Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mark 9.30–37 — True Greatness

Some of you know that we have been advertising for a Children and Families worker. I’ve never had so many discussions about job descriptions and person specifications as I’ve had in the last few months. To be honest, putting these documents together isn’t the most riveting work imaginable, but after your third or fourth hour of discussing a single paragraph of text, you begin to realise that there is an acceptable recruitment jargon… and you also realise what the jargon really means: ‘We have a casual working environment – We don't pay enough to expect you to wear a suit and tie’; ‘Duties will vary – Anyone in the office can boss you around’; ‘We are looking for a resourceful, independent self-starter – Since we have absolutely no time or resources to train you, we expect you to work everything out for yourself… quickly.’ Clearly some job descriptions are nonsense. Now I’d like you to think for a moment about what your job description for the Messiah would be? A king? A prophet? A healer? Whatever we think about the Messiah, I think that in our minds eye, we tend to have images much like those depicted on our West wall: the Messiah in glory, glowing, golden, wearing a long, flowing robe, with a halo and making strange hand gestures.

Now if these images of Christ in majesty chime with you, you’re in good company, because Jesus contemporaries, including the disciples, had very similar views. The Messiah would be a glorious, victorious king. And if you were to read Mark’s gospel as it’s meant to be read, in sequence, not mixed up, interspersed with chunks of John, you would forgive the disciples, at least Peter James and John, for being a bit confused. Earlier in Mark 9 these three disciples follow Jesus up a mountain where he was transfigured. That’s what they had been waiting for. Everything they expected the Messiah to be, and more! There he was, Israel’s true king, talking with Moses and Elijah, shining, dazzling white. A voice from heaven ‘this is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!’ If only the gainsayers could see and hear this! 

Now, as they make their way down the mountain, a Jesus says something very strange: ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again’ (v. 31). Hang on, that’s not how the story goes. The Messiah doesn’t die, a passive victim. The disciples just don’t know what to make of it. And they are silenced for the first time in our reading. Sometimes I feel sorry for the disciples in Mark’s gospel. They are always portrayed as stupid. Jesus is constantly lecturing them for not understanding even though he spoke in deliberately cryptic parables. Or criticising them for not having enough faith. Has Jesus hauled them over the coals one too many times? The disciples were afraid to ask him what he meant. Well that’s one way you could read their fearful silence. 

But as sorry as I feel for the disciples, I think there is more to this fearful silence. I think it’s a silence which comes from being all too aware of what Jesus means. They know that Jesus is the glorious king of Israel, and they are becoming increasingly aware that his kingdom isn’t going to be as they expected. The disciples didn’t ask because they knew that they weren’t going to get the answer that they wanted, that Jesus was going to be king, and that they would be his courtiers. Maybe an ambassador, or a chancellor, or even Prime Minister. 

And so they keep on arguing about who will be the greatest as they travel with Jesus to Capernaum (v. 33). When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about, the disciples are silenced for the second time, now from embarrassment. And now with knowing tenderness, Jesus teaches his friends what his reign looks like, and the path they need to follow if they are to be great as their Messiah is great. He brings in a little child and says ‘this is your example’. This isn’t a cute scene of   tender lovely Jesus, embracing children and saying ‘if only we were as innocent and lovely as children, things would be great!’ A child in the first century was about the lowest of the low. In Roman society children were the property of their fathers. They could be ordered about, sold or even put to death with impunity. Life was better in Jewish culture, but Children were still generally very insignificant. In fact, the word for slave in both Greek and Aramaic, is derived from the word for child. Jesus takes a child and says, here is my Ambassador, my Chancellor, my Prime Minister. Receive this person, who society regards as nothing, and you will receive Jesus and the Father who sent him.

We generally value and care for children in twenty-first century Britain. Perhaps we need to ask who are the people who are on the margins of our society today? Who are the people who we regard as expendable? Who are those who Jesus would stand in our church, right in the middle of us, and say ‘whoever welcomes one such person in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me.’  Perhaps a noisy baptismal family? or a person whose clothing seems inappropriate for church? Perhaps a prostitute or a drug addict? Who are the people in whose faces we would rather not see Jesus? Are we really a welcoming church? What might Jesus be telling us that we are unwilling to hear?

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Eternal Sabbath of the Lord

After quite a challenging August, I've had a very enjoyable week off work. As I started to think about going back my thoughts turned to the eternal sabbath of the Lord and this wonderful passage from Augustine's Confessions:

O Lord God, give us peace… the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, which has no evening. For all this most good and beautiful array of things, having finished their courses, will pass away, for in them there was morning and evening. 

But the seventh day has no evening, its sun will never set, because you have blessed it to last for ever; After you made your very good works, although you made them in unbroken rest, you rested on the seventh day. Your book thus foretold that after our works (being very good, because you have given them to us), we shall rest in you also in the Sabbath of eternal life. 

For then you shall also rest in us, just as now you work in us; your rest will be through us, just as now you work through us. But you, Lord, are always working, and always at rest. You are not bound by time, neither do you move in time, nor do you rest in a time; and yet you create the things we see in time, time itself, and the rest at the end of time.

We therefore see these things which you have made, because they have being: but they are, because you see them. We see outwardly that they exist, and inwardly that they are good. But you saw them there, at the same time made and yet to be made. In our own time, we were moved to do good, when our hearts had received your Spirit; but before that we were moved to do evil, forsaking you; but you God, the One and the Good, you never cease to do good. Some of our works are good because of your grace, but they are not eternal; and after them we hope to rest in your great holiness. But you, who are the Good which needs no other good, you are ever at rest, because you yourself are your own rest.

Which human being can teach anyone to understand this? Or which Angel can teach it to an Angel? Or which Angel can help a human being to understand? We can but ask you, seek you, knock for you; That is how this knowledge can be received, how it can be found, how the door is opened. 


(Confessions, XIII, 35–38)

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Can my Kit Kat make me unclean?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, so the old saying goes. The connection between physical cleanliness and spiritual health has been an obsession for religious people as long as there have been religious people. I’m open to being corrected, but I can’t think of a single religion which hasn’t developed codes of religious purity. And christians have been as big a part of this as any. How many of you dabbed yourself with water as you came into church this morning? Maybe you’ve made the sign of the cross one or two times since the service started? Or Perhaps you’ve noticed that shortly before the eucharist part of the service every Sunday, the priest has a little bit of water poured over his fingers? All of these are rituals which we use to make us holy, to make us acceptable to come and worship God.

What is the situation here?
In this reading, we are plunged into a first century Jewish debate. For a long time, the only people required to wash to make themselves pure enough to worship God were priests in preparation for sacrificing at the altar. In the book of Exodus it says “When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water” (Exodus 30.20). But the Torah, the scriptures of the people of Israel, never requires this of ordinary people. For a long time this was exactly the way things stayed; the priests carried on washing their hands and feet before going ministering at the altar, and the people would cary on, eating their dinner without necessarily washing in the confidence that this would not harm their relationship with God. But around the time that Jesus was alive, a group of very sound religious people called the Pharisees began interpreting things differently. They rightly understood that God had made all his people priests (Exodus 19.6), and that the whole of life should be lived as an act of worship to God.

What does the obsession with external ritual purity result in? 
That sounds pretty good to me! It sounds a lot like some of the stuff you read in the New Testament. Everybody a priest and the whole of life as worship sounds like just the thing to liberate christians to work for God's new society. It looks great, until you try to work out what it would look like in practice. Then it starts to look less appealing. The Pharisees extrapolated hundreds of rules from the Law about how you could maintain yourself as pure enough for God. They went way beyond the normal demands made of normal Jewish people, like not eating pork, or shellfish. And many of those laws concerned ritual washing: not just your hands, but whatever you had bought from the market, your cups and pots, the couches you would recline at to eat your dinner, the equivalent of ritually washing your dinner table and chairs. They were doing this from a desire to be pure, to take religion seriously. This kind of intensely meticulous life is ok if you are a person of privilege, who has a good education so that you can work out the complex rules you need to live by, and if you have the time and energy to devote yourself to observing all the rules. But common people didn’t stand a chance. In fact the Greek translated as ‘unclean’ in the gospel reading is better translated as ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’.

Intense and pernickety religious and ethical attitudes always result in a religious elitism of one form or another. A moral code emerges which is easy for the privileged to fulfill, but next to impossible for everyone else to get even close to. I have to admit, I think that we run the risk of this when we place a strong emphasis on only buying organic food, or fair trade products. We create a morality which costs wealthy Surrey types very little. I can afford to pay £1 for a bar of chocolate, or £4 for a pack of coffee, or £4 more per kilo for organic minced beef. But by making 'ethical consumerism' a significant characteristic of good christian behaviour, we make pariahs of the people who can’t afford shop ethically. It’s easy to have this kind of morality if you are wealthy. It’s much harder if you are struggling to pay the rent. We should be at least a little suspicious of any ethical code which is easier for the rich to keep than the poor. By all means, be a fair trade shopper, but don't look down at those who aren't.

How does Jesus respond to this? 
The Pharisees would not eat with ‘common’ hands, they felt they were better than that, and were amazed that Jesus’ disciples weren’t as concerned about maintaining a pure life as they were. Now here is the really revolutionary thing. Jesus could have responded simply by saying that the Pharisees had invented a bunch of laws which hadn’t come from God which therefore, nobody needed to obey – after all, God is the only one who can bind our consciences. But instead of doing this, Jesus goes much, much further: “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile... For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’” (Mark 7.14-15, 21). Jesus teaches that external things make us neither pure nor impure. ‘Impurity’ comes from the human heart, from from its motivations. One of the verses the lectionary compilers unhelpfully leave out is religiously explosive, it says that Jesus ‘declared all foods clean’ (7.19). Jesus cleanses everything, from lobster to Kit Kats. He removes the distinction between sacred and profane, between holy and common, between pure and impure things. God created all things and he created them good. Nothing he has made can make us unworthy of worshiping him. 

The food we eat, the way we worship, the rituals we perform, the people we associate with, radio or TV channels we follow, the newspaper we read, the music we listen to: none of these makes us either pure or impure. God loves us. And we respond to that love, not by panicking about whether we are religiously acceptable to God, but by being doers of the word, as we read in the epistle of James. By loving others as he has loved us. So as we go into this week may we remember that God is interested in our lives being motivated by love, in caring from the orphan and widow, the stranger or homeless person. God is interested in our living lives of love, not in how fervently or frequently we make the sign of the cross.