Archives For Gospel of Mark

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

rainbow-cross_aprilAnd it may not be one that you want to hear.

This weekend we conclude our September sermon series on the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Comforter’ in John’s Gospel, but what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit in Mark’s Gospel is anything but comforting.

Mark 3.20 – 4.1 contains this little stick of theological dynamite:

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.

Needless to say, though, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well even with me.

‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’

‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’

‘I thought God forgives everything?’

I recall an adult Sunday School I taught in which we methodically made our way through Mark, and, asking them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,’ I found little variance in the responses:

‘Cursing God’

‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’

‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’

‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’

All told their responses didn’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, who defines the blasphemy thusly:

‘The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’

My friend Morgan posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.

Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

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What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do- what we almost always fail to do when thinking about the unforgivable sin- is read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.

In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.

Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not in order to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but to keep his wonder-working on the down low because now he’s a marked man.

And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.

Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.

Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.

[First!] Jesus touches him.

And then, only after touching him, does Jesus cleanse him.

In both instances Jesus explicitly violates the law.

The first renders Jesus ritually impure once again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.

Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.

In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and boozing with the oclos, the unclean masses. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.

In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.

Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.

The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side.

So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.

Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.

Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.

Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s:

If I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?

Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.

Implication:

Those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.

‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.

As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.

The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.

Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.

It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, in the Hebrew scripture, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.

And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.

After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.

Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.

To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.

What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?

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This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.

God continues to speak and work in the present.

God can do a new thing.

And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.

God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =

So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.

And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.

Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.

leperThis fall I’ve been leading a bible study through the Gospel of Mark, a small chunk at a time.

A few weeks ago we looked at 1.40-45:

‘A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” 

Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 

Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 

Snorting with indignation, Jesus dispatched him, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

The big Gospel takeaway:

Mark makes a point of emphasizing- remember every last detail in Mark is important and intentional- Jesus touched the leper first before he healed him.

Where Jesus should’ve become contagious from leprosy, the leper becomes contagious with the love of Jesus.

The exchange here between the leper and Jesus symbolically illustrates how the order of power has been overturned: Jesus is infecting the status quo.

The symbolic, Kingdom-enacting power of this touch is easy to miss and hard to overestimate. When Jesus says the Kingdom is here among you, it’s in moments like this one.

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A former teacher of mine who always will be one of my theological Jedis, Dr Robert Dykstra, shares his own personal parallel to this Gospel in his book, Losers, Loners and Rebels: The Spiritual Struggles of Boys. m2Md4IhrnTDgSkyCO-I0KSA

No doubt, I resonate with it because like Dr Dykstra I too suffered this particular leprosy and shame, but, unlike him, I’ve never had the courage to share about it.

Here it is:

“By mid-adolescence, I had developed an unusually severe, almost textbook case of acne, though one mostly confined to areas on my back and chest and therefore mercifully hidden under my shirt from the gaze of others. I say ‘textbook case’ because of a conversation I had with a physician friend years later, at age 27, while working as a chaplain in a hospital.

As we talked one day, I happened to mention to my friend that if I ever were to develop a serious infection, I was sure there would be no antibiotics left to treat me because of a tolerance I had developed after so many years of taking them for acne as a youth.

She asked me which drugs I had taken, and as I went through the list and got to the last and, at the time, most potent, one called Dapsone, she casually remarked ‘Oh, the leprosy drug.’

I went to the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the drug bible, and looked up Dapsone, and there it was- the primary drug used to treat Hanson’s Disease, a contemporary form of leprosy. Acne was not even listed there among its possible indications, leading me to speculate about the desperation of my dermatologist.

Though I had suspected it since early childhood, at 27 a doctor confirmed I was indeed a leper.

Back when I was 16, I cringed one day when my minister casually touched my shoulder, because it hurt. He asked why I flinched. I didn’t respond.

He had a long memory however and days later asked if he could see my back. I told him no. He wanted to know why, but again I would not say. We played this game for a while, so great was my shame, until for some reason- perhaps sheer exhaustion but more likely an inner desire to be known- I relented.

We were together in church, in the sanctuary, of all places, when I lifted up my shirt for him. He told me he was sorry I had suffered this alone, that he was proud of me for letting me see, and that he thought it would help for me to see a doctor, which to that point I had not done.

Thus would begin my years of antibiotics and some tangible relief from an embodied source of shame.

Today, of course, a minister’s asking an adolescent to lift his shirt in church immediately raises eyebrows…

But this, I think,  would be the wrong lesson to draw. There is no question that healing for my own leprosy, not only in its most overt form as acne but in its more invidious expression as shame, began long before I took a single capsule of Tetracycline, the first of the drugs, and years before I took the final Dapsone, the last of them.

Rather, the great healing came in lifting my shirt before a sufficiently attentive, caring other, and especially in doing so in the safety of ‘my Father’s house.’

I found with graphic clarity in that particular space and action a God who was as concerned with my body as with my soul. I found acceptance, a sanctuary, for embodied shame.”

 

 

Your Salvation is Impossible

Jason Micheli —  November 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

camel-needle-surrealHere’s this weekend’s sermon on the rich (young) man.

You can listen to here, on the sidebar or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Your Salvation is Impossible

Mark 10.17-27

I originally tried to get an actual, live camel here for this weekend. As it turns out that would’ve been obscenely expensive, which Dennis thought would’ve been too ironic given this month’s focus on simplicity.

So I don’t have a live camel, but I thought I could approximate one to help us visualize the story. I need a few volunteers.

According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, the one-humped dromedary camel is about 7 1/4 feet tall, from the ground to the top of its hump, and about 10 feet long from nose to tail.

In his day and in his part of the world, the camel was the largest animal Jesus could’ve have conceived. Just just hold those dimensions in your mind.

In Mark 10, Jesus and the disciples are a few miles outside the nation’s capital. Jesus has just taught that if anyone wants to enter the Kingdom of God they’ll have to approach the Kingdom as children, as having nothing, as children have nothing.

No sooner are his words out of his mouth than someone with everything approaches Jesus. A rich man. You don’t have everything you want without knowing how to get anything you want. So the rich man tries his hand at flattery: ‘Good Teacher’ he calls Jesus.

And then he asks him a rich man’s kind of question. With everything in this life taken care of- no worries- the rich man asks what he has to do to inherit the next one.

Jesus doesn’t return the rich man’s flattery and responds disinterestedly by giving him the most ordinary answer imaginable.

He recites the 10 Commandments.

But the rich man waves him off: I’ve already done all that. I’m a good person. I’m religious. I don’t lie. I haven’t cheated on my wife. I haven’t stolen from my neighbors.

You’re still missing one thing, Jesus says.

Go.

Liquidate your 401K. Empty your savings. Put the house on the market. Trade in the car. Sell the season tickets. Forget the beach vacation. Cancel your membership at the club. Everything. Give the cash to the poor.

And then come follow me.

And the rich man says: ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. What do you know? You’re just some homeless guy.’

Then Jesus looks at this one rich man and makes a sweeping generalization about all rich people:

 their salvation is impossible.

This same Jesus who promised paradise to the thief

This same Jesus who refused to condemn the adulteress

This same Jesus who compared himself to a shepherd who will go out of his way searching for a single lost lamp

This same Jesus who said God’s love was like an old lady who turned her house upside down looking for a dime

This same Jesus says salvation is impossible for the rich.

The disciples, who’ve grown up believing that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, they ask Jesus: what do you mean it’s impossible?

I mean, it’s about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded 7 x 10 foot camel through the eye of a needle.

Jesus says.

Or, as we might say today, when it comes to heaven the rich have a snowball’s chance in hell.

I offer it to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Just kidding.

Actually, the story’s maybe not as bad as it sounds.

As the ancient Church Father, Origen, pointed out, the Aramaic word for camel (kamelon) is almost identical to the Aramaic word for nautical cable (kamilon).

It’s just 1 letter difference. It could be as simple as a copyist’s error.

So when Jesus says ‘impossible’ he doesn’t mean camel-through-the-eye-of-a -needle impossible.

He instead means that the rich getting into heaven is more like threading a mariner’s rope through the eye of a needle.

 

See, that’s more comforting right? Not really?

If nothing else, we can seek solace in the fact that Jesus didn’t say this to everyone.

Jesus didn’t tell his 12 disciples to sell everything and give it to the poor. Sure they dropped fishing nets and left boats behind in the water and walked away from homes and, presumably, families inside them.

But Jesus didn’t tell them they had to or heaven was null and void.

And when a lawyer- who definitely wasn’t poor- asks Jesus this very same question about eternal life, the lawyer doesn’t get an impossible image of a camel squeezing through a needle.

He gets a story about a Good Samaritan.

And the woman at the well, when she asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell her ‘Go and give away everything for the poor.’

Jesus tells her ‘Go and sin no more.’

So before you get all worked up about this Gospel passage, just remember that Jesus doesn’t say this to everyone. Jesus doesn’t pull the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle comparison for everyone. He doesn’t say salvation is impossible for everyone.

He just says it to the rich, about the rich.

So as long as we’re not rich, we’re in the clear.

We can love our neighbor as ourself. We can go and sin no more.

We don’t have to worry that our salvation is impossible.

But how do you know?

If you’re rich?

After all, rich people are notoriously adept at deluding themselves.

In study after study, sociologists have shown how rich people seldom think of themselves as rich. Hardly ever.

It’s always the person above them, in front of them, who has and makes more who’s wealthy. Not them.

Rich people rarely think of themselves as rich.

Even if we were rich, chances are we wouldn’t think we were. So how do you know?

A few years ago, Money Magazine surveyed its readers and asked them how much they would need in liquid assets to consider themselves wealthy.

Guess how much? 5 million dollars.

That seems a little high to me.

But here’s the thing-

When it comes to wealth, we don’t need to agree on tax brackets or net worth.

We don’t need to debate exact amounts or dollar figures because we can easily identify a rich based on some very specific behaviors.

Some ‘you might be a rich person if’ behaviors.

Because rich people have so much money they do some crazy, strange things that are easy to point out.

For example, one of the things rich people do is called ‘upgrade.’

Maybe you’ve read about it. It’s when a rich person has something that works, perfectly, and then they go out and get another just like it, only a litter newer.

And then they have 2.

Strange right?

Like I said, we don’t have to agree on net worth because we can I.D. rich people by the crazy things they do they have so much money.

Don’t believe me?

Listen to this:

Rich people will go into a kitchen, a kitchen with countertops, a microwave and an oven, and guess what they’ll do

They’ll rip it all out.

And then…they’ll replace it.

With countertops, a microwave and an oven.

You’re smiling because it’s crazy right?

That’s why we don’t need to agree on how much money makes a person rich because we can identify a rich person based on what they do.

Some rich people I know, they’ll go to the mall and they’ll wait in line outside the Apple Store, and let me tell you rich people hate waiting in line.

But they’ll wait in line at the Apple Store for an hour, 2 hours, 3 hours. And while they wait, they’ll pull out their iPhone and they’ll post on Facebook: ‘At the Apple Store, waiting to get my new iPhone.’

Rich people do such strange things they make themselves obvious.

Something else rich people do- maybe you’ve heard about this before.

They’ll open up a refrigerator filled with food, and they’ll look inside and then they’ll say the craziest thing: ‘There’s nothing to eat.’

It’s true.

I know rich people who will do the same thing in front of their closet.

They’ll stand in front of a closet full of clothes and they’ll say: ‘I’ve got nothing to wear.’

And the truth is, they’ve got work clothes, workout clothes, afterwork clothes and work in the yard clothes.

It’s ridiculous I know.

Don’t say anything, but I know this one rich woman. She’s got like 13, 14 pairs of shoes and she’s always on the lookout for another.

What could you possible do with 14 pairs of shoes? That’s like half of February.

You see, we don’t need to peek inside a person’s portfolio to know if they’re rich. Their behaviors are so easy to spot.

For example-

Rich people have so much stuff they’ll gather up stuff they don’t use- it all works fine- and they’ll give it away.

They’ll give it away.

And then, they’ll feel good about themselves for giving away stuff they don’t need in order to create more space in their house so they can go get more stuff.

I’m telling you, rich people do the craziest things.

But it’s not just the crazy things that make a rich person easy to identify.

How many of you know someone who owns a car? Any kind of car?

Only 8% of the world has a car. 92% of the people in the world would look at that person with the car and think ‘rich.’

How many of you know someone who has some way to drink a glass of clean water?

Because 1 billion people in the world would look at that glass of water like it was gold and lick their lips and think ‘rich.’

How much change do you have on you? Right now in your pockets?

Over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. I won’t tell the IRS but congratulations, you’re rich.

How many of you know someone who will eat something today?

Because half a billion kids won’t.

This girl on the back of your bulletin. 

I’ve been to her home at least 3 times. Fact is, I can tell you for sure that my garbage disposal eats better than she does.

I’m rich.

When surveyed, the readers of Money Magazine said they’d need 5 million dollars in liquid to consider themselves rich.

 

The truth is- if you have a combined household income of $45,000 you’re in the top 1% of wage earners in the world.

You’re rich.

And I know, the way wealth works, you probably don’t think of yourself as rich.

I know, most of you, in this part of the world, in our part of the world, you’re not considered rich. But don’t forget Jesus was a homeless dude and probably wouldn’t find that a very persuasive argument.

It’s a dangerous thing when we think our world is the world.

It’s dangerous because we might read right on past a passage like today’s and not even realize that Jesus just said our salvation is impossible.

 

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The rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus answers by reciting the 10 Commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet or cheat or dishonor.

But notice.

Jesus doesn’t rattle off all 10 of the Commandments.

Jesus leaves off the first 2, the 2 most important ones, the 2 of which the other 8 are only subsets:

I am the Lord your God.

You shall worship no other gods but God.

‘I’ve done all that; I’ve kept those commandments’ the rich man says.

 

And Jesus parries:

There is one more thing- what about the first 2 commandments? How are you with those?

Only Jesus doesn’t phrase it that way.

 

He asks it in an object lesson instead.

Go sell all your stuff. Put it on Ebay and Craigslist. Auction it off.

Take the money- I don’t want your money- give it to the poor.

Get rid of everything you have so that you just have me.

Get rid of all you treasure and you can have me, your homeless God, as your greatest treasure.

 

How does that sound?

Mark says the rich man walked away, ‘grieving.’

And that word in Greek (aganakteo) it’s the same exact word that Mark uses to describe another rich, young ruler in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he gives everything away, when Jesus weeps and sweats blood because he’s losing the most precious thing he has: the presence of God the Father.

Mark says the rich man ‘grieves’ thinking about losing his god.

As the rich man walks away, Jesus says ‘Huh, rich people…their salvation is impossible.’

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I know enough rich people to know that that rich man- he probably heard that as bad news.

It just goes to show how money can make it hard to hear the Gospel.

Because it’s not bad news.

It’s not.

Let’s be honest, rich people like us- we’re such sinners. Our hearts have so many idols, money is only the primary one. Our values and priorities are so compromised . We’ve hurt so many people in our lives and messed up our own lives in so many ways.

It would take a completely impossible miracle to save rich people like us.

I mean, it would be as likely as a rich man willing making himself poor. Not going to happen.

Our salvation is as unlikely as a King stepping down off his throne to become a slave. What are the odds?

It would be like someone paying an incredible debt that someone else racked up. There comes a price point where no one would ever do that.

It would like an innocent man laying down his life not for his friends or his family or his country but for a guilty man. What are the chances of that happening?

Our salvation IS an impossibility!

It’s like hell freezing over. It’s like pigs flying.

It’s like a dead man coming back from the grave.

It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle.

Thanks be to God.

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The only people who are saved are the ones who realize that their salvation is an impossible miracle.

An act of God.

A gift I don’t deserve and could never purchase.

Something that was bought at great cost but has been freely given…to me.

Once that Gospel transforms your heart, once it becomes your treasure, once it becomes the most precious identity-forming thing in your life, it changes everything.

Once the Gospel transforms your heart, you realize that asking the question ‘How much do I have to give?’ or ‘What percentage do I have to give?’ misses the point completely.

Because it’s not about obligation.

You should want to give all that you can because Jesus Christ gave it all away for you.

Even putting the question that way: ‘How much do I have to give?’ is a good indication that you haven’t experienced the Gospel yet.

You might be a religious person; you’re just not a Christian.

That’s why, for example, it never works out when people say ‘I’ll give more once I make this much money, once I’m at this stage in my career, once the kids are gone, once this bill is paid off.’

Odds are, you won’t.

Because it’s not a money issue. It’s a God issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

Statistically, the more money a person makes the less they give as a percentage of their income.

Because the more stuff you have, one, single gift doesn’t seem quite as important does it? The more provisions you have, the less you need a Provider.

It’s not a money issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

It’s not about asking how much you have to give.

It’s about having your attitude about money- and everything else- shaped by the Cross.

It’s not about percentages or pocket change.

It’s about giving and living sacrificially.

And by definition, giving and living sacrificially means it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. It’s costs something. It’s not easy. It strains you.

Look, full disclosure: you pay my salary.

So if you want to chalk this up to a self-serving, fundraising sermon, fine.

Don’t give your money to the Church.

Give it to Lupe to use in Guatemala.

But give until it hurts.

Give until it hurts because it’s NOT ABOUT MONEY.

Jesus didn’t want the rich man’s money, and God doesn’t want yours.

God wants your heart. He already paid a lot for it.

God wants your heart.

And God wants your heart to be shaped like his.

And if the preaching of Jesus, again and again and again, is any indication:

 

Nothing competes more for your heart than money.

 

Nothing competes more for your love of Christ than the pursuit and management of wealth.

 

Nothing works against you following Christ fully, you maturing in your faith, you surrendering everything you are to Christ, you making yourself available to Christ’s call upon your life- nothing works against you following Christ more than the pursuit and management of a lifestyle.

Nothing competes more for our hearts than money.

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So it’s always good to find out where our heart is, whose our heart is.

 

Now I’m not going to test you like Jesus did and challenge you to sell everything you got and give it away.

 

Because actually, you can find out where your heart is without all that trouble.

You just have to think about this one question and answer to yourself honestly.

Here goes:

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear:

There is no God. Your sins haven’t been forgiven, but that’s okay because there is no heaven and after you die you won’t be with God or any of your loved ones.

Or

You have no money.

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear: there is no God or you have no money?

Where your answer is, there lies your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

* ‘rich’ anecdotes and closing question owed to Andy Stanley.

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‘A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Snorting with indignation, Jesus dispatched him, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

On Facebook this week I shared an article I found on the Daily Beast with the amusing title, ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God.’

I only glanced through the article but I read enough to catch a whiff of the author’s condescension, subtly mocking the (often vague and contradictory) religious beliefs of porn stars and their (often equally vague and contradictory) justifications for their work in light of their faith.

What came across in the article is exactly what the headline was meant to pique: Surprise.

Surprise that ‘those people’ would believe in God.

I don’t know why it would surprise.

Many porn stars apparently believe in a personal God who bears a slight familial resemblance to the God of the Bible but not enough to be overbearing.

Just like many plenty of church do.

I confess I shared the story on Facebook with a little added snark about the possibilities for creating a niche, micro-targeted church just for porn star Christians.

Having shared it on Facebook, I immediately wondered what exactly would be wrong with a community of porn stars following Jesus.

Why is it, for example, that a Daily Beast article with the title ‘I Coordinate Drone Attacks and I Believe in God’ or ‘I’m a Corporate Lawyer and I Believe in God’ or, to be above board, ‘I’m a Pastor in an Affluent Denomination and I Believe in God’ wouldn’t register the same tone of surprise, if any, as a ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God?’

Because any honest read of the Gospels would lead you to bet that Jesus would have a thing or two to say about those other vocations too.

And there’s no question in mind as to who Jesus would be hanging out with if he had to choose.

This is hardly a defense of pornography, quite the opposite. It is, however, an honest pondering about why the word ‘purity’ carries only connotations of sex.

Why do sexual sins triumph over other ones? And why do we assume those sins disqualify from discipleship while others do not?

What prompted me to reconsider the Daily Beast story this week was my reading of Mark’s Gospel, the story of the leper in 1.40-45.

The purity regulations about leprosy are found in Leviticus 13.2-14.57 and revolved around 2 basic considerations: Leprosy is a communicable disease and a priest must preside over any ritual cleansing

The verb (katharizein) translated ‘to cleanse’ actually means ‘to declare clean.’ Jesus, as he does with ritually proscribed food, announces the man clean.

‘To declare clean’ shows how the point isn’t Jesus’ miracle-working per se but his claiming authority that belongs to the guild of priests, who would consign the leper to the margins where ‘sinners’ belong.

Jesus defies Torah by usurping the priestly prerogative.

Mark makes a point of emphasizing- remember every last detail in Mark is important and intentional- that Jesus touched the leper first before he healed him.

Where Jesus should’ve become contagious from leprosy, the leper becomes contagious with Jesus.

The exchange here between the leper and Jesus symbolically illustrates how the order of power has been overturned: Jesus is attacking and infecting the status quo.

Many translations give the impression in Vs. 43-45 that Jesus instructed the man to follow the priestly ritual: “go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

But if that’s the case then the above is just, only, a miracle story. To read it that way, misses the tone of the story: the leper himself recognizes that approaching Jesus, a nonpriest, for healing violates the social order: “…if you dare…”

And why would Jesus then be angry and indignant?

The emotions attributed to Jesus only make sense if the leper has already gone to the priests for healing, and the priests for some reason rejected his petition.

Having been healed, the leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an unjust system: Note how in V44 the object changes from ‘priest’ to ‘them’

It’s about more than what 1 priest did or failed to do. It’s about the whole system.

Jesus’ anger is against the whole purity system that make people victims twice over, first by stigmatizing them and then by barring their religious participation if demands, which are not exerted on others, are not met.

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ reaction to a condescending story like ‘I’m a Porn Star…’ wouldn’t be surprise but anger.

And I also wonder if after Jesus declared those porn stars ‘clean’ we religious folk wouldn’t be a little PO’d with Jesus.

Angry enough to kill him.

 

 

54Crucifixion    It’s Lent, in case you didn’t know. We’re beginning our journey to the Cross. As part of Lent, Tony Jones this morning issued another of his ProgGod Challenges. I’ve responded to them in the past so I’ve got to keep up.

This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’ What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough (and I would, preachable) as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory.

Unless I missed it, Tony didn’t issue a maximum number of allowable entries. So, here is stab #1, a textually-based look that unintentionally has some affinity with Rene Girard.

If the cross has less power for us today, then I think maybe it’s because we’ve explained its power away. I think maybe it’s because we’ve turned the cross into a tidy transaction or a shallow symbol.

The theologians and church fathers have their ‘atonement theories.’ Theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. 

     Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians.

      But what if instead of the predictable preferential option for our favorite theologian- and what if instead of trying to harmonize the kaleidoscopic array of imagery in the two testaments- we simply zero in on a specific text of scripture?

     What if we pretended we had only one scripture text to make sense of the cross? Would our ‘atonement theories’ still seem so self-evident? Or would the text suggest a different impression intended by the cross?

What if, for example, we just looked at our prototype Gospel, Mark?

Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark wasn’t interested in theories or explanations. Mark didn’t care about answering all your questions or giving you happy endings. Mark didn’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you instead of challenge you to your core. Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark was an artist.

 

Mark’s story of Jesus’ trial and death is not theory or explanation; it’s art. And where the theologians give you answers and explanations, Mark gives you irony. In Mark, Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him.

 

He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’

For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage. The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.

Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.

     Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice. 

Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.

 

Where the theologians give you answers and explanation, Mark gives you irony.

And perhaps the most threatening irony of all in Mark’s Gospel is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best. We conveniently forget- Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.  And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst.

And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. I mean….the chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct. That’s a perfectly rational position.

The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves.

But what Mark gives us is different.

Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us. The theologians give us answers, but Mark just leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?

Mark doesn’t give us answers. Mark just gives us painful irony- that those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in.

     And I think that  is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail.

They make the cross seem almost reasonable.

Or, at least rationally necessary.

They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin. 

     Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God.

They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are. That’s why, even after Easter, Mark and the other disciples still struggled with the cross. They struggled coming to terms with the fact that, given who we are, it couldn’t have been different. That, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. And when God comes close then inevitably we have to defend ourselves. That Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross.

Mark doesn’t give us answers or explanations. Mark won’t allow us to think our way around the cross or theologize our way through it. Mark won’t let us off the hook tonight. There’s no good news here at the foot of Mark’s cross. There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this: a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious. That ends with Jesus dead. Mark leaves us with the bitter irony that the only person who can make us whole is dead, forsaken and shut up in a tomb.

Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.