Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Church at Odd with Itself

This week’s gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary is Mark 9:38-50. I have updated my earlier exegesis and initial comments from three years ago, which you can find here.

I see two ways of reading this text. One can read it in what I call “Bible real time,” as an occasion when Jesus’ disciples were forbidding a demon-caster from helping others in Jesus’ name because he was not “one of us.” Or, one can read it in “Bible writing time,” when Mark’s community was helping others and being impeded by the Jerusalem church because they were not considered “one of us.” In each case, those who were helping others – by casting out demons, offering a cup of cold water, etc. – were participating in the Reign of God. That is exactly what Jesus has been proclaiming through the message, “The Reign of God is here. Change your way of thinking and believe in it!” 

The key elements of this story, in my mind, are the phrases, “Those who are not against us are for us,” and the final conclusion, “Be at peace with one another.” Whether it is the disciples and the demon-caster or the Galilean church and the Jerusalem church, those phrases give the dispositions that befit disciples.

The troubling aspects of this text – maiming oneself, asbestos fire that does not quench, etc. – are probably what make this a queasy text for preachers and hearers alike. The Hebrew Bible prohibits self-laceration, so I think we can easily de-literalize the story in that regard. And, of course, we are accustomed to Paul’s way of describing the church as a body, and even Paul’s occasional reference to “cutting off” someone who is sowing discord. I believe the self-mutilating language here refers to cutting off what we might call the “Committee on Orthodoxy” which is ever vigilant in trying to prohibit those who don’t belong to us from doing works of service in the name of Christ. See my comments on the exegesis link above for how I think this applies to the Galilean/Jerusalem church controversy behind this text.

The fire is an interesting reference, since we automatically assume that it is eternal hell-fire and that kind of preaching has done more harm for the body of Christ than good in my opinion. Rarely do hell-fire preachers have the humility to take “whoever is not against us is for us” literally. I would advise that we see the salt and fire as references to offerings and purification. I do not know enough about the practices of temple sacrifices to be too specific about this, but certainly persons from the Jerusalem-centered church would speak this language, even after the destruction of the temple. My guess is that one of the tensions between the Jerusalem and Galilean churches (and a parallel tension between Galilean- and Jerusalem-based Judaism) is that the Jerusalem-centered church hangs on much more to the rituals of the temple, as a way of keeping faith alive despite the Romans’ destruction of the temple. For them, the ongoing rituals are an act of defiance and a declaration that God is undaunted by Rome’s capacity to destroy. But, I suspect that Galilean Judaism (including Jesus, and subsequently Galilean Christians following Jesus) practiced a much less ritualistic piety, simply because of their proximity apart from the temple over the years. That is what shapes my exegetical comments. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bread that Spoils; Bread that Lasts

Bread that Spoils

Below is a reflection that I offer for John 6:24-35. If you want to see my detailed exegesis of the text from three years ago, click here

I once heard a breadmaker being interviewed on NPR, whose words have stayed with me: “There is a very fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” One reasons so many store bought sliced loaves of bread are chocked full of chemical preservatives is because of this propensity for bread to spoil. The same metabolical reactions that ferment the yeast in bread dough are the reactions that ferment bacteria in spoilage. In those societies that pre-dated modern refrigeration or artificial preservation of bread, putrefaction could mean the difference between eating or not.

The writer of the gospel of John seems to be carrying out several polemics, the objects of which we can only tease out through carefully pieced guesswork. That fine line between fermentation and putrefaction, the chemical process that creates in one moment and ruins in the next, may be the space where John sees many followers of Jesus heading. They follow Jesus, to be sure, sometimes with great zeal and ardent work. But, they are following for the wrong reasons, for bread that delights in its taste and satisfaction of hunger, but which also spoils over time.

I feel like I’m just now catching on to the rhythm of this chapter, even though I’ve read it a zillion times. The crowd of 5,000 ate the bread that Jesus produced out of five loaves, with twelve basketsful leftover. Jesus gave specific instruction to collect the leftovers so that “nothing may be lost,” a phrase similar to Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17.  It occurs to me that those twelve baskets are the leftover miracle bread the crowd is following Jesus to eat again. And, why not? They were part of something special, something heavenly, something that echoed God’s gracious manna from heaven that fed the people of Israel on their journey. Why not follow Jesus for more of that? After all, he is the one who provided it in the first place. Surely it is a good thing.

Jesus does not deny that the bread he multiplied is a good thing. But, he avers, it is not a lasting thing. It was good; it met a real need; it was welcomed with thanksgiving; it was shared; it was collected afterward so that nothing would be lost. Yet, if that is why people are following Jesus, then they are sure to be disappointed because the bread that Jesus multiplies miraculously will not last. It will spoil. The creative powers at work in fermentation are also the ruinous power of putrefaction. If the analogy holds, there is a way of pursuing faith that is wonderfully attractive but which can also prove ruinous in the end.

What Jesus offers, instead of the bread that he produces, is the bread that he is. To follow this train of thought throughout some of the “I am” sayings of John’s gospel, Jesus offers the truth that he is, the life that he is, the way that he is, the resurrection that he is.  One can enjoy the truth that Christ offers – propositions, wise sayings, meaningful parables, and insightful teaching. But, until one follows the truth that is incarnate in Christ, for John’s gospel one has not yet found the wellspring, the source, the fountain of truth itself. This may be John’s way of engaging those other Christian groups that are not enemies necessarily or even wrong necessarily, but who also have not yet grasped the eternity of God that is made flesh in Christ. John’s polemic against those who have attained a semblance and measure of truth but not truth itself may also speak volumes to our own day, when we encounter those who have no problem giving allegiance to the words of Christ, but who seem to be far away from the spirit of Christ.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Retreating Glimpse of the Reign of God

Below is a brief description of what I understand to be the dynamic behind Mark’s sixth chapter, particularly as it is expressed through the pronouns that Mark uses. For a detailed verse-by-verse exegesis of the Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56, which I have updated slightly from three years ago, click here.

My perspective of the flow of Mark’s gospel has been influenced partly by Werner Kelber’s argument, in Mark’s Story of Jesus, that from Mark’s perspective, the disciples are depicted as having failed in their calling. At key is Jesus’ message to the disciples to meet him in Galilee and the curious abrupt original ending of Mark’s gospel in 16:8. If that ending actually ends the story, the disciples did not meet Jesus in Galilee after the resurrection. We are accustomed, of course, to Luke’s description of the disciples and their Spirit-empowered ministry that begins in Jerusalem and radiates out from there. But, that is Luke’s story, not Mark’s.

I’m further influenced by Richard Horsley’s argument in Hearing the Whole Story, that Mark’s gospel shows Jesus’ ministry to be a Galilean-based ministry that is quite distinct from a Judean-based ministry and is grounded in a village-based Galilean piety that is different from the Jerusalem-based Judean piety.

Finally, I have wrestled with a well-known concept in Markan studies, of the so-called “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel. Here is an excerpt from my blog regarding Mark 6:1-13, the gospel reading from two weeks ago:

The ‘messianic secret’ attempts to name a motif that certainly is central to Mark’s gospel – the repetitive ‘don’t say anything’ moments right where we don’t expect them.  For me, however, it is not so much a secret as a re-direction. By attempting over and over to make him ‘the Messiah,’ people were missing the point of his message, which was that the Reign of God was present and that they all were invited to participate in it. As long as they had the Messiah to embody the reign, they were missing the participation part. To ‘follow’ is less to point, observe, marvel, or coronate and more about joining along, taking up the message, and doing the deeds. My point is, I don’t think the “messianic secret” is a literary device by Mark, but a theological point, that Mark saw Jesus trying to re-direct his message away from himself and toward the participating followers. The message in Mark’s original ending, “Go to Galilee and there he will meet you” is a way of sending the followers back to this village-based activity-message.

Rather than “messianic secret,” I see these moments throughout Mark’s gospel as “participatory redirections.” When I put all of these perspectives together – and I dearly hope that I am not misrepresenting either Kelber or Horsley – I see Mark 6 as showing the best and worst of the disciples.

The best moments are when the disciples are doing as Jesus does. When Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God is at hand, it is an invitation for others to turn around and to participate in it. When Jesus heals, exorcises demons, and even brings life from death, the point is not to show how magical Jesus was, but to demonstrate what it means to participate in the Reign of God here and now. The “participatory redirection” from a group of Jesus’ fans to a group of Jesus’ co-workers, from those marveling as Jesus does great things to those who are likewise participating in the Reign of God at hand, is realized when the twelve go out, vulnerable with regard to possessions but empowered, and do what Jesus has been doing. The “mission of the twelve” (Mark does not use the term ‘mission,’) is the story of disciples being participants. It shows how they cast out demons and heal and proclaim, and it concludes with the disciples needing Sabbath rest and restoration, needing to elude the crowd, not being fully able to do so – all of which are the precise way that Jesus’ ministry is described in the first five chapters of Mark. (It is all framed around the arrest and death of John the Baptizer. At his arrest, Jesus’ public ministry begins. The story of John’s death is sandwiched between the beginning and end of the story of the twelve in mission.)

In verses 12-13, then 30-33 (interrupted by the story of Herod and John’s death), the pronouns are plural “they” pronouns. Every instance of “they” is an echo of something that has been said about Jesus prior to this story. During these best moments, the “ministry of Jesus” has become the ministry of the twelve. The hero has become the empowering model.

However, the pronouns and the demeanor shift again, beginning in 6:34. Jesus invites the disciples to feed the crowd and they answer with incredulity. It is Jesus who goes alone to pray. The disciples do not recognize him as he walks on the water, mistaking him for a ghost. Even though Jesus had delivered the abundance of bread through the disciples’ own hands, they did not understand. Mark circles back to the bread story and the disciples’ lack of understanding what was happening there to explain why the disciples were frightened in the boat (16:52). Sadly, Mark says, “their hearts were hardened.”

The disciples’ cardio sclerosis was not just a momentary fright. Mark 8:14-21 is a story of how Jesus is frustrated with the disciples because, after being instrumental in TWO feeding stories, they still do not understand. The glory of the mission, when the disciples were full participants in Jesus’ ministry, seems to be a receding vision in the rearview mirror, an exception to the rule of the disciples’ failure to embrace the present Reign of God.

Blog Archive