The Gospel of the Second Touch – Jesus in Mark 6:31 – 8:30

Over the past few weeks (and ultimately into January) I am preaching a series of lessons on the question, “Who is Jesus?” I am basically following the outline of the gospel of Mark presented by Richard Peace in his book, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve. Dr. Peace was one of my instructors in my Doctor of Ministry program, and is one of the very few individuals in a position of power/authority who ever genuinely complimented any of my work – so, that little bit of personal attachment must be taken into  consideration. The following is a synopsis of my sermon this past Sunday (11/25/18), and is based on the third of what Dr. Peace views as a major section of the gospel of Mark. However much I have gained from Dr. Peace, some of the following is my own observation/deductions, and so don’t blame Dr. Peace for any/all of the mistakes you may discover.

Dr. Peace points out that in the section 6:31-8:30 in Mark’s gospel there are two cycles of stories. This is an illustration of the beauty of Mark’s gospel, and, from my perspective, just another indication that the gospel writers were not the red-neck, hayseed, fishermen that so many preachers want to make them out to be. But I digress.

Both cycles of stories begin with a miraculous feeding of the multitudes (6:30-44 and 8:1-9); those accounts are followed up with a trip on the sea of Galilee, in which a discussion of the miraculous feedings reveals that the disciples do not understand what the miracle was meant to teach (6:45-52 and 8:13-21). Both cycles contain a record of a dispute with the Pharisees (7:1-23 and 8:10-12, which is slightly out of sequence). Significantly, in the first cycle there is another miracle healing that is not duplicated in the second cycle – a point that I suggested in my sermon that screams out for further investigation (7:24-30). Both cycles then end with another healing, the details of which are remarkable similar and, likewise, scream out for further study (7:31-37 and 8:22-26). This major section then concludes with Jesus querying the disciples about his identity, which is then climaxed by Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (8:29).

So often we are in such a hurry to get to Peter’s confession that we miss the beauty, and therefore the punch, of how Mark has constructed this section of his gospel. I know I have, and until I worked through this section more closely I simply missed what Mark was doing.

In the interest of time, let’s just look at the concluding miracle story in each cycle (equal time needs to be given to the opening miracle in each cycle, but I am not writing a book here). Note that in each of the healing stories Jesus is either in Gentile territory or a border city (yeah, I know that Bethsaida was in Jewish territory, but it bordered the Decapolis, and probably had a strong Gentile presence). Second, the men who would be healed are brought to Jesus by a group of people – a curious fact Mark seems to emphasize. Third, and this is truly something that Mark is intent on his readers seeing, Jesus takes the men away from the crowds. Fourth, Jesus heals both men with a physical touch – and in a manner that would offend most Jewish sensibilities (Matthew would NEVER describe a healing in such unhygienic fashion, and likewise would never suggest that Jesus would have to expend a second effort to heal someone!) Finally, Jesus commands both men not to speak, and in the second case, not even to re-enter his village.

Do you not think that Mark was trying to tell us something here?

Immediately following the second healing, Jesus pulls his disciples away from the curious crowds, elicits from them the profound truth that he is the Messiah, and then immediately and curiously commands that they withhold this information!

The point, convincingly made by Dr. Peace, is that the disciples can only see this truth incompletely, or in the language of the second healing, only in a blurry fashion. It is going to take a second touch by Jesus for their eyes to be fully open, and in the language of the first healing, for their tongues to be fully loosed. That second touch comes in the second half of the book, as Mark beautifully explains what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.

If you are curious – buy Dr. Peace’s book. I do not accept all of Dr. Peace’s conclusions (especially that the gospel ends at 16:8, but he complimented my work, so I am going to promote his!), but Dr. Peace has opened the gospel of Mark up to me in a way that is deeply touching.

My point in my sermon was this – the gospel of Mark is in many ways the gospel of the second touch, of second chances. Mark illustrates how the disciples were repeatedly given the truth of who Jesus was, but it is not until the very end of Jesus’s life – and only from the Roman centurion – that we hear the confession that Jesus is the Son of God come from the lips of a mortal human being.

Reckon why that was?

Maybe, just maybe, because Mark wanted us to know that however obstinate and hard headed we might be, that Jesus is still calling us to him, still extending his hand out to us, still willing to heal us however uncouth that healing might be.

The gospel of second chances – the gospel of the second touch. I love that. I need to hear that. I need to preach that. I need to live that.

May we all learn to be willing to extend the second touch to those who are too confused, or are unable for whatever reason, to receive it the first time.

Confronting Toxic People and Maintaining a Submissive Attitude

Talk about serendipity. I have been struggling for a while with a particular situation in my life, and just today saw something that just leapt out at me. Because the overall scenario relates to the focus of this blog, I thought I would share some stray thoughts and maybe help some other folks along the way.

The truth of the matter is that every single one of us has to deal at some point in our lives with toxic people. By toxic I mean poisonous – they are simply not happy until they ruin other people’s happiness or fortune or both. They will scam and cheat to get to the top, and if they are not on the top, they will do everything in their power to destroy or dethrone those on the top. If they feel threatened they will not just respond in kind, they will respond with exponentially more aggression than they feel has been directed against them. Our current president of the United States is a poster child of a toxic personality. The president he replaced was just a step below him – powerful positions attract toxic personalities just as light bulbs attract moths.

The two most common ways of dealing with toxic personalities is to either (a) punch them in the nose and attempt to get them to back down, or (b) allow them to run all over you in the hopes they will tire of their aggression and move on to a more belligerent opponent. I will address each of these responses in turn.

First, there is truth in the maxim that the only way to deal with a bully is to back him (or her) down. One thing toxic people depend on is that no one is going to call their bluff, to make a stand. Toxic personalities are frequently the result of low self-esteem, and that generally means a deep seated fear. Expose that fear, and the bully will run. In point of fact, Jesus stood up to the bullies in his life, and that demonstrates that sometimes you must stand up and challenge the toxic personality and deny them their self-ordained superiority.

Sometimes.

The danger is that by attempting to make a justifiable stand, all we do is verify in the mind of the toxic personality that the world is against them and it is they who are justified in their belligerence. It is a mighty fine line that we attempt to walk when we decide we must back a bully down. I believe the key to help us understand when and how to do so and maintain our Christian attitude is found in Matthew 5:39. This passage, which has been all too frequently mis-translated (and thereby mis-applied) does not mean that we are never to resist an evil person, but that we are not to resist evil using evil means, or using the policy of “eye for eye” (see Romans 12:17-21 for Paul’s confirmation of this assertion!) If a disciple is to never resist an evil person, then Jesus is the chief sinner – for he resisted evil (and evil people) at every turn. But – and this is the truth that Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – we cannot confront toxic people using our own concoction of toxic poison!

So, there is a truth in the idea that toxic people in our lives must be confronted, but that confrontation must be according to God’s will, and not our own desire for revenge or, even worse, or own sinful desire to be “top dog.” Chances are if a person is acting in a belligerent, toxic manner to you, they are also being abusive in other situations, and there is a very high likelihood that others are at risk. We cannot allow others to be hurt just because we are afraid of confrontation. There is a time and a place to protect ourselves and others that we know are in danger. We must, however, be extraordinarily careful lest we fall into the trap of revenge or one-upmanship.

Which then leads to the second of our options, and that is to just do nothing and let the toxic person have his or her way, and hope that soon he or she will tire of the game and move on to a more worthy opponent. I must admit a certain weakness here, as this is my default response. That is, until I have a belly full of being pushed around, and then I erupt in the most unChristian  of behaviors which really does not serve me – or anyone around me – very well.

Once again, there is Scriptural precedent for following this course of action. Returning to Matthew 5, it is clear that Jesus is suggesting that personal resistance is not the preferred choice of action. Paul repeats that teaching in Romans 12. But, and make no mistake about this, both Jesus and Paul did offer resistance when resistance was not just available, but was also the appropriate response. Jesus did stop the mob from stoning the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did challenge the Pharisees and others as being a bunch of hypocrites and snakes. Jesus did clear the temple of the money-grubbing merchants. Paul did forcibly confront Peter in the matter of withdrawing from the Gentiles. Paul did forcibly confront the Galatian heresy, and he did hand Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan.” Paul had to deal with Alexander the Silversmith, John had to deal with his Diotrephes.

And yet Jesus allowed himself to be arrested, as did Paul, and both surrendered to events that would lead to their deaths because they had first surrendered to the will of God in their lives.

As I see it, and as I am struggling mightily to apply in my life, if the issue is larger than my wants and my feelings and my personal situation, then I must act to confront the toxic person and either remove them or terminate their authority, if possible. If, however, the conflict in my life is nothing more than a conflict of personalities or if the situation appears to only revolve around my perception of my own self-importance, then I am not justified in acting in a toxic manner myself.

Submitting to  one another, loving one another, being genuinely concerned for one another, does not mean, and even cannot mean, that we allow toxic people to control our lives or even worse, to control the church for which Christ died. But let us be so very careful that we do not allow that truth to so color our perception that we fall into Satan’s trap and become the very poison that we so rightly abhor.

Let us serve, and let us lead, by ascending lower.

One Second

It is terrifying how quickly our lives can change. No matter how much we plan, no matter how we protect ourselves, no matter how many layers of padding or insulation we wrap around ourselves, our entire life can be irreversibly changed in the time it takes to blink an eye.

In what can only be described as a horrific and unimaginable tragedy, a police officer shot a man in his own apartment. There is no “sense” to be made here – reason simply fails us. There are times in this world where all we can do is hang our heads and cry, “Oh God!” That is why we call them tragedies. Tragedies are unexplainable. They break our hearts and they devastate our lives, but trying to make “sense” out of them is hopeless.

And in that exact moment when disciples of Christ should be the most circumspect, the most hesitant to jump to conclusions, the most reticent to assign guilt or blame, we have “Christians” screaming for the blood of the officer. The hatred that has been expressed by those standing in or in front of churches is, quite frankly, repugnant. It seems, according to these “Christians,” that even the very lowest bar of justice – that of “innocent until proven guilty” is WAY too high for them to consider. The words of our Savior in the sermon on the mount about praying for one’s enemies, about walking the second mile, about loving as God loves – forget that. “I know I say I am a Christian, but that does not matter in this case. I can hate cops – its my right.”

I think I know why this case troubles me so deeply. A number of years ago I was involved in a car accident. I say, “involved,” but I should really say I caused it. I carelessly did not see a warning sign. No one was hurt, although to this day I don’t know why. One second earlier or later and there would have been serious injuries if not death. I was careless. I was negligent. I could have been criminally charged were it not for that blessed second of time.

I do not know what went through that officer’s mind as she entered that apartment, why she did not step back, why she drew her weapon, why she decided she had to shoot. None of us do – except that officer. Which makes it particularly important that we not assign motives to her actions without knowing more of the story.

It may very well turn out that she knew exactly what she was doing. She may have staged the whole event. She may indeed be guilty of a crime far worse than negligence. I am not omniscient, I do not know. None of us do. Right now I know she took the life of an innocent young man, my brother in  Christ. He was washed in the same blood that washed me, and it is that reality that pushes me to my knees when I think of the many times in my life when I have done things that have hurt other people – sometimes physically but much more often emotionally – and through that blood I am promised that I stand forgiven. Honestly, I don’t understand why.

One second. When I remember that accident I break out in a cold sweat. I think of the way I could have been treated. I think of the way I was treated. I had no excuses, I had no defense.

I just wonder – how many of the people who are screaming for the blood of this officer have been one second away from a similar tragedy – senseless, inexplicable, indefensible.

Almost 2,000 years ago a man stood in a Roman courtyard and received the whipping that I deserve. He died the death that was reserved for me. “By his wounds we are healed.”

I am terrified by the thought that only one blessed second separates me from the position this officer finds herself. If her story is true – if there is even the smallest possibility that she has faithfully and honestly reported her impressions and her actions to those investigating this case – at the very least she is guilty of negligence. In such a case there is no doubt in my mind but what she wants that one second back – would give anything to have that one second back. It won’t happen.

As I sit here hundreds of miles away from Dallas, I wonder: of all the thousands of “Christians” who are demanding that this officer be punished to the very extent (or even beyond) of what the law allows –

Is there one Christian, one disciple of Christ, who is willing to reach out to her?

One second. Dear God, I am so guilty.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

Wounded – or Victim?

It is funny (not comical, but strange) how the meanings of words change. Generally it takes many years, although sometimes it can happen relatively quickly. I consider myself somewhat of a lover of words, and my work depends on the proper use of words, so when words change meaning I take notice.

One word that is in the process of changing, although probably has not completed the change, is the word victim. Primarily the word means that someone is the unintended, and innocent, recipient of an unwanted and detrimental event. That even can be caused by nature (tornado, hurricane, flood, fire) or it can me man-made (theft, violence). In this “pure” sense, a person is victimized – becomes a victim – completely against his or her will, and although they will forever remain scarred by this event, they work diligently to overcome its effects.

Increasingly, however, the word victim has acquired a new meaning, one that is sought after, cherished, and valued. Victimhood, once avoided, has now become a prize to be won. People now glory in their victimhood – they are “victims” of racism, of homophobia, of classism, of genderism. Once a person can claim the status of victim, that badge is worn proudly, as it is believed that declaration protects said individual from any possible responsibility for their actions. Once you have been declared a victim, either  by society or by yourself, you have been exonerated from any and all culpability or liability regarding anything you say or do.

Let me say this to make myself perfectly clear: we are all wounded. To be alive means that we have been hurt. We have been wounded by our parents (no human parent has ever been, or will ever be, perfect), by our friends, by our school system, by our churches. You cannot exist and say that you have not been wounded.

By the same token, we all wound others. We wound our spouses, we wound our children, we wound our friends, we wound our co-workers, we wound our fellow church members. To be alive means that we make mistakes, we fail – and in so doing we hurt, we wound, others.

Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite Catholic authors, wrote a short book he entitled, The Wounded Healer. I love that book, and re-read it often. It reminds me that I am wounded, that I wound others, and that if I am called to be a healer of wounded people, I must admit to both of those facts.

But, and here is where the changing meaning of the word “victim” comes into play. I refuse to remain a victim. I have been wounded, yes. I did not want, nor did I enjoy, the wounds. Wounds hurt – and many leave scars. But, contrary to the newly acquired meaning of the word, I refuse to bask and to glory in my woundedness. Being wounded does not give me any special privileges, it does not give me absolution from my sins. In fact, many of my wounds are self-inflicted, and for those wounds I must bear total responsibility.

If you are reading this you have been wounded. In one sense we are all victims – but I pray that we as disciples of Christ never fall into the temptation of becoming perpetual, and professional, victims.

Let us all ascend by climbing lower.

An Imperative and a Challenge

The subtitle to this blog is “Living the crucified life in the 21st century.” I want to build on that ideal for a few moments. Nothing, in my opinion, is more critical for the health and vitality of the church today than the goal of each disciple of Christ to surrender his or her self and walk a crucified life. I do not think that is an option. I believe that to be an imperative. Cultural Christianity is dead, and with it the scores of churches who sold their souls to the god of the moment. We have “crossed the Rubicon” in terms of what is real and what is fake in Christianity, and if Christ’s church is to survive, it will be due to the witness of those who have surrendered their life to the cross.

So here is my challenge: make a list of what you believe the world considers to be important. Here is my short list – power and money. If you have the power you can enrich yourself, and if you have wealth you can purchase (or at least influence) power. These two worldly goals coalesce in the realm of politics – the very reason to be involved in politics is to gain power, so that ultimately you can gain wealth. Those who have wealth are frequently those most interested in politics, as they want to ensure their wealth remains protected.

Now, compare that to the life of Jesus, and that of the early church. Was Jesus focused on the acquisition of power, or the accumulation of money? NO! In fact, he repudiated the subversive nature of both power and money and instructed his disciples to do the same. To the extent that the modern church is focused on either power or money (or both), it is rejecting the plain and simple teachings of the One it claims to follow. I cannot stress that point enough. Focus on power, or wealth, and you deny Jesus.

So – how do we purge ourselves of this lust for power and money? Try this simple (yet painful) task. For the next thirty days, consciously remove yourself from every source of media that attempts to persuade you to act in a way that would demonstrate the use of power or wealth. Do you follow certain political sites on Facebook? Mute them. Do you follow political sites or politically motivated people on Twitter? Mute them. Better yet, try a 30 day Facebook and/or Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat fast. Just stay off of your favorite social media site for a month. Call it 30 days to purify your soul. Notice what happens.

I am going to make a statement here that I know many Christians will disagree with – that’s okay, I am gracious enough to let everyone be wrong every once in a while. It is impossible to wallow in the filthy depths of power, prestige, and money and not have your soul corrupted. It is just impossible. This is why (among other reasons) David Lipscomb was so adamant that disciples of Christ abstain from any form of political activity, up to and including even the act of voting.

If you think I am crazy, just stop for a moment and ask yourself why you think it is valuable, or even appropriate, for a disciple to crave political power or the wealth that drives the political system in America. If you say that if Christians are not active in the political system the other side will “win,” you have just identified your god – power. We elect certain people to give them the power to do things – things we want done. Our opponents elect certain people to do things – things they want done. If our guy or gal wins, we say our god won. If their guy or gal wins, they say their god won. And, to be blatant, both sides are right – power has won.

Jesus told his disciples to renounce power. He told us not to be like those who lord it over their subjects. His greatest example of leadership was taking a towel and washing the feet of his apostles. He then surrendered his life to be lifted up on a cross – the ultimate victory over the “power” of this world.

Can his disciples claim his name and refuse to follow in his steps?

I don’t think so. Renouncing power is an imperative. Challenge yourself to see if you have what it takes to deny the god of this world his grip over you.

Let those who call themselves disciples of Christ start living a crucified life.

Jesus Contradicted Jesus

I love that title. And, no, it is not necessarily created  as “click-bait,” although, if it got you here, so much the better. But, my title is absolutely correct. Jesus did contradict Jesus, and in the most emphatic way. Confused? Irritated? Wondering if I’ve lost the only two working synapses in my noggin? Let me explain.

Many Christians wonder what Jesus (son of Mary) was talking about in Matthew 5:43 when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Up to v. 43 it appears that Jesus has been quoting mostly from the Torah, the book of the Jewish law. I have often heard this verse explained away (and have probably explained it away) by saying that Jesus is quoting oral teaching here – that nowhere is it specifically written that a Jew was to love a fellow Jew, but hate an enemy.

Except, it was written that Jews were to love their neighbor and hate their enemy. It was not written thus in the Torah, but it was written down. In case you were wondering, here is the passage:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. Sirach 12:4-7

Those words were written approximately 200 years before Jesus, son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem. They were written by a Jew by the name of Jesus ben Sirah. His book is entitled variously as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah, or simply as Sirach.

Now, the words of Jesus our Lord do not perfectly match the words of Jesus ben Sirah, but that is not the point. The point is that for approximately two centuries there had been a strain of Judaism that was promoting the very teaching that Jesus our Lord was seeking to destroy. There was a written document that promoted the active hatred of one’s enemies. Jesus our Lord was not making this up on the fly. His teaching had a specific audience – those Jews who were so distorting the Torah that they were actually teaching the opposite of what Moses taught. [For confirmation, see Leviticus 19:18, 33-34]

What is simultaneously fascinating, and deeply troubling, about this passage is not so much that it exists (although, that is troubling in itself), but, if the comments in the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha are correct, the Jews came to reject the book from their canon, and it was certain Christians who accepted it into their canon of Scripture! This explains the title Ecclesiasticus, or “church book.” [See the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, page AP 86.] That really bothers me – here we have a book that, on the whole, teaches some marvelous things about God and human nature – but that in this one instance alone is so clearly and unambiguously refuted by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, there you have it folks, I was not making this up, and I did not create a title in order to deceitfully bring you into this blog. Jesus did refute Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth our Lord clearly and with great power refuted the writings of Jesus ben Sirah. I would suggest that today we are all followers of Jesus – the question to answer is, which Jesus are we following?

Let’s ascend by climbing lower.