So here's the boring sermon you were promised last week (quite right, Richard – most sermons are indeed boring for children). Now I could wind you all up by preaching on the opening verse of today's NT reading, from James – not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters. Ironic, since today is Education Sunday. I don't intend to ask for it, but a show of hands would demonstrate how many in this congregation have ignored this curious advice, teaching from all ages from childhood through adulthood to old age, and many of you seeing it (quite rightly) as important a Christian ministry as being ordained. Today is the first Sunday of our restored Children's Church; it also marks the weekend which, as Margaret has told us, young people are en route through Manchester for COP at Glasgow, with events organised by churches, schools and those who teach in them. The Letter of James has much good moral stuff (as we heard in the rest of our reading), and I could try to explain his remarks about the teaching profession, but instead I will play safe and look instead to today's gospel.
He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy - so said his mother in Monty Python's Life of Brian, a film which some Christians found outrageous and blasphemous, Morecambe and Wise (we learnt recently) found boring and irritating, but others found amusing, with some abiding touches of genius - such as the slightly deaf man in the crowd who is puzzled by the saying Blessed are the cheesemakers. Its most baleful legacy - one that I used to struggle with - is the request of some families to have Always look on the bright side of life played as they leave the crematorium, taking it as straight rather than a massive piece of irony.
To point out that it's the Life of Brian, not the life of Jesus - the whole plot hanging on a mistaken identity - doesn't cut much ice with the critics. But is it a wicked film which should have been banned? Or are Jesus Christ, and the Christian faith, sufficiently robust to cope with a parody which was relatively mild in comparison with some far more offensive material that is around? It is certainly a worry that downright mocking of Christian faith has become the default position of many in the media: it has a corrosive effect. Worse still, and more justified, is condemnation of the many child abuse and safeguarding scandals within the church. But there are others around - newspaper columnists, artists, comedians - who do take faith seriously, and poke fun with affection. Frank Skinner, for example, is a devout RC, and I know that Chris Addison (who used to describe himself as a middle-class ponce from Didsbury) is a good Anglican, for I officiated at his wedding. And a number of other columnists seem to be lapsed RCs who write at length of having children in their 30s and 40s as if this was a uniquely marvellous experience. All these would certainly take the view that, far from being off limits, religious humour is a way of affirming the importance of faith as it grapples with ultimate questions.
The same it true of scholarly enquiry - it is not destructive of faith (except for those for whom this forms their agenda - which is bad scholarship), but it can add to our understanding. When something crops up that we don't much like, recourse to antique laws of blasphemy, of public protests - or worse - are not appropriate. Our faith should be strong enough not to need this.
Most Christians understand this well. So too do most Jews, who have a long tradition both of self-deprecating humour (remember Rabbi Lionel Blue on the radio) and of open, and serious, enquiry into the origins of faith: many of the famous biblical scholars have been of Jewish heritage. It is, though, a lesson that Islam worldwide still has to learn: as a relatively young faith, it has no faculty of self-criticism, and resorts to extreme and often violent means to oppose any criticism from within or without. We see how the struggles of the Afghan people, with some utterly hideous violations of the rights of women and children (including, of course, their need for good teachers – men and women) are a huge hindrance not only to building their nation but to all our attempts to build dialogue with our Muslim neighbours. Here at home, many feel that Islam, because of its prickliness, has more protection than Christianity in our legal system.
Today's gospel reading takes us into one of the areas where for over the last hundred years and more some perceive that the gospel has been under attack, not so much from enemies without, but from scholars within. This is the so-called 'messianic secret' theme of Mark's gospel. Why is it that on various occasions in Mark Jesus commands people not to tell others that he is God's Messiah, his anointed one? It happens after some of his healing miracles; after the Transfiguration; and today when Peter makes his great confession. Is this because in his lifetime Jesus did not in fact believe himself to be the Messiah - the holy and anointed one foretold by the law and the prophets? That was the claim of a liberal German Lutheran theologian, William Wrede, at the turn of the 20th century, and for some time it was taken very seriously. The theory doesn't necessarily deny that Jesus was in fact the Messiah - only that this was not part of his self-consciousness, his awareness of his destiny; so, if you like, it is a psychological as much as a theological theory. It was only after his resurrection - so the theory goes - that it made sense to speak of Jesus as Messiah, and that's what shaped the telling of his story by Mark in particular, but also the other gospel writers. In other words, the messianic secret was a device invented by Mark to suit his own purposes.
Now I'm not going to go into all the detail of this theory, and why is is more or less discredited - though it's an interesting story. What Americans call 'evidentialism' says that in order for a belief to be justified, the subject must have some awareness of what makes the belief true: so if Jesus was the Messiah, he must have known it. Dr John DePoe, an American philosophy professor, writes about this and other similar theories, and compares it all with the words of Billy Joel's song
She's always a woman: ...She can win your faith with her casual lies.
She only reveals what she wants you to see. She hides like a child, but she’s always a woman to me.
He says that the mystery of Billy Joel's woman, her enigmatic quality, is what makes her attractive; and he goes on to suggest that the same paradox surrounds Jesus' messiahship. He performs miracles, and then commands no-one to speak of them (as if!) When demons see him, they declare who he really is, and he commands them to be silenced. When Peter makes his confession, he's told ('sternly') to keep it to himself. If Jesus is Messiah, why must he be so contradictory, why must he try to hide it? Is this in fact the secret of his attraction? Cynically, DePoe re-writes Joel's song:
He can win your faith with his casual lies
He only reveals what he wants you to see: He’s always Messiah to me.
Well, that's one way of coping with it (and this is one way of coping with the culture of lying in our current government). Scholars still use the term 'messianic secret', because it is clearly a theme in Mark's gospel, but do so without committing to any particular theory of what was, or was not, going on in the mind of Jesus during his ministry. If the command to tell no-one does indeed come from Jesus, rather than being added by Mark, it remains a puzzle. But perhaps the explanation is simply a matter of what today we call strategy, rather than being a theological or psychological matter. ('Theological' in the proper sense of the word – to do with the things of God – not as politicians use it to mean abstract and irrelevant: there've been some good, or rather bad, examples of this in the past week in relation to social care,) For Jesus to broadcast to all and sundry that he was God's Messiah before he had gone up to Jerusalem to fulfil his messianic destiny would have made life impossible for him. It would have opened up all the expectations that the Jews had of God's coming one, as a particular kind of liberator matching up more to the hopes and aspirations of the people than to what God had in store. It would have limited and constrained all that he was able to accomplish. Peter himself, and the other disciples, when Jesus tried to explain the true destiny of the Messiah - one who had to suffer and to die, and whose followers were to share in suffering (as Isaiah had prophesied) - could not understand; so how could the ordinary people? Despite all the signs of his ministry - as teacher and healer, as one whose life was lived in perfect union with his heavenly Father - the reinterpretation of who and what Messiah really was had to wait until Calvary.
So there's the theory: but what has the messianic secret to do with us? For us, whose faith is shaped by the cross and resurrection of Jesus, this secret is an open secret, to quote the title of Margaret's father's greatest book about the mission of the church, to be openly shared with all the world. You are the Messiah.....
Richard Young (Rector)