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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

June 7, 2015

 A House Divided

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Mark 3:20-34

              On June 16, 1858, a forty-nine-year-old former one-term Congressman accepted the nomination of the Republican Party as the candidate for the United States Senate, a race he would ultimately lose to Stephen A. Douglas.  But in his acceptance speech in the old Illinois State House, Abraham Lincoln, in speaking of this nation’s growing conflict over slavery said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.”

             Lincoln chose in this first of his series of the most important and remembered speeches in American history by quoting Jesus.  In the speech, Lincoln spoke of America as a house or household, which is precisely how Jesus spoke of His own followers – in a word, as family.  Both recognized that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”  A kingdom or a family or a church lives and breathes by its essential unity, which is something very different from uniformity.

            Today we turn to a very complicated passage in Mark that begins and ends with Jesus’ family.  Jesus has been healing people and casting out demons, and there are people who are troubled by the crowds following Him, by the impact He is making.  Critics say, “He has gone out of his mind,” or “He is beside himself.” (Literally, in Greek, “outside of himself.”)  His family decides there must be reason for what today we would call “an intervention.”  The scribes (from Jerusalem) say that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul (whose meaning is “lord of the flies”!) – another name for Satan or the Evil One.  Jesus asks a down-to-earth, common sense question, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”  Then Jesus offers proverbial sayings that imply His own unity with God and God’s purposes.  “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”  Then Jesus switches images and says, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.”  Jesus is the strong man in this reference.  Jesus has power over Satan, and over all the powers of evil.  This is why He can in fact cast out demons, and why His own house is not divided against itself.  Satan is always the Father of Lies, the master of deception and division … even among families, even within Jesus’ own family at this point, perhaps.  Evil comes at us often in pretense – here it comes from the religious leaders themselves!  Jesus is open and forthright, as goodness only can afford to be.

             Then comes the Gospel in this passage – though you almost miss it among all the talk of Satan and blasphemy.  Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, all sins will be forgiven the children of humanity (or the sons of men), and whatever blasphemy they utter.”  We ought to pause here and take in what Jesus has said.  It is great Good News!  “All sins will be forgiven….”  This is the heart of Jesus’ Gospel message!  It is the meaning and hope of the Gospel – that there is forgiveness of sins – that no sin is beyond the power of God in Jesus Christ to forgive.

            Then Mark goes on to introduce “the unforgivable sin,” “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”  For Mark, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit consists of calling the work of God’s Spirit evil … of denying, in effect, the healing, redeeming work of God in our midst.

             Then Jesus returns to His family.  Maybe they were just trying to protect Him.  Maybe they were worried as well that He had gone “out of his mind.”  We really will never know.  Likely it was a little of each – the desire to protect Jesus and their family from criticism or even arrest (for it was a crime in Israel to cast out demons in the name of some evil spirit), and a genuine inability to understand what Jesus was doing and who He had become in the early, heady days of His public ministry in Galilee.  What is interesting is the shape of His family – “His mother and His brothers” – according to Mark.  We might assume that Jesus’ father, Joseph in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, had died.  This is the most likely assumption, but nowhere do the Gospels actually tell us what happened to Joseph.


            At any rate, Jesus is told that they are “outside,” where usually Jesus’ opponents are described as being in Mark.  So Jesus asks a question I would never use as a text on Mother’s Day!  “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  “And looking at those who sat around Him, Jesus said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

             In other words, Jesus here is redefining the family of God.  The family of God is open to everyone.  It is not just open to children of Abraham, to those born Jewish, but to everyone who would seek to do the will of God.  Just as “all sins will be forgiven,” so “whoever does the will of God” will be part and parcel of Jesus’ family!

             Jesus, you see, is the master of the undivided kingdom and the undivided house and the undivided soul.  He is also Lord of the undivided church.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The reason God was so deeply ambivalent about giving Israel a king was because God wanted to be their only king, so Israel could be a kingdom of God, and a kingdom united, not one divided against itself, as it would tragically become under Saul and most kings who would follow.

             It is always easy to divide over things smaller than God – to make issues smaller than Jesus over justification for separating ourselves from those who disagree with us over some deeply held, emotionally powerful conviction.

             Our Session has agonized, and is agonizing, over differences within our own church family over the meaning of marriage.  Our church is like our nation – we are “a house divided” on this issue, meaning that we have beloved, valued, essential members of this community of faith on both sides of this issue.  I believe with all my heart that Jesus wants us to live together and love each other together through these differences – and any other differences that are clearly smaller than Jesus.  It would be unspeakably sad to me, even heartbreaking, if we were not a church secure enough in our love for Jesus to continue loving and listening to each other, valuing and respecting each other, even when we might find ourselves in different places.

             Maturity in Jesus Christ always calls us to gentleness and humility and loving respect for others.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  But a family united in Jesus’ love will flourish.



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