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.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Mark: Awe & Wonder

There is a sense in which I cheated with yesterday's post: this week's section of the CTM parish sermon series is meant to cover chapter 4 of Mark, as well as the two chapters I looked at yesterday. Chapter 4 is important because at the end of it Mark plants a big signpost to who Jesus is, and why he matters, at the quarter-way point of his book.

My defence is that sermons and blog posts are different beasts, of different length and shape. I would see a sermon on these chapters starting with Jesus' words and actions, and the reactions they produced, and finishing with the storm story (see below) as a kind of punchline. But you can be a little longer and more complex in a sermon (although not too much so in the CofE!); in a blog context I decided two posts fitted better, with this bit of woffle linking them.

This way also gives me a bit of space to mention the parables block which makes up the bulk of chapter 4, and which the sermon series explicitly leaves out. One big problem with parables is that they are usually treated as 'stand-alones', not as part of an ongoing story. Since this sermon series is meant to be about context and continuity within Mark's Gospel, that wouldn't help.

The context of these parables is that they are a follow up to all that Jesus has been saying and doing about a message of good news which demands a reaction, effectively as a summary and reinforcement of the previous chapters.

So you have an apparently careless farmer scattering his seed onto mostly spoiled land, reflecting Jesus mission to the sick who know their need of a doctor, rather than to those who are sure they are well. Then you have other parables about a Kingdom which is visible, a light to the world, but which is to be held generously, given freely, and which grows in unexpected ways to bring comfort to many who are in need.

These are word pictures which make most sense when you look at the things which Jesus has already been saying and doing; if you just try to analyse and dissect their meaning from their text alone you end up with nothing more than dead words chopped up on the ground.

As chapter 4 draws to close, Mark has been painting a picture of Jesus as a remarkable teacher, preacher and prophet. Someone who speaks words of hope and comfort to the lost and words of truth to the powerful, and who backs up those words with action, healing and a sense of urgency.

Then Mark pulls the rug out. The final section of chapter 4 suddenly shows a new picture of Jesus, like a flash of lightning illuminating something new and unexpected.

It's just a brief story: Jesus is asleep in a boat, whilst the disciples take him across the Sea of Galilee. A storm blows up and the disciples - experienced fishermen - are panicking. They wake Jesus and complain to him. Jesus simply tells the wind to quieten down and the sea to be still ... and they do as they are told. "Who is this," the disciples say, "that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

It's a good question. There is a common view today that Jesus was a good man teaching wisdom and truth. That seems to have been about as far as the disciples had got, at this stage. This story is here as a signpost that there is a lot more to Jesus than that. That the Kingdom of God is far more real and impactful than maybe we imagine.

At the time Mark was writing this Gospel, this story mattered. Christians in Rome had been persecuted and brutally murdered; Judea and Galilee were aflame in a terrible revolt, brutally suppressed; the Roman Empire itself was in danger of falling apart as powerful men fought to be emperor. To most Jews of Jesus' day the sea and storms represented death and chaos, like the death and chaos that surrounded them in their lives.

Who is this who can quieten chaos and bring peace to death?

Then, as now, the question mattered.

Friday 12 June 2015

Mark: Provoking A Reaction

Click to see the original by Gun Legler
In chapter 1 of Mark we saw Jesus starting his ministry: moving quickly, urgently to tell people good news about God and about his kingdom, and illustrating that in his actions. He called disciples and they followed, he healed people and set them free, and multitudes came out to see him. But as the story unfolds we see other reactions.

Soon the grumbling starts.

Jesus doesn't just heal a paralysed man, he tells him his sins are forgiven: he has been set free of more than just his physical need. The religious leaders see that as blasphemy.

Jesus calls a tax collector - not just a collaborator but also unclean, a sinner under Jewish Law - who follows him, and invites his friends to meet Jesus. The religious people complain.

Jesus' disciples collect grains of wheat as they walk through a field and eat them. It was a Sabbath so the religious leaders object.

Then Jesus heals a man with a withered hand ... on the Sabbath ... in a synagogue! He challenges his critics' toxic views on religious duty, then shows what is right by healing the man in need. Jesus is angry and upset at their callousness; the religious leaders are incandescent and start to conspire with those in power to destroy Jesus.

Jesus and his message provoked reaction, but not always a good reaction. Jesus seems to have set out to bring people's deeper selves to the surface, whether that is a deep need of healing and acceptance, or a deep antagonism to anything which disrupts or challenges a set worldview.

One of the big challenges for any who wish to follow Jesus is how to balance humility with conviction, how to listen respectfully to others whilst challenging what is wrong and sharing hope with those in need, especially with the excluded and the disregarded. Part of doing that, it seems to me, is being aware of who Jesus helped and affirmed and who he challenged.

Jesus consistently reaches out to the excluded and the powerless, those who are despised. He equally consistently attacks those who would exclude, those who would delay healing, and those would highlight their own importance by putting others down.

In today's UK, especially after recent elections, popular attitudes to immigrants and to Muslims spring to mind. In much of the church, although less so perhaps in the UK as a whole, exclusion based on gender and sexuality remains an issue.

By the end of chapter 3, even Jesus’ own family have turned against him, as they say that he's out of his mind, and they come to take him away. Jesus responds by saying that those who follow him are his true family: “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” The rule of God overrides even ties of family.

At the time Mark was writing terrible persecution of Christians in Rome had divided families, both by setting them against one another, and by people having family members murdered. Mark is quoting Jesus's words as comfort to those who are bereaved or estranged: one of the roles of the church, Jesus' body, is to be family to those who have lost their families, to be brother, sister, mother to the lost and the alone. It is not just physical healing that Jesus brought then, and wants to bring now through his followers.

You can find the chapters of Mark I have been talking about on the Bible Gateway: Mark 2 and Mark 3 (in the occasionally idiosyncratic NRSV translation).

What is your reaction to these stories? What impression do they give you of Jesus? How would you feel if you heard and saw these things?

Note: A quick mention of the "unforgivable sin" referred to in Mark 3:28-29, as people sometimes get worried. Imagine you are lost at sea in stormy weather, about to drown, when the air-sea rescue helicopter comes out to rescue you. If you are so convinced that all helicopters are instruments of the devil, out to do you terrible harm, that you desperately and successfully fight off your rescuer, you will drown. So it can be with those whom the Spirit would save.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Mark: Good News Afresh

The trouble with words is that their meaning can be abused and hijacked. Too often 'good news', as presented by the religious, is anything but. Mark, in his Gospel, is careful to put things Jesus says in clusters with things he does, illustrating their meaning, and people's reactions, highlighting their significance.

The Mark's Gospel sermon series throughout the CTM Parish, here in Caversham, gets underway tomorrow. To anyone from a 'free' church a sermon series from a book of Scripture is doubtless unremarkable; in the C of E, which usually uses readings from a lectionary which is only interested in themes rather than books, it is unusual. So I hope it goes well, lest it just become a one-off - interesting but unfruitful.

I've already written a lot about the beginning of Mark in this blog: Gospel Beginning, Two Baptisms, Son of God, Through the Wilderness, and Mark After Trinity. That's probably overkill for one chapter of one Bible book in one blog in less than seven months, but here's one more. At least following along with the sermon series will push me out into the rest of Mark's Gospel over the next six weeks. ;-)

Evangelion can be translated as 'gospel' or 'good news' or 'important news' or 'a message of significance' or even 'hear ye, hear ye' - listen up. The introductory title line of Mark's book calls it "The beginning of the good news of Jesus the messiah, son of God," thereby introducing a pile of different themes and questions, many of which we'll come back to during the series. A key starting point is what did Jesus say about good news:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
"The time has come" -  the waiting is over. Mark's is an impatient Gospel, things happen quickly. It is full of 'immediately' and of Jesus moving on, provoking responses, challenging assumptions. The disciples are always one step behind, puzzled, confused, indignant, and even afraid.

But that is jumping ahead. First Jesus calls his first disciples. No messing: "Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men," an ambiguous reference of both hope and judgement to the words of the prophet Jeremiah. At once, Mark says, they leave their nets and follow him; without delay Jesus then calls two more fishermen, who also immediately follow.

Come the Sabbath, Jesus is in the synagogue at Capernaum, teaching the people and casting out a demon. People respond with wonder, and word of Jesus spreads. Straight away Jesus is healing: first Simon/Peter's mother-in-law, then a multitude.

Early in the morning Jesus finds a solitary place to pray then, when the disciples come to him, he is moving on. Not staying around to heal more people, but moving on to tell others, in other places, his message.

He heals a leper, moved with either pity or indignation at an implication that he might not want to, but tells him to get the healing checked and confirmed in the proper way, and to say nothing about what Jesus had done. The ex-leper told everyone anyway, and Jesus soon finds himself surrounded by crowds.

So far, so positive. What does this tell us about Jesus' 'good news'? That it is urgent, that it demands a response, that it brings healing to those in need, even to those excluded by society, and that it was to be spread far and wide, not just confined to one place.

What sort of response did Jesus' good news demand? Jesus calls on us to turn and follow him, to let go of all the stuff which holds us back, to turn to God through Jesus and to act. Not next week, or even tomorrow, but immediately.

And to trust in God and in him (in the New Testament the words translated 'believe' or 'faith' have a primary meaning of 'active trust' - a bit like the difference in English between believing something and believing in someone).

Try to imagine yourself hearing this story afresh, without the baggage of two thousand years. Let Jesus surprise you and amaze you. Respond to him openly and freely, and see what he is calling you to do today.

Not everyone responded positively to Jesus, though, as the story moves rapidly on. But that is a topic for next week.

Edit: The above is based around chapter 1 of Mark, which you can read on the Bible Gateway here.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

How To Remove The 'Get Windows 10' Icon

A quick techie post for anyone who, like me, objects to Microsoft sticking advertising for its next operating system in their notification area and all over their Windows Update screen.

If you have Windows 7 or 8 and have suddenly had an icon appear in the notification area which says 'Get Windows 10' when you hover over it then, as far as I can tell, this has appeared because of a 'recommended' windows update KB3035583. I got rid of it (and an associated splash screen in Windows Update itself) by uninstalling that update and then hiding it.

Do note that whilst this worked for me, you should use due diligence on your own computer. I take no responsibility for anything which may go wrong.

Edit: Somewhat annoyingly, KB3035583 appears to have unhidden itself and installed as part of July's patch-fest. I've uninstalled and hidden it again ... so far, so good. I'll have to watch August's patches more carefully.