Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Text:  Mark 7.1-23

“Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”

Leave it to Jesus to take a conventional assumption about something and turn it inside out so that it becomes a paradox that reveals a counter-intuitive truth.  This is what happens in today’s reading, in which Jesus takes the obvious understandings of ritual purity and contamination and both reinterprets and reframes them.  Focusing on the concept of contamination, he argues the paradox that what contaminates us comes from inside of us, not from what we take in.  In other words, our uncleanliness or impurity comes from within not from without.

This paradoxical view raises several issues.

  1. We are culpable for our impurity, sin, and evil.  We do not ‘catch it’ but generate it.  And this means we cannot blame something external for our ‘contamination’.  We own it.
  2. The ritual washing insisted on by Jesus’ critics means nothing if it is not an outward sign of an inward desire for purification of the heart.  Jesus rightly criticizes those who perform the ritual on the outside while doing nothing to change their hearts and lives on the inside.
  3. To declare Jesus’ disciples as ‘unclean’ or ‘contaminated’ because they did not attend to a specified ritual washing was a way Jesus’ critics and opponents sought to assert power over them by claiming religious authority through their own right religiosity.  Jesus was having none of this.

Once again, Jesus reminds us that religion for any other reason than growth in our relationship with God and betterment of ourselves from the inside out in God’s image is worthless.

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Text:  Mark 6:53-56
People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was.

So far, Jesus had performed exorcisms, healed many sick people, fed 5,000+ people, calmed two storms over the Sea of Galilee, ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” and baffled people with parables.  Along the way he had preached the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.  He had become famous in Galilee and crowds flocked to see him, but they did not come to Jesus to hear him preach or learn the finer points of their religion.  They came bringing their sick hoping for healing.

Today’s reading is grounding.  It reminds me that as fascinated as I am by Christian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, that fascination is rarely shared by the people I serve as pastor.  Rather, their interests are more down to earth and practical.  They want to know how to live as people of good character who do good in the world, find strength and guidance for the day, and healing in times of suffering.

I have sometimes groused that it seems that too many people come to Christianity and church for free therapy.  They want to an uplifting experience that makes them feel better.  But the stress and anxiety brought on by national and world events over the last year or two have made me more aware that life can be difficult and our need for healing frequent.

Jesus never groused about people coming to him for healing.  He responded to them, not with theologically-centered sermons but with compassion by healing them.  He met needs no one else could meet.  We who serve as pastors would do well to get our heads out of our “-ologies”, offer Jesus’ healing to individuals, and lead our congregations to do works of compassion that bring healing to our world.

Text:  Mark 1.40-45
“Moved with compassion / deeply moved / incensed / splagchnisthais . . .”

No, the last word in the quote above is not a “covfefe” accidentally typed as I fell asleep at the keyboard.  It is a Greek word based on the noun splagchnon, which refers to the inward parts of the body and metaphorically to the heart, love, and affection.  In its verb form it describes a feeling that is heartfelt or ‘from the gut’.  Typically translated in Mark 1:41 to “deeply moved” or “moved with compassion”, I like “incensed” used by the Common English Bible.  To say that Jesus was “moved” seems a bit weak—“moved” how?  Although more paraphrase than rigorous translation, I think “incensed” better captures Jesus’ reaction when approached by a man with a skin disease.

To describe Jesus’ reaction to his encounter with the man by using the word “incensed”  necessitates a careful reading.  A casual reading might imply that Jesus was angry with a begging man with a skin disease.  But this is not the case as implied by the other translations of splagchnisthais, as imprecise as they seem to be.  Jesus does indeed have a strong reaction, but it is not to the man but his situation as defined by his skin disease.  This is why “incensed” works so well to capture his reaction.  When Jesus looks upon a man reduced to begging for help, who, due to the socially alienating nature of his condition was surely used to begging to make a meagre living, he has a knee-jerk reaction.  He becomes enraged that the man on his knees before him suffers physically from a disease that distorts his appearance, socially and economically from the stigma others placed on his condition, emotionally from stress and isolation, and spiritually, since his skin disease made him “unclean”.  In other words, Jesus gets pissed-off at the brokenness and the evil that afflicts the man.

We usually think of an angry God in terms of God’s just retribution for sin, especially idolatry.  Images of Sodom and Gomorrah in flames, the Pharaoh’s army swallowed by the sea, and the slaughter of the priests of Ba’al tend to characterize our view of God’s righteous anger unleashed.  But God’s anger is also present when Jesus looks down at the begging man hoping Jesus would heal his physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually disabling skin disease. Jesus was incensed at what the disease had done to the man and in part because he could do something about it . . . and he did.

Jesus healed the man of his skin disease and sent the man to the nearest priest so that he could be declared “clean”.  Without a doubt, Jesus acted not just from anger but also from love and compassion.  He raged against the brokenness of God’s creation focused in the man’s skin disease but ministered to the man in all his humanity and human need.

. . . Something to think about as we as Christ-followers experience anger-inspired response to the brokenness of our world, for that brokenness always has a human face and a life created in the image of God that is hurting and needs not just social or political advocacy but love and compassion.

Text:  Mark 5.24b-34
“…your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

The story of Jesus’ healing of a woman with chronic bleeding is both compelling and troubling.  It is a story I struggle with, not because miracle healing offends 21st century sensibility but because an all too obvious message coming from it is that the efficacy of healing is directly dependent upon one’s quality of faith.  This is a frequent issue arising from the healing narratives as they often involve Jesus crediting the healed person for his or her faith.

There are (at least) two large problems with a simple faith=healing calculus:

(1)  People of faith too often remain ill, become sicker, and die of their illnesses.  Do we then conclude that their faith was weak or non-existent; that they have deceived themselves and their loved ones about their beliefs and commitments?

(2)  For non-predestination Wesleyan-Methodists, God’s modus operandi is grace, not transaction.  God reaches out to us in love and compassion before we even realize our need.  As with the benefits of the sacraments, we do not so much reach out and take but open ourselves to receive that which God already offers.  If healing is dependent on faith first, then there is no initiative of God, which is what characterizes grace.
(While our relationship with God is indeed covenantal, it sure as Spam-in-a-can is not transactional.)

There is much to ponder and wrestle with . . . stay tuned (more tomorrow)

Text:  Mark 5:1-20   – Jesus exorcises a demon-possessed man.

Whether we call the man demon possessed or mentally ill, the man Jesus meets in today’s reading is chronically angry and self-destructive.  He lives in a state of rage that distorts his perception of the world and twists his thinking.  His anger generates paranoia that we see when he first meets Jesus whom he recognizes as having authority over his condition.

It is most striking that Jesus’ authority over the man’s demons–his illness–is recognized by the man.  My experience with people in a constant state of anger is that they deny any responsibility for it, blaming others, and thus no one can have any authority over their condition.  In other words, they are in denial that there is anything wrong with themselves and resist counseling or therapy believing they are not the persons who need it.  So it is amazing that a man living in a state of rage recognized and yielded to Jesus’ authority to heal him, which required him to first own his illness.

The Lord of our lives–Jesus the Christ–is also Lord over our brokenness, illnesses, hurts, hangups, and bad habits.  When we look into his face, meet him eye to eye, and let him touch us, all of our pretense and self-deception vaporizes and the simple truth of our human condition is left undeniable.  And so exposed and vulnerable we then stand in his grace as he offers healing and wholeness (please note, I did not say “cure”, for healing is much more than physical restoration).  Thus, it is a blessing to yield to the truth and let that truth set us free as Christ delivers us from the bondage of our demons to a place of recovery and renewed life.

Text:  Mark 4:21-23    “Everything hidden will be revealed.”

Light.  It’s a common image in the Bible, from God’s word as “a lamp before our feet and a light for our journey” (Pss. 119.105) to Jesus’ proclamation that he is “the light of the world” (Jn 9:5) and even we who follow him are also “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14).  Light, be it the physical phenomenon or the metaphor for truth, is unambiguous, unequivocal, unbiased, and terrifying to anything that wants to remain hidden, obscured, or obfuscated.  Light does not allow for the negotiation of what it reveals.  It simply exposes what it illuminates without pretense, prejudice, or guile.

Jesus’ call to me to come and follow him as a minister of the gospel came in the form of a jarring revelation of the world as illuminated by God’s light of truth.  For anyone familiar with the movie The Matrix, it was like taking the red pill.  For the first time, I was beginning to see how self-centered “powers and principalities” conspired to operate in the shadows and keep us blind to all but what was being marketed to us for our consumption and their profit at the expense of the common good, be it consumer goods and services or a political party’s ideology.  Exposed by the light of Christ, I was beginning to see what I can only label as systemic evil or sin using deceit and misdirection as its primary tools.

Whether an ad for beer on a beach somewhere or a politician espousing relief and help for the middle-class, I now reflexively listen through the words, sorting out the marketing and manipulation in order to discern what the advertiser or politician wants me to do, what they will get out of it should I accommodate their intent, who will benefit, who will be harmed, and whether it is right based on the ethos of God most clearly seen in Jesus.  This is why I am skeptical of advertising and politicians of all stripes.

Truth can be heartbreaking and hard.  If you don’t want to deal with it then turn off the light and don’t take the red pill.

Text:  Mark 3:7-19    “He appointed twelve and called them apostles.” (v. 14)

For church leadership consultants, this passage is boilerplate teaching about delegation.  Jesus was rapidly becoming overwhelmed with people seeking his healing.  He then mitigated this problem by appointing twelve of his followers to work with him and to go out to preach and exorcise demons.  Each would be an apostle (“one who is sent”).  I suspect that my clergy colleagues apply this passage much as I do, as an instruction to delegate our work in order to avoid burnout, being overwhelmed, and to multiply the effectiveness of our ministry.  While this is a valid application, it is blandly technical.
( __Delegation. — okay, need to check that one off the list . . . )

More compelling is the calling, commissioning, and sending.  Imagine being one of the twelve before they were The Twelve.  Jesus looks into your eyes and says that he sees the potential you have for doing the very things he is doing.  Maybe Jesus wants you to preach the Good News (Gospel) of what God is doing in the world; something you didn’t know you could do, but Jesus does.  Or maybe Jesus wants you to touch each other with care and compassion to heal the hurting and broken; something else you didn’t know you could do, but Jesus does.  And Jesus then confers upon you the authority to cast out demons in his name.  Becoming a “sent one”–an apostle–you’ve just been given the power (and responsibility) to change and save the world . . . at least the world around you.  And as you begin to protest, telling Jesus you can’t do what he does or you don’t have the time or you doubt yourself so that you might be willing to help but not to be given too much responsibility, Jesus reminds you that he knows what you are capable of even if you do not.  And then he reminds you that the Holy Spirit will always be with you and you will never go it alone.

When we claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we add our name to his list of his resources.  When Jesus calls and invites you to work with him, how will you respond?