This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 38.1-7, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reunions, graphic novels, preconceived notions, agency, majestic clothing, parodic embodiment, political projections, the theology of worship, and John Howard Yoder. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lift High The Priest
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is doing his Jesus-thing, teaching about the upside down nature of the kingdom, when a yuppie shows up and asks about the requirements for salvation.
We only know what we know about this particular character based on what scripture tells us, and his story is a cautionary tale (and a beloved one among preachers).
Notice – the rich young man is already a success story in the eyes of the world: he’s a winner.
But he wants more.
What could drive someone to such a desire? Surely none of us know of such thirst and such hunger for more.
Robert Farrar Capon, in his seminal work on the parables, imagines the innermost thoughts of this yuppie with Jesus like this:
“Oh yes, I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced statistical methods in the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel… But the world is not better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whisper of my secretaries… deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of disheveled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted, misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want… translate me, bright Angel, from this hell of inert and ailing matter, growing steadily senile in a time forever immature, to that blessed realm, so far above the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case where, tortured no longer by three dimensions and immune to temporal vertigo, Life turns into Light, absorbed for good into the permanently stationary, completely self-sufficient, absolutely reasonable One.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 42).
The yuppie certainly has a problem: he is a winner who cannot fathom, whatsoever, the end of his winning. He is positively bewitched by the idea that there are no limits to what he can achieve by his own power.
Jesus responds by adding insult to injury and gives the man an impossible list of goals to achieve, namely the Ten Commandments. But the yuppie assures the Good Lord that he is, was, and forever will be perfect in the eyes of the Law.
And then, as Mark puts it, Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and says something like, “Okay hotshot. There’s only one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Hopefully removing all your winnings will free you to see that the only real way to win is by losing, the only way to be great is to be the least, the only way to live is to die.”
But the yuppie walks away sad, because he has many possessions.
And yet, here’s the really sad part: the yuppie walked away from the only really good news he would ever hear. Because all of that winning, in whatever form it took (material, moral, or even spiritual success) would eventually pass away like the wind in his death.
Or, as Jesus puts it, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
The rich young man couldn’t stand the thought of being a loser. But Jesus saves sinners (losers) and only sinners.
In the strange new world of the Bible, only the winners lose because only the losers can win – that’s how reconciliation works. If winning could’ve saved the world we would’ve done it a long time ago. Evil cannot be destroyed by moral score-keeping. The only way to save the world is to do what God did – by taking evil out of the world by taking it into himself in Jesus, nailing it to the cross, and leaving it there forever.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. Nothing because, we can’t save ourselves.
But, thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making something of our nothing.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?
Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith!
So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?
Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.
We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject.
And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.
The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.”
We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?
Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”
And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”
But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”
But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”
This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school.
Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.
A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.
Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.
To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident.
Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.
Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna.
Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again.
That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps.
We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.
It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now.
And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna.
It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.
One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.
Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners.
That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.
Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!
Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.
Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.
The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.
And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.
Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins.
Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.
Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.
Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.
We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.
The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.
But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do.
But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.
All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition.
Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.
In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.
Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.
Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.
That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.
Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.
Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church.
Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.
But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee.
Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.
“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”
“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”
And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”
They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.
“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”
But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.
Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”
They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.
Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.
These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.
“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”
And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”
In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.
Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.
So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.
That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…
I mean, this isn’t very good advice.
Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?
You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?
One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!
Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.
Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.
Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!
Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!
Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.
Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?
You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.
In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world.
Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”
And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”
Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.
When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.
But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13.
A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)
A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)
And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.
Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”
But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group.
Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church.
We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.
We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.
The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.
The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.
But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.
I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn.
Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.
Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.
Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.
The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.
Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.
The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.
In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.
It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.
What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.
Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.
If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
People like us.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus motions for the crowds to come closer and he announces, “Listen, this is important: If you want to be part of this whole turn-the-world-upside-down endeavor, then your world needs to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, then you’re on the road to salvation. Because, in the end, you can try all you want to perfect yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”
Jesus drops this on the disciples and the crowds shortly after Peter rebukes the Lord for suggesting that the Son of Man would be betrayed and ultimately killed. What good is a Messiah that dies? But then Jesus mic drops the “take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s somewhat comforting to know we’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world-turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inauguration through Jesus because he was so wedded to the way things were. Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five-step program of spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best version of themselves by abstaining from everything wrong with the world.
Instead he says, “Follow me.”
The world is forever telling us to do more, to be better, to earn, produce, and reform but things largely stay the same. Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing is already finished – all we have to do is trust him.
Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own destiny, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly Kingdoms.
But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same – He came to raise the dead.
And the dead can’t raise themselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether or not we stop sinning, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in the Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what the Lord wants because God is in the business of raising the dead.
We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives with a word of profound transformation. We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to make all things new. Even us.
Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 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 defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things.
One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.
And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands.
Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t.
So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”
These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.
How does Jesus respond?
“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”
And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:
“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”
It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”
Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.
Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.
Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.
Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.
And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?
If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.
In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”
We are what’s wrong with the world.
Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.
How can we fix what’s wrong within us?
Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.
Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.
And while some people love it, others hate it.
Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”
It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.
Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.
Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.
The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.
The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?
The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.
And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.
There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.
Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.
And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”
A small uproar ensued.
And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.
And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.
What, then, are we called to do?
In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.
Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?
The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.
And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.
Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.
The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!
When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.
Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.
In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news.
There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.
It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!
In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…
Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”
And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.
In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen.
They said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
I know of a Bishop (thankfully from another denomination) who used to be in charge of recruiting candidates for a local seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to ministry and he would end each and every single interview the same way: with a role play.
He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now… tell me why I should go to church…”
Throughout the years every candidate would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.”
Then the candidates would bring up something about reaching out to those in need. But the Bishop would say, “I’m an active member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”
Finally the candidates would make a comment about the power and priority of music in the church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”
He recruited for a long time and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.
Contrary to how we might imagine it, the church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the community’s musical prodigies. We may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Which is just another way of saying: the only thing we have to do is trust (believe) Jesus.
If the church is a business, then it is in the Jesus business. That is: we exist to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all we have wronged, that we are loved in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be, and that, in the end, we know how the story ends.
And that last claim is important. For, if we already know how the story ends, then we are freed from whatever fears and faults that terrify us.
We are not the main thing in the church. The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified, God in the flesh born to live, die, and live again. And Jesus comes to do for us what we can’t, and won’t, do on our own.
It’s why we can call the Good News good. Thanks be to God.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Well, I finally did it! I managed to please everyone! Some of you were happy when I was appointed here, some were happy while I was here, and the rest of you are happy now that I’m leaving!
It was more than a decade ago that I entered seminary in hopes that I would, one day, get to do exactly what I’m doing right now. I was persuaded that the church was already the better place God had made in the world and I wanted to be part of that. And when I was in school for this, I didn’t learn about the virtues of nicety. That is, I didn’t go to seminary in order to learn how to make people feel better about themselves. That’s certainly not what I felt God had called me to do.
And yet, more often than not, it’s exactly what I, other clergy, and most Christians do all the time.
Rather than speaking the truth, in love, we are far more inclined to sweep things under the rug.
Rather than taking seriously the Biblical commandments of discipleship, we are content with letting our faith be something that happens for one hour each Sunday.
Rather than hoping against hope for things not yet seen, we rest in the presumed knowledge that things will, largely, stay the same.
But none of that is very compelling, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.
Which makes me wonder, as I often do at times like this, why are you here?
For some of you, you can’t imagine being anywhere else. You’ve grown up in the church, or it has become so much of a fixture in your life that this is just what you do.
Meanwhile, some of you are here because you have more questions than answers and you want that to change. Maybe life has dealt you a raw hand, or you’ve experienced one too many hardships, or you’re frightened about what tomorrow might offer and you look to the church to help.
And some of you are here against your will. Perhaps a friend or a family member, in the name of love, brought you here and there isn’t anything you can do about it.
But chances are, no matter why we think we’re here, we’re actually here because we want to know more about Jesus.
I mean, people still keep calling me and sending me emails with rather specific questions about a first century carpenter-turned-rabbi, the Discovery Channel is forever producing new documentaries about the person in question, and people like you drive to places like this on Sunday mornings!
But here’s the truth, a truth not often discussed: we know nothing about Jesus whatsoever except what we read in the New Testament. That’s the rather bizarre part of Christianity. Sure, I’ve been to seminary and committed my life to this and study daily, but all of you have just as much access to the Lord as I do. It’s all right there in scripture.
As Paul says elsewhere: I determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. On this, my last Sunday, I hope the same can be said of me. That is: throughout these last four years, I have endeavored to do one thing and one thing only: proclaim the Good News of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.
But the story of Jesus Christ is fundamentally a story of scandal. It is, to use another Pauline expressing, shameful.
Consider the story, for a moment: A child born under extraordinary circumstances to entirely ordinary parents, raised in the forgotten town of Nazareth, propelled into a ministry of teaching and healing, surrounded by would-be followers who, when things got tough, abandoned him to the fate of death all on his own.
If the story of Jesus had ended with the crucifixion, none of us would be here. He would simply have been one of many who died at the hands of the state for causing too much of a ruckus.
But that’s not where the story ends.
In fact, it’s really where the story kicks off: Resurrection! He is risen!
And yet, that’s not often what we hear about Jesus. Instead, we’re inclined to lift him up as some moral exemplar or ethical genius. Neither of which are really true. Jesus broke all sorts of rules and it’s not a very good idea to tell people to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile unless (UNLESS) the one saying those things happens to be God in the flesh raised from the dead!
Now, take a gander at any of the epistles and you will see that there was, and perhaps always will be, an awareness that disciples are going to be tempted to retreat from Jesus in embarrassment, fear, or downright confusion. It happened prior to the crucifixion (See Peter) and it continues to happens.
And no one know this better than Paul.
Notice how he begins his letter to the church in Rome: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”
Those are strong words to the early church.
They’re strong words for the church today.
And right at the heart of Paul’s proclamation, and all of his letters, is the Cross.
For the centrality of the Cross to be so prominent in the Pauline epistles is rather odd considering how little it is mentioned or considered in the life of faith today.
There are new churches budding up in all sorts of places that have removed the cross from all worship services.
There are plenty of Christians who have settled with describing Jesus as a nice guy but never dare refer to him as the Lord.
There are loads of churches who envision themselves as yet another version of a boring civic organizing and nothing more.
And, you can’t really blame the church or Christians for doing so. In so many ways we’ve watered down the complete and confounding radicality of Christ’s death for the ungodly (that’s how Paul will refer to it in just a few chapters).
Jesus died an ungodly death for ungodly people.
That’s the scandal of the cross.
But, are we scandalized?
Most Sundays, whether online or in a parking lot or inside a sanctuary, we look like we’ve got it together. Or, at least that’s what we want others to think. But we certainly don’t consider ourselves ungodly or, at the very least, sinful.
In many ways, Paul’s proclamation is a terrifying declaration of knowing the condition of his condition. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” is but another way of saying, I am not ashamed of needing the Lord to do for me what I cannot and could not do on my own!
Do you see? Paul was at a place of recognizing how God is the one who meets us in Christ Jesus, God is the one who acts on and in our lives, God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.
Or, to put it another way, the Gospel is all about Jesus.
It’s all about what Jesus does for us.
Consider the thieves on the cross next to Jesus. One of them mocked the Lord just as much as the crowds did, but the other asked to be remembered.
Think on that. He did nothing else. But Jesus says to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
I can’t wait to talk to that criminal in the eschaton. I want to ask him about his experience and what happened next.
I can see him walking around with the saints in glory and they’re all saying, “How did you get in?! You never went to church! You never sat through Sunday school! You don’t even know the Apostles’ Creed! How did you get in?”
And the criminal replies, “The guy on the center cross said I could come.”
I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power God for salvation to everyone!
I am not ashamed of the Gospel – I’m sticking with Jesus, I’m sticking with the church!
I know it might feel like we’ve got nothing to hold on to, but Jesus holds on to us!
The world will tell us many things, but the Gospel tells us something different – we are sinners beloved by the one we crucified. The Lord is risen from the dead and there ain’t nothing that can stop him. Jesus is Lord, God of all things past, present, and future.
Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead, he says, “Bring to me your burdens and I will give you rest.”
Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, he says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners!”
Jesus does not write us off for our faults and our failures. Instead, he says, “You are mine and I am thine!”
No matter what happens, Christians are people of hope. We are people of hope because the Gospel is the Good News of God for the world. We need not worry over this, that, and the other because our hope isn’t in us. It’s not in me, or in Pastor Gayle. It’s not in the local community or even in the United Methodist Church. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and him crucified!
Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. God is in the business of salvation and resurrection which means that no matter how bad we are or how good we are God can and will do what we cannot. Everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ died.
We need not be ashamed of the Gospel, it’s the only Good News for a world drowning in bad news and it is ours, for free, for nothing.
While we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sins, Christ died for us. He has taken the responsibility of salvation squarely on his shoulders. He has just gone and done it all without us having to do anything. And he invites us to simply trust that he has done this for us, and to proclaim that trust by acting as if we really believe it. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8.7-15, Mark 5.21-43). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Flannery O’Connor, special songs, memory, twitter dunking, theological deconstruction, pivotal prayers, wading vs. waiting, rhetorical flourishes, desperation, and diachronic stories. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: From Riches To Rags
And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This is a difficult passage.
We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.
So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.
Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”
Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.
“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”
I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!
And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.
This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.
And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.
Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.
Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.
Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”
No. They said he was out of his mind.
But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.
Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life.
That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.
Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.
And perhaps they had a point.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”
That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster.
Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”
That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”
Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…
Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.
No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind.
And it doesn’t stop there!
Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.
You can only win by losing.
You can only receive by giving.
You can only live by dying.
Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?
Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.
And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!
Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”
And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?
His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.
The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?
But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset.
It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you.
But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.
If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.
The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be.
It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.
It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.
Could there be any better news than that?
But wait, there’s more!
Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds.
But what about for God?
God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.
The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.
Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.
And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.
Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!
Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail.
That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes.
So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen.