“It’s what’s inside that counts” – a sermon

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1, Mark 3.20-35

I have two parcels here – one huge and beautifully wrapped, one small and a bit scruffy, wrapped in newspaper. I wonder what’s inside them? I wonder how they will help us think about today’s Bible readings?

In today’s Gospel passage, we have this intriguing image of Jesus’ family trying to get to him, to stop him doing what he’s doing. Essentially, it’s his Mum coming to tell him to come home and stop making such a fool of himself. We are told “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying: “He has gone out of his mind.”” People were saying – what we see here is Jesus’ family’s concern for his (and probably their own) reputation.

But Jesus is not concerned about what people are saying about him. He is concerned with doing the will of God. And that is what he calls his followers to as well: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus is not concerned with external appearances, he is concerned with what’s going on inside – with the orientation of the heart towards God, and with the actions that spring from that.

It’s a theme we see picked up by Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth. “We look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen.” Again, it’s about caring more about what’s inside – the unseen – than the outside things we can see.

Speaking of what’s inside – let’s open these presents. [Large, beautifully wrapped box contains single sweet, small scruffy newspaper parcel contains packet of sweets.]

We know that what someone, or something, looks like on the outside doesn’t necessarily tell us what it’s really like on the inside. Jesus knew that. God, who knows us inside and out, knows that there is more to any of us than the world sees.

And Jesus demonstrates that in his own life and teaching. In this passage, as so often, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t care what people think of him, even when those people include his own family. It’s a theme we see recurring again and again through the gospels. Jesus doesn’t care what people look like, whether they’re part of the ‘in crowd’ or what other people think of who he hangs around with.

When we turn from the pressure of external concerns, and turn towards God’s will, we are freed, liberated, to be fully the people God calls us to be, living to God’s glory. We do God’s will when we are more concerned for building God’s kingdom than we are for our own reputation. We do God’s will when we care more about serving others than about what others think of us. We do God’s will when we speak out against injustice even if we know it’s going to make us unpopular.

“We also believe and so we speak,” says Paul in our reading. But how often do we believe and not speak? How often do we know something needs to change, but not want to speak up because we’re worried about what others think, or we don’t want to be the ones to stick our necks out and say something.

The church has very often been far too concerned with what people think, focussing more on the seen than the unseen. At it’s most extreme, that is what we see in the terrible cases of child abuse, covered up to protect the reputation of the church, and with it the perpetrators. The process of repentance and change which has been a very necessary response to that is still ongoing. It is out of that process that we have developed our current commitment to safeguarding, including the formation or our Safeguarding Team, and a commitment to regular and thorough training for all volunteers.

But at its less extreme, the church’s concern with external appearances results in  new, perhaps God-given ideas never getting off the ground because “what will people think?” or “it’s just not how we do things?” And of course that’s not limited to the church – it’s a situation which I’m sure most of us can recognise from any workplace, school or organisation.

We live in a world which is very concerned with external appearances. I wonder if you ever worry about what people think of you? Whether you’re cool? How many likes you’re getting on snapchat or twitter? I think most of us do at some level.

But we are called by Jesus to live a different way, freed from the tyranny of “people are saying”, to do the will of God, to live in ways which reveal the glory of God and draw others to Jesus.

This week on Twitter, the brilliant American Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said: “Let us not confuse the wrapping with the gift.” That is the message I want us to take away from these readings. Let us see beyond the ‘wrappings’ to the gift of God within each person – ourselves included.