Monday, October 12, 2015

Saving and Losing One's Life/Soul

The gospel reading for Sunday, October 18, is Mark 10:35-45. If you would like to see a detailed translation and my preliminary comments, go to this post entitled, “James and John Call ‘Shotgun!’”

In this post, I want to contrast Mark 10:45 with an earlier verse, Mark 8:36. Both of these verses appear in the pattern that takes place three times in Mark – which I will refer to generally as “disclosure discourses.” The pattern appears in Mark 8:31-9:1; 9:30-50; and 10:32-45. The flow of that pattern includes: 
a. Jesus discloses his death;
b. One or more of the disciples respond inappropriately;
c. Jesus corrects the disciples’ response with teaching that includes a paradoxical formula: “whoever wishes to save his life/soul shall lose it” and “whoever loses his life/soul … shall save it”(8:35); “If any one wants to be first, he shall be last of all”  (9:35); and “whoever wishes to become great . . . shall be your servant” and “whoever wishes to be first . . . shall be slave of all” (10:43-44).

In the first disclosure discourse, Jesus says, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their life/soul?” (The word ψυχὴν could be translated either life or soul, although it seems that most translations follow the lead of the KJV and go with “soul.” The NRSV is an exception.) Having grown up in an Evangelical tradition, I have often heard Mark 8:36 used as the foundation on which certain Evangelical practices and habits are built. If saving one’s soul is greater than even gaining the whole world (surely a hyperbole that intends to signify the greatest lofty goal imaginable), then we can measure the success of one’s ministry by referring to the number of souls that have been saved; we can describe practices like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, etc. as “the Social Gospel” and subordinate them to the real calling of the church – evangelism; we can speak of “personal salvation” as the true goal of discipleship; and so forth.

In addition, having grown up in a Holiness tradition, I have often heard Mark 8:36 used as the rationale for a very safe, almost protective approach to “keeping one’s soul.” I think this was a primary motivation behind separating oneself from potentially harmful and “worldly” temptations by home-schooling or “Christian” schooling, from the primary to the collegiate level, as well the way we were taught to be selective regarding our friends. I don’t say that as a criticism. I believe many of these practices and habits grow out of a genuine attempt to interpret Mark 8:36 as the teaching of Jesus that gives highest, and almost singular, priority to saving one’s soul.

However, in Mark 10:45, Jesus says this about himself: For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life/soul a ransom for the cause of many.” That is to say, Jesus is willing to lose his ψυχὴν in order to rescue others. I think this points to the courage that discipleship requires – it is not a safe way of neglecting the needs of others in order to preserve one’s own soul. In fact, the paradox of faith, stated so well in Mark 8:35 but often forgotten with the focus on Mark 8:36 is that it is in losing our own ψυχὴν that we preserve it.

If we see Jesus – not as a singular Messiah who goes to the cross so that we don’t have to, but as the one who calls us to follow him in his way to the cross – Mark 10:45 will move us from a personalistic, safe approach to discipleship and toward a daring, self-giving approach to discipleship.

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.

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