Second Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Mark 3:20-35
Overheard at a funeral:
“What do non-believers think, when they hear us talk about life beyond the grave? What do they think when we say that God is active, and real, and works in our lives? What do they think when we tell them that God really does answer prayer?”
“I suppose they think we’re crazy. What else can they think?”
Jesus came home and, as usual, a crowd gathered—so many making demands on him that there wasn’t even time to eat. His friends heard what was going on and went to rescue him, by force if necessary. They suspected he was getting carried away with himself (Mark 3:20-21).*
That’s how the passage reads, quoted from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message. Now, I think Peterson’s wording—in most respects—makes clearer what Mark intended to say. But for some reason, he talks about Jesus’ “friends” coming to fetch him, even though all the other translations say it was his family. In the English Standard Version, for example, we read: “… when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’.” *
The Amplified Bible says that “when those who belonged to Him (His kinsmen) heard it, they went out to take Him by force, for they kept saying, He is out of His mind (beside Himself, deranged)!” *
And that does seem to make more sense in relation to the rest of the passage, which says that Jesus’ “mother and brothers” showed up, wanting to talk to him. So, was it his friends or his family? Really, it hardly matters, does it? Apparently, the people who were closest to Jesus—even his mother, who had heard an angel foretell the birth of her son—thought he was insane!
What else could they think? Perhaps his mother was mostly concerned about his safety. But as for his siblings and friends … Well, what would you think if your brother—or your neighbour’s kid—announced that he was the Son of God?
For that matter, what do you think when someone tells you they’ve had an extraordinary—or supernatural—experience? Like an answer to prayer? Or a miraculous healing? Or even, simply, that they can feel the tangible presence of God in the room with them when they pray? Do you find it easy to believe … or hard to believe?
Michael Persinger is a Canadian neuroscientist who some years ago developed what has come to be known as the “God helmet.” Based on the idea that transcendent experiences can be induced by stimulation of the right temporal lobe of the brain, the God helmet produces weak magnetic fields to do just exactly that. According to Persinger, 80 percent of the people who don his helmet have some kind of “religious, spiritual, or mystical” encounter.1
Eighty percent. But not everybody. One of the people who tried out Persinger’s God helmet was the famous British atheist, Richard Dawkins. However, after 40 minutes, Dawkins had sensed nothing unusual—and described himself as “very disappointed.” He had really wanted to experience what religious people say they experience. But … rats … no luck!
Dr. Persinger’s explanation? Well, according to the Sudbury-based neuroscientist, Richard Dawkins simply did not have a sensitive enough brain to be able to respond to the God helmet! According to Persinger, Dawkins was “well below average” when it came to temporal-lobe sensitivity.2
What does that mean? Well, Michael Persinger might not agree, but it seems to me that one thing it could mean is that some of us simply do not have the physiological capacity for Divine perception. In other words, it may be that—when it comes to perceiving the reality of God—Richard Dawkins simply does not have the appropriate mental equipment!
If that is true, then John Calvin was right when he hypothesized predestination … albeit in a way he himself could never have imagined. Richard Dawkins, perhaps, is like a blind man who’s convinced that vision is a myth. No wonder he’s an atheist!
Even so, if 80 percent of us are indeed capable of having the kind of transcendent experience that Dawkins was looking for … why do so very few of us ever actually have one?
I wish I knew the answer to that question, but I don’t. Melvin Morse—an American physician who has written extensively about his own research in the field—was once asked: “How can you stimulate your right temporal lobe?”
Dr. Morse began to respond technically, explaining about how electricity and magnetism could be used, when the questioner interrupted him, saying: “No, I mean how can you do it naturally?”
The doctor shrugged and said the first thing that came into his mind: “I guess that’s what people do when they pray.”3
Maybe it is. Yet, as a longtime pastor, I know that most faithful Christians—people who do, very intentionally and in a disciplined way, spend significant time in prayer daily—still confess that they struggle with doubt. What that tells me is that most of us never encounter God in such a profound way as to make doubt impossible.
But there are people who have these kinds of things happen to them.
Apparently, the late American general Douglas MacArthur had some kind of mystical encounter early in his life that left him convinced that he would not die until God decided that his life should be over. This has been offered as an explanation for MacArthur’s evident fearlessness on the battlefield, and his penchant for placing himself in harm’s way.
He was one of the last commanders to lead from the front lines—a trait which certainly did make his fellow officers doubt his sanity. In fact, Douglas MacArthur did not die in combat, but passed away at 84 years of age in 1964, hailed as a national hero.
John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist tradition, spoke about how he found himself transformed during a Moravian society meeting when someone read Martin Luther’s statement of the change which God works in human beings through faith. Wesley said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”4
And of course, we all know the abrupt about-face made by Saul of Tarsus—an event described in the Book of Acts. While he was en route to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, the Risen Christ appeared to him in a flash of brilliant light. He was struck blind, but after three days his sight was restored, and Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle, who devoted the rest of his life to proclaiming the gospel.
Examples of this kind abound—and yet, they are remarkable because they are so rare. At least, they seem to be rare. Perhaps many more of us have them than anyone realizes, but we never talk about them because … Well, because we’re afraid our family and friends will think that we are … out of our minds.
Listen: if you are one of those many (the majority, I suspect) who have never had some profound God-experience which has wiped all doubt from your minds, and who yet persist in believing, who choose to believe in spite of your doubts …
I am in awe of you, because you really do have deep and abiding faith. You are the ones of whom Jesus spoke when he said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Blessed are you. Rejoice and be glad. Amen.
* Scripture quotations are from:
- The Message Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson.
- The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
- Amplified Bible Copyright © 2015 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA 90631. All rights reserved.
1 Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 80.
3 Melvin Morse, M.D. and Paul Perry, Where God Lives: The Science of the Paranormal and How Our Brains are Linked to the Universe (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 4.
4 Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, entry for May 24, 1738.