vote affecting gay marriage.

I know very little about Tim Farron except that he was one of the minority of Lib-Dem MPs who actually kept their promise to vote against tuition fee rises.

I also know that Christianity, even evangelical Christianity, is a broad church with a wide range of views concerning homosexuality and gay marriage. The commonest view, certainly in my experience, is that peoples' private sexual behaviour is their own business. As Jesus (and Paul) said, "Do not judge."

One would certainly expect that a Christian who self-identifies as an old-style social liberal would be strongly in favour of equal rights for all minorities, including LGBT+ individuals. Indeed, Farron claims that he abstained from that gay marriage vote because it didn't go far enough.

What got me thinking, though, was the link between "we are all sinners" and the sinfulness, or otherwise, of homosexual sex.

Jesus was often asked questions as a 'test' or a 'trap', and refused to go along with the underlying assumptions. That's often the difficulty with these binary, yes/no, challenges - either answer affirms an invalid viewpoint. Jesus often replied with a question or a story, but he's rather better at that than I am, and probably than Farron is. So what might Farron be getting at?

I think that the problem with the "is homosexual sex sinful" question is that it ignores the relationship. In effect it reduces two people to their sexual organs and nothing else, which is a terrible, reductionist thing to do with people who are made in God's image.

When you look at a couple who claim to love one another in terms of their relationship, then you have some sort of basis for talking about Jesus and about sin. Jesus spoke about lustful thoughts, and anger as internal equivalents of adultery and murder. Paul spoke about greed and selfishness as being idolatry. And Jesus is clear that, as far as he is concerned, it is these things which come from within which are defiling, sinful, rather than the externals.

'Sin' is a tricky word to fling around, but it is reasonable to suggest that any relationship which involves lust, anger, selfishness or greed is a relationship of sinners. I hope that my own marriage also includes a lot of positive stuff, but there is no doubt that these elements are there too. We are sinners. Maybe there is a homosexual couple out there who are able to avoid these traps: if so, their relationship is clearly less sinful than mine.

In a Christian context what matters is God's grace and I see nothing anywhere in the Bible to suggest that God lavishes his grace any less on sexual minorities than on anyone else. God deals lovingly with people and relationships, not labels and prejudices.

There is an ugly, intolerant wing to secularism, just as there is an ugly intolerant wing to the church, but it would be terribly sad if the Liberal party, of all parties, were to turn against Farron because of his faith. They should give him time and see how he grows into his role. By his fruits shall they know him.

Friday 17 July 2015

Mark: Not The End

The 'end' of Mark's Gospel is odd, doubly so.

Firstly, the original ends very strangely and, secondly, later editors have stuffed on a couple of extra bits, to try to 'correct' the strange original.

The original ending says:
"Don't be alarmed," he said, "You are looking for Jesus the Nazerene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter. He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you."
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
What sort of ending is that? Who would end a story this way?

Obviously, Mark would. The reason is that this is not a simple story, or biography, or history. It's not anything where the reader or listener is a passive observer. This is a story which continues and where Mark's listeners were called to be part of that story, and where you and I are called to be part of the story too.

As Mark told us, way back at the start, this 'Gospel' is the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God. We are, or can be, part of the continuation of that good news.

Mark's readers knew that the women had overcome their fear, moved past their initial reluctance, and told the disciples. They knew because they already knew the story - Peter had been with them in Rome for several years before he was executed.

Mark's story ends with an implicit question - what will the women do - to which his readers knew the answer. But Mark is also asking the Christians in Rome a question - will they give up after the persecution they have been through or will they carry on, however confused, upset and afraid they are feeling? We know now that the church in Rome continued and grew; but now the question is passed on to us. What will we do with the good news of Jesus? Will we pass it on, or does it end with us?

The 21st-Century church in Britain has different problems, different confusions, different worries, but I think it is fair to say that things haven't gone the way we'd have expected or hoped in recent decades. If we're really honest, the church hasn't done a particularly good job over many years, certainly not in following the example we've seen Jesus set in Mark's Gospel.

Just as Jesus told the disciples, it's time to go back to basics, to return to Galilee to meet him there and start again. The disciples hadn't done particularly well, but they had endured and God could use them. Maybe we haven't done that well in following Jesus in confusing times either, but God can use us.

Where is your Galilee? What lies at the beginning of your journey of faith, and where is its heart? How can you rediscover that simple walk with Jesus, that early enthusiasm, that honest appreciation of the life that Jesus brings? And how will you pass that on?

This is not the end!

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Mark: Triumph Over Death

The end is nigh! This is the final week of the CTM Parish's Mark sermon series, as we come to the end of Mark's Gospel. Of course, we all know how the story ends - it's pretty much summed up in the title above ... isn't it?

Except that Mark doesn't really tell it that way.

At the end of last week's instalment, the trap had closed - Jesus was on his own, betrayed, abandoned and captured. The religious authorities had taken him and planned to exact their revenge. The outlook was bleak.

They give Jesus a mockery of a trial, and are still having trouble making their case. So Jesus helps them out, agreeing that he is "the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One." A reminder that Jesus is no helpless victim in this process; he has been prodding and poking and shaming the religious leaders to provoke a reaction from the beginning. He is not letting them off the hook now: they can choose to do evil or they can choose to do good, but they must choose.

Off to Pilate, the local leader of the occupying Roman power. He is playing his own games, but has no interest in blocking a determined drive by the native powers-that-be. Jesus is tortured, mocked and condemned to death.

Then they crucify Jesus.

There's more mockery, mostly along the lines of 'if Jesus is really who he says then he'll come down off the cross and avoid the suffering and death'. Maybe it's a cry of anyone faced with suffering: surely if God loves us then he would save us from this. Yet Jesus is telling us - as he has told us before - that in God's upside-down Kingdom life comes through death, and healing through wounds.

Mark's readers in Rome had been forced to endure terrible suffering and loss: they had made it through, but how to make sense of the cost? Mark, as ever, doesn't give a clear explanation, he just shows Jesus on a cross. Jesus quoting an ancient Hebrew song: a song which begins in lonely suffering - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" - but ends in vindication and triumph, "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him."

The sun goes dark, Jesus breathes his last, and the curtain in the Temple is torn in two. Just as the heavens had been torn apart at Jesus baptism, for God to affirm Jesus as his son, now the veil of the Temple - symbolically separating God from the people - is torn apart, and the foreign NCO in charge of the execution squad affirms Jesus as God's son.

It's strangers and religious leaders who have condemned Jesus, but it is also strangers and a religious leader who help him: Simon of Cyrene who carries his cross, the unnamed centurion who tells his identity, and now Joseph of Arimathea lays Jesus in his tomb. Women - two Marys - look on.

After the Sabbath is over the story takes a twist: the tomb is empty, Jesus is not there.

Our best estimate of the original ending is that the three women were told to tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised and is going ahead of them to Galilee, but they "said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." That's it: the alternative endings given in most Bibles are believed to be later additions.

But how can the story be known, how can Jesus' resurrection be known, if the women kept silent? That's the point, of course. They were terribly afraid, they wanted to keep silent, but at some point they must have spoken out anyway. And so the Church began.

In late 60's Rome Christians were terribly afraid, they would have wanted to keep silent, but what would they actually do? Can the Church carry on? Mark's Gospel is open ended.

In early 21st-Century Britain many Christians seem ... unwilling to speak up; at least those who are not modern day Pharisees. Uncertainty about what it all means, doubt about the place of faith in a secular world, unwillingness to force one's beliefs onto another, many different reasons perhaps.

But if the end result is that those who faithfully and lovingly follow Jesus are not heard, if the message of God's Grace through Jesus is drowned out, how can the Church continue?

Now, as then, Mark's Gospel remains open-ended.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Mark: Are Wives Like Cars?

Maybe you know what it's like: you get your first job, you can afford to buy your first car ... and it's wonderful! Beautiful, shiny, the feeling of freedom.

A few years later, the car's a bit less shiny, a bit tatty round the edges, perhaps, doesn't go quite as well as it once did; anyway, you've done quite well for yourself, you can afford better, something that shows off your success. So you trade in your old car and buy a nice shiny newer, better one.

Is that how it is with wives? Is it how it should be?

As a rule of thumb, if you think Jesus is setting down a command, a law, a line you mustn't cross - you probably haven't understood what he is talking about. That certainly applies to what he said about divorce (taking that passage from Mark slightly out of sequence). It begins with the Pharisees seeking to 'test' Jesus: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

We know, from other writings, that this was a live question at the time: not so much the question of lawfulness - that was just the opening gambit - but the question of what was sufficient reason for divorce. Can a man divorce his wife (it was always that way round, by the way) for any reason he fancies (like changing his car), or is it only for specific reasons, such as persistent infidelity or - 'obviously' - infertility.

The Law of Moses is, at first sight, clear: "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her". Incidentally, the point of that 'certificate of dismissal', or Get, is that it states that the woman is free to remarry.

On the other hand, the Prophets seem divided: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel," as Malachi puts it. But there are also prophets who talk about divorce as the appropriate response to extreme infidelity (generally as an analogy with Israel), for example in Jeremiah: "For all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce."

Jesus would have been expected to do the rabbinic thing of bouncing around these quotes (and others, especially Hosea), along with precedents and other rabbis' teachings, before coming up with a balanced judgement about when it was right for a man to divorce his wife, and when not.

Jesus doesn't play that game.

The underlying assumption of the question is that wives are possessions. Either possessions which can be freely traded, like cars, or functional items whose job is to provide (legitimate) children ... dynastic enablers, if you like. This assumption is (in)famously reflected in the tenth commandment, not to covet a neighbour's house, wife, slave, ox or donkey.

Jesus comes at the issue from a different angle - for Jesus the starting point is the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1, where God creates humanity in his own image, male and female together, to work in partnership looking after his world.

Women are not 'things' to be possessed but colleagues and companions to be joined with in true partnership. There are families to raise, together, communities to build, together, and a fallen world to heal, together. That's the way marriage was meant to work ... sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but God's intent should be the starting point for discussion.

Divorce is allowed in the Old Testament for when this breaks down, for 'hardness of heart' as Jesus puts it. The commitment, 'contract' if you like, is for lifelong faithfulness to one another, and is before God, so don't treat it lightly.

But 'hardness of heart' is as real today as it was in Ancient Israel. Violence, abuse, abandonment, and extreme unfaithfulness can all destroy a marriage - the wrongdoing is not the certificate of divorce, but the (possibly many) factors which caused the breakdown.

Technically, the most faithful wife, once divorced and remarried, breaks her original commitment when she first sleeps with her new husband. Then the first contract is broken, annulled, and a new contract established, hopefully one which will last, bringing healing and purpose - the way God intended marriage to be.

I usually try not to criticise other church traditions on this blog, but to me the Roman Catholic church's take on divorce and remarriage - refusing communion to the new family - is simply heartless and evil. The new Pope has suggested he wants to change this, but to have treated people that way at all is simply wrong.

So if Jesus isn't giving a rule here, yet another burden, then what is he saying?

Firstly that marriage is a precious union of equals, a lifelong commitment before God. Do everything in your power to make that work for good.

But do also recognise that we live in a fallen world and relationships do go wrong. If so, the Bible gives us a way out. Divorce should never be taken as an easy option, but sometimes, because we all have hard hearts, breaking the old covenant and starting anew, before God, is the only way forward.

God loves you and is on your side, trust him with all that you are.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Readipop: Thanks and Praise

I keep forgetting just how good some of Readipop's bands are. Fortunately I got a reminder today at the Caversham Festival, over in Christchurch Meadows.

Less fortunately, there was the usual problem of multiple stages meaning that some of the best-sounding bands overlapped, so I missed a lot. Nevertheless, I heard some excellent music, and discovered some bands to keep an eye out for.

The first band I came across, on the Festival Stage, was Area 52. Sadly I arrived at the end of the set, so I only heard one song, but they were impressively together, full of energy, and exciting. I was able to pick up their CD afterwards, which is a good listen.

Over at the Indian Marquee, I heard part of Military Arcade's set: decent pop-punk, but not really my cup of tea, followed by Unorfadox playing (fairly orthodox, I felt) classic rock.

I'm not really a big fan of reggae - I find the rhythm section tends to be a little monotonous, leaving all the creativity to vocals and lead guitar. However, The Majestic really were (majestic, that is). Excellent music, impressive stage presence (it's no surprise to find that leader singer Faada Ras has been performing live since the eighties), and a positive, uplifting message meant that the sizeable crowd had a good time - especially all the youngsters dancing at the front.

Watching the end of The Majestic's set meant I missed most of Jakabo's :( Zepellinesque rock with excellent guitar and a female vocalist (the best Zeppelin-style singers tend to be female, I find ... except the young Robert Plant, of course), the end of their set was a full of energy and audience interaction. I just wish they'd been on half-an-hour later.

Caversham Festival was heaving by late afternoon, which has to be good for the festival's prospects. If you didn't make it today, the festival continues tomorrow down at Christchurch Meadow. As well as music, there are loads of miscellaneous stalls, comedy, drama, weird boats followed by monsters, and lots of food. Well worth a visit.

One of the odd things I find with good live music in a relaxed setting is that you get a small insight into peoples' stories, through their interactions. Just glimpses of story without beginning or ending - totally unlike books and films - simply brief flashes of lives. A chance to hope and pray for God to touch, bringing his expansiveness: an experience of life lived more fully. What could be better, on this sunny summer afternoon.

Grace and peace to you.

Mark: The Trap Closes

As if the cleansing of the Temple, which we heard about last week, wasn't enough, now Jesus is saying that God has withdrawn his protection from his Temple.

The Temple at Jerusalem was at the heart of Jewish national and religious identity. It was also politically controversial: rebuilt, in the traditional despot architectural style, by Herod, a Roman imposed ruler, and run (corruptly) by Caiaphas and his family, Roman imposed high priests.

Jesus has signed his own death warrant.

Jesus follows this up by warning his followers that they too will suffer terrible persecution. When the religious and political leaderships connive together to murder the innocent out of expedience, then great suffering and destruction will follow before things can improve. Mark's readers, of course, will have seen this for themselves; their only comfort is "The one who endures to the end will be saved."

Then the authorities find the opportunity they have been waiting for: Judas can be suborned. There looks to be unwritten backstory here, but the important thing is that now the religious leaders have the information they need to strike: in darkness and secrecy, because that's how the corrupt work.

In the meantime Jesus and the twelve come together for their Passover meal, what would later become known as the Last Supper, the precursor of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Jesus knows he is about to be betrayed yet he includes Judas in the fellowship meal. As the next section of chapter 14 shows, Jesus is also aware that Peter will deny him and that the remainder of the Twelve will desert him, scattered like sheep. Yet all are included in that Last Supper.

There is a really ugly misrepresentation of something the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, which claims that you have to be 'worthy' to take part in the Eucharist. This is about as far from the reality of the Last Supper as you can get. Jesus knew his followers and their weakness, but still he ate in unity with them (which was actually Paul's point as well).

There is a version of the invitation to take part in Communion used by some churches which captures this rather well:
Come to this table, not because you must but because you may, not because you are strong, but because you are weak.  
Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come, but because you need mercy and help.  
Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.  
Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you.  
Come and meet the risen Christ, for we are his Body.
Jesus shared his Last Supper with his betrayer, his denier and friends who would desert him in his hour of need. Can you really say that you are less worthy than them?

By the end of our passages for the sermon series this week, Jesus is on his own: "All of them deserted him and fled." The trap has closed and the 'victim' is caught. Jesus is close to defeat and death ... in God's upside-down kingdom he knows that is the road that leads to life.

But for this week, this chapter, we leave Jesus alone, trapped, abandoned. It is a difficult story, when we truly enter into it.

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?

Thursday 2 July 2015

Mark: Poverty, Service, Struggle

If you take a strip of, say, paper and stick the ends together with a single twist you end up with a Moebius strip - see picture.

One odd property of a Moebius strip is that if you start from the top and follow the same side all the way around the loop, instead of ending up back where you started you are on the other side: upside-down and back-to-front. One could say that a Moebius strip is a parable of the Kingdom.

In Mark's Gospel, on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells them that the wealthy, for whom all doors are opened in normal experience, face a challenge akin to threading a needle with a camel. Power and status come from service and humility, not from coercion and wheeler-dealing. Religious authorities are called to account for abusing and exploiting the faithful. The giving of the poor is valued more than the beneficence of the rich. The values Mark describes in this week's chapters are really nothing like our normal world.

The promise is that one day everywhere will live by these upside-down values, when God's Kingdom comes. In the meantime it is up to those who follow Jesus to do what they can to demonstrate these priorities to a waiting world. Those with power and status may hate them, but there will be others who are just waiting to hear that things can and will be different, that there really is a better way to live.

So it was with Jesus, and so it is for those who truly follow him today.

But Mark had another point. Mark was writing for people who had suffered terrible persecution in Rome. They had lost family members and friends, homes and livelihoods to Nero's spite. Their world had turned upside down; Mark is telling them to hold on, to stick with Jesus because his kingdom was easier to get into from an upside-down state.

When you have sufficient wealth and social status and influence, it is hard not to feel secure in that - to put your trust in those things. When you have lost them you realise how fallible they are and, maybe, are ready to seek something or someone more reliable to trust your life to.

In his discussion with Peter about riches, camels and needles, Jesus says this:
"Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life."
In the context of the persecuted Christians of Rome, as well as those in Galilee and Judea caught up in Vespasian's brutal suppression of a Jewish rebellion, this is about the church.

The church community is to be family for those who have lost family, provide homes to those who have lost homes, and give purpose and meaning to those who have lost their livelihoods.

In other words, the church - then and now - is called to act as the heart and hands and feet and voice of Jesus, and to look after those who have suffered for him.

In this, Mark's message is good news for rich and poor alike. The poor because they will find help amongst God's people, the rich because they can use their wealth, status and influence for good, to help those in need. If they can do this in humility and service then they may indeed find their camels travelling smoothly through that needle.

With God all things are possible.