Thursday, 2 July 2015

Mark: Poverty, Service, Struggle

If you take a strip of, say, paper and stick the ends together with a single twist you end up with a Moebius strip - see picture.

One odd property of a Moebius strip is that if you start from the top and follow the same side all the way around the loop, instead of ending up back where you started you are on the other side: upside-down and back-to-front. One could say that a Moebius strip is a parable of the Kingdom.

In Mark's Gospel, on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells them that the wealthy, for whom all doors are opened in normal experience, face a challenge akin to threading a needle with a camel. Power and status come from service and humility, not from coercion and wheeler-dealing. Religious authorities are called to account for abusing and exploiting the faithful. The giving of the poor is valued more than the beneficence of the rich. The values Mark describes in this week's chapters are really nothing like our normal world.

The promise is that one day everywhere will live by these upside-down values, when God's Kingdom comes. In the meantime it is up to those who follow Jesus to do what they can to demonstrate these priorities to a waiting world. Those with power and status may hate them, but there will be others who are just waiting to hear that things can and will be different, that there really is a better way to live.

So it was with Jesus, and so it is for those who truly follow him today.

But Mark had another point. Mark was writing for people who had suffered terrible persecution in Rome. They had lost family members and friends, homes and livelihoods to Nero's spite. Their world had turned upside down; Mark is telling them to hold on, to stick with Jesus because his kingdom was easier to get into from an upside-down state.

When you have sufficient wealth and social status and influence, it is hard not to feel secure in that - to put your trust in those things. When you have lost them you realise how fallible they are and, maybe, are ready to seek something or someone more reliable to trust your life to.

In his discussion with Peter about riches, camels and needles, Jesus says this:
"Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life."
In the context of the persecuted Christians of Rome, as well as those in Galilee and Judea caught up in Vespasian's brutal suppression of a Jewish rebellion, this is about the church.

The church community is to be family for those who have lost family, provide homes to those who have lost homes, and give purpose and meaning to those who have lost their livelihoods.

In other words, the church - then and now - is called to act as the heart and hands and feet and voice of Jesus, and to look after those who have suffered for him.

In this, Mark's message is good news for rich and poor alike. The poor because they will find help amongst God's people, the rich because they can use their wealth, status and influence for good, to help those in need. If they can do this in humility and service then they may indeed find their camels travelling smoothly through that needle.

With God all things are possible.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Mark: Turn & Step

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

The halfway point in our CTM Parish sermon series on Mark seems an appropriate point to focus on what we have learnt so far about 'good news', about the Gospel which Jesus' followers are supposed to live out and to proclaim.

Only once in Mark, right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, does Jesus explicitly say what the good news is, in that strangely circular statement above.

After that Mark applies the principle of "Show, don't tell".

He illustrates the good news by the people who are healed, he illustrates it with parables (the word more or less means 'illustration'), he illustrates it with different people's responses, and he illustrates it with the things that Jesus did and said. But he never directly expands on Jesus' initial words.

Then as now, Jesus' brief proclamation was filled with loaded terms. People thought they understood them, so Jesus had to show that God was doing way more then they could imagine.

I suggest the following as a starting point: for 'Kingdom of God' read 'God's people' (therefore part of God's future of justice, peace and security); for 'repent' read 'turn to God'; and for 'believe' read 'trust'. There's more to all these terms, as you can see as you engage with Mark's Gospel, but these should set you off on the right track.

Also, when you read "repent and believe the good news", don't read that as an order, a burden; read it as an opportunity, and an unexpected one at that. The good news is that you can "repent and believe the good news." You can turn to God and be accepted into his people!

Reading the first half of Mark's Gospel, as we have been doing, makes it clear that membership of God's people (ie entry to God's Kingdom) is open to all, especially those who have long believed themselves to be excluded. Yet many, who believe themselves already safely included, exclude themselves by their attitude to Jesus and to those whom they would keep out.

Open to all, but you still have to turn to God through Jesus and trust him enough step out in faith. Turn and step: what does that look like?

For his first disciples it was dramatic: they dropped everything and followed Jesus, leaving behind the security of home and livelihood.

For the paralysed man it started with friends who trusted Jesus, but it ended with him picking up his bed and carrying it out, in front of everybody.

For Jairus, the synagogue leader, it meant putting aside his status as an important community leader and going out to ask Jesus for help, then holding on to hope and trust in Jesus when everyone around said it was over, his daughter was dead.

For the already-humbled woman with a haemorrhage it meant risking public shame, or worse, by going quietly up to Jesus and touching him, then stepping up and publicly admitting that she had done so.

For the twelve it meant going out, in pairs, without supplies, to neighbouring towns and villages, to tell them to turn to God, and to heal their sick.

For the apostles surrounded by hungry people it meant taking what little was available and using it to achieve more than seemed possible.

For the disciples who still missed the point (again and again) it meant carrying on following Jesus, even when they just didn't understand.

Many of the scribes and Pharisees thought they didn't need to change, didn't need to turn or step anywhere; maybe they had done that long ago and felt no need to do so again. My experience is that turning and stepping is a lifelong process. For many of us there was an important first time - for others there was not - but still we drift and wander as we walk, and we forget to trust, or take God's love for granted, and so we need to turn and step again. That's what many religious people struggle to grasp.

I've presented this as a list because I want you to be able to see Mark's examples and to consider whether any of them are applicable to you. Because Mark was telling these stories for his readers' benefit: he wanted them to turn and step out in faith again, especially those who were worn down and losing hope. 

Mark wanted them, and us, to see that we can always turn to God through Jesus, and step out in trust in the way that is best suited to our need. Because God loves us and wants us in his Kingdom, to be his people, and to know the comfort of his Spirit.

Finally, this halfway point is not the end of what Mark has to show us concerning the good news of Jesus. In the second half of his Gospel the good news becomes more situational: focussing on good news in bad circumstances, rather than good news for supposedly bad people. But that is for the next few weeks.

For today, my prayer for you is that you will see and feel God's love for you, and that you will turn to Him and step out in trust to more fully receive and grow in that love.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Mark: Turning Toward Golgotha

Halfway through Mark's Gospel suddenly the penny drops ... partly.

"You are the Messiah," says Peter, but promptly loses the plot when Jesus talks about dying.

Jesus has been proclaiming good news to the poor, has been gathering in the lost and the outcast, has cast out demons and healed the sick, and has provoked reactions wherever he went. Pretty convincing behaviour for a prophet and a holy man.

But Jesus has also calmed a storm, fed five thousand with five loaves and a couple of fish, then walked across a lake and fed four thousand more with seven loaves and a few small fish. What sort of prophet does these things? The disciples were confused and didn't understand. Then Peter makes a mental leap.

At once Jesus' mission changes direction, and the pace drops. Now Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem and to death. Poor old Peter is left bewildered again. “Get behind me, Satan!” seem harsh, but maybe something strong was needed to start to get past Peter’s mental block?

Peter thought he'd got it sussed: he knew what the story was now, and where things were going. When Jesus goes off in another direction he is lost and confused.

Mark was writing for readers who were lost and confused. Their world had turned upside down: in persecution, rebellion and civil war there seemed to be no justice, no peace, no hope. What comfort could Mark offer them? Or us?

What Mark offers is mystery. A mountaintop experience, where Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah - symbolising the Law and the Prophets fulfilled in Jesus. God's voice again comes down affirming Jesus, this time for the disciples to hear too: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!

Jesus is not starting a new religion. What he is doing reveals the proper understanding of the Hebrew scriptures. The Scribes and the Pharisees had lost their way; Jesus calls them, and us, to a true understanding of what following God means. And part of that understanding involves dying to the old and being raised for the new.

Part of that ‘new’ is a new approach to importance, to status and power. “Who is the greatest?” The one who seems least and serves most is the greatest!

What sort of Messiah, of King, is Jesus? Maybe more to the point, how much regard and reputation can his followers expect. Status, respect, authority – the disciples weren't the only religious leaders to want such things; now they are being told the price.

Just as the one who seeks their own life will lose it, so the person who seeks status and authority will not be important in God’s eyes and in God’s kingdom. It is only those who throw away such things who will gain them.

Mark is generally believed to have got the material for this Gospel from Peter, several years later. Maybe the way Mark portrays the disciples' confusion, and Peter's continual cluelessness, reflects that Peter has finally learnt this lesson. How happy are we to look like idiots, if it helps others see more clearly?

The first half of Mark leads us to this point of confused recognition; from here onward the road leads to suffering and death ... and beyond that to new life.

Maybe this was hope for the suffering Christian community in the late 60's AD; maybe it is hope for us now when life goes badly wrong. But that hope remains shrouded in mystery and confusion.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Mark: Reactions To Jesus

Jesus came to set us free from our past, not to encourage us to wallow in it.

I am a pedant: it irks me when people who should know better mix up repentance and penitence. Penitence is about being sorry and remorseful - a reasonable thing to do, perhaps, but on its own it doesn't take you anywhere much. Repentance, in the Bible, is about change: a change of heart, a change of attitude, a change of direction. I have a theory that religious people muddle the two up because they really don't like change.

We're already nearing the half-way point of Mark in the CTM sermon series. Covering the sixteen chapters of Mark in only seven weeks means we get through it awfully quickly! The title/outline that Mark gives at the very beginning tells us that this first half is about the good news of Jesus leading up to the recognition that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.

I hope you are also seeing Mark's focus on different people's responses to Jesus and his good news - that the Kingdom of God has come near and we are to repent and believe the good news. As I said above repentance is about a change of direction: turning away from the ways of the world and turning to God; whilst believing is mostly about trusting.

The final reading for this week has Jesus winding up the religious leaders again. As usual it starts with them being critical and judgemental, then escalates when Jesus puts them right. The trouble is that they are sure of their own rightness and do not want to change. But Jesus calls everybody to repentance - to change - whether religious or not.

Actually, it seems to me that the religious leaders have three big objections to his teaching. One is on the surface - that what Jesus says and does doesn't fit in with their interpretation of Scripture. The other two are more visceral, it seems: firstly that Jesus is demanding that they must change to enter into God's Kingdom; and secondly that Jesus is encouraging all sorts of people whom they exclude to change and so enter into God's Kingdom - law-breakers, collaborators, the 'unclean' and the disreputable, all are invited to turn and enter into the Kingdom of God.

Maybe that's why reactions to Jesus are so different: those who feel entitled are threatened by what he says, whilst those who feel lost and hopeless respond to the new hope that Jesus brings.

The question for us is to see Jesus' challenge to our favourite beliefs, our views of who is in and who is out, and see how we react to that.

Churches are in an odd position. On the one hand we are called to proclaim grace: God’s forgiveness and acceptance of anyone (even an unclean woman deliberately contaminating Jesus ... even an immigrant, a tax-dodger, a paedophile, a politician?). On the other hand, organisations (and societies) need rules to live by.

Church history is littered with examples of this going wrong: churches seeking social control, power and influence – just like the scribes and Pharisees. But it is also full of those who step out in faith to serve others, to call unexpected people to Jesus, to shine Grace into the darkness. It’s just that the latter, being less self-serving, are often less-noticed.

Who in Caversham (or wherever your community may be) needs, really needs, to know that God loves them, warts and all? Who needs to know that they are a beloved child of God, whatever their past? How can we help them to understand this? And how can we really understand this for ourselves?

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Mark: Faith Power Action

Healing In His Wings
by Debra K. Gaines
What a dreadful woman! Unclean, forbidden from touching anybody, there she is in the middle of a jostling crowd around the Rabbi, the holy man. And she dares to touch him! Will God strike her down?

Mark sometimes uses a kind of 'sandwich' technique: half way through one story he suddenly interrupts with another before completing the first. The idea, presumably, is that the two stories illuminate one another.

In the second half of chapter 5 of Mark he does this with two healing accounts. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, an important man, comes to Jesus for help as his daughter is dying. As Jesus is on his way, the story is interrupted by a woman "who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years."

In religious terms she was 'unclean' and excluded from society whilst the haemorrhage went on - twelve years! No wonder she was desperate.

Two intertwined stories: one of a desperate man, who would be considered an acceptably holy man by 'decent society'; one of a desperate woman, who would not. How would Jesus treat the two of them?

In both cases he responds to their need. Jesus was quite capable, when the situation called for it, of being decidedly caustic with religious leaders; in this case Jairus was a father desperate about his daughter before he was a religious leader (I do highly recommend the film The Miracle Maker, which highlights this conflict). The unnamed woman was just desperate.

Jesus met both needs. But with the woman he went deeper. After twelve years of frustration and exclusion her need went deeper. He speaks to her, he gets her to acknowledge her need in words, and he tells her "your faith has healed you." After twelve years seemingly cursed by God, she is told she has faith which can bring healing: she is an important person before God. Now she can go in peace, freed from her suffering.

There is an oddity here: the woman is told her faith has healed her, yet the account also says that Jesus felt the healing power going out from him. There seems to be a link between faith and power.

'Faith' in the New Testament, it should be remembered, always means something more along the lines of 'active trust' than 'propositional belief'. If we have faith in Jesus it means that we trust our lives to him, not so much that we believe intellectually that there was a guy called Jesus in the Middle East two thousand years ago (although in this case that might be considered something of a prerequisite). Similarly, the word usually translated 'belief' is a related word which most often refers to believing in a person, not to believing some sort of abstract truth statement.

Jesus power is set free in our lives when we live out our trust in him.

So Jesus sends out his disciples, in pairs, to tell people about God's Kingdom and to heal them, It strikes me that this is very early in their discipleship. It seems going out together to tell people about Jesus and his message is a basic part of following Jesus, not just something for his most advanced students. It also strikes me that they were sent out in pairs: sharing freedom and healing in Jesus isn't just an individual ministry, it is something we are called to do together; proclaiming God's Kingdom is a joint task ... so I wonder why church preachers stand alone?

In Mark the pace is brisk: while the disciples are doing their stuff, John the Baptist is beheaded - there can be a heavy cost to doing God's will and speaking God's truth. They are no sooner back and looking forward to a quiet debrief than crowds gather, five thousand are fed, and they are missing the point again.

The calling of all who would follow Jesus is to step out in faith and power and to take action. If we get it wrong, that is part of the walk, part of the growing. If we don't do anything, don't trust him enough to step out at all, that is a problem.

To finish, a verse from a poem I came across this morning on Paquita7's poetry blog, which struck a chord:-

Pause before you act but act
Fast flows the life that's purpose packed
Turn wistful dreams to concrete fact
Think before you act but act.