Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Disturbing Authority!



OUR READING for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Mark. Within the text we find that the gospel described the authority of Jesus…

And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he (Jesus) entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
  And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.  (Mark 1:21-28)

Demons Disturbed!
By mid-first century the church of Mark had collected sufficient witness to unfold the ministry of Jesus. Therefore within this first chapter, we find that the text we read carried the early church rapidly through scenes of his baptismal sending, the wilderness challenge, and his calling of the first disciples. We now find him centering his initial ministry in Capernaum, located on the northwestern shore of the Galilean Sea. (see also Luke 4:31-37).
 After calling his disciples, Jesus had gathered with them in the synagogue. By the context, and the following episode at Peter’s home, we can assume that both the disciples’ families and larger faith community were present in Sabbath worship. In answer to customary and polite invitation then, Jesus as being a guest and itinerant rabbi, was invited to teach in the synagogue (see also Luke 4:16-31). All became astounded at what he told them. But his teaching did not sit well with everyone present.
 In proper manner, Jesus at first did what every rabbinical teacher would do... he read scripture and explained using scripture. But then, he taught them with divine authority! In other words, he commented on what was read out of his own Spirit.
 Now this obviously disturbed many, but offended one person in particular. That one is noted in the reading as having challenged Jesus, as being an outsider. That man was thus described by the Markan writer as having a “demon”. He exhibited an unclean, turbulent or disturbed spirit (ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ). In other words, the man became greatly worked up by what Jesus said.
 Hearing this account, we can assume that by Jesus’ teaching with authority, the man discerned a dangerous path. It seems the man feared that the synagogue and its people could be placed in peril. Hence the loud challenge blurted, “What have you to do with us?” We wonder how many synagogues of Mark’s day, or even churches of our own day eventually say the same as the scriptures are read. Do we offer these same words as we are boldly challenged by the Word of God?
  We hear that the man experiencing the turbulent fear, therefore… must have recognized the authority of Jesus. Thus as we consider this determination, I offer to you that with the recognition that Jesus was indeed the Son of God… tumult surely wretched the man. Torn to the core of his sinful being, he was revealed as resistant to repent or change before the gaze of Almighty God.. We now can ask, "How many of us today have certainly been there?"
 Therefore we understand that Jesus’ command for the demon to “Be still…” and to come out of him was not just made out of masterful hostility toward the demonic spirit, but was a calming, “Peace be with you!” instruction to the one afflicted. 
  The effect of that command was such that the disturbed man then cried. He shook uncontrollably. You see, throughout this gospel the author points us toward a pattern of forgiveness. The disciples followed without seeing clearly the purpose throughout the gospel of Mark, but demonically-possessed persons again and again saw rightly. Crying out, "have mercy!", we can see them as ourselves. Does it not seem even today that those who are farthest from the Light, more certainly know darkness and fear exposure? Realizing darkness, are they… or we ourselves… not bid at once to be by the side of our saving Lord... so to be healed by him?

Bowed Down
We might ask, “What effect did receiving this story have on the early churches of Mark?” Being written and read in the synagogues, wouldn’t this scene challenge doubters and spur those possessed with unbelief. Couldn't we say that the text challenged those who were so heavily invested in a certain theological and liturgical position that they would cry out when disturbed?
 Indeed what would happen to any gathered church community when each questions human traditions and comes to realize the truth of what our Lord has taught?
 Take note! The answer was historically seen amongst those churches and nations that first heard the good news, and is recognized yet today in our various denominations, churches, and peoples who receive the Word of God.  Receiving the Word of God proclaimed rightly disturbs, challenges, convicts and frees us.
 But know this! Through our proclamation of this Truth, anchored in writings as such in Mark’s gospel, our Lord’s fame shall indeed spread far and wide. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Fishing Deep Waters!



FOR THE Third Sunday after Epiphany we read from the Gospel According to Saint Mark. In his witness we find the core message of God laid out quickly before us. God entered the world through Christ for the purpose of declaring the gospel, the good news about our reconciliation…

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
 And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20)

Preaching the Gospel…
Our author of this text, which is the earliest of the written gospel records, relates the calling of disciples in very brief fashion. The scene we hear was not coincidental to the work or bidding of John the Baptist, but occurred shortly after his arrest. While not stating any particular gap in chronological order, therefore, the beginning of our Lord’s ministry was described. Jesus went into the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee. There he first preached the good news concerning the arrival of the kingdom of God.
 From the text we thus see that the exact timing of the disciples' calling is adiaphora for Mark. The author more importantly related immediately that Jesus went preaching the gospel into Galilee. Jesus proclaimed there that the Messianic time, the arrival of the Deliverer had been fulfilled. We note rightly that the Greek word used for “time’ here does not befit thoughts of chronological time. The word used speaks of it being “the right time” (in the Greek – καιρος). Thus we see “time” as expressed as an “epoch” that had been set apart… made “holy”, separated out from the beginning of all things created.
 In Mark then we have an immediacy not found in the other gospels. The right time was at hand in Jesus! For the readers or hearers, “NOW” was the time expressed by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the concise message of this entire gospel. The kingdom of God is NOW at hand for the reader or hearer. We must note that today, you are the reader. Your time is NOW!
 Understand clearly what Mark said to his churches. He told truly that the kingdom was already at work, right in front of them… and NOW is bequeathed to us… as we hear or read. Therefore, this text is instructional to all ages. In this way the writer taught that Jesus, the One who spoke to the disciples on that day, ushered in the kingdom for all time. The original recipients found that the kingdom was therefore a work that would be completed in God’s own time. Consequently, Jesus was revealed as the Messenger, and the Message for the church of Mark… and yet still is to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. 
 As portrayed in this gospel then, Jesus stated a responsive path for the hearers. Our Lord delivered a message that shows the core of the Markan writing. "Repent, and believe the good news", was the refrain that rang out just after the days of John the Baptist.
 However, we need to note that the repentance Jesus called for was an abrupt turning… a new way of living. Rather than waiting hunkered down in the nave of a boat quietly... while offering obedience to pacify an angry sea monster god like a fisherman patiently watching his line closely for a fish to bite, disciples are now instead called to truly turn their attention toward our gracious God. God offered up Jesus as his only Son... as bait... to lure and fool the Satanic.
  As we can now understand, the Messiah, the Son of God, was and still is our Savior.
  Here we witness God’s plan to thwart the demonic. The divine bait and switch was underway! Jesus was the lure swished through the turbulent rapids that drowned God’s people. Our Lord was the true message concerning God’s salvation.
 The disciples were soon to be taught this message by Jesus. Rather than they seeking out a rabbinical teacher, as was customary, the Teacher sought and taught them. God was the exclusive initiator and the worker of salvation, lest anyone else should boast.
 Even today, through the Spirit’s luring we gain belief in the Message and the Messenger. Faith is thus formed by the Holy Spirit who works in the Word and by the Word of God... which is Jesus himself. The Word is he who comes to us today in spoken and written form through the witness made by the Holy Scriptures.
 Today we find the disciples portrayed by Mark were those quickly caught up by Jesus while they are yet casting their nets for fish. They were called by our Lord while in the midst of their time-consuming daily labors.
 By his saying simply the words… “Follow me…” they were themselves netted. Expressed here because of my lack of a better image, they were caught up like fish in a divine net.
 The disciples were chosen. They were to be given true faith. Those who followed were caught up as consumable fish, by their working toward delivering the good news. God was acting through them to deliver all who would believe and bite the lure, brought into the boat and rescued from the imprisonment of evil, sin and death.
 As Jesus spoke to those men, we might think that they should have remembered the words of the prophet Jonah, who was storied as trapped in the belly of a great fish…

 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol, I cried, and thou didst hear my voice.
 For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?
 The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit. (Jonah 2:1-6)

 Considering that these were everyday fishermen familiar with the burdens of family, business or trade... surrounded by hostile powers, Mark shows that they received a statement of profound invitation. The disciples were, and we are also... taken “immediately” to answer. I ask you... "Shall we follow Jesus, the one who was himself swallowed up?"
 According to John’s gospel, only Philip and Nathaniel had first come to believe and follow him. Therefore we might consider that this subsequent event shows the gracious power of the Holy Spirit working in the very beings of everyday working people. This gracious gift, according to what we read here… provides we witnesses that the same Spirit to work in our lives today. Indeed, Jesus also calls to us on this very day.
 You see, just as the waters of death would sometimes overwhelm brave fisherman from across the ages, the saving grace of baptism now overwhelms us as well... giving us eternal life. Using that same water that would often take life… the Spirit of God saves. We know that we are saved by grace through baptism into Christ Jesus.
 “Why has God done so?” we might ask. Why were they, and why are we… chosen as the baptized… and marked with the sign of the cross? The scripture gives us answer.

Enduring Faith…
Take note that each of those disciples called were immediately told that Jesus would “make” them fishers of men. Therefore within the very calling of the disciples, as described at that Galilean seaside… was the promise that Jesus would begin teaching them. In rapid sequence in Mark, therefore, we see that they were taught... even though Mark again and again described that they did not seem to get the idea.
 In fact, at the last... Mark leaves us hanging, knowing they surely did not get it until after the death and Resurrection of Jesus. We do read according to the later written scriptures, full realization did not occur for the apostles  until their encounter with Risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Only after those wondrous events had occurred, the lowly fishermen and others who were given faith, would find that they could plunge themselves into the depths of the world. The disciples were truly to become lively witnesses, like a fish... a worthy catch laid out before all humanity concerning the wondrous works of God.
 Their legacy of their journey with Jesus is thus passed on to us. The story that the church of Mark recorded wonderfully here has been transmitted through centuries and across great oceans... even to us. So it was even then as the church was being formed, and so it is even now. We are called; you have been called. Leave the waters of Baptism and take up the burden of the cross. Rejoice with the disciples! Learn more as you read from Mark... then share the Good News!


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Being Made Witness...



FOR THE Second Sunday after Epiphany, we find our lesson to be from the Gospel According to John. Within this text, the gospel writer relates to us the calling of our Lord's disciples. Though the scene deviated somewhat in the sequence of calling told from the synoptic writings of Mark, Matthew and Luke, we find similar emphasis about the revelation given to us for witness…

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?”
 Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 
 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”  (John 1:43-51)

On Having No Guile…
As our gospel record recorded the calling of Andrew and Peter, stated just prior to this lesson, we find that Philip is first spoken to by Jesus in very simple terms the very next day. According to the text, Jesus addressed Philip in short terms with... “Follow me.”
 In the original Greek of the day, the single word “acolouthe” (ἀκολούθει) indicates a “calling forth”. This is also the root word for the English word, “acolyte”, who was a person who originally lit the torches for the church’s way through the catacomb tunnels of ancient Rome. Thus Philip, formerly one who had followed John the Baptist and through the Spirit was sent to Jesus… quickly found the light of our Lord. After doing so, he firmly believed Jesus to be the Messiah (Deliverer) of Israel. By actively exercising this faith, that early disciple saw great deeds accomplished by God through Christ Jesus. Philip then, is yet a model for those that seek after God in modern times.
 Possibly to ground the textual characters in a very real, yet mystical event, John related exactly where Philip and Andrew were from.
 John wrote that they were of Bethsaida, then our author subsequently established the mystical revelation. We read in the scene and flow of history, where Nathaniel humanly scoffed that such a great event should happen in such a prophetically meager place as Nazareth. This revealed that, just as today,… the out-of-the-way place was seen as unfit for such a grand occurring. Scriptural witness did not hold the place high... because it was not mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures.
 Nathaniel thus dealt lightly with the matter. He said to Philip an over-the-shoulder comment that would seemingly ward off further commentary. To be sure, many witnesses, have since encountered the same attitude in their witness. John described, however, that it was in this framework of friendship that Philip persuaded Nathaniel to join him. He did so by just using the words, “Come and see!” (Eρχου καὶ ἴδε)
  Therefore, we read today that the encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel revealed much about personal evangelism methods for the modern church. The words reveal much to us. First, we hear that Jesus knew Nathaniel before they interacted. How so we might wonder? Was it Nathaniel's implied resistant demeanor, or some sect or status clothing which gave Jesus a hint of his Judaic genealogy? How would Jesus know either him... or us... by sight as someone he could call his own?
 We do not know for sure, except that Jesus proclaimed that “in him there is no guile”, as Nathaniel approached. We are reminded thus that in faith, Philip had brought his friend… and because of that personal witness made… and Nathaniel's willingness to walk with his friend to see Jesus… that the pronouncement was made by Jesus that Nathaniel had no ulterior motive.
 In genuine surprise, Nathaniel was taken aback. He was without a leg to stand on because Jesus seemed to know his character… and indeed that stated that he was willing to wrestle with God, just as his ancestor Jacob.
  Then Jesus, by also telling Nathaniel that he had seen him under the fig tree, assured the doubter that as an inquirer, he represented the faithful of Israel. Israel had often been thought of as a people wrestling with the Holy Spirit in order just to eat of God’s sweet fruit.

Open Mind, Filled Heart!
Because of Jesus’ insight as described here, Nathaniel proclaimed that Jesus was surely the One his friend Philip had presented as the Messiah. He became convinced that Jesus is the Christ… the Son of Man and the Son of God. You see, Nathaniel quickly recognized that Jesus had divine insight, and was to deliver Israel from bondage.
 Our author however… declared that Jesus, as the revealed Son of God… made it quickly evident to his new followers that they would also see much greater revelations than those already understood by Nathaniel. Indeed, all of those who were mentioned in this reading and the text that occurs just before it… that those first disciples... named Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathaniel… would indeed see. The disciples would be made messengers of God. They would therefore see angels descending from, and ascending to… the courts of Almighty God. This recalls for us the story in Hebrew scripture wherein blessed father Jacob told attentive listeners about his dreamlike vision of the heavenly ladder.

 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!
  And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.”
 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
                                                                                                  (Genesis 28:10-17)

 Therefore, sisters and brothers in Christ… it is with this vision and purpose that the churches of John’s day were called, and Christians for centuries afterward would follow faithfully. They would see the great workings of God in the descending and ascending. By the power of the descending heavenly messengers, today we also may see both children and adults baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
 We now also enjoy the great pleasure to commend our friends in Christ to both go into the world as witnesses, and into the heavenly realms after their death. We are, you see, made through our baptism to be the children of God… those who are without guile.
 Consequently, our task is great in what is now called a post-Christian world. But, rest assured that we shall also witness miracles. Though we may worry over declining church membership, we will witness the work of the one true, apostolic church in modern times. We shall join with our brothers Philip and Nathaniel in praising God’s love given through Christ Jesus. This is certainly so.... This is our purpose… and of such shall it be even unto eternal life. Thanks be to God!
 To provoke your thoughts about our future ministry in the modern world, consider a further study that I suggest. I offer a link to a volume recently written. It is one that analyzes modern American societal forces, and proposes a future path for many in the Church as we follow Jesus.Though I do not agree with all of the author's suggestions, at least it provides a basis for thought and conversation.


May the Peace of God, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord.