Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Walking with Purpose...



THE LESSON we study for the Second Sunday in Lent is heard from the Gospel According to Saint Mark. This reading in Mark reveals our Lord’s conversation with his apostles about his identity, then turns to the general population to identify followers as participants in his church and ministry…

 And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he charged them to tell no one about him.
 And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
 And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
 For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
                                                                                          (Mark 8:27-38)

From Few to All…
The query Jesus laid before Peter and the apostles places our reading focus upon the Jewish population's responses to his being in our midst. According to Mark, Peter was the apostolic spokesperson. He told of the various reactions of Jewish leaders and the general populace. Jesus then narrowed the questioning to just the disciples. He asked Peter about who they believed him to be.
 According to this earliest witness, Peter rightly identified Jesus for he answered that they believed him to be the Christ. Nonetheless, as likely told to the early church by Peter himself, the text does not reveal that any of the apostles realized the full meaning of the statement. They thought he was to only assume the earthly throne of Israel. The inability of the apostles to comprehend his true Messianic identity becomes thematic for the gospel of Mark, because the same question is asked three times during the apostolic trek to the cross. Jesus repeatedly tested their ability to “get it”, and the writer of the gospel thus emphasized their ignorance. Their inability to comprehend that God had a different meaning for the Messianic role than the Jewish leadership, affected both the followers and opponents of Jesus’ mission. 
 Interesting as well, Mark does not use the Hebrew Messianic title to describe Jesus here, but instead used the Greek term of “Christ”… though both were indications that Jesus was the “anointed” or "appointed" one. My claim is thus that Mark addressed his writing specific to unbelievers in the Jewish diaspora across the Roman Empire… especially any Greek newbies. Using the term therefore, Mark focused his readers universally by relating that Peter said that Jesus is the “Christ”.
 Jesus was described by Mark as more than merely a human sent by God, as historically believed in error by many persons both then and now. Mark argues that Jesus indeed is the Son of Man, and the Christ of God. For further discussion on this matter, you can delve into a previous material covered on this same passage as written by the church of Matthew, You can find this in our study of the gospel for Pentecost 11, Year A in the lectionary cycle.
 For our Bible study today, however, I would bring us to examine the latter verses of this text. At the time, Jesus instructed the disciples not to reveal his Messianic identity, for they did not yet fully understand the all-encompassing mission that his title portrayed. His purpose was far greater than the erroneous perceptions his followers and adversaries held. They thought that Jesus would challenge local rulers and attempt to take the seat of power in Israel. 

Follow Only Me!
In the reading, we find that Mark related that the audience then shifted. The scene portrays that Jesus turned and began to speak to others who had gathered. He thus included the poor, the rich, the Pharisee, Sadducee and Zealot and others. Here the text is telling.
 Mark shifted the scene to universally reveal the message they needed to hear. By doing so, Mark taught his own reading audience and thus teaches us today as well. We are taught what following Jesus really means for us. All witnesses are taught that as disciples... we are to be in the world, but not of it.
 Jesus’ original audience outside of Caesarea Phillippi and those who later came out of this Markan church witness, received a call to deny themselves. They are made able to set aside their own agenda and personal ambitions. Those hearing Jesus and reading this text were asked, even though not completely understanding, to cast away their finite human control. Those within hearing were and still are asked to follow in faith.
 You see, disciples were to take up the challenge of moving forward as Christians. They were called... and indeed some followed. In following they would eventually learn greater things by the power of the Holy Spirit and give witness while working in a hostile and challenging world.
 In answer to this, we of the modern church need to particularly note the passage that also gives us firm guidance. We need take it seriously for a Lenten warning as we move toward the cross of Easter. We are called... and are not as the Body of Christ in today’s world, to allow ourselves to be ashamed (In Greek - ἐπαισχυνθῇ - hepaischynthe) of witnessing about Jesus Christ, our Lord.
 Surely, as demonstrated by his death and Resurrection, Jesus was and is yet living and holy. He was thus defined as “set apart” by God. Our Lord was and still is truly human... and as God is also divine. Jesus thus possessed, and still yet displays through the Spirit... a uniqueness that is far removed from any of the world’s would-be religious usurpers.
 There are many false leaders today who merely attempt to glean the church and civil populations like demons that tear at the fabric of our Lord’s pure garment. These assail and mislead the church by prostituting the message of Jesus Christ. It is these heretical ones who soft-pedal Jesus’ divinity and slant his unchanging Word... in order to endorse their own social or financial agendas. Therefore, these apostates fail to reveal him as Lord of lords… the crucified and Risen Son of God. These are those persons of whom Jesus will be ashamed.
 Remember that you now are blessed ones who truly read and hear his Word, and together we are called to reveal that Jesus is the solely the Son of Man and the Son of God. We rightly claim that salvation is accomplished only through him. This was the message of Mark to the early church.
 This is the Good News that should be proclaimed by the Church even now in this culture of death. We are called to do this throughout the Lenten season. May this gospel message endure by the power of the Holy Spirit.





Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Stage Right!



OUR STUDY begins with a lesson for the First Sunday of Lent as read from the Gospel According to Saint Mark. As a Master of Ceremonies who would set the stage for the main course of a play, our author provided us with introduction for what was to come.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
  The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.
 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.”  (Mark 1:9-15)

Our Author?
Those of us who once again experience our walk through the Sundays of Lent, and are led to the foot of the Lord’s cross, know the redemption story... and are brought to love its flow. But the community of Mark did not write this gospel just for entertainment. Mark wrote for another definite purpose. Highly likely, is the assumption that the writers gathered myriads of oral material for this text. Therefore they deliberately blended the witnesses of Peter and Mark… and proceeded to introduce a written story center stage. The text we read is primarily purposed for those who had not yet heard the Good News.
 If we look closely at the beginning, we can see seams. The Divine drama gradually unfolds. First the topic was noted clearly, like a headline placed yesterday on a marquee or in the theater lobby. As told by Mark 1:1, the purpose was prominently advertised... hear the good news… the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
 In rapid sequence then, as if supplied by an unseen emcee who existed as an off-stage voice, your mind’s video presentation becomes anchored... introduced by ancient text from Isaiah. Rooting we readers or listeners to a divinely familiar stage, the gospel record quickly opens with the word… “Behold!
 In our modern terms, the authors by the power of the Holy Spirit thus said, “Pay attention!” Effectively the writers thus announced that the prophets had predicted a messenger would tell of the Messiah’s appearance. That person was interpreted by the Markan author to be John the Baptist. John quickly takes center stage only as a preparatory character, pictured not as the fulfillment of God’s promise, but as a sent witness. His purpose was to call the audience’ attention to our sinful human failures before God. He was poised only then to tell of the steadfast love that God provides. Our guided conclusion echoes rightly within us,,, "We cannot get clean on our own!"
 The literary stage was therefore set in rather liquid fashion by Mark. The waters of the Jordan River, like the waters of our baptism, provide us with the needed backdrop for life. Familiar to many… to those who walk in the faith of the Church both then and now… the watery curtain opens on the story of Jesus’ baptism as carried out by John. The writer immerses us in the flow.
 Subsequently, this seems to be the real beginning of the story… for the author boldly uses historical terms, “In those days…” he says! Erroneously, we who are seated in sin often see this curtain opening as fable. Some might deem it as a familiar, “Once upon a time…”.
 It would be so were it not anchored in reality. Witnesses spurred by the Holy Spirit know that the story is not fiction. This drama is not a just mystery! It does not address the uncertainty of, “Why would the sinless Son of God need to receive baptism for repentance?’ You see, our Lord's baptism was not at issue for Mark or his gathered community, so that uncertainty was not voiced. 

Enter Stage Doubly “Right”
As so professed by some scriptural critics, the central message of the drama begins here. Jesus appeared on stage as an adult. He was rightly announced by John as the greater of the two persons, yet received baptism by John. Jesus appeared without any discussion over a need for cleansing… since there was none. He was thus boldly presented. Jesus was described as the One who would baptize us with the Divine, special... and set-apart Spirit.
 For Mark’s writer then, Jesus was the main, revealed character, to be presented in spotlight by the subsequent story. The revelation written pointed the audience toward Jesus alone as the Beloved. Jesus stood boldly before all who read or hear.
 Here we see, however, that the Greek word ευθυς appears in Mark. Rendered in English as “immediately” or “straightaway”, we find that the word resounds repeatedly through the entire writing of Mark. The word occurs like the literal soft “click” of a slide projector control,  or “enter” button of a computerized video presentation. The word smoothly fades our attention to yet another scene. The word transitions us in faith therefore… moving us along toward revealing the Truth.
 To illuminate this flow, please note that a quick change of scenery backdrop unfolds “immediately” in the gospel writing. Our author next related a statement and little more, about Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. However, our gospel does not allow us to remain on the edge of out seats for very long. We cannot remain dwelling in a wilderness of doubt and testing. Quickly the story propels us past the arrest of John the Baptist without further explanation, and brings us back as the reader audience to the central purpose of Jesus’ arrival on the central stage of history.
 You see, according to Mark, the good news was not about John, nor the Satanic demonic in the wilderness as told by Matthew and Luke. The purpose was to boldly tell us that Jesus is the both Messenger and the Message. He is the good news! Jesus is both the evangelist and the sure arrival of the eternal Savior! 

High Drama!
 Mark stated the gospel clearly and concisely. Jesus said right away in Mark that the time in which he spoke was a “now” time… as not in “chronological" time, but in “right" time. In God’s eternal “right” time keeping, Mark thus stated to his readers… both the then and the now of the gospel… that the time for us is still “now” as the Gospel is read or heard. 
 I echo to you that most certainly the kingdom of God was at hand then as our Lord spoke, and is yet available. Mark gave to those in his audience long ago, what he through the Holy Spirit now offers also to us. Mark gives to those who read and will witness the Good News, the Gospel… instructions to believe and follow Jesus.
 Our Lord Jesus, who is the Son of God according to the witness of the Holy Spirit… gave us Good News. All of humanity, those of us who have been sinfully immersed in writing our own life scripts… are given clear direction for our lives. Repent! Turn!
 Scripture reveals that those who have been trapped… hidden behind the world’s darkened stage lights… are called to squirm in theater seats. With the scriptural spot light lowered upon us from center stage, we face condemnation under the Law, followed by the brilliant love of our Father in heaven. "Believe the Good News" we are told. Our gentle Lord stood, telling us… "For the kingdom of God is at hand."
 People of God gathered onto the Divine stage of creation during the coming weeks of Lent, let us consider just what that means for us. Let us study the Word together.






Tuesday, February 10, 2015

As No Fuller...



FOR THE observation of Transfiguration Sunday this year, we gather to hear the Gospel According to Saint Mark. The scripture unfolds the miraculous event that revealed the identity of Jesus as Messiah to the leaders of the early faith community. Therefore by our hearing, the message also reveals to us the primacy of our Lord in the unfolding salvation story. But indeed, can we lowly really grasp the glory…?

 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus.
 And Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.
 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.
                                                                                                     (Mark 9:2-10)

As Told Truly…
We hear this scene described to us from its earliest writing in the New Testament. The witness of Mark, carries to us a firsthand account from the life of Jesus. The story was remembered and told faithfully as having come directly from the lips of the apostle Peter. Accuracy is present here therefore, for Peter himself had related this particular scene. It was Peter that traveled after the Resurrection to Syria, and then also to Egypt. However, he had first gone to Syria as witness with Paul, Mark and Barnabas. Though he had tangled somewhat with Paul over the application of Jewish traditions for the Gentiles (see Paul’s Letter to the Church of Galatia, c. 45AD), here we see a vivid portrayal as guided by the Holy Spirit. That lowly Galilean fisherman related a miraculous event which occurred at the top of a mountain located near Capernaum.
 However, given that this scene is read within every year of our three-year lectionary lesson, from one of the three synoptic gospels, the topic has been studied by us as written elsewhere. Depending on the three-year cycle, the story is related to us from Matthew 17:1-8, and from Luke 9:28-36.
 However, for this study, I wish to focus our attention upon a few words of the text specifically used by the scribe of this gospel. The words of Peter told us that our Lord Jesus was bodily changed (Greek – μετεμορφώθη -metamorphosethe). His appearance so greatly changed that his clothing became “… intensely white, as no fuller could bleach them.” Using these words, a practical emphasis is particular to this gospel record. Peter takes us… his hearers… to a wondrous place. Changed for their particular audience, you see… Matthew and Luke omitted this “fuller” described as actively “bleaching” phrase… replacing it with the phrase “white as light”. Why so, we may rightly ask?

As Heard Truly…
Let me contend that this phrase connects us with an authentication of the Petrine witness. The phrase indelibly connects us directly with the event that occurred on the mountain. By using that phrase, those exact words… a man who was surely present tells us of the event. To reveal authenticity, I claim and contend that Peter fell into the depths of his earlier trade to describe the event.
 Consider this. In my own preaching experience, I find that as I witness to the message of the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit, in doing so I often use symbols, phrases and expressions from my personal history. As Saint Paul related, in order to proclaim Christ we become like those to whom we witness. As such, I believe this is what we find present here.
 Follow my thinking. I claim that Peter, as a lowly fisherman was familiar with the whited-cloth sails wafting on the sea of Galilee. He was then without doubt very familiar with the work of a “fuller” (γναφευς) who bleached cloth. Therefore, using an expression garnered from his trade, he described his Lord as attaining a glowing appearance far beyond that which we lowly persons can even begin to describe.
 According to Peter then, for us to look upon the glory of the Son far surpasses the expanse of our sinful finitude. He had difficulty describing the event, and so do we. Certainly for Peter, the brilliant presence of Jesus surely surpassed that quality of any other accompanying person, including Moses and Elijah.
 From the days of Moses we have precedence for this type of divine description, for the brilliance of God’s presence upon earth was described by the ancient writer as a “burning bush”… one that was not extinguishable (see Exodus 3:6, and Deuteronomy 18:15). As we of the church therefore, try to wrap our modern minds around this mystically-described event, we sinners can identify with our predecessor in the faith. We not only receive forgiveness because of our Lord, but a dim vision of our Lord as a person transfigured exists in us far beyond the ability of one who was with him to describe. In this we can but sense the struggle Peter encountered.
 A lowly fisherman from Galilee, Peter was pressed by the Holy Spirit to describe our Infinite God using the finite language of his humanity. In that same vein we too are brought to the same place as the Church. We are called to use everyday words to express the wondrous vision of God’s grace given. I fear too often we sinfully don't even try.
 Know this! Peter expressed the glory that he saw on the mountaintop. The scene was a prophetic one which gave sure meaning to the death and Resurrection of our Lord. Couple this with the word adjustments made to his witness by the communities of Matthew and Luke, in order to communicate the same to their church communities and we have a fantastic scene. We are thus forced to realize that it is the responsibility of the modern Christian church to yet struggle with the same interpretive effort today.
 You see, we are charged in mission with expressing the same indescribable gift to our own generation! Therefore as preachers and laymen mustering all that we can learn and all that we can meaningfully express, we need to be bold and speak words of faith as empowered by the Holy Spirit. Only by witness through the Spirit can the finite describe the Infinite. And only by the power of the Holy Spirit can the hearer apprehend the gospel message spoken. This blessed message thus can be clearly understood as we hear the words of the apostle Peter. As told in Mark then, just as the cloud overshadowed them... the Spirit of God came forth. Through the Holy Spirit, our God said, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”. And so by the same voice this Truth also appears to us on this marvelous Transfiguration Sunday. Let us indeed… listen... and tell others.