Sunday, 24 May 2009

Ascension Sunday, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 16:15-20, with third alternative second reading: Eph 4:1-13 (shorter version)

If one of you decided that my sermons were getting too long and decided to poison me, then I would probably die. Similarly, if a snake bit me I would probably die. In addition, I have never yet knowingly healed someone or cast out a devil.
And yet, all these are things that, in our Gospel text, Jesus said would be “associated with believers”. And I want to make two points about that.

First, though Jesus did not say that ALL believers would do these things, these things have indeed been associated with believers. For example:
Being bitten by snakes: The most famous example is in Acts 28:3-6 which tells how St Paul was bitten by a viper and yet unharmed, it tells how the people gathered around waiting to see him drop down dead, and were amazed.
Drinking poison: there are numerous account of this. The great monk St Benedict, and St John the Apostle, St Julian, St Hermias, St Photini and her companions. England’s protector St George was twice poisoned by a pagan sorcerer who was so amazed at his survival that he converted to Christianity.
Healing the sick: this, is a phenomenon so common down the history of the Church that describing incidents could literally take all day –many recent one in Lourdes are well documented.
And, casting out devils: I’m not an exorcist myself, this is a task that a bishop only entrusted to one priest per diocese. But I have known those who have done such exorcisms, who have described the power of the occult, and the sign of possession. But they have described even more the power of Christ, and who the devils flees before Him.

Second, these signs are only a PART of what Christ gives to help spread the Gospel –to convince they need to be seen as part of something else.
We often think today that we Modern people are the first ones to ever be sceptical, the first to ever question whether such miracles really happened or happen –but this is a very foolish and arrogant attitude. People have always questioned.
People have always witnessed that SOMETIMES normal people get bitten by a snake and survive.

These signs, these miracles by saints, are only deemed REALLY significant because there was SOMETHING ELSE about their lives that suggested that there was something else going on: their manner of life seemed different, the message of Christ they taught was different, and so these signs fit into a context –so that people might think “something new is at work here”. So, St George’s poisoner was not converted to worship George but rather to worship the Christ whom St George lived by.
So, Jesus said, these “signs will be associated with believers”, he didn’t say these signs alone will ‘prove’ believers –they were and even today sometimes still are, part of a package.

I might go further, and say that the ‘signs’ that prove Christ are the saints of His that loved the poor, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta; that cared for the sick and set up hospitals for them, like countless Christian saints down the ages. Of course, many of us have also proved that a Christian can be a hypocrite and not live a life radically different to his fellow non-Christian, but nonetheless the greatest miracle of the Church should be charity, a love that means “they will be one, that the world may believe”(Jn 17:21) as Jesus said.

So, to conclude where I began: I would die if you poisoned me, I would convert no-one on the basis of my ability to survive poisoning.
The challenge for each of us here, is whether our lives might become such that they are recognisably different to the world around us, recognisably witnessing to the power of Christ in us. Living, as our second reading said, “a life worthy of your vocation”(Eph 4:1) so that people would see “the Lord working in them and confirming the word by the signs that accompany it”(Mk 16:10).

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