Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
23rd Sep 2018
Trinity 17 Year B
“They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him”
There is one important feature of St Mark’s Gospel which stands out. It is known as ‘The Markan Secret’. This is the secret which foretells Jesus suffering, death and resurrection, and which Jesus himself tries to express. But the disciples are not ready to understand and so for the time being the secret must remain somewhat hidden. The disciples are, for the most part, unbelieving. Jesus remains something of an enigma to them, even though they recognize him as a powerful figure. And so Jesus will speak to them only in parables.
Good secrets are of course very significant. They contain powerful information and meaning. Children enjoy sharing and keeping secrets as marks of friendship. The adult invitation to keep a secret is a great trust, and when a secret is broken it is invariably a grave and upsetting thing. The exercise of the keeping of confidences is the mainstay for the medical profession (The Hippocratic Oath) and those engaged in counselling and therapy and of course in the Seal of the Confessional. The code breakers during the last World War used secret information in the form of letters and numbers to save thousands of lives. The giving away of secrets, especially state secrets is accounted as treason and has in the past exacted the strictest of punishments. And for us, there are secrets, confidences, those things which are kept silent and in trust, and which many of us deem necessary. We don’t live as though it were possible for total transparency to reign supreme, though in the case of abuses against individuals, the enforced keeping of a bad ‘manipulative’ secret has been a wicked thing, and designed to control and abuse, and it is right to call for the admission of grave wrongs and the letting in of truth revealing light.
Jesus’ secret is the one which is crucial to our understanding of him. It is the secret of why he became Man and how he is to be revealed as The Christ. The disciple’s experience of Jesus is not a dumb one. Their incredulity is also our incredulity, and we are being invited to know Jesus today as they did then, as the invitation to partake of a living relationship, one of faith and trust and one in which the fuller knowledge of Jesus, perhaps over a lot of time, begins to become more real in us, too. Doubtless if Jesus were with us as he was with the disciples, we would ask a lot of questions because we have the benefit of hindsight. We know how the story of Jesus begins and ends, don’t we? But the real point of Jesus apparent ‘hiddenness’ like his silence before Pontius Pilate is to make his presence known and to begin to understand his meaning. “Jesus” will be the our own response to Pilate’s despairing question “What is truth?”
The second part of Jesus’ holding of the secret is to instruct the disciples as if they knew it. The full secret will be revealed in due course. But until then Jesus will instruct his disciples in ways which are practical and challenging. These instructions are wake up calls. He will say to them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. He will take a little child into his arms as an example of simple welcome and ask them to do the same to others. The terrible secret of his death gives way to the desire he has to show the Way we ourselves are to follow. Jesus says “I challenge you to become like this. You are not to measure your own self-worth by power and status but rather the opposite”. You are to humble yourselves and so live. Spiritually we are being called to surrender to the Jesus who will offer up his very self. It is this willingness to go by the way of surrender, in unknowing, which forms the spirituality of St John of the Cross. It allows us to understand the ‘Markan Secret’ more fully:
John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, book I chapter 13, section 11:
Jesus is turning things upside down. Willing service is to be the mark of the new order which Jesus inaugurates and not self-glory. Open-hearted welcome will always be the mark of a church which is rightly aligned to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A Church obsessed with its own image and which looks down on others not so. The Gospel of Jesus sets us on the path of the dispossession of those things which are not needed on voyage. Note the repetition of the word ‘desire’ as a movement not of will or of mind, but of the heart. A spiritual movement.
Can we be that kind of desiring Church? We have a God-sent opportunity with our empty crypt to usher in a new era here at Holy Cross and we need your commitment and imagination and hard work to help us not only survive but also to thrive and to make a distinctive contribution to the lives of the many here in King’s Cross. We have coined the phrase ‘A Church Turned Inside Out’ to remind us of our purpose. The glories we experience within this holy place may by God’s help be carried by us outward and onto the streets and into the lives of those in the parish.
In all these things, Jesus, as Mark would say, Jesus is the One who has gone before us to show us the way forward and in His good time, revealed more of Himself, the secret which, long hidden comes to bring God’s presence and blessing to everything it touches. The secret is of course, well and truly out!