Friday, November 27, 2020

Christmas With the Gospels: Mark

 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

     They replied, “Some say John the Baptist;  others say Elijah;  and still others, one of the prophets.”

     “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 

     Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 

     Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.    (Mark 8:27-30, NIV)

As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. 

     It’s interesting that we have four. A bias in our understanding of story and information is that multiple accounts that differ in some of their details can’t possibly be accurate. We’ll look a little more closely at the process through which our Gospels came to be in later posts, but for now it’s important to note that the church has long accepted four accounts of Jesus’ life that differ in many details and have been shown to be notoriously difficult to harmonize. Beyond those details, though, each Gospel seems interested in its own themes and presents Jesus in different (though complementary) ways. Part of the value of taking a long view of each Gospel is to note some of these themes and ways of presenting Jesus that can get lost.  

     The Gospel of Mark is probably the earliest written of the four. Mark moves — the author frequently uses the word euthus — “immediately.” It starts off at a sprint, no birth story here — “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” From the jump, Mark wants his readers to know who he thinks Jesus is. We’re moved quickly through Jesus’ baptism by John (where God calls Jesus his Son), his time in the wilderness “being tempted by Satan” and attended by angels,  to his dramatic return to Galilee preaching that “the kingdom of God has come near” and that his hearers should “repent and believe the good news.” Fifteen verses in, and we already know who Jesus is and what he wants us to do! Mark moves us along quickly; he doesn’t editorialize much, and even Jesus’ teaching is scarce.

    There are many allusions to and even quotations of Scripture, but they’re rarely highlighted. One exception is the first one, the quotation from Isaiah (with a pinch of Malachi and Exodus), which concludes,  “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Mark is doing far more than just introducing John the Baptist; he’s announcing in Jesus that exile is finally ending. Jesus is building a highway in the desert along which his people can march to freedom. He’s re-establishing God’s rule over his people, in full view of the nations that at present dominate and oppress them. From his baptism, through Galilee and eventually Jerusalem, Jesus is entering hostile territory — healing disease, casting out demons, withstanding Satan’s temptations — and announcing the presence of God’s kingdom. In doing so he’s bringing hope, but also judgment. Thus, “repent and believe.”

     We’re made to identify with the first disciples Jesus calls, following Jesus enthusiastically because we’re sure of who he is. His miracles, laid end-to-end through much of the first part of the book, overwhelm us. He heals a cross-section of sick people, many of whom the religious leaders offer no solace to. Sometimes his healings clash with their expectations about acceptable conduct.  

     While we begin the Gospel with the other disciples following enthusiastically, as the roller-coaster ride continues we also share in their increasing confusion. This guy isn’t who we thought he was. Maybe the best (worst?) example is the response of the disciples to Jesus’ question about his identity. They can answer who people say he is, but their understanding of who he is is hazier; Peter, their spokesman, gets one of Mark’s two titles right (“Christ” but not “Son of God”), then rebukes Jesus when he explains that being the Christ involves suffering, rejection, and death. "Get behind me, Satan," is Jesus’ response to Peter’s big revelation. He also tells his disciples that they shouldn’t tell anyone what they think they know of who he is.

     In contrast to Peter, the rest of the twelve, and the religious leaders (who say Jesus is of “Beelzebub”), the demons know him, obey him and are subject to his authority. Those outside Israel confess him, though they re less obedient than the demons and testify to who he is even though he says they shouldn’t. In fact, in the scene in which Peter confesses Jesus to be Israel's messiah, Mark tells us that Jesus "sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

     Scholars who study Mark sometimes call this the "messianic secret." While the other gospels often feature Jesus being pretty open about who he is, in Mark he’s more coy about it. It seems that this has something to do with the importance given in Mark to Jesus’ death as a necessary part of his identity as Christ and Son of God. Chapters 8-10 provide a pivot point for the gospel; there, Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection three times (8:31-9:1, 9:33-37, 10:32-45). After each prediction, the disciples demonstrate how little they understand and Jesus teaches them what it really means to be a disciple. They will have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” instead of being concerned with preserving their lives (8:34-35). After the other two predictions, they show their ignorance by arguing about who is the greatest and seeking positions of power in God’s coming kingdom, to which Jesus says things like "those who would be great, must be the least," and "those who would be first, must be last.”

     In Mark, Jesus’ death is not principally about the forgiveness of sins. (Jesus has the authority to forgive sins apart from his death.) It’s the expected outcome of living a Kindom-centered life in a world that honors other kings — for Jesus and for those who would follow him. Christ’ blood in Mark is less about the sacrifices of the Law and more about the Exodus story in which the blood of the passover lamb painted on the door posts serves as a sign of God’s covenant. Jesus offers his blood in the last supper as the blood of the new covenant (14:24), reaffirming the theme of a second Exodus we saw in the opening lines of the gospel.

     Unlike the other gospels, Mark gives us no resurrection appearances. There’s nothing at the end except an  empty tomb, a young man in white robes who tells the women about resurrection, and a planned meeting with the disciples in Galilee, where the story begins. (In other gospel accounts they’re told to wait in Jerusalem.) The gospel ends with the women saying nothing to anyone "for terror and amazement seized them" and "they were afraid" (16:1-8). 

     The only human voice in the gospel to confess Jesus as Son of God is a Roman centurion (15:39). At the heart of the new Exodus is the Christ’s death, and Mark doesn’t let us hear him confessed as God’s Son until that moment. Jesus lives up to his identity as the one who brings about God’s deliverance of his people at the moment of his death. God shows that this mission of Jesus’ is still right on track by raising him from the dead and calling his disciples to meet with him to find out how to be a part of it. 

     May we hear Mark clearly on this point, and may we live with the expectation of meeting with the risen Lord and allowing him to teach us how to be his followers in proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.


Friday, November 13, 2020

Toward an Unbiased Reading of the Bible

 “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.     

Luke 24:25-27(NIV)

In the early 19th century, a Bible was published in England for use in the British West Indies (the British territory in the Caribbean). Maybe it would be more accurate to call it a “Bible,” because it actually contained about 10% of the Old Testament and about 50% of the New. Even its title acknowledged that, if this was the only Bible the reader had access to, they wouldn’t be getting the whole story. That was intentional, you see.

     The title of the work was Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands. The parts of Scripture that weren’t included, of course, were left out in case they might cause the readers to get the idea that no human being should be considered as having lesser value or should be held in captivity by another. That couldn’t be allowed, of course. 

     The existence of that “Bible” would be merely interesting if it hadn’t been used by Christians to put a religious veneer over a horrific practice. It illustrates the extremes to which people will go to find in Scripture confirmation of what they already believe. Thomas Jefferson famously cut and pasted (literally) a “New Testament” out of the teachings and life of Jesus — without any of his miracles or his resurrection. At a church I worked with years ago, a friend once answered my objections that a text he was using to support a position didn’t mean any such thing with, “I know, but I like to use it that way.” Well, sure. A Bible that supports what we already believe to be true is much to be desired.

     Of course, as I point fingers at others, I have to admit the likelihood that at one time or another I’ve come to the text expecting to find what I was looking for, which is frightening since every week I stand before a church and speak to them what is supposed to be the word of God. 

     But here’s what I’ve come to realize: We all tend to see what we want to see in the Bible. If you want it to be a “love letter” from God, then you’ll be inclined to see those things in the Bible that emphasize God’s love and overlook the parts that don’t seem to be about that. Ditto if what you expect from the Bible is a pattern to follow. Same if you want reinforcement for your political agenda, or your sect’s doctrinal peculiarities, or confirmation that your list of sinful behaviors is the same as God’s. We all tend to look at the Bible as a magic mirror, reflecting back what we imagine we look like. None of us — not even preachers — are exempt.

     That’s because of something called confirmation bias. Simply put, we have a tendency to see what we expect to see. We believe what we already think is true. We doubt anything that doesn’t fit within our already-settled beliefs. We dislike being wrong. We subconsciously want to protect our self-esteem from having to admit we may have something more to learn, so we’re always motivated to prove our opinions and our tribe’s positions to be correct. Combine that with our talent for finding faults in others while overlooking our own, and you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to discussion, dialogue, or collaboration. Frankly, it’s amazing we can ever get anything done together, as convinced as we all are that what we already believe is the unvarnished truth.  

     Conspiracy theories and fake news are confirmation bias at work, by the way. We amplify, exaggerate, and even create “evidence” to support what we already believe. The more emotionally charged or deeply entrenched the belief, the more likely it is that confirmation bias will occur. That’s why our social media pages turn into flame wars, or more likely echo chambers where we surround ourselves with people who think just like us, ingest only sources that support our opinions, and conveniently, feed our confirmation bias.

     So don’t imagine for a moment that anyone simply reads the Bible and does what it says, as we’d sometimes like to believe. It’s never that simple. As surely as Jefferson or the publishers of the “Slave Bible,” there are parts that, for all intents and purposes, we take a razor blade to. There are parts that we inflate beyond all sense of proportion to become Doctrines of Extreme Importance. And then there are whole themes in Scripture that we can just cast aside in pursuit of evidence for what we already believe to be true.

     And if we find some other people whose confirmation biases more or less look like ours — well, we call that a denomination, and we buy a church building and slap a sign on it, and spend our time raging about how wrong everyone else is and congratulating ourselves for being right.

     So, it’s hopeless, then? We’re doomed to never learn anything new from the Bible? To never be challenged because of the unassailability of our confirmation biases? No, I’m still somewhat confident that we can read Scripture without our confirmation biases calling all the shots. For starters, we can be self-reflective enough to see that tendency in ourselves and know that what we believe about this or that text in this given moment may or may not be absolute truth (and probably is not). We know to be suspicious of ourselves and our motives, especially around a text or an issue in which we’re emotionally wrapped up. Before you settle on something you’re sure is right, let someone poke holes in it — preferably someone who’s different enough from you that they might not share your confirmation bias.

     That’s the second thing: the Bible is supposed to be read in community. Our ability to own private copies (sometimes specialty Bibles that make sure to feed our confirmation biases) and enjoy “quiet time” alone with God can make us forget it, but the Bible is for the church together, and we haven’t read it until we read it that way. Others in the community will call your biases into question. They’ll challenge what you assumed to be true. They’ll make you think about the lenses through which you read the text. If you can go into those moments with enough humility and trust that God loves you and thinks you have great worth whether you have the Bible all figured out or not, your confirmation biases will be stretched and ruptured. (And that’s a good thing!) Church should be (though it sometimes isn’t) a really good and safe place to confront biases. If you can’t listen to a sister or brother in Christ who sees things differently from you, who are you going to listen to?   

    Connected to that, we need to give those who disagree with us about this text or that one the love that God requires. To paraphrase Paul, our Bible reading is clanging gong and crashing cymbal without love (and at least as annoying). Are people who believe differently from me really as stupid or ungodly as I’m making them out to be? Knowing and loving people who see things differently can help us overcome our biases.

     But that’s only if we love the truth more than winning arguments, even if it means being corrected, even if it means having a different opinion than people you love and respect. 

     Don’t forget, though: It isn’t entirely up to you. God’s Spirit is in you and with you as you engage with the Bible, opening your eyes. Read with your heart open to him and expect his guidance. The same risen Jesus who helped open the Scriptures to his disciples on the road to Emmaus is still living and will open them to you on the roads you travel. Be ready when he does, because that kind of experience, so I’ve been told, tends to set your heart on fire.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Watching and Working

  You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 

     You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,  that they may see your good deeds  and glorify  your Father in heaven. 

-Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV) 

Our Father in heaven, let your name be revered. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be doneas in heaven, also on earth.

-Matthew 6:9

 In America, we wait for a President to be elected. 

     Really, we’ve already elected him. It’s just taking a while to find out who we’ve elected. When the counting and legal challenges are done, I hope anger will cool and disappointment will settle. I’d like to believe, at least, that we’re still a country that can elect a President without coming apart at the seams. We always have been, at least in my lifetime. Some of the rhetoric, though, makes me wonder a little if we still are.  

      In the middle of all the politics and legal maneuvering, I ran across a story that I think we all need to hear. Maybe you missed it, but I think there’s something in it that’s important for us to remember. Especially those of us who are believers in Jesus.

     Robert Carter is a young man who grew up in the foster care system in Cincinnati, Ohio. In that system, he no doubt learned some hard lessons about government. There are lots of kids growing up here in America right now who are learning the same kinds of lessons: that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, they’ll still be poor. That their schools will be underfunded. That when they get to school they’ll be hungry, unless some of those school meals that they hear some of their classmates complain about and make fun of are available. That they’ll be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. That they won’t be able to get medicine when they’re sick. That their parents, if they know them both, will work like slaves and they might still have to leave their apartment in the middle of the night because they’re behind on the rent. Or maybe that their parents won’t be part of their lives because of addiction or the legal system or the violence in their neighborhood.

     Robert learned some of those lessons. In the foster system he was separated from his 8 siblings, one of whom he didn’t see for 14 years. So last December, even though he’s single, he took on the responsibility of being a foster parent to three boys: Robert Jr., Giovanni and Kiontae. That’s quite a responsibility in itself for a single parent, but Robert believed that his background made him uniquely suited for fostering the boys.

     It wasn’t that simple, of course.

     As he got to know his foster sons, he learned that they had two sisters, Marionna and Makayla, who were also in the foster system. They’d meet up from time to time, and all of them would cry when they had to go their separate ways. 

     So Robert worked, and saved. 

     He bought a bigger house.

     And just this week, with Robert and the five kids in their finest coordinated outfits, they listened to a judge tell them they were, all six of them, officially a family. Robert has legally adopted them all. Just so they don’t have to be apart again.

     Now, I think a feel-good story is much needed in 2020, and especially in the middle of a contentious election held during a raging pandemic. But this is more than a feel-good story. It’s a prescription. Better, it’s a mission.

     Kingdoms usually don’t come without struggle. They don’t usually come without there being winners and losers, trials, hardship, and strife. Kingdoms come only after a lot of waiting, a lot of patience. Kind of like this election, right? With a lot of waiting and watching.

     While we wait for an announcement and watch election returns, let’s not forget what we really ought to be watching and waiting for. And praying for. God’s kingdom. To be a believer is to want God’s kingdom to come.

     Some of my social media friends have reminded me of that this week. Their posts have said, in effect, “Whoever wins the election, I’m going to keep loving my neighbor and believing that it’s really God who’s on the throne.” That’s a good reminder. I would hope every Christian would affirm those words. We watch and pray for God’s kingdom to come.

     Maybe it isn’t quite enough though. See, there are real people whose lives are drastically affected by political events like an election. Businesses — and livelihoods — can be lost. So can health care. Tell the people who come into our church's food pantry that politics don’t matter when they’ve lost a job due to increased health care costs, or when the program that keeps them from having to choose between buying groceries or prescriptions is cut.

     Tell people lost in a foster system that politics don’t matter.

     Whoever wins the election, there will continue to be people who are utterly failed by those in power. 

     And so we must do more than watch and pray for the kingdom of God, because Jesus makes clear the kind of kingdom he means. This isn’t a kingdom where we’re all taken to heaven to avoid the messiness the world. The kingdom Jesus announced was coming, the one he told us to watch and pray for, is a kingdom in which God’s will is done — in which conditions on earth mirror what life is like in heaven.

     That’s why Jesus says we’re to be salt people and light people whose influence for good is noted and in whom God is glorified. People like Robert Carter, who promised to be a dad to five kids who desperately needed him. People like friends of mine who have fostered and adopted children of their own. People who serve our world in ways that perhaps make a more lasting difference than a Presidential election. People who love like Jesus did: who love those who are most in need with a self-giving, sacrificial abandon.

     People who watch and pray for the kingdom of God, but who work for it too.

     As you watch and pray for God’s kingdom, then, find ways to work for it. We don’t create it with our actions. We don’t qualify for it with good deeds. It only comes at all in Jesus, and will only come fully when he appears. Still, when you find ways to create space in which his will is done, you give our world a glimpse of what that kingdom looks like.

     And you might just get a few others to believe in that kingdom and to watch, pray, and work for it alongside you.