The other day I was in Waterstones looking for the religious books section. You will appreciate that it’s not the most obvious one right by the doors with all the bestsellers…
I found it at last upstairs in one of the quieter parts of the shop. And I was fascinated to see that religious books are near the books on magic – almost as though the good people at Waterstones think they are closely related. I can kind of understand how this mistake happens – but the truth is that having a faith in God and believing in magic are actually opposites. To invoke magic spells is to believe that you can manipulate and change the world to your advantage. To have a religious faith is to accept that whatever happens in the world God is with you, and that sometimes the world has to change to our disadvantage to be more like the world God wants. We learn as children that good and holy prayers are not shopping lists for what we want, that God is not the great fulfillers of wishes, but that prayer is about being honest before God and letting God change us within the world. To have faith is not about getting yourself out of the troubles of the world by the shake of a wand, but finding the courage to be immersed within them, to bear their pain, and to transform our own selfishness into selflessness. Magic and faith are quite different – and I would put those sections at opposite sides of the shop… if I ruled the world….!
Here is a story to show you what I mean. Rowan Williams tells the tale of a religious sister who was on retreat with a very wise and holy priest. While they were on their knees praying together, the sister looked up and saw an angel standing beside them. She nudged the priest and urged him to look too, to see this miraculous and wonderful angel. But he told her, ‘Nonsense, just get on with your praying.’ Afterwards, she said to him, ‘There really was an angel there!’. And he said, ‘Yes, I’m sure there was, but so what?’ For that wise and holy priest, the point of prayer was not to experience the supernatural or the ecstatic. The point of prayer is to grow closer to the God who can make you a more complete human being in the midst of ordinary and daily life. I suspect the nun would have been peeling potatoes and cleaning toilets with much of her time along with praying and I think that priest might have argued that those things are actually closer to the reality of faith than visions of angels. So, it’s not that religious faith does not believe that amazing things happen, but that for faith miracles and spectacles as not nearly as important as many people think.
One of the puzzles that Mark’s Gospel is wrestling with seems to be this question about the miraculous and where it fits within what Jesus was doing – and where, I suppose then, it might fit in our lives now. Mark seems to make it clear that Jesus did do miracles – in some places more than others – and that the disciples even managed some miracles as well (all that anointing with oil and curing the sick). But Jesus is always telling people not to talk about it, not to go on about it. And while some people think the Gospel just says this to try to explain why more people didn’t ‘get it’ while Jesus was doing his ministry, why the whole world didn’t realise he was the Son of God, I think there is more to it than that. Could it be that Jesus was really just like that wise priest who told the nun to get on with her prayers. Miracles did happen when Jesus was around, and indeed sometimes miracles happen today, but they are somehow not really the point – they are not really what Jesus was about. Of course they might have been pretty crucial to the people who experienced them, and it seems that Jesus was so pressed by compassion that he couldn’t resist sometimes doing something that meant that life, or even death, was completely transformed – but to see him as a miracle worker was completely to miss the point about him. He wasn’t a magician, waving a wand to mend all pains in an instant. He didn’t feed and heal everyone, and when he himself was being tortured on the cross, he did not rescue himself. He was even taunted about that – remember? His purpose was not to manipulate the world in small ways, but to transform it and redeem it by completely changing the way we live and understand what life is for. Maybe he could control the wind and the waves, but his purpose was not to do that – but to show us how to live in the midst of every kind of storm. Maybe he could have solved everyone’s problems one by one, but instead he chooses to share them with us. Maybe he could have hit back at the Romans but instead he endured what so many endure – and he made that image of suffering embraced on the cross rather than violence repaid the sign of his purpose. He could be strong, but his real power was displayed when he was at his weakest, on the cross. He did not come to magic away suffering and pain, but to take them on himself.
Sometimes, Marks’s Gospel tells us, he ‘could do no deed of power’. Doing deeds of power wasn’t his core purpose. And when he gave his disciples, his students, their mission he told them deliberately to divest themselves of power. They were to take nothing for their journey but a staff, a walking stick; no food, no money, no spare clothes. They were to make themselves not powerful, but weak, reliant on the hospitality, the charity of others. Not even a sandwich lunch or money for street food. Discipleship is about being dependent on the world – not about being able to manipulate it. Faith is not hidden power, but openly offered vulnerability. Wow.. We follow one who was crucified… So, this passage should give us, who live in a time when the church is not so powerful any more, encouragement. Perhaps this is how we are meant to be. Not among the mighty in the land, not able to get our way with governments and powers, but bearing witness to our mutual dependence, our poverty of spirit, proud of our weakness – and finding in it a new kind of strength.
In his letter to the little church at Corinth, Paul tells them that he has not been miraculously cured of whatever it was that was his ‘thorn in the flesh’. He had tried praying for healing, but God had said no, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So Paul learned that ‘whenever I am weak, then I am strong’. This is the lesson of faith – a gift for us to celebrate as we come to know our own weakness. That in our weaknesses, in our vulnerabilities, lies our strength – for we are following Christ.
I imagine that most of us have heard the story that some people in the Middle Ages, thought that what happened in the Mass, in the communion service, was a kind of magic. They heard ‘Hoc est enim corpus meum’ (this is my body) – but turned it into Hocus pocus…. what some still rudely called ‘the magic words’. But a communion service is very far from magic. It is not about miraculous changes or sorcery… but about a celebration of the real presence of Christ with us; it is bread for those encouraged to live even without bread, it is wine for those who willingly embrace the sufferings of a world in which blood is so often shed, it is a feast for those who surrender all their riches to God and who hold nothing back for themselves. This is not about magic, but about faith – faith in Jesus Christ who is with us on the journey, who makes us pilgrims on the way, who gives us a true strength even in our weakness. We cannot magic away the goblins and the lions, the fears and the pains, but God can transform them and in our weakness give us true valour. Thanks be to God. Amen.