Monday, 14 August 2017

Authority, Belief, and Confidence: A Sermon on Mark 9:2-50

Our church is going through Mark’s Gospel at the moment using, in hindsight, overly long passages. This is my latest contribution to the preaching series.

Mark 9:2-50

What sort of Christian are you? Perhaps you’re the sort of Christian who gets up at five o’clock in the morning to pray and meditate for a couple of hours, the sort who is a bastion of Christlike calm and serenity in a world of chaos, and who radiates the love of Jesus to everyone you encounter. Or perhaps you’re the sort of Christian in whom the Spirit’s fire blazes, the sort who shares the gospel message with everyone you meet, and before whom thousands—nay, hundreds of thousands, even millions—repent in sackcloth and ashes because of your sharp critiques of the bankruptcy and moral failure of contemporary society. Or perhaps you’re the sort of Christian who . . . well, I needn’t go on. I’m sure we’re all aware of the sort of Christian we are.

I dare say the same was true of the first disciples, the Twelve: Peter, James, John, and the others. We have seen in earlier chapters of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus called the Twelve to be with him and to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. And we have seen that the Twelve did just this: they preached a message of repentance, carried out a number of exorcisms, and even healed sick people by anointing them with oil. Whatever sort of Christians they were—and let’s not forget that at this point, they weren’t really ‘Christians’ as such—whatever sort of Christians they were, they were proving to be fairly successful.

But not now. Now nine of them had come across a boy, a boy with symptoms, perhaps, of epilepsy but which were caused, it seems, not by misfiring electrical activity in the brain, but, in this case, by an evil spirit. And they couldn’t do anything about it. Whatever or whoever was behind the success of their earlier exorcisms and healings—well, that power had gone, or they weren’t doing it right. Perhaps they hadn’t mastered the technique as well as they thought they had. Or perhaps it’s because they weren’t good enough—after all, there must have been a reason why Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain . . . and not them.

And what of Peter, James, and John? Just a week or so before, Peter spoke on behalf of them all and confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. And now he, along with James and John, were on a mountain with Jesus, watching Jesus shimmer and shine with the divine light, and listening to God himself confirm Peter’s belief: ‘This man Jesus is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’

So what sort of Christians were the Twelve? Well, three of them were Jesus’s favourites; the other nine were also-rans, the runners-up, the sidekicks.

What were the group dynamics at play here, I wonder? Three of them had seen Jesus in his glory, speaking with Elijah and Moses—as well as confusion, did Peter, James, and John also feel a swell of pride on the way down from the mountain: ‘Jesus picked me to see this’? Did they feel that somehow the other nine disciples were not quite so deserving of such a vision? Had their attitudes and behaviour and abilities somehow persuaded Jesus that some of them were simply better than others? And of the nine who remained in the nearby villages—did they resent Jesus’s favourable treatment of Peter, James, and John? Did Andrew feel hard done by as his brother, Peter, climbed the ranks as well as the mountain? And did the others simply feel ignored and left out and not a little fed up as they found themselves having to deal with yet another demon-possessed person while the Big Three went on a camping trip with Jesus? It’s hard to say, of course, and I admit to a little speculation here on my part. But detecting attitudes like this would help to explain what Jesus goes on to say in today’s passage from Mark.

First of all, let’s remind ourselves that Jesus had commissioned the Twelve to preach and to cast out demons—not the Three, not the Nine, but the Twelve. And the authority the Twelve had was not their own authority but the authority of Jesus. The things they did, their message of repentance, their powers of healing and exorcisms—all these things could happen simply because Jesus had first given them the authority to do so.

But having authority isn’t enough, it seems. The story of the demon-possessed boy suggests that the disciples perhaps understood their authority in terms of magic or superhuman abilities. They’d had no problem driving out demons from people in the past; but for whatever reason now, the disciples couldn’t cast out this demon from this boy. What were they doing wrong? They couldn’t understand it—and neither, it seems, could the crowd or, indeed, the boy’s father. This is why the boy’s father sounds so weary when he speaks to Jesus: ‘If you can do anything, . . . help us.’

And what is Jesus’s response? ‘Everything—not anything, but everything—is possible for one who believes.’ And this is because the power to do miracles lies not in ourselves; the power does not lie in our ability to master a technique or to follow a step-by-step programme or to perform a sleight of hand; the power to heal, to cast out demons, to preach, to do anything for the kingdom of God, stems from the authority and power of the God in whom we trust. And so Jesus drives the demon from the boy . . .

But the disciples know they’re not the only ones performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus. John in particular seems especially bothered that there are others doing what they should be doing—and possibly doing it better. ‘Teacher,’ he says, ‘we told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of us.’ What insecurities is John showing here? He has gone from seeing the glory of Jesus on the mountain to seeing the failure of his colleagues in the villages in a short period of time. Is he now seeing that he and the others aren’t quite as good or as special as perhaps they thought they were, that they don’t have as much a claim on Jesus as they’d presumed? And is this why the Twelve as a whole have been arguing about who’s the greatest? Jesus’s teachings in this part of today’s Gospel reading imply as much:

You won’t be the greatest if you want to be the greatest. Be like a child—there’s nothing they can do to improve their status. If you treat each other as your equals, you’ll be doing well. And so don’t try to stop other groups or people who claim me as their Messiah from doing what they’re doing, because they can’t do or say anything against me if they really are for me—they are your equals. If you do try to stop them, you might cause them to lose whatever faith in me is beginning to blossom in them. Be more concerned about yourself: What makes you stumble? Where do you struggle? What will make you give up and abandon your faith in me? And what are you doing about it? Focus on your own areas of weakness and where you can be more like me. If you’re going to be my disciples, you need to make sure you act and think and speak like my disciples, in the same way you can tell something is salt because it’s salty. But you’re not going to do any of this if all you’re doing is arguing among yourselves and being outraged by what others are doing. It won’t be easy, but do what you can to aim for peace.

If this is the heart of what Jesus is saying here, then I think this is very challenging. I know from ongoing experience that low self-esteem and an uncertainty about one’s purpose in life leads us to form groups and cliques that help us feel good about ourselves while at the same time putting down others who see things differently. That’s what life’s like in a fallen world; that’s what life’s like in a sinful church. But in our Gospel reading today, Jesus gives us hope and strength to rise above this and to seek good, Christlike relations with one another. How so?

First, we have Jesus’s authority. In the same way that Jesus conferred his authority on the Twelve to preach and to cast out demons, so, too, each of us has the authority of Jesus to do whatever God calls us to do. God in Christ is the one who sends us; in this respect, we don’t need to answer to anyone for being the sort of Christian we are.

Secondly, we must always have belief—or, to put it another way, we must always trust God, or we must always have faith in God. Being a Christian isn’t like joining the Magic Circle or about developing superhuman powers. If Jesus has given each of us authority to act and speak in his name, then he must also give each of us the faith we need to stay true to God, even when things aren’t working out in the ways we want them to. Notice, too, the connection Jesus seems to make in verses 23 and 29 between belief or faith and prayer. Having faith in God isn’t an ability; it is a daily commitment to follow the Holy Spirit as the Spirit leads us to the Father as we pray in the name of Jesus. Thus to believe is to pray; to pray is to believe; and when we pray, we recognise our dependence on God and admit that however much we believe and trust in God, we must continually need God’s help for us to overcome our persistent unbelief.

And finally, because we have Jesus’s authority, and because our faith is in God, we can have confidence in God, and confidence that God will use us. God in Christ has given gifts to each and every one of us so that we can work out the kingdom in our lives, in our neighbourhoods, at work, and in school. And by remaining faithful to God as we pray for the needs of the world, we might find we don’t need to be too bothered about what God is doing through other Christians in other places. We should have no delusions: God will use other people to further the kingdom, including Christians we disagree with, and Christians we perceive to be better than us. But have confidence: God will use you and me to further the kingdom as well. The real challenge is for all of us to walk the self-denying way of the cross as we all follow Jesus.

As we come to the table, as we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood, let’s remember that each and every one of us, in all of our uniqueness and difference, is called to be a follower of Christ: a Christian. And what sort of Christian? One with the authority of Christ, one whose belief is in the God who created all things and who raised Jesus from the dead, and one whose confidence lies in knowing that the Holy Spirit can and will act in and through us, using our strengths, in spite of our weaknesses.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Karl Barth on Gadgets

I posted the following on my previous blog on this day back in 2014 (thanks for the reminder, Facebook!). It’s such a good quotation, I thought I’d repost it here.

I haven’t read any of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics for a while, so I thought I’d flip open one of its volumes and see what’s inside – and I found this insightfully prescient gem of a quotation, originally published in 1951:

For there are few things which the modern man who bears the mark of modern European and American culture and civilisation, [. . .], needs to impress upon his mind more fully than that in order to remain alive before God and for himself he must find a place for rest, no matter what the cost. The strange thing is that in spite of all the astonishing possibilities of intensification, multiplication and acceleration which he has been able to create for himself in the constantly mounting development of his technical mastery of work, he has not so far caused or allowed himself to be induced to relax, to find relief and liberation, to be released from tension, to find intelligent diversion and therefore to find the way to true work. On the contrary, all these new possibilities have thus far had only the result of setting an increasing pace by the accelerating tempo of his machines and gadgets, so that he is driven and chased and harried as it were by them. He has let himself be set by them in a mounting fever for work, and while this fever may later prove to be a channel to new and better health, there is also the possibility—and there are more pointers in this direction—that the patient will one day die of it. There is also the possibility that it is a symptom of the approaching and gigantic ruin of at least a stage of civilisation. There is also the possibility that it cannot continue very much longer. We can scarcely maintain that what modern man has so far achieved in this increasing fever is either gratifying or hopeful.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, translation editors G W Bromiley and T F Torrance, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957–1975, III/4, pp. 555–56

This leaves me with two thoughts. First, I wonder what Barth would have thought of today’s Microsoft-, Android- and Apple-driven world. And, secondly, why on earth did Barth never write a post-apocalyptic novel?

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

A Biography of Jack Chick

Jack Chick, the Christian cartoonist whose tracts have a tendency to offend the obviously hellbound sectors of polite society, died last year at the age of 92. But for those who wish to know more about the man behind such classics as Big Daddy?, The Poor Little Witch (my personal favourite), and, um, Why is Mary Crying?, there’s now an authorised biography available, written by David W. Daniels: You Don’t Know Jack: The Authorized Biography of Christian Cartoonist Jack T. Chick (Ontario, CA: Chick Publications, 2017).

You Don’t Know Jack is an easy but sometimes frustrating read. The early chapters seem more concerned to justify Chick’s antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church as shaped by his relations with the former Jesuit, Alberto Rivera, and to defend Rivera himself against accusations of deceit. But eventually, we begin to learn more about Chick himself: his family background, his wife and daughter, his early cartoon strips that preceded (and perhaps inspired?—Daniels certainly implies this, I think) The Flintstones, and, of course, the founding of Chick Publications. Regardless of what one thinks of Chick’s theology or the content of his tracts, I don’t think many would deny his talents as a cartoonist or a communicator—and to prove the point, You Don’t Know Jack contains reprints of many of Chick’s early cartoons, as well as a large number of photographs of Chick and his family (and his pets!) at various stages of their lives.

from The Poor Little Witch
Daniels paints Chick as a friendly, loving, and even flawless man—this biography is more of a tribute and sometimes veers towards hagiography; but until a more detailed, nuanced account of Chick and his life is produced to say otherwise, there’s no reason to doubt what Daniels writes about his mentor, despite the latter’s often-gross stereotyping of sinners and fallen society found in the tracts. You Don’t Know Jack is ultimately a fascinating insight-lite into one of modern Christianity’s most polarising evangelists.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Who is Jesus? A Sermon on Mark 3:7-35

I preached today. Nobody seemed to fall asleep during the sermon, so I thought I’d reproduce it here to make it look as though my blog is still active.

Mark 3:7-35

Who is Jesus?
Almost every day I wake up and ask myself this question. It’s not that I forget who Jesus is. I know Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, my Lord and my God, et cetera, et cetera. But I need to remind myself of who Jesus is—because if I don’t, it’s quite likely that I’ll spend each day living as though it doesn’t matter who he is; as though he’s unimportant; as though he’s irrelevant. Let me put it this way: What I believe about Jesus affects the way I live. And let me suggest something else: What you believe about Jesus affects the way you live.
You might not agree with me on this—but I reckon our Gospel reading today shows this angle to be worth considering. Call to mind all the people and entities mentioned in this passage. There are three crowds of people. There are the twelve apostles and the wider group of disciples from which they came. There are the teachers of the Law of Moses, the scribes. There are Jesus’s mother, Mary, and his brothers. And there are even evil spirits mentioned. Each of these people or groups or entities have an opinion about who Jesus is, and all these opinions affect the way they respond to him and shape how they live their lives. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
First, let’s look at the crowds. Crowd #1 is mentioned in verses 7 to 10. These are people who have heard that there’s a man going around healing people and performing exorcisms. And so the natural reaction of these people is to look for Jesus themselves: If Jesus could heal them, he can heal my son or my daughter or my mum or my dad; he can heal me. Crowd #1’s response is: Jesus is a healer and he can heal me.
“Get the beers in, Philip!”
Crowd #2 comes in verse 20. But the motivation of Crowd #2 isn’t as clear as that of Crowd #1. Whereas Crowd #1 followed Jesus in order to be healed, there’s no stated reason as to why Crowd #2 has formed. It’s just there! Perhaps the people are just there simply because Jesus is a sort of celebrity and they want to share in the excitement—kind of like what would happen in Penge if, say, the Queen or Stormzy or Rowan Williams turned up to have a swift half in The Moon and Stars. Crowd #2’s response is: Jesus is a celebrity and I want to see what he says and does next.
Crowd #3 in verse 32 seems to be some kind of overspill from Crowd #2. Perhaps these are people who came to see Jesus out of excitement or interest but then were captivated enough by him to want to know more. Crowd #3 is sitting around Jesus, learning from him. Crowd #3’s response is: Jesus is more than just a faith healer or a magician, and I want to know more about what he thinks.
So those are the three crowds. What about the disciples? Well, they have already decided Jesus is worth following and have committed themselves to living out his teachings about the kingdom of God. And Jesus calls the twelve apostles from this wider group of disciples—calls them to be his ambassadors as they learn the tricks of his trade. The disciples’ and apostles’ response is: Jesus is our rabbi, our teacher, and we will follow him and emulate his way of life.
Now let’s turn to Jesus’s family: his mother, Mary, and his brothers. Verse 21 says that ‘they went to take charge of him’—basically, to sort him out. He’s gone mad, they all thought. Mary may well have pondered the unusual events around Jesus’s birth in her heart, but I suppose having spent the best part of the last twenty years watching Jesus make the first-century equivalents of coffee tables and Billy bookcases was enough to help her forget her eldest’s mission. Jesus had unleashed himself on an unsuspecting public and was going around casting out demons and healing sick people and forgiving sins—all things typically not the work of a carpenter. And so Mary and her other sons needed to take him home, give him a reality check, and stop him potentially from bringing shame on the family. Jesus’s family’s response is: Jesus is mad and we’ve got to do something about it!
The teachers of the law, the scribes, are up next. The scribes were the Bible experts of the day; they knew the Law of Moses inside and out, and they knew exactly how it should be applied. When ordinary Jews needed to know the finer points about mildew or people falling from roofs or animals with crushed testicles, the scribes were the ones to turn to for advice. And so when the scribes in Jerusalem heard about what Jesus was doing and saying, they visited Galilee on a fact-finding mission to see if what Jesus was doing and saying was in line with what they knew about the Law of Moses. And, of course, for them, it wasn’t. They turned up in Capernaum, heard reports of what Jesus had been doing and saying, probably saw him healing people and casting out demons, were most likely alarmed at the huge numbers of people believing the hype—and concluded that this couldn’t be God’s work at all. The scribes’ response is: Jesus is possessed by the devil.
a shadowy, enigmatic figure
opposed to God’s kingdom
And what of the devil, or Satan, or the demons, or the evil or unclean spirits? Well, there’s not much to say here, really: the evil spirits simply recognise that Jesus is the Son of God—or, to use the imagery that Jesus himself uses, the evil spirits recognise that Jesus is the one who has tied up the strong man, Satan, the prince of demons, and taken away his power. The evil spirits’ response is: Jesus is the Son of God.
And it’s worth making it clear that Jesus does not correct them. Of all the people and groups and entities in today’s Gospel reading, it is the evil spirits—those shadowy, enigmatic figures opposed to God’s kingdom—who know exactly who Jesus is. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God.
Earlier I said that what we believe about Jesus affects the way we respond to him and shapes how we live our lives. So how do the opinions of the people and groups and entities in our Gospel reading affect their responses and lives? Well:
  • Crowd #1 believes Jesus is a healer; the people are, understandably, following Jesus for what he can do for them. They want to be whole.
  • Crowd #2 believes Jesus is a celebrity; the people are just there for the show, for the spectacle, for the excitement! They want to be entertained!
  • Crowd #3 believes Jesus is—well, Crowd #3 believes Jesus is interesting, and perhaps nothing more than that. The people want to be intellectually engaged.
  • The disciples and the apostles are committed to following Jesus; but at this point in Mark’s Gospel, there is nothing to say they thought he was significantly different from any of the other rabbis of the day. Nonetheless, they want to have a purpose.
  • Jesus’s family believes his peculiarly intense devotion to God has driven him round the bend. They want to take him out of the public eye.
  • The scribes believe Jesus is possessed; they are mistaking the work of the Holy Spirit with the work of unclean or evil spirits. They do not believe that God is acting in and through Jesus; they are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit!
  • And the evil spirits—well, they know exactly who Jesus is, and they’re running scared!
So with all this in mind, let me ask again: Who is Jesus?
You see, if I wake up and decide that Jesus is just a healer or just a celebrity, then I would live my life as though his importance lies merely in what he can do for me, regardless of any allegiance I might eventually show towards him. I would put him in the same bracket, perhaps, as a faith healer or a self-help guru—certainly not the Son of God.
If I wake up and decide that Jesus has lots of good things to say, or that he is worth following, even imitating, then I would live my life as though he were a politician, or an activist, or perhaps a religious spokesperson—but definitely not the Son of God.
If I wake up and decide that Jesus is mad, has delusions of grandeur, or is demon-possessed, then I would live my life as though he has no impact on me whatsoever. Jesus would be just another person, and an extremely misguided and crazy one at that—absolutely not the Son of God!
But if I wake up and recognise that Jesus is the Son of God who loved me and died for me; if I recognise that Jesus is the Son of God whom God raised from the dead and who now sits at the right hand of God the Father praying for me; if I recognise these things, then I would certainly commit myself to him. But more than this: I would accept that, by God’s grace, I am God’s child; I would desire God’s will be done at all times; and I would be open to the power of God’s Holy Spirit in my life.
Jesus calls each of us today—he calls you, and he calls me—to come to his table and be part of the circle that sits around him. He calls us to learn from him, to act like him, even to be him in a world of terror and fire. We who believe Jesus is the Son of God are his brothers and sisters and mothers, and this belief, this status, will affect our lives for the good—no, not simply for the good, but for the transformation of this world.
Jesus calls us. How will we—how will you—respond?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

What happened? A short story

First, darkness; then, a milky-white vase and two greying ovals sharpening into human faces. I blink and become aware of a sharp pain in my side and lift my hand to sense and soothe my throbbing head. My hand is bloodied, though not majorly so, and I begin to hear the cacophony of passers-by yapping into their mobiles and cars driving by at speed. There are three people crouching beside me. They seem relieved as I look at them in turn. “I feel a bit dizzy,” I say. “What happened?”
One of the people, a bearded man, perhaps in his 40s, leans forward. “You had a little accident,” he says. “Here, hold this to head—that’s a nasty bump.” The man offers me a damp hanky and I do as he advises. “My wife’s gone down the road to the chemist’s for some antiseptic and gauze—you’ve gashed your side pretty bad.”
“An accident,” I echo. “What sort of accident? I don’t really remember much.”
The man smiled. “I’m not surprised. You’ve had a bit of a crash. You were riding along the road and must have hit a brick or a stone or something in the road because you came off your bike and slid into this wall. There’s some broken glass here, so I reckon you must have cut open your side as you came off, as well as bumping your head. Nothing serious, but you’ll probably need to get checked out to make sure there’s nothing badly wrong.”
I dab my head with the damp hanky and turn my head to look at my side. My t-shirt is torn and bloodstained. And then I hear one of the other people speaking.
“That’s not what happened at all!” a woman exclaims. I move my eyes to look at her. She has long wavy hair and keeps pushing it back behind her ears. “How could he have bashed his head like that if he was on a bike? He’d have been wearing a helmet. And I can't see no bike, anyway.”
The bearded man looks at her; he seems a little annoyed to me. “Well, what do you think happened, then?”
“I saw everything,” the woman says. “He was walking along the road, checking his phone, when his legs just seemed to give way. Or he tripped. Anyway, whatever happened, he fell on the broken glass, cut himself, and bashed his head on the wall.”
The bearded man raised his eyes as though assessing the veracity of the woman’s account. “That could make sense,” he responds. “But I don’t think simply falling on the glass would have cut his side so bad, and it wouldn’t explain why he hit his head on the wall. Besides—”
A woman arrives with a small carrier bag decorated with a cross. I presume it’s the bearded man’s wife coming from the chemist with first aid supplies. She kneels and begins to tend to my side while I continue to press the hanky against my head.
“Ignore them both,” she says, soothingly. “My husband has a taste for the melodramatic and has been known to make up details. And this lady”—she flicks her head backwards, gesturing towards the wavy-haired woman, while she unscrews the top of a tube of antiseptic cream—“wasn’t even here.” I hear a huff and a tut.
“So what did happen to me?” I ask the wife, wincing a little as she treats my wound. “I’m still none the wiser, though I know I couldn’t have been riding a bike because I don’t have one.”
The wife pauses her activity for a moment and looks directly into my eyes. “I’m afraid you were mugged,” she tells me. “You were walking down the street looking at your phone and someone jumped out of the alley here, pushed you into the wall, snatched your phone, and ran away.”
The bearded man and the wavy-haired woman face each other and nod. “Yes,” the bearded man says, “that’s what happened. I remember now. There was no bike.”
“Yes,” the wavy-haired woman concurs. “And you didn’t trip,” she says to me, “you were pushed. By some bloke who ran off towards the park.”
The wife glances at them and turns back to me, a grin on her face. “Told you,” she says, victoriously. “You were mugged. Right, all done. We’d better get you to a doctor for a proper look-over and we can go and report the incident to the police after that.” I nod, grateful for her help. She and her husband begin to help me to my feet.
And then I realise that the third person I originally saw crouching beside me is still here. I thought he had gone, but it seems he has just been standing to the side, listening to the bearded man and the wavy-haired woman and the bearded man’s wife. This man is dressed in an expensive suit and is holding a black briefcase. I smile at him and ask jokingly, “And do you have a different version of what happened to me?”
The suited man inspects me for a moment and then flashes a toothy grin. “No, I don’t have a different version of what happened to you,” he responds. “I’m just here to point out a couple of things to you. Look over there.” He turns and points across the road—and there, carefully positioned on a garden wall, impervious to the strength of the emerging sun, are a mango and, inexplicably, a giant golf ball.