Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Big Day

Revelation 21

by Daniel Harrell

Happy Pentecost! I know. It doesn’t quite carry the same ring as Merry Christmas or He is Risen. Perhaps Happy Birthday would be more appropriate. After all, Pentecost is the official birthday of the church. Sadly, Pentecost doesn’t get all the attention that Christmas and Easter do. I doubt that many of you are exchanging Pentecost presents or heading out after church for a tasty Pentecost brunch. Part of the problem there could be that the Pentecost image of fiery tongues descending on people’s heads doesn’t really inspire many appetizing food options. It is a weird picture―though not necessarily any weirder than a virgin birth or a man rising from the dead. And it’s certainly no weirder than anything we’ve encountered so far in the book of Revelation. For three years I’ve been walking us through Revelation during my morning preaching turns, and we’re almost done. Chapter 21, while not a traditional Pentecost text, does supply its own dramatic descent. Only rather than flaming tongues coming down, John writes in verse 2: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

For me the best part about weddings in when the bride comes down the aisle. Everyone is poised on the edge of their pews, phones and cameras ready. The mother of the bride dabs away happy tears. The organ swells and the back doors swing open to unveil the bride’s glorious presence. There’s always an audible gasp of delight, always a giddy gleam that crosses the groom’s face as he realizes “this gorgeous woman coming down that aisle is mine!” I’ve seen many a bride come down that aisle—but I’ve yet to see one single bride swing down from the balcony. That would be weird—though that’s sort of how she does it in Revelation 21.

Granted, the bride who descends in Revelation is not a woman but a city as big as nearly half of the United States. Weird again: envisioning a large city clad in a wedding dress stretches the imagination. Nevertheless, Jerusalem always held a special spot in God’s heart. From the time of King David, Jerusalem represented God’s people Israel, the Lord’s beloved bride. Jerusalem was the home address of God’s House; the place where he lived in his holy Temple. Interestingly here, the New Jerusalem has no Temple. It’s been replaced, or better, rendered obsolete. Verse 22: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Jerusalem’s Temple was God’s House, but it was not necessarily home sweet home. The Temple functioned more like self-imposed house arrest. Due to God’s righteous hostility toward infidelity and sin, God knew that if he ever left his house, his often unfaithful people were done for.

That the Temple curtains ripped in two at Jesus’ crucifixion was not an invitation to an open house, but represented open season on sin. The curtains tore as the righteous anger of God against evil finally escaped and tore into Jesus—the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world by taking sin onto himself. The Temple was now obsolete. The crucified Lamb made it possible for God to dwell among his people and not kill them. From the earliest chapters of Scripture, God promised that one day he would live and walk among his people again―just as he had done at creation. With new creation, it finally happens. In verse 3, a loud voice announces from the throne that the dwelling of God is now with his people. The wedding is on.

Chapters 20 and 21 portray the big day not just as the big day for Revelation, but the big day for the entire Bible. Revelation is not so much Biblical prophecy as it is the fulfillment of prophecy. Way back in Isaiah, the Lord declared, “Behold, I will create (future tense) new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” In Revelation 21, John writes, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth (past tense), for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City (past tense), the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The past tense indicates the surety of God’s promises, so sure that their fulfillment can be envisioned as having already happened. Verse 6 confirms this: God says, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.’” This too fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy; already rehearsed by Jesus with the woman at the well. “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,” Isaiah said. “Whoever drinks the water I give him never thirst,” Jesus echoed, “The water I give will become a spring of water within (read the Holy Spirit here) welling up to eternal life.”

On the one hand then, Revelation is nothing new. Yet on the other hand, God is making everything new. “New” is this buzzword here, so much so that we probably should call the end times the new times, or even better, the good times, given what finally transpires. There’s no more death or mourning or crying or pain, all these things are gone. No more terminal illnesses, no more incurable diseases, no more fatal accidents or funeral services. There’s no more problem of evil because there is no more evil. God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. There’s no more struggle between faith and science and reason because we “see face to face.” There’s no more doubt because “the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (to cite Isaiah one more time). There’s no need for sun and moon anymore because the glory of God provides all the light―a light that so shines in the darkness that darkness becomes as day.

It’s literally heaven on earth. Note that unlike popular depictions, heaven comes down to us, we don’t fly away to it. That John sees a “new heaven and a new earth” means that he sees them together as one. The sea―that satanic abode of chaos, disorder and darkness that kept them separate―is all dried up. Heaven and earth wed as the New Jerusalem, a city enormous enough to encompass all of new creation. “New creation” does not imply “brand new” as if the very good of God’s original work somehow went bad. The earth is not a throwaway planet any more than our bodies are mere jars of clay to be discarded when we die. Christians hold to the resurrection of the body, modeled after Jesus’ own resurrected body, by which we mean the ultimate healing and restoration of our actual selves. Paul describes it as a glorified body, freed from the fallout of finiteness. What is true for the creature is true for creation. The dust of creation to which all living things return when they die is the same dust out of which resurrection and new creation rise. There is a fundamental solidarity between creatures made in God’s image and the creation in which God’s image dwells. There is a fundamental continuity between creation and new creation. In the New Jerusalem, the Lord’s prayer gets answered: God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven because earth and heaven are one.

As with Ezekiel in the Old Testament preview, John gets an architectural tour of the New Jerusalem. Its 12,000 stadia dimensions make the New Jerusalem a thousand times larger than what Ezekiel saw―demonstrating that God doesn’t just keep his promises―he surpasses them. The 12,000 stadia city has twelve angels at twelve gates on which were written the names of Israel’s twelve tribes atop twelve foundations inscribed with the twelve apostles. (Twelve is clearly a very important Biblical number). The city sparkles with every sort of precious jewel: jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, topaz, amethyst and the rest (12 in all, of course). There are plenty of pearls too, which make for the Pearly Gates. Unfortunately, once you add the streets of gold you soon start visualizing that stereotype of heaven where everybody wears white robes and wings, plays the harp and flits around from cloud to cloud. Why anybody would want to spend eternity like that is hard to say. Cartoonists depict long lines of people eager to get in with St. Peter at the reception desk doing his best imitation of St. Nick ―checking his list twice to find out who was naughty or nice.

My own recent survey of New Yorker cartoons on this theme found people saying to Peter things like, “You’re kidding! You count S.A.T.s?” or “Wait, those weren’t lies. That was spin!” However, the best lines come out of Peter’s own mouth: “No, no, that’s not a sin, either, silly. My goodness, you must have worried yourself to death.” or “You had more money than God. That’s a big no-no.” or “Yes, but you were the defender of the wrong faith.” or “You’re a theologian? You guys are always fun.” Or “Bad timing. He’s in one of his Old Testament moods today.”

Of course there is no Peter at the gate in Revelation, though there does seem to be a list. Verse 27 mentions “the Lamb’s Book of Life” which presumably does not contain those people listed in verse 8: namely “the cowardly, the faithless, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars.” If you’re like me, you read verse 8 and get a little worried. Maybe I never killed anybody, but I have been a chicken when it comes to my faith. I’ve told a lie or two as well. And then there’s my flat screen TV that could get construed as an idol. In chapter 20 a great white throne split earth and sky and all of the dead, great and small, stand before the throne as these books were opened. The dead were judged according to what they had done. This reminded me of being taught how on Judgment Day, God would replay my life as a movie for everybody to watch. It would not be a pretty picture. Which is why the Psalmist asks, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” Except that here in Revelation, God pulls out his record book. It appears that we’re doomed.

And we would be―if not for Jesus. In Jeremiah, God promised a new covenant, one that Jesus sealed with his own blood, shed for you. This new covenant (not brand new but renewed) made it possible for God to promise in Jeremiah, “I will forgive your wickedness and remember your sins no more.” Thus the Psalmist could answer his own question: “With you, O Lord, there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” The Lamb’s Book of Life is not the book of good behavior, but the book of undeserved grace. The record books of chapter 20 provide corroborating evidence. As Jesus often said, “you can only know a tree by its fruit.” The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” This pronouncement of final Christian judgment tacitly indicts that ancient tendency to take God’s grace for granted and treat salvation as a free pass to do as you please. While it is true that you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Salvation may have no requirements (aside from a desperate need for it), but it does carry ethical obligations. Revelation labels the faithful as those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom,” Jesus warned, “but only those who do the will of my Father.” You can tell a tree by its fruit.

And yet the Bible also speaks of such fruit as fruit of the Spirit. The God who promised in Jeremiah to forgive and forget also promised to write his law on your heart. And since that might not be enough, God promised through Ezekiel to provide you with a new heart too. What salvation demands, God provides. God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and carefully keep my laws.” We see this at Pentecost as a band of timid disciples turn into inspired apostles. Between the resurrection and Pentecost, the disciples had hilariously gone back to their boats to fish, as if all they had been through with Jesus was nothing more than extended time off (“Wow, that was some trip. OK, now back to work.”). The resurrected Jesus showed up on shore to wave them in, basically saying “Hey guys, we’re not done!” Jesus then had to take off for heaven, but promised to send help: help that comes at Pentecost. Overcome by the Spirit, the disciples become the ones in verse 7 who overcome by the Spirit and thus inherit everything God has to offer.

To overcome is to live for Jesus like Jesus lived―to turn the other cheek, to do good to those who hate you, to pray for those who mistreat you and even lose your life (or at least your lifestyle) for the gospel―things that in this life tend to get you little more than two bloody cheeks, a doormat for a backbone, more mistreatment, less money and an early grave. To overcome, to conquer, is ironic victory. Still, in Revelation, these victories make up the fabric of your bridal gown. Chapter 19 described how “‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous deeds of the saints.)” This same fabric is also the foundation for the New Jerusalem. Back in chapter 3, Jesus said, “I will make the ones who overcome pillars in the city of God… the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from God.”

What seems like such an odd juxtaposition of metaphors now makes more sense. In verse 9 an angel invites John to come see the bride but shows him the holy city. Those who overcome are both a people and a place, or more specifically, the redeemed people of God are the place where God dwells. Rather than us dying and going to heaven, Christ died and comes to us by his spirit so that when we do die, we will abide with him forever, an eternity that has already started. John writes, “I saw the Holy City (past tense), coming down out of heaven from God――just like the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost. We’re in the final descent――all that awaits is a safe landing and the joyous reunion.

Dawn, Violet and I fly south to visit family tomorrow to celebrate my parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. We’ll go through that familiar drill as the cabin is prepared for arrival. Seatbelts fastened. Seatbacks and tray tables in their upright and locked positions. Land. Listen for the ding so you can leap from your seat like a runner out of a starting block. Knock people in the head with your carry-on luggage. Oh, and call somebody on your cell phone as soon as possible (if only to pretend that you actually have friends in town).It used to be that you couldn’t fake that. Not only were there no cell phones (as hard as that may be for some of you to believe), but they also used to let people through security without a boarding pass. That meant that friends and family would be waiting to welcome you as you came through the jet-way. I used to love the way you’d see all those smiling faces―and scan the crowd to find the ones looking for you, get all happy and hug when you found them. I loved it so much that it made me sad for people who had nobody waiting and looking for them.

So sad, in fact, that as a teenager (living as we did in a rather boring town), a bunch of us kids, for fun, would go out to the airport to greet lonely people as they came off their flights. We’d stand there with wide grins on our faces, waving and looking until we spotted someone who had nobody there to welcome them home. We’d walk up to these perfect strangers, our arms outstretched, and give them a big hello and a hug, telling them how happy we were that they had arrived safely, and how was their trip, and have a nice day in our boring little town or wherever your final destination may be. They’d look at us all confused―“do I know you?”—and no doubt think we were crazy, and yet nobody refused the hug, overcome as they were by our spirited welcome. After their initial confusion, they’d usually hug back, say thank you and then leave the terminal with a shake of the head and smile on their faces―smiles that I like to think they passed on to others.

OK, it was a weird thing for a bunch of kids to do (like I said, our town was boring), but really no weirder than a city in a wedding dress or flaming tongues falling down out of the sky. Overcome by the spirit, the disciples surely had smiles on their faces as they ran out into the streets of Jerusalem to overwhelm everyone else with the gospel (in their own languages no less). The new covenant expanded the original boundaries of God’s people to welcome all nations―strangers and aliens with no one to welcome them home. Everybody thought the disciples were crazy―and drunk. And yet few rejected God’s embrace that day. The good news of God’s grace not only put smiles on their faces but salvation in their hearts. The prophets had predicted this too. In Isaiah we read of the new Jerusalem, “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it…. I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. In righteousness you will be established … you will have nothing to fear.” This has Revelation written all over it. The light of God’s city, the light of God’s spirit within his people beckons all to enter its gates―gates that are always open with lights that never go out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Do You Want?

Mark 10:32-52
by Daniel Harrell

Tonight marks Ascension Sunday on the Christian liturgical calendar—the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. Jesus’ ascension into heaven is not something we think about too much. Among the Gospel writers, only Luke records the event―twice—once in his Gospel and once in the book of Acts. Mark mentions it, but only in the tacked on verses at the end of chapter 16 which Mark himself didn’t write. After appearing to his disciples and others post-resurrection, Jesus “was taken up onto heaven” before their eyes, sort of like the prophet Elijah got carried away from earth, only Jesus didn’t require a chariot of fire. His going up on Ascension Day readies us for the Holy Spirit coming down (with tongues of fire) at Pentecost next Sunday. Though we don’t think about it too much, the Ascension provides a core source of our hope and confidence as Christians. Not only did God raise Christ and seat him at his right hand in heaven, but as Paul wrote to the Ephesians (while they still were on earth, mind you), “God has raised us up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places.” The implications are significant. By faith in Jesus, not only is your seat in heaven is already saved, but as far as God is concerned, you’re already sitting in it!

“You have been raised with Christ” already, Paul reiterated to the Colossians, “therefore set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God”—and where you’ll be seated someday too. In the meantime, since your future is already set, you might as well go ahead and live like it now. As for what this looks like, Paul presents both positive and the negative aspects. As for the positives, Paul lists compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and above all love, “which binds them all together in perfect unity.” As for the negatives, he lists sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. It is interesting that this mostly sexual list ends with the economic sin of greed, which Paul calls idolatry (Biblical code for serious commandment breaking). Both economic and sexual sin are fundamentally matters of covetousness—which was what kept the rich young ruler out of the kingdom last Sunday. Covetousness turns love on its head, perverting self-sacrifice into self-gratification. Similarly with anger, revenge, malice, slander, abusive language and lying which are also parts of Paul’s negative list. We covet and do not get, so we get angry and get even, and we lie to make ourselves appear better than we are.

As the global economy continues to sputter and people struggle with losses of every kind, I’ve been intrigued in reading the various opinions behind the causes. Last week I mentioned Bernie Madoff, whose diabolical Ponzi scheme embodies many of the meltdown’s traits: “the illusion of expertise, the belief in getting something for nothing, the mirage and subsequent evaporation of wealth.” But as Nick Paumgarten observes in his most recent New Yorker article on the economy, Madoff is in some ways a distraction, a cover for the more systemic and serious flaws that reach down to the very core of human nature itself. The most insidious root of all human failure―economic and otherwise―remains what it has always been―base covetousness. Wanting more. As one financial analyst turned philosopher put it, “There are two things about human nature that we know for sure. One is that every person wants to be the center of the universe. And the other is that we all want to see what we own go up in value all the time.”

This desire for personal greatness and value—this covetousness—lies at the center of tonight’s red letters from Mark’s gospel. For the third time, Jesus informs his followers what following him entails—giving them, perhaps, once last chance to change their minds. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God alright, but he would not be the kind of Christ that the crowds wanted—no superstar, no superhero, no political leader or war general. Instead (or as a result), Jesus Christ would be betrayed, condemned, handed over, mocked, flogged and crucified. And then three days later, he would rise. James and John, eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration back in chapter 9, decide that rising from the dead is no longer outside the realm of possibility. They overlook Jesus’ gruesome descriptions of his demise and go straight to the punch line. If the seats in heaven are already set, James and John want to ride shotgun. Mark makes no attempt to soften their audacity, though he does report the remaining disciples indignation. However I don’t imagine that they’re angry about James and John’s request as they are at themselves for not thinking of it first. To envy is to covet too.

Jesus can’t believe what they’re asking. Had they not been listening to anything he said? “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” While wine and water may seem harmless enough, especially for those of us who’ve been baptized and taken communion a million times, for Jesus the implications were dire. Recall that throughout the Old Testament, the metaphor of the cup symbolizes the apportionment of God’s blessing, as in “my cup runneth over,” but also his curse. Jeremiah, Revelation and elsewhere describe this cursed cup as one “filled with the wine of God’s fury” to be poured out on all evil. In Gethsemane, the cup Jesus sought to eschew was the one brimming with God’s wrath against sin. For Jesus to drink this cup was to take on the full freight of God’s judgment. Likewise with water. The two Old Testament water episodes referred to in the New Testament as baptisms—Noah’s Ark and the Red Sea Crossing—are both judgment events. Like wine, baptism is the watermark of God’s wrath. Apropos to Jesus, the cup and the baptism are symbols for the cross.

Had James and John appreciated the dark side of wine and water, perhaps they would not have answered Jesus with such enthusiasm. After all, when the wine and water do eventually flow, James and John scatter and hide along with just about everybody else in Mark. Nevertheless, Jesus affirms that in time they will suffer for his sake. However, to reserve the best seats on either side in glory was not up to him. Jesus said, “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” As far as we know, the only ones who ever actually got placed beside Jesus were two criminals crucified on either side.

Jesus takes the opportunity to calm everybody down by reminding them again about the distinction between the greatness to which James and John aspired and that which they would actually achieve. Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as great ones among the Romans throw their weight around and exercise authority.” (Yeah, they knew―the Romans treated them like their slaves.) So Jesus said, “whoever wants to become great must be a servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” And before they could object and complain about being treated like doormats, Jesus reminded them that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Most Christians have heard this stuff so many times that it hardly even registers anymore. We nod, resolve to do better, but don’t change too much because deep down we still want to be the center of the universe. Sure, we admire those who’ve managed to take Jesus seriously, people like Mother Theresa or, well, like Mother Theresa (and she’s been dead twelve years). Or like Henri Nouwen. The late Henri Nouwen was a very popular and powerfully inspirational writer who made his name writing about Jesus’ name. In one of his best-known works entitled In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen wrote that, “The way of the Christian is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on a cross. This might sound morbid and masochistic, but for those who have heard the voice of Christ and said yes to it, the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and the peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world. To follow Christ is to follow in weakness and humility wherein the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest. I am not speaking about a psychological weakness in which Christians are simply the passive victims of the manipulations of their milieu. No, I am speaking of a weakness whereby human power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. True followers of Christ are people so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever, always trusting that with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.”

Nouwen practiced (and experienced) what he wrote in the latter days of his life, shunning whatever literary fame he had achieved in order to serve the severely disabled in a community outside Toronto. I remember taking a class on Christian Spirituality with Henri Nouwen years prior to that. I was recounting recently how on one occasion, just before a spring break in what turned out to be an unforgettable object lesson, he asked us as a class who among us didn’t have any plans for the ensuing vacation week. A few people timidly raised their hands (basically admitting they had no plans and no friends) and Nouwen asked whether they’d be up for flying to Haiti to spend a week working among the desperately poor at a Catholic mission there. Oh, and you’ll be leaving to tomorrow. Nonplussed, the ones who raised their hands said OK (you couldn’t say no to Henri Nouwen). The rest of us, relieved that our spring breaks were left intact, were then asked by Nouwen to get out our wallets. He pulled out a big bucket and passed it around and told us to empty our wallets in Jesus’ name. He used the money (our spring money money) to buy the plane tickets for the others along with supplies and sent them to Haiti the next day.

Several years ago I heard a talk by the late Mike Yaconelli, another writer and minister who was deeply influenced by Nouwen’s writing, especially this book, In the Name of Jesus. Yaconelli had this nutty practice of tracking down living authors whose work had an impact on him, and then traveling to wherever the author lived in order to thank him or her personally. So Yaconelli located Nouwen in Toronto and made an appointment to visit. Unfortunately, his flight got delayed and he was unable to let Nouwen know he’d be late―something to do with misplacing a phone number. He finally arrived in Toronto, but over three hours late.

Having read many of Nouwen’s other books, Yaconelli was fairly familiar with what to expect as he finally made it to Nouwen’s door. Henri Nouwen’s grace and compassion were legendary. Yaconelli knocked. He heard a melodramatic stomping followed by a violent ripping open of the door revealing not the love of God but the wrath of Henri Nouwen. Irate, Nouwen lit into Yaconelli: “Where the hockey puck have you been!? Why didn’t you call?! Do you know you’re three hours late?! I have a schedule to keep! Do you think that you’re the most important person in the universe?” Yaconelli was for a second dumbfounded, but mostly just offended. A lifetime youthworker, he knew how to react in the face of temper tantrums. He barked back to Henri: “HEY, IN THE NAME OF JESUS, DUDE! REMEMBER?”

For you Nouwen fans, you’ll be relieved to know that he apologized and went on to have an enjoyable visit with Mike Yaconelli. But for Yaconelli, it was that initial, stressful encounter that proved most instructive. Not because it tarnished Nouwen’s reputation, but because it reinforced how hard following Christ truly is—even when you’re doing it. Jesus agreed. It is hard―as hard as threading a camel with a needle. As hard as hanging on a cross.

Tonight’s passage concludes with Jesus, his disciples and the crowd coming upon a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Having heard the rumors that this may be the long awaited Messiah of God, Bartimaeus gives him a shout out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Using the title “Son of David” was Bartimaeus’ way of saying he believed the rumors were true. He’s the only person in the entire gospel who ever uses it. Many in the crowd berate Bartimaeus, they tell him to shut up and get lost. But what more does he have to lose? So he yells all the louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus, not refuting the title, calls him over and asks him in verse 51, “What do you want me to do for you?” which if you’re paying close attention, is the exact same question he asked James and John back in verse 36. The contrast is intentional. Throughout Scripture, sight and blindness are metaphors for genuine faith and the lack of it. James and John wanted to be great in the eyes of others. Bartimaeus wanted eyes to see true greatness. Jesus obliged. “Your faith has healed you,” he said. Or as it literally reads, your faith has saved you. In other words, blind Bartimaeus could already see—even before he got his sight back.

The contrast between the request of James and John and that of blind Bartimaeus is intentionally stark. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether Mark intends more than merely contrast. If it is true that we each want to be the center of the universe and have our values rise even as Christians, then Jesus’ invitation to servitude and slavery is useless. We’re just not going to do it. Sure, we’re happy for Mother Theresa and Henri Nouwen, but their servitude made them famous. Most of our good deeds just go unnoticed. I was amused by the story about one church’s noble attempt to get its congregation to serve more. The pastor challenged each member to “outserve” the other for a year with the “winner” (the one who served the most people) getting a cash prize at the end. Reportedly the church never helped so many needy people as it did that year. And no one considered this the least bit ironic. I read about it in a column devoted to “good ideas for pastors to use.” Greed as motivation for love. I don’t know, didn’t Jesus himself caution against any kind of recognition or reward when it came to obedience? Something about not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing?

But what good is doing good if nobody sees it? I want to be noticed. And thanked. And appreciated. And applauded. Maybe this is why Mark puts Bartimaeus right behind James and John. Not so much as a contrast, but as a corrective. When it’s greatness we crave, what we need to do is ask for is mercy.

The Ponzi Gospel

Mark 10:13-31
by Daniel Harrell

One of the recurrent problems for modern-day Christians in America is figuring out what losing your life for Jesus’ sake looks like. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ reddest letters have to do with his announcing his own demise and then inviting us to come along and do likewise. For the earliest disciples, taking up a cross for Jesus left little to the imagination. In a time when Roman rule demanded worship of the emperor, losing your life for Jesus meant losing your life. Going to church was hazardous to your health. However these days, with actual martyrdom being fairly uncommon, losing your life is easy since you know it ain’t going to kill you. But what if by losing your life Jesus also meant losing your lifestyle?

Tonight’s passage is a chronically discomfiting one. A man runs up to Jesus and falls to his knees. “Good teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Many presume the man to be seeking some prescribed formula for salvation, an accomplishable to-do-list for getting into heaven. Perhaps. However, by asking in terms of inheritance, he seems to get that eternal life was not something he could earn or purchase. Jesus characteristically responds by changing the subject. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This may have been Jesus’ indirect admission of his own secret identity, but it also seems to emphasize that “goodness” is very hard to reach. Jesus asks about the Ten Commandments, which the man insists he had kept since his youth. Loving the guy for his enthusiasm, Jesus nevertheless lets the air out of his self-delusion. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell however much you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.”

At this point in the story, everything the man had could have been a small amount. It’s not until afterwards we learn that the man was wealthy, and apparently it was his wealth that he worshipped (so much for his keeping Commandments One and Ten). The man went away sad, leading Jesus to remark how hard it is for rich people to get into heaven―harder than it is to thread a needle with a camel. The disciples were shocked by this since for them wealth was a sign of God’s favor. If this purportedly pious rich guy couldn’t squeeze through, what chance did poor sinners have? Who the heck could be saved? Jesus assured them that God could do anything, but whether that meant saving this particular rich man is anyone’s guess. We never hear from him again.

Jesus had said back in verse 14 that the Kingdom of God belonged to little children—which is why the Bible always refers to believers as children of God rather than adults of God. Interpreters traditionally highlight childlike qualities of simplicity, innocence and trust as those intended by Jesus, but these characteristics were likely foreign to most first century people. Simplicity, innocence and trust, while admirable, ran a distant second to a whole set of other childlike characteristics such as ignorance, frailty, immaturity, puerility and foolishness. It was customary to view children as insignificant little weaklings who, if anything, needed their inherent weaknesses beat out of them so that they could become contributing members of society. If it was status you were after, better to cultivate relationships with people whose power, money, influence and connections could raise you up a rung or two. Becoming like a little child would be like, well, like selling all of your possessions, giving the money to the poor and running after Jesus.

Now it’s not that prosperity is a Biblical vice. Diligence at work, good stewardship, education and faithful relationships—these are all Christian virtues that can result in financial gain. Yet with gain always comes the expectation of generosity. “From everyone to whom much is given, much will be required,” Jesus said. The issue is never that God’s people sometimes prosper, but that in their prosperity they adopt the attitudes of their newly acquired socio-economic status and afterward ignore or even despise those still clinging to the ladder’s lower rungs. Instead, Jesus insists that we receive the children, do unto the least and love the loser in his name―but not because the child and the least and the loser are weak, least and lost. To love is not to look down and have pity on those less fortunate but to recognize your own true identity among the weak and the lost. The best way to love the needy is to recognize yourself as needy too—receiving a child requires becoming like one.

It might help to understand what the Bible often means by prosperity. The Proverbs speak of prosperity as the “reward of the righteous,” which is why, like the disciples, many tend to equate financial gain with divine favor. But the word actually denotes a kind of contentedness independent of one’s bank balance—good news given the state of most people’s bank balances these days. Biblical prosperity typically manifests itself ironically. The most prosperous people in the Bible are often the most monetarily impoverished. As the apostle Paul expressed it to the Philippians, “I have learned the secret of being content whatever the circumstances, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man to sell whatever he had was not a call to poverty, but a call to genuine faith and trust in him.

Worried, perhaps, that his own salvation was at stake (if not his reputation), Peter pipes up in verse 28 to remind Jesus, “Lord, you know we have left everything to follow you!” Jesus assures Peter that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age―along with persecutions―and in the age to come, eternal life.” What puzzles most people about Jesus’ promise here is not that persecutions get included as a return on our investment (we all know we would suffer more for our faith if ever we really behaved what we believe). No, what puzzles most people is the hundredfold return Jesus promises “in this present age?” “Eternal life in the age to come” we get, but what’s with multiple homes and family and fields here and now? Who’s ever got that? Is this some kind of Ponzi scheme?

I don’t know if you happened to watch the PBS piece on Bernie Madoff this past week. He’s the swindler who somehow managed to dupe hundreds of otherwise responsible charities, pensions, foundations and friends to the tune of 50 billion dollars. In a classic Ponzi scheme, Madoff paid returns to investors from money paid by subsequent investors rather than from any actual profit earned. As soon as the economy tanked and everybody needed to cash out, Madoff’s jig was up. People bothered by Jesus’ insinuations about rich people and hell have no trouble sending Madoff there. Some accuse Christian health and wealth preachers of pulling off the same stunt. They promise believers that God will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams if they give generously and just believe they will receive back a hundred times over, citing Jesus’ own words as guarantee. At least when Bernie Madoff promised big returns he actually delivered (if only for a moment). Health and wealth preachers don’t even do that.

Now it may be that the reason you haven’t personally reaped the kind of return Jesus promised is because you really haven’t given up anything to follow Jesus. On the other hand, Peter and the rest of the disciples gave up everything, and nowhere do we ever see them raking it in. Biblical prosperity is not about the money. There is a contentedness and confidence that comes with Christ that money cannot buy. Moreover, there is a community too. Jesus promises not only a hundredfold return in homes and land (code words for contentment—think “a house and a yard”), but brothers and sisters and mothers as well. Who are these people? If you remember back to chapter 3, you’ll recall Jesus was preaching to a packed house when his family rolled into town. Unable to squeeze through the door, his mother and brothers got a message to Jesus saying that they were looking for him. Jesus responded by asking, “Who is my mother?” ―which must have made Mary faint right on the spot. And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus then turned to the motley crew packed around him―poor fishermen and prostitutes, despised tax-collecting losers and outcast sinners―and said “Behold my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, that’s my brother and sister and mother.”

What’s Jesus saying? Look around. We are each other’s hundredfold return. We are each other’s reward. (Let me give you a minute to process that one.) … I can imagine the disciples thinking the same thing. They took a look at each other and thought, “I left all I had for this?” It must have been a little disappointing―and that’s before tacking on the persecutions. Ask almost anybody to describe a Christian and the adjectives typically include words like hypocritical, self-righteous, judgmental, selfish and downright spiteful sometimes. There’s the running joke that churches would be great places if it weren’t for the people. If only we could have Christ without Christians.

Turns out that maybe you can. A bunch of us from the ministerial staff traveled to a seminar a couple weeks back where a sales rep was brought in to promote a product called Monvee (from the Latin meaning one life, or something like that). Monvee is a web-based spiritual assessment tool that allows you to customize your own personal walk with Jesus. You answer a few questions, click a few buttons, and boom, Monvee will do the rest, designing a personal walk with Jesus based on the way God has wired you to walk. Persecutions not your thing? No problem, Monvee will map out a less painful path. Prefer to keep your possessions for yourself? OK, Monvee will steer you clear from those guilt-inducing commands in the Bible. Monvee’s designer described it as “the eHarmony for your spiritual life, but instead of finding a mate, monvee helps you know how you’re wired and how you best connect with God.” The best part is that monvee lets you find G-Harmony all by yourself! No more hypocritical Christians. No more boring church services. No more messy small groups. No more needy people. Just a few clicks and you’re on your way to righteousness. (I should mention that Park Street Church declined the opportunity to become a Beta site for the Monvee launch.)

OK, so maybe I am just a cynical old man who wouldn’t know a life-transforming technological advance if it hit him in his Blackberry. Maybe a programmed relationship with God is better than having to wait and pray and trust and accept all the ambiguity. Just like Facebook, Twitter and other social networks can beat awkward or time-consuming face-to-face conversations with friends that could end up, you know, with having to help them move or drive them to the airport or listen to them go on and on about all of their problems.

This month’s Atlantic ran a cover article on the famous Grant Study, a 72-year longitudinal study of a group of men at Harvard, along with another group from inner-city Boston and a group of women from California. Typical psychology studies look at a single moment in life and can be terribly misleading―a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may in fact be gestating toward amazing maturity. Longitudinal studies take in the entire life span and see how everything fits (however they’re very expensive and obviously time-consuming). The goal of the Grant Study was to determine the key to “a successful life.” You can read the article online for all the details, but suffice to say, when asked this past March what he learned from watching the lives of over 300 people across seven decades, the project’s chief researcher, George Vaillant reposnded: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Look around. We are each other’s reward.

And yet, Professor Vaillant tells the story of one “prize” subject, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came one hundred single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. His wife put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Maybe this helps explain our addiction to Facebook kinds of friends. They require little more than coming up with clever status updates. The problem with actual love is not only what it demands you give to people in need, but also that it exposes you as needy too. But that’s not a bad thing. Again, the best way to love the needy is to recognize yourself as needy.

One of the people in my Thursday night small group (that hangs out with homeless folks on the Common) was complaining about having to listen to one of the guys go on and on about this same problem he’s been having for months. An older member of our church heard the complaint and replied how that is the tough thing about friendship: being there to listen to a friend when he’s in a crisis. And it can be frustrating. But the great thing about friendship is that there will be times in your life when things aren’t going so well for you either. And then you’ll have someone there to listen to you.

“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields―and with them, persecutions.” What if Jesus’ words are not merely some idealistic declaration, but an actual invitation, or even a provocation to us to become each other’s hundredfold return. What if we are each other’s reward, each other’s brother and sister and mother and child? You would have hundreds. What if his mention of persecution is a further invitation, or even a provocation, to step into the harder, more difficult aspects of these relationships, sharing one another’s troubles in ways that cost us something—if not a loss of life, at least a loss of lifestyle or some loss of time? I think if we consistently made that kind of investment, it’d be hard for anybody to use adjectives like hypocritical or selfish to describe Christians anymore. The only adjective that would fit would be rich.