Thursday, July 12, 2012

Friend or Foe

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Message from July 1, 2012

Focus Scripture: Mark 3:20-35, along with Isaiah 9.2-7 and Exodus 6-15

Today’s passage has two overlapping conversations, one inside the other, both springing from the same starting point. He has a conversation with his family, because the crowds are so great and his personal space so diminished that they think he has lost his mind. Apparently, plenty of people think Jesus is just a bit off his rocker, and the family has been listening. He has a conversation with the scribes – the religious experts – who accuse him of channeling Satan in his public ministry. Perhaps they are honestly concerned about the irregularities of Jesus’ ministry, but maybe they are just jealous.

To both concerns, Jesus responds with parables in an aggressive tone. Conflict, escalating conflict between Jesus and the leadership of his culture, both religious and political, is a major feature of Mark’s gospel. And, in so doing, he provides some fresh definition to membership in his kingdom, in God’s family.

We’re headed toward Independence Day, the 236th birthday of our nation. And, it’s a presidential election year. The rhetoric gets pretty heated, not unlike the conflict we have in Mark 3. Opposition makes a candidate out to be the worst thing possible. They might as well be using the power of Satan to cast out Satan. And, your own party tries to control your identity. If you don’t vote with us, we’ll make life really difficult on you. With the prevalence of social media, the cycles of accusation and control are accelerated. We become increasingly polarized, and the virtues of practical problem-solving and common sense are pushed to the margin.

Now, you’ll be glad to know, we’ll not be talking politics today. I do encourage you, as Paul wrote to Timothy, to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2.1-2). Pray for President Obama, for Governor Romney, for Republicans and Democrats in Congress, for the leaders of our state, county, and municipalities. And, please do not give in to cynicism. Find a way to look past the nonsense of electioneering and pray over your vote. We live in a great nation with the benefit, privilege, and duty to contribute to and shape our future together by voting.

And, the experience of conflict is not limited to election year politics or the life and ministry of Jesus. We all face it. It is tough, it rips you apart, it exposes all your insecurities, it hurts. Our adversaries make all kinds of ridiculous accusations – and maybe we’ve made a few ridiculous accusations of our own. And, those closest to us surprise us with demands for loyalty or conformity that simply do not respect who we are. If you really value our friendship, if you really think this is important . . . then you’ll behave differently, you’ll do what I want you to do, you’ll feel the way I feel. Ever put this pressure on someone else? Ever felt it yourself? That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself in this chapter – getting it from all sides, both friend and foe. Note that he does not lose sight of who he is. He is remarkably clear. He responds with a directness and aggression that we do not expect to find in "gentle Jesus, meek and mild". He is direct, and he does not slam the door in their face. He is aggressive, and he does not force them to submit. Such a difficult balance to strike.

Of the two stories, we’ll take the inside conversation first, the story of Jesus’ conversation with the scribes over the power behind his ministry. They say that he has an unclean spirit. He says that it would make no sense for Satan to fight Satan – though I’ll admit it wouldn’t bother me to see that happen! Jesus, however, makes it very clear that he is in battle against Satan, and that Jesus is winning – decisively. Jesus has whopped that strong man Satan and tied him up. And Jesus is making off with all the goods.

His parable – his metaphor – borrows the language of Exodus, of the LORD’s conflict with Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. The LORD triumphs, and Egypt is plundered, not just losing its slaves but also losing many riches. In Mark’s gospel, you and I are the slaves, and Jesus is setting us free. We know the history of abolition, emancipation, the Civil War, and civil rights in our own nation. Jesus comes to set us free, no matter the difficulty of the battle, no matter the price he pays. Because the plunder is worth the price. And the salvation of our bodies and souls is a joy for which the cross can be endured (Hebrews 12.2).

Jesus goes on to offer forgiveness of sins and closes with the difficult line, "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" (Mark 3.29). It is this kind of comment that turns us into literalists. We want to know exactly what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, we want to know right where that line is over which we must not cross. "Stop running in the house." "I’m not running, I’m jogging." Literalism. Not good interpretation.

The story itself gives us some good insight. "For they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’" (Mark 3.30). If we believe Jesus is from Satan, then we’ll have no interest in his message and no desire for the forgiveness he offers. We’re not going to care whether we are forgiven or not. If we care about that, then I doubt we are living with that blasphemy, that "unpardonable sin". Sometimes in our self-obsession we actually believe that our past sin can be stronger than God’s grace. How ridiculous is that? Jesus has already tied up the devil. Do we really think he can’t set us free? Do we really think he doesn’t intend to take us as plunder from the house of Satan to bring us into the house of God? No, of course not. But, what about the time . . . ? If there is a "no", then there is no "but".

In the conversation with the scribes, we see the conflict escalate. We also learn something about Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus comes to defeat the devil and set us free. On our side, part of being set free is not to reject Jesus (not to "blaspheme the Holy Spirit" in the language of this story) but to accept him.

The second conversation is an envelope to the first. It starts before the conversation with the scribes and concludes after that conversation. Mark often uses this envelope technique in his story telling, like the Russian dolls that nest inside each other, and the stories tend to interpret each other.

His family does not accuse him of having an unclean spirit. They just think he is at risk of being "out of his mind". Note that even in the first century, though some of the symptoms of possession by an unclean spirit could be described in the terms of mental illnesses, there was an understanding that these could be entirely separate diagnoses. Jesus’ family, some from what we can only imagine to be genuine concern and perhaps other family members with jealousy as well, wants him to take a step back from public life. He needs to clarify his margins, get some rest, be grounded. It turns out, of course, that they are wrong in their assessment and, because of that, wrong in their prescription.

Jesus takes this opportunity to differentiate himself from his family and to ground himself in God alone. In the conversation with the scribes, we learn something about membership in his kingdom. In the conversation with the family, we learn something about membership in his family. "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3.35). This particular statement lines up with a related one in John’s gospel, in another story in which Jesus misses a meal in the course of ministry. He says to his surprised disciples, who had gone on a food run to the local market, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me" (John 4.34).

In all four gospels, when the will of God is mentioned, it is not in the terms we may expect. It is not a reference point for moral behavior, whether public or private. It is concerned, in every case, with the story of salvation, with joining Jesus’ family, with entering Jesus’ kingdom. (See Matthew 7.21, 12.50, 18.14, 21.31; Mark 3.35; John 1.13, 4.34, 5.30, 6.38ff, 7.17.) The will of God is the "salvation of our souls" (1 Peter 1.9) by plundering the house of Satan. And, the will of God is joining Jesus in his salvation story and mission.

C.T. Studd, born in 1860, a great athlete in the sport of cricket, student at Oxford, became a passionate follower of Jesus and spent the rest of his life in mission in China, India, and Africa. He described it this way: "Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell." Here at Bethany, our mission is "to honor God by making more disciples for Jesus Christ". And, it bears reminding, in the language of the conversation with the scribes, the salvation story is a story of abolition – abolition of slavery in all its forms – setting human beings free in both soul and body. The work of grace and justice, both personal and social holiness, cannot be separated.

What’s our "take-home" today? From the first conversation, with Jesus’ "foes" the scribes: Jesus comes to set you free. Free from the devil, free from sin, free from guilt, free from your addictions, free from your fears. Jesus comes to set you free, to set me free. Our part is simple – accept him and the freedom he offers. Maybe you have never done that decisively. Now is the time. Maybe you’ve already done it. Wonderful. Do you struggle with any slavery still? Accept his freedom once more, and pursue the help you need to triumph over the strong man in your life.

From the second conversation, with Jesus’ "friends", his family: Join Jesus in this mission. It is aggressive and heroic work to take on the devil in his own home. When Jesus says that "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against his church (Matthew 16.18), he is talking about a mission that is on the offensive against all the powers of evil in our world – a mission that will save souls, and set the entire person free. Salvation is not only spiritual, it is a gift for the whole human being. Join Jesus in this mission. Invite friends to church. Visit the sick. Care for those in prison and their families. Do justice in a world full of injustice. Stand up for the victims. Invite friends to church. Find Jesus’ heroic work and join him in it.

On C.T. Studd, see the biography by that name, by Norman Grubb. Resources online include Studd’s "The Chocolate Soldier" aka "Heroism – the Lost Chord of Christianity" and other material at

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