For me, and I hope for you, being a Christian is what opens up life to a whole world of experience, love and joy. It’s what means I can live in freedom from fear, and in hope for the future. It’s what makes it possible for me to face just about anything and to be excited about the world that meets me as I journey through life.
But sometimes my breath is all but taken away when I discover that many people in the world imagine that being a Christian means that you are likely to have a closed mind, to be what people call ‘narrow minded’ – to be judgemental, rigid and set in your ways.
How is it that it’s almost taken for granted by some that being religious means to be repressed, closed down, locked into a narrow way of viewing the world and human life? It’s almost as though being religious equates now with being fundamentalist. Wouldn’t it be possible to have a film, a novel, or almost anything in which someone was deeply religious but also wonderfully happy, fulfilled, whole and open to life?!
It’s the Gospel reading for today that’s set me thinking about this. It’s an extraordinary and important story for all sorts of reasons. It’s one of those stories that has a little touch of Aramaic in it – a colourful flash of real history – with a memory of a word that Jesus said – Ephphatha is the Greek form of an Aramaic word… It’s one of those stories that’s only in Mark and that Matthew and Luke have probably deliberately not copied. Perhaps they didn’t like the bit about the spittle, because it smacks of more primitive magic stories. So this is a story special to this Gospel. Jesus is just on his way back from his most Northerly journey ever – to Tyre – where he’s had an encounter with a foreign woman which has opened his own mind up to a wider world – to the idea that he might have a ministry to the Gentiles too. And then they bring to him a man who is deaf and who has a speech impediment. He neither hears nor speaks well. In a world without hearing aids or widespread literacy he is truly cut off. The text tells us that he is literally tongue tied – the string of his tongue is too tight – something that would be solved by a simple operation these days. Jesus takes him away from the crowd on his own, touches his ears and spits upon his tongue – then he says, ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘Be opened’. And immediately his ears are opened, his tongue is loosed and he speaks. And having made this man speak, Jesus tries to get the crowd to keep quiet, but they can’t resist telling anyone who’ll listen. In any story everything is always significant – and it’s striking, isn’t it, that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Be healed’, but ‘Be opened’. In a Greek/Aramaic word that must be easy even to lip read, Jesus tells the man to open up – and he does.
It is said that we have not really understood the stories of the Bible until we have understood them as stories about ourselves. It’s important to know where these stories come from, but more than anything it’s important to hear them as addressed to us – for it’s only then that they can really be for us ‘the word of the Lord’. It’s one thing to know about illness, deafness and healing in first century Palestine, but another to read a story like this and to find it addressing your own deafness or loosening your own tongue. And of course I don’t mean that this story only applies to those of you who need hearing aids and the loop system or to those of you who find it hard to stand up and make a speech – because I think that this story is for all of us, because we all have troubling really hearing – in the sense of ‘whoever has ears let them hear’ – and we all have trouble speaking – in the sense of ‘let every tongue praise the Lord’ – and we all need to hear what Jesus said to this man, ‘Be opened’.
If I ask you to think about where in your life you need to open up or ‘be opened’ you might find that hard. We none of us like to think that our minds are closed on things or that we’re difficult to get to know or slow to open up. But we all know what it is to find other people hard to get close to or too stuck in their ways or somehow closed off to those around them. And we all know more and more what it is for people to have things deeply repressed, or to have shut off part of themselves out of fear or pain. We see it in others, and others see these things sometimes in us. And sometimes something happens to us to open us up to the world in a new way and we see at last how closed we have been. And this is true however young or old we are, however broad our experience or wherever we’ve come from. I imagine that we’ve all had the experience of finding that the world isn’t as we thought it was. I hope that all of us have had times when we’ve let go of an opinion or an attitude or a reservation that kept us from living fully or understanding someone or just being ourselves. I am convinced that we all have closed rooms in the corners of our experience or our selves which we wonder about opening.
One of the signs of a healthy human life is this stepping into new freedoms, being released from old bondages – and they can take as many forms as there are people. Jesus said to the dead and dumb man ‘be opened’, but he says it just as much to each of us as. Every day as life presents us with new situations and opportunities, and as it follows old patterns with which we have become familiar, Jesus says, ‘Be opened’.
And we can imagine Jesus saying ‘Be opened’ not only to us as individuals, but to us as the church. Jesus was not one who wanted to create the repressive, judgemental and hypocritical communities the world sometimes thinks we are. Jesus offers healing, hope and freedom to us within the church, and a church that is modelled on his liberating love will be one with open doors and open windows. And I think it means that we will be a church that believes that the story of God’s encounter with God’s people has not ended, that it’s still open and being written. So, imagine Jesus saying to the church, ‘Be opened’. Let’s not, out of fear, close our doors against the world, but open them to find out what God is doing there. Let us be open to what God is saying in these days. Let us be open to receiving those who come to us and be ready to hear what they will tell us of God. And let’s be open to speak bravely in a world which thinks so badly of us, so that folk don’t have to believe that Christians are always repressed bigots with lots of problems and closed minds.
And maybe Jesus also says ‘Be opened’ to us as a society – and his voice needs to be heard there too. There are many signs that many groups in our world are tightening up, closing down, retreating from others in fear. But Jesus says, ‘Be opened’. There are many kinds of deafness and silence – we are as human beings profoundly capable of turning deaf ears to all sorts of things; from the cries of the poor to the straining of an earth damaged by our pollution. Sometimes only the loudest noises will wake us up to hear a kind of truth and then to speak of it. But Jesus says, ‘Be opened’. One of the things that a true living with and attention to Jesus will do is to open our eyes and ears to the truth. As he spoke to so many – like the deaf man, the man born blind, the rich young ruler who could not let go of his wealth, the woman caught in adultery or the man paralysed by past guilt, Jesus also speaks to us and invites us to ‘be opened’ to what is true and to be set free from the false things which ensnare and mislead us. A life lived in his company will be one open to the truth and open to healing and hope.
It’s one of the things I believe is the vocation of this church – to be a place where people can come and ‘be opened’, to be a church which is open to hearing God speak new things for today, and a church which is praying for and longing for an open society in the best sense. People may come to us with many pre-suppositions about what Christianity means and what the church is like. But I hope that you who have come, and those who will come, will find hear a place where Jesus says, ‘Be opened’. Just as the tomb which contained him was opened when he rose to new life, I pray that every tomb which binds you, and all God’s people, may be opened.
In a liturgy to welcome new members to the church, it is recommended that the minister should say,
‘May the Lord open your ears to receive his word and your mouth to proclaim his praise’.
But I think that’s something we could all do with hearing, don’t you? The Gospel story for today is for all of us, and it is not just an old story or a magic story or a fragment of the ancient past – but your story and mine. It is good news. Let those who have ears to hear, hear. Amen.