The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B; September 5th, 2021
One word. Jesus took the deaf man aside, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears; he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighs and says to him one word, “Ephphatha.” Mark describes this scene in such remarkable detail. The spit, the touch, the heavenward gaze, the sigh….Mark quotes Jesus in Jesus’ own Aramaic language, “Ephphatha” explaining in Greek that the word means, “Be opened.”
Be Opened. Ephphatha. For centuries, the church was enamored with this word of Jesus. It became part of the baptismal service and remained part, as even as late as the 1500’s. Martin Luther in his own revision of the rite of baptism, kept the word and actions associated with Ephphatha. Luther’s intent was to modernize baptism, though you and I would still think his version pretty medieval—The service would begin outside with prayers of exorcism, 3 times the baby would be exorcized, then a reading from Mark, to remind the people that Jesus welcomed little ones. People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them; —”Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” After the reading, the priest would lay his hands on the child’s head. The congregation would say the Lord’s prayer, and then the priest would “touch the nostrils and ears with spittle and say into their ear: ‘Ephphatha, this is be opened, to a sweet aroma. But you, devil, flee, for the judgment of God has come near.’”
It was only after all this, the people would enter the church and begin the liturgy we’d mostly recognize, the opening sentences, the creed, the questions renouncing Satan, the anointing with oil, marking as Christ’s own forever.
I really wanted to preach on the story of the Syrophoenician woman today. It is one of my very favorite stories—where Jesus concedes his argument to a foreigner, a woman, at that. But I looked back and saw that last August, when we read Matthew’s version of her story, that is what I preached, and I loved it! When you REALLY have nothing to do, you can go back and read that sermon on our website if you’re curious. But today this deaf man’s story would not leave me alone—which usually means I need to give it some attention.
When we closely read the story, we find that though this man cannot hear or speak, this deaf man was already living a life blessed with friends and faith. He had people who cared about him, who brought him to Jesus.
The theologian Elisabeth Johnson reminds us that whatever we were before, whatever people said we were, or we believed ourselves to be, through the gift of Jesus, we are now the Children of God. This is the transformational power of Ephphatha, of our baptism, of the love of friends who care for us, and the power of the Church community, if we’ll live it out faithfully.
Be Opened—my friends, to your life in Christ; bring others to find his healing, his love. This world needs to hear this healing message now, just as much as it did in the middle ages, now, in our own “modern” way. The Common English bible translates Ephphatha, “Open up.”
Open up, Gracious Lord, our ears and mouths and help us to bring others to know that your loving, healing message is for all persons!
Thanks be to God.