Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Hate This Passage

Mark 8:27-38

by Daniel Harrell

Tonight’s look at the red-letters of Mark, the words spoken by Jesus, arrives at its climax. Since verse one of chapter one—where we as the readers were told that Jesus is the Son of God—tension has mounted as Jesus’ own disciples repeatedly fail to recognize his true identity. Despite a myriad of miracles and a ton of teaching, including last Sunday’s final exam on the significance of his feeding two multitudes with a few loaves of bread, the disciples still can’t see it. A crowd then brings a blind man to Jesus and begs Jesus to touch him. Jesus spits on him instead, saliva being a popular symbol of healing power. Except that Jesus’ saliva only manages a partial healing. Wiping the spit from his eyes, the blind man says, “I can see people, but they look like walking trees.” Whereas most healings in the Gospels occur instantaneously, this one happens in stages. Jesus has to put his hands on the man a second time and only then were “his eyes fully opened, his sight restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Sometimes an object lesson is necessary to get the point, which is this: the movement from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight sometimes take time. So Jesus gives his disciples more time. The walk from Bethsaida where the healing occurred to Caesarea Philippi took several days, plenty of time to put it all together. Upon arriving in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus starts off with a softball (or maybe it was a spitball): “Who do people say that I am?” Having heard the scuttlebutt expressed back in chapter 6, the disciples relayed it to Jesus: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Each of these designations belonged to recognized harbingers of the long-awaited Messiah, a savior who would come from God in Moses and King David fashion to rescue Israel from their miserable existence and re-establish them as a mighty nation. Messianic expectations ran high; so high that by Jesus’ day, the image of the Savior looked like Superman on steroids. This is chiefly why Jesus never referred to himself as “Messiah.” The term had become too politically and nationalistically loaded. Not that this mattered to the citizenry at large. By calling him John the Baptist and Elijah, it was clear that they only considered him the runner-up anyway. And why wouldn’t they? Despite the miracles and the teaching, he was still just a homely carpenter from Nazareth.

Now comes the second try. Jesus turns to his own disciples. “What about you?” he asks. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter steps up. “You are the Christ,” he blurts out (Christ being Greek for Messiah). In Matthew’s gospel, the crowd goes wild, or at least Jesus goes wild. “Well, hallelujah!” he says, “Good for you Simon! Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven.” Jesus goes on to give Peter the Oscar for best disciple along with keys to heaven and his new name Rocky.

In Mark, however, Jesus tells Peter to keep quiet. On the one hand, Jesus remains concerned that people’s high expectations of a Messiah will derail his mission. On the other hand, tradition holds that Mark was Peter’s right hand man. Maybe Peter insisted that Mark leave out the congratulatory remarks given how bad Peter’s own expectations were going to screw things up in the next few verses.

Peter finally sees Jesus as Christ the King, only to have Jesus announce that being king means being crowned with thorns and strung up to die. Such news did not sit well. It would be like a franchise athlete announcing that he’s going to let the opposing team run up the score. Or like the acclaimed war hero surrendering to an enemy without a fight. Or like the candidate you worked so hard to elect pushing the opposing party’s legislation instead. Or like Batman telling the Joker where to find the Bat Cave. How can Israel be saved if its Savior surrenders? How can a Messiah win if he loses? Peter pulls Jesus aside to straighten him out. He tells him to knock off the death talk. He’s scaring the other disciples. Did Peter not catch the line in verse 31 about Jesus “rising again after three days”? It doesn’t matter. Real messiahs don’t rise from the dead―real messiahs don’t die in the first place.

Jesus covers his ears and yells at Peter to get out of his face. Worse, he calls Peter Satan! Satan? Here you were thinking yourself to be Jesus’ BFF. Just trying to help. Looking after his best interests. Offer some friendly advice. Help him succeed as Savior. And how does he thank you? He calls you Satan! Are you kidding? Why would he do that? Peter’s words swept Jesus back to that desert experience following his baptism; where the devil first tried to divert him from the cross and onto the path of power, celebrity and fame. Isn’t this how any normal superstar Messiah would do it? C’mon, you can control the weather, walk on water and make dinner appear out of thin air. The armies of heaven are at your beckon call. Why limit your power, especially with all that’s wrong with the world? Satan had a point. And Jesus was tempted by it. But he refuses to give in, and we’re told that “the devil left him until a more opportune time.” Here it is. True, Satan will do better using Judas, but he doesn’t do bad using Peter. He definitely gets to Jesus. Speaking as much to himself as to Peter, he says, “You do not have in mind the ways of God, but the ways of men!”

OK, so Jesus would have to die. He would have to deny himself and take up a cross. Bad enough. But then comes the surprising part. If you were going to follow him, you’d have to deny yourself and take up a cross too. What, everybody goes down together? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it,” he says. I hate this passage. Sure, I believe that Jesus died for my sins. I grew up being taught that that the paycheck for sin is death and that Jesus’ death takes care of my death so that now my paycheck is made out for eternal life. For some reason, nobody ever told me the part about having to die too. OK, I knew I was going to die, but deny myself? I thought Jesus died for me! One day I was just reading my Bible, minding my own business, when I stumbled upon this passage, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross.”

I knew what it meant for Jesus to deny himself and take up his cross. What was this about me having to take up mine? I asked around. “Oh that!” people said. That just means putting up with difficulties in life, you know, like not getting mad at obnoxious drivers. Somebody else was like, “that’s just Jesus’ way of saying don’t be selfish.” Others suggested how I was supposed to “work to fix my bad habits,” or “stop lusting and being greedy” or even “give up sweets for Lent.” But these were the crosses I had to bear, I thought none of them seemed to be so much about denying myself as about improving myself, which had nothing to do with denial at all. There is a tendency in America to reduce the gospel down to a set of principles, as if Jesus’ main mission is to make life easier.

I was telling you last Sunday about the Christian who bought an atheist’s soul on eBay and made him to go to church so that the Christian could get some fresh perspective on Christianity. In one church they attended together, the sermon basically went like this: “Go for stability. Being moody is a selfish way to live. Nobody likes moody people, including God. Your will is stronger than your emotions. Don’t be moody and your life will be easier, praise the Lord.” (Seriously) Afterwards, the Christian turned to the atheist and how asked how anybody could find this objectionable. The atheist agreed, “It’d be like disliking the taste of water. It’s so bland, how can it offend? By the same token, how can it inspire? Be stable? Did Jesus say that?”

This story sent me to the writings of the 19th century Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. I pull out Kierkegaard out whenever I’m having a bad day—just to make sure I milk it for everything it’s worth. After detecting how fellow philosophers devoted themselves to making people’s lives easier, Kierkegaard subsequently dedicated himself to making people’s lives harder (which he did in part by publishing only in Danish). In regard to Jesus’ words, he wrote, “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

For the earliest Christians, “taking up a cross” meant being strung up on one too. And yet for Christians in America taking up a cross is sort of like taking up cross-country skiing. In theory it can kill you, I guess, but you’d have to be a real doofus. Mostly, nobody cares. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m relieved most days that being a Christian in America (even a Christian minister) means that I’m generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean I could live in Pakistan where police recently opened fire on a Christian gathering. Or in Indonesia, where three children’s workers were detained for running a Christian church camp. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of sharing their faith.

Whenever I read about such Christians, it’s always with a request to pray for their release or rescue—a request with which I’m sometimes reluctant to comply. The history of the church has shown over and over again how persecution only surfaces whenever Christian communities genuinely follow Jesus, publicly living out his countercultural commandments to pursue peace and justice, fight for the poor, love enemies, speak truth and refuse to worship the idols of prosperity. Jesus wasn’t saying that you have to die to follow him; but rather, following him could get you killed.

Of course the alternative was worse. Verse 38: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.” In other words, “follow me or you’re doomed.” Most people conclude that Jesus is talking about hell here: There was a day when the threat of hell was enough to make a person come to Jesus. These days people wonder what kind of God would ever send a person to hell and why would anybody worship a God who did that? But notice that Jesus says nothing here at least about anybody going to hell. He’s not addressing not so much unbelievers as his own disciples; believers who are embarrassed about what they believe. Imagine Jesus showing up with all the angels and opening wide the door to heaven, and overwhelmed by God’s grace as you walk in, only to have Jesus lean over and whispers, “I am so ashamed of you.” What a lousy way to spend eternity.

Another (more Biblical) picture that always comes to my mind is of Peter again, this time talking to the resurrected Jesus on the beach, after all the suffering and dying Jesus said would happen were done. Jesus gets right to the point: “Simon (reverting back to his pre-Rocky name), do you really love me?” Jesus asks it three times, obviously to match the three times Peter was ashamed of Jesus. Three times Peter denied ever knowing Jesus at the moment Jesus needed him most. Peter replies to Jesus each time, “Lord you know I love you,” the third time with deep grief, no doubt recalling his own shameful behavior. Jesus responds, “feed my lambs.” In other words, “show me.”

I don’t know how many of you had the chance to be here last night to hear Shane Claiborne, the author and activist known for his do-rag, dread locks and horn-rimmed glasses. He described his own Kierkegaardian encounter with the Bible which led him to wonder where the people lived who asked the question: “What if Jesus really meant the stuff he said?” His search led him to pick up the phone and call Mother Theresa. He tells a funny story about bugging nuns to get her number, and then calling it expecting a nice receptionist to answer saying “Sisters of Charity, how may we help you?” Instead, he got this gravelly “hullo” only to find out that he was talking to the Momma T herself. After his initial shock, he told her how he wanted to come to Calcutta and work with her, to which she said, “come on then.” Was it that easy? OK, but where will we stay and eat, do we need to arrange accommodations? To which Mother Theresa replied, “God takes care of the lilies and the sparrows and God will take care of you too. Just come.” So he did. He went on to describe the remarkable experience that was, and how it led to his returning to find his own Calcutta in North Philadelphia where he now lives in simple community with a group of other Christians among the poor, serving them with the best they have, since to serve the least is to serve Jesus himself. Many ask about all that he has given up to do what he does, to which he quickly replies that following Jesus has never been about all that he’s given up, but all that he’s found. “And I have found so much,” he said.

Framed in this fashion, this passage becomes hard to hate anymore. To “deny yourself” is not to deprive yourself, but to give yourself to God by giving yourself to others with love. Maybe the question for Ash Wednesday is not “what are you giving up for Lent” but “what are you giving out for Jesus?” “Do you really love me? Then feed my lambs,” he said, which I always admire for its simplicity. Mother Theresa was famous for saying, “We can do no great things, just small things with great love. It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” Someone once remarked upon seeing Mother Theresa’s work, “I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.” To which Mother Theresa replied, “neither would I.”

After Mother Theresa died in 1997, Shane Claiborne was asked whether her spirit would live on. He replied, “To be honest, Mother Theresa died a long time ago, when she gave her life to Christ.” May the same be said for all who follow Jesus.

Got Bread?

Mark 8:14-26

by Daniel Harrell

Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers this week, which means you’re stuck with me tonight. It was fun having Red Sox reliever Justin Masterson with us last Sunday, though, truth be told, none of us expected him to preach a whole sermon. I guess since his dad is a preacher, as well as his uncle and two cousins, the genes sort of took over. Given his preacher DNA, I asked whether his family was disappointed that he became a Major League baseball pitcher. He said he didn’t think so, especially given all the celebrity that has come his way. Not that celebrity guarantees family approval. Nobody was more famous than Jesus, and yet Mark reports how his own mother and brothers thought he was insane. Moreover, the leaders of his own religious community regarded him as a renegade. Nevertheless, given his DNA, Jesus persisted in his determination to shepherd the lost sheep of Israel back into right relationship with God. Of course, these sheep never could see Jesus as their shepherd. No matter how powerful his sermons or amazing his miracles, believing that somehow God had come in the flesh—or at least in the flesh of some run-of-the-mill carpenter out of Nazareth—was just too much of a stretch.

Interestingly, the only ones who did recognize Jesus as the Son of God were the demons. Given how Jesus was kicking them around it was hard for demons not to notice. And then the last time we were in Mark we read how a Gentile woman with a demon-possessed daughter (three strikes in first century Jewish religious culture) was the first human to call Jesus “Lord” (even though Jesus called her a poodle). There is a perspective that comes with being an outsider that makes it easier to see what’s authentic. I’m reading a book about this Christian and this atheist who go to church together so that the Christian can get some fresh perspective on Christianity. If I have the story straight, they met when the atheist auctioned his soul on eBay a couple of years ago, sort of as a joke, I guess. The Christian bought it for 500 dollars. But rather than make the atheist convert (if indeed that would have been possible), the Christian made the atheist go to church and give his honest feedback for this book the Christian was writing. Not only did they publish the book, but they went out on the seminar circuit speaking mostly to Christians about how they can do better about getting atheists to come to Jesus. Not that this atheist can ever come to Jesus himself—at this point salvation would completely ruin his income stream. Nevertheless, some of his insights are interesting to read. For instance, he was completely astonished by how he could go to one church to hear about the Bible, but then travel just a few miles down the road and hear something totally different about the same Bible. The atheist said to the Christian, “You all read the same book, but it feels like you’re not even close to being on the same page.”

OK, so maybe that’s not so interesting. It’s been like that for a long time. For the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, their read of the Bible taught them that salvation came through strict religious adherence. God’s grace was for those who followed the rules. For others, represented by the Roman puppet King Herod Antipas, their read of the Bible taught them that salvation would come as political and military power. God’s grace was applied with a big stick. Jesus shows up neither respecting religious tradition (he works on the Sabbath and fails to ceremonially wash his hands before dinner), nor displaying any indication of political power (he has no army, no weaponry, no money). He did have power, however. Not only did he heal disease and feed thousands with a few slices of bread, but he stopped storms and walked on water too. And yet none of these miracles were ever regarded as Messiah material. It was like the woman who mentioned how she enjoyed hearing Justin Masterson preach last Sunday, but then whispered how I needn’t worry about my job. Sure the guy can throw strikes, but his exegesis of Jeremiah hardly parsed out the implications of Israel’s exilic predicament rendering any immediate realization of prophetic expectation extremely problematic. I mean, c’mon.

What’s especially sad in Mark’s gospel is how badly Jesus’ own hand-picked disciples struggle to get what Jesus is talking about. Though he put everything in the simplest terms of farmers and seeds, he still had to take them aside over and over again to explain what he meant. I’ve been trying to do the same as I’ve walked us through Mark’s gospel, stopping on the red-letters that denote Jesus’ own words. I say “trying” because not only are the simple sayings still hard to understand, but Jesus’ explanations are too. I may label the disciple’s thickheadedness sad, but only because I can empathize with them. Though sometimes I wonder if it’s all just a smokescreen. For followers of Jesus who believe he’s God in the flesh, understanding what he says means you have to do something about it. One of the major critiques the atheist had of the churches he visited was that they all talked about believing in Jesus as if believing the right beliefs the right way was all that mattered. “Just believe” and you’re good to go. And that’s true. But Jesus also said that genuine belief always bears fruit. It’s not “get saved by grace” and then you can do whatever you please. Nor is it like the Pharisees back in chapter 7 who acted as if the behavior substituted for belief; that righteousness was merely a matter of proper menu and manners. Eat the right food the right way and you were covered. You’ll remember that Jesus labeled that logic a big pile of poo.

In verse 17 of tonight’s passage, an exasperated Jesus wonders aloud why his disciples’ hearts are so hard. They’d had everything explained and had seen everything too. They were in the boat when Jesus changed the weather. They were in the boat when Jesus walked on water. They were on the shore when he fed 5000 and on the shore again when he fed 4000 more. The Pharisees had seen most of this too but still want more proof. Frustrated, Jesus blows them off and gets back in his boat and heads back across the lake (no word as to why he didn’t just stomp back across the water). In the boat, he warns his disciples to beware the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Herod. Given the Jewish experience of unleavened bread as a symbol of God’s holiness, “yeast” was a metaphor for corruption and evil. Just a little bit of the Pharisees’ lust for privilege or Herod’s lust for power would corrupt everything Jesus was about. However the disciples hear “yeast” and think that Jesus is scolding them for not packing enough bread for their trip. Again, this comes just two paragraphs after feeding 4000 men with seven loaves. Astounding, really. Did they actually think Jesus was worried about bread?

For those of you here for the first time tonight, know that because I’ve been focusing mostly on what Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, I’ve skipped over most of the miracles, including this latest feeding of 4000. I also skipped Jesus feeding of 5000 back in chapter 6 since Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say there either (although his actions clearly spoke volumes). If you’re unfamiliar with these stories, both basically have a celebrity Jesus engulfed by his fans with nary a concession stand in sight. Mark writes that Jesus had compassion on them because they were, as the Israelites of old, “like sheep without a shepherd” and so he teaches them about God. As his sermon runs on his disciples get worried about dinner, knowing that a hungry crowd can become an ornery crowd. Jesus suggests they feed everybody, which only freaks out the disciples since all they have is a few loaves and two fish and no money. Turns out that was more than enough for Jesus. He took what they had and miraculously stretched it to feed the whole throng with 12 baskets of food left over. I always wonder how he did it. Would the bread regenerate each time somebody pulled off a piece? Or did the whole loaf becomes some monster loaf of bread? Or did Jesus keep pulling it out of a basket like so many rabbits out of hat? Mark doesn’t say. He just says that everyone ate until full.

Whatever the mechanics of the event, the disciples had to be blown away. Bread from thin air? The only time they’d ever heard of anything like this would have been way back in Sunday (Sabbath) School where their rabbi would have taught them about the Israelites stuck in the desert being miraculously fed by God with bread from heaven. Hey, wait a minute. Hungry people in a deserted place with no food followed by a miraculous provision of bread, might there be some connection? Could Jesus be God in the flesh? Clearly the disciples weren’t willing to go that far since later in chapter 6 they were terrified to see Jesus walk on water. Mark writes that had they understood about the wonder bread they would have just shrugged since any God in the flesh should be able to walk on water too. But alas, a remedial lesson is required. Chapter 8. Another large crowd, 4000 this time, gathered with nothing to eat. Again, Jesus sets the table, only to have the disciples display the same remarkable density. They ask with no trace of sarcasm: “Where in this desolate place can anyone get enough bread to feed all these people?”

Even if it is possible for a man to witness 5000 people fed with five loaves of bread and forget that, what are the chances that twelve men all suffered similar dementia? Granted, we are talking about men here—remembering is not our strong suit, but still…. Some scholars suggest that the disciples didn’t want to impose on Jesus because performing miracles seemed to irritate him so. But it’s not feeding hungry people that irritates Jesus. What irritates Jesus is his disciples’ failure to put twelve and seven together. “You have eyes―can’t you see? You have ears―can’t you hear? Don't you remember anything at all?” He does the math all over again: “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

Understand what? Twelve plus five is nineteen? There are twelve of us, seven days a week? What? What?

The disciples didn’t forget. They just didn’t get it. I can empathize. Was it a smokescreen? For followers of Jesus who believe he’s God in the flesh, understanding what he says means you have to do something about it. But I’m not sure the disciples believe that Jesus is God in the flesh. That’s coming soon, but for now they still can’t see it. They remember the numbers, they know the facts, they just don’t understand what it all means. I can empathize with that too. There are plenty of things I know that I can’t understand. For instance, I know that there are more plastic flamingos in the US than real ones, but I don’t understand it. I know that Robert Downey Jr. is nominated as best supporting actor for his role in Tropic Thunder, but I don’t understand that either. I know that economists insist that the only way to get our country out of its financial quagmire is to dig a deeper hole of national debt, but I don’t understand it. Likewise, I know that in spite of my sinfulness, God loves me anyway, but I don’t understand it. I know I believe Jesus is God in the flesh, yet I fail to love others as God has loved me. I don’t understand it.

The atheist described how funny it was to go into churches where you’re are asked to greet the people seated around you (not sure which church he’s talking about there). “Why do you have to tell people to talk to each other? Shouldn’t Christians naturally care about each other enough to greet each other without being told?” Later he tells the story of a buddy of his strung out on cocaine who had a come to Jesus and got clean. All these Christian people surrounded him and loved him and got him involved in their church and were really looking after him. He told everybody how God cured him of his addiction. But then about six months down the line this same buddy started doing coke again, though he kept going to church and leading a 12-step group. The crazy part, the atheist said, was that his buddy came to him with his problems now because he felt he couldn’t talk about what was happening with any of his fellow churchgoers. He worried they’d go all judgmental on him for being such a hypocrite, as if grace had a statute of limitations. I can empathize. I’ll hesitate to confess my own screw-ups because I’m not sure forgiveness is really out there. Or maybe it’s because I can be so unforgiving myself. Even though God forgives me all the time.

How do we fix this? How do we see like we need to see? How do we finally understand? How do we finally understand enough that we do something about it? Verse 22. Jesus and the disciples arrived on shore and some people brought out a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. So he took the blind man by the hand and then spit on his eyes. Saliva has historically been a common home remedy as well as a theme in ancient healing stories. It’s good for removing spots from your tie. When you cut your finger, you instinctively stick it in your mouth. The 4th century church father Ambrose wrote that saliva was a prototype of baptism. True fact: the Greek word for spit is ptooey. Jesus spits in the blind man’s eyes and lays hands on him and then asks whether he can see anything. The man looked and said he saw people looking like trees walking.

What’s surprising here is that unlike most healings in the Gospels which occur instantaneously, this one happens in stages. Jesus puts his hands on the man a second time and then “his eyes were fully opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” Given the heavy emphasis on “not seeing” previously conversation in the boat, you would have to be particularly myopic yourself if you missed the significance of this one. In reality, the movement from spiritual blindness to full sight is often gradual. Furthermore, the movement from spiritual blindness to full sight is never something you can pull off on your own. You need Jesus to see Jesus. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus asks. There remains a ring of hope in that dangling question. Do you not yet understand? Not yet? The question isn’t so much a rebuke as it is invitation. Let us ask Jesus to spit into our eyes too.