Sunday, January 7, 2024

Sermon: "Blurred Lines", Mark 2:1-12 (January 7, 2024)

We’re in kind of a strange temporal place this week. We’ve officially turned the corner into a new calendar year, crossing a boundary of sorts, and yet the Narrative Lectionary seamlessly carries on with the story of our faith. There is another shift, though – Christmas marked a liturgical transition for us from First Testament readings to New Testament readings. Continuity alongside boundaries, changes and consistency, each persisting and coexisting in the same moment. It’s something to think about, especially as we continue our dive into Mark’s gospel, the version of Jesus’ life that we’ll be focusing on for the next several months.

Mark (the shortest and generally agreed be the oldest of the four gospels) is known for its fast-paced, straightforward storytelling. But as succinct as Mark’s writing tends to be, he also takes the time to provide context for many of the Jewish customs and traditions that he references. This has led scholars to conclude that he’s probably writing to an audience at least partially comprised of gentile Christ-followers who’d recently converted to Judaism. Yet, Mark’s purpose isn’t ultimately Jewish catechism. If he wanted to educate his readers on the Law, he could have just handed them a copy of the Torah. Mark’s reason for writing goes beyond that: he wants his readers to understand what the Law teaches for the purpose of better understanding exactly what it is that Jesus has to teach us ABOUT the Law.

For much of Jewish history, “the Law” has been used to draw and reinforce boundaries in the pursuit of piety: boundaries between God and humanity, between the sacred and the profane, between sin and righteousness, and so on. Groups like the Sadducees and the Pharisees arose out of a genuine desire to honor God through a better understanding of and adherence to those boundaries. Although “religious legalism” tends to have a negative connotation these days, the Law was always meant as a gift from God to create order and security for God’s people.

Today, even though Christians have a different relationship with scriptural law, we still rely on a variety of boundaries to govern our lives, and for good reason: boundaries are valuable. Emotional boundaries allow us to understand who we are. Physical boundaries help us to define our own comfort and safety. Relational boundaries keep us away from burnout or abuse. Just as in ancient times, a good understanding of the boundaries that separate me from you, health from disease, and morality from immorality can mean the difference between survival and destruction.

But boundaries are not an unequivocal good. There are times when boundaries get in the way. And the difference between healthy, helpful boundaries and toxic boundaries more often than not lies in the way we choose to enforce them. Which is where Jesus comes in, at least, according to Mark. Jesus’ goal is to get us to think differently about the boundaries that we take for granted, the ones that we assume are written in stone. And although Mark hints at this theme in the first chapter,[1] the second chapter is where it really takes off.

If anyone knows about impermeable boundaries, it’s folks with mobility limitations. Even today, with laws designed to ensure access to public places for everyone, the lines are ironically drawn just as starkly as ever: as long as there’s a special designation for “handicap accessible,” there will always also be the unspoken category of “handicap inaccessible.”[2] – and there will never be a shortage of the latter. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be paralyzed in Jesus’ time. Not only would moving about in everyday society be next to impossible, but many people at the time believed that physical maladies were the result of some egregious sin. The paralyzed man in Mark’s story would have been a complete outcast, both practically and spiritually, because of the boundaries that surrounded him on every sides.

Most people assume that this man wants to see Jesus because he believes that Jesus can heal his paralysis – eliminate those boundaries for him altogether – but scripture doesn’t say that. In fact, it gives us no information whatsoever about why this man wants to get in the house so badly. Maybe he isn’t motivated by a longing for healing at all. Maybe he’s angry – angry about the boundaries that make him and so many others an outcast, angry about the fact that nobody seems to care whether they can take part in society, angry about the injustice of it all. So he, along with some allies, decides to do something about it. Instead of deferring to the existing boundaries, they blur the lines: they create a whole new way into the house. They challenge the existing system by doing something that forces people to really think about it, possibly for the first time.

Perhaps THIS is the faith that Jesus responds to: not a spiritual belief, but the courage and determination to confront the boundaries that hold people back. Not with words, but with action; not in a “socially acceptable” way, but in a way that disrupts the status quo. In admiration, Jesus offers the man something far more valuable than physical healing: forgiveness for his sins. And, missing the point entirely, the legal experts start grumbling right on cue about – what else? – yet ANOTHER boundary that’s been “inappropriately” crossed – Jesus has committed blasphemy! He’s transgressed the immutable boundary between the human and the divine!

Now, I want to pause for a minute to note that the claim the legal experts are making here is actually completely bogus – either that, or you should be reporting me for blasphemy. Jesus says the exact same thing that I say every single week in worship: “Your sins are forgiven.” In the passive voice, there is absolutely no claim of divine authority here, simply an assurance of pardon.

Now, Jesus COULD have responded to the legal experts by pointing this out, but instead (perhaps inspired by the paralyzed man) he takes the opportunity to stir the pot some more. He proves that he does, in fact, have the authority to forgive sins by performing a much more impressive healing – but notice how he refers to himself in the process. “THE HUMAN ONE has authority on the earth to forgive sins.” Not the messiah. Not the son of God. Not even just “me”. The son of man, the one who is human, has this authority. He’s doubling down on the boundary-crossing that had so upset the legal experts in the first place!

Now, of course, we know that Jesus isn’t JUST the human one…he’s also fully divine (which is, in its own way, a form of boundary-crossing). But Mark’s gospel goes out of its way to emphasize Jesus’ humanity. Scholars have puzzled over the so-called “Messianic Secret” for more than a hundred years (which is the fact that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus commands anyone who correctly identifies him as the Christ not to tell anyone). This seems like a weird strategy for getting your message out – UNLESS your intention is to blur the boundary between humanity and divinity through your actions. In that case, you obviously wouldn’t want people spreading the word that you’re something more than human; people would start to write off your works as strictly divine in origin, and they’d have no reason to question their existing assumptions. But on the other hand, if they see “the human one” doing miraculous, seemingly divine things…it forces them to rethink that boundary between humanity and God.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that human beings are equal to God or even that we can perform Jesus-caliber miracles, but maybe we’re capable of a lot more than we think. Maybe the line between humanity and divinity isn’t quite as solid as it seems. Maybe the God who chose to take on flesh for our sake also invites us into this liminal space. Maybe God is standing by right now, ready to help us smudge the boundaries of our world that seemed so sacrosanct just a moment ago, inspiring us to do radical things – like, say, tearing a roof apart for the sake of a paralyzed friend.

When boundaries become ingrained in our collective consciousness, it can be nearly impossible to reimagine them. That’s why every major social change in history has been met with dramatic and sometimes violent pushback – women’s suffrage, school integration, and gay marriage were all issues of cultural boundaries that people didn’t like being pushed. But that’s because humans draw boundaries in permanent marker. We don’t ever intend for them to be crossed or changed, so when they are, it’s traumatic for the established social order. But God doesn’t draw boundaries the same way. God draws boundaries in watercolor. You can see where they are, but the edges are fuzzy, undefined. They bleed into each other. They vary in intensity. And if God so chooses, God can change it entirely simply by painting another color on top of it. We need boundaries, but to God, they aren’t supposed to be unchangeable, because they’re only important insofar as they help real people in real ways: teaching us, guiding us, supporting us. They have no innate value in and of themselves – unless that value is to draw our attention to the beauty in our diversity. It’s certainly not to keep us apart from each other OR from God.

Today, we observe Epiphany, a celebration all about sudden revelations and insights. We usually associate this day with the moment that the gentile Magi from the east acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah (a boundary-blurring in and of itself). But this year, perhaps we can broaden our understanding of what we’re celebrating. Perhaps, with Mark’s help, the boundary-blurring between Jews and Gentiles can be just the first of many ongoing epiphanies for us. Perhaps, this can be the year that we realize that the countless boundaries we take for granted every day aren’t as impermeable as we thought.

If you choose to take a star word this year, see if you can interpret it as a boundary that God might be telling you needs blurring. “Abundance” might be calling you to smudge the line between the “haves” and the “have nots”. “Pray” might be encouraging you to minimize the separation between sacred moments and secular moments. “Family” might be challenging you to reimagine the border that you draw between those you love and those you don’t. “Justice”…well, there are many boundaries worth blurring in the name of justice. Whatever your word is, however you wind up interpreting it, and however God empowers you to live it out, one thing is for certain: we’ve already crossed the boundary into a new year, so we might as well keep going, in the name and authority of the Human One. Amen.[3]


[1] The Greek word for “repent” (one of the first words that Jesus speaks in Mark’s gospel) is met-an-o-EH-o, which literally means, “after-thinking” – to think about things differently than before; to change your mind. According to Mark, Jesus isn’t making up new rules; he’s forcing us to think differently about the ones that already exist. Christ’s reign doesn’t displace what is; instead, it blurs the lines that have come to define so much of our lives. I could go on at length about Mark’s theme of Christ muddying boundaries, but we’d be here all day. (Trust me, the first draft of this sermon got pretty deep into the weeds, so you’re welcome.) For now, we’ll focus on the first part of chapter 2.


[3] Thanks to James Hanson’s Working Preacher commentary at for guiding me towards the path of thinking about boundaries.

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