Sunday is coming! “Moving from Power, Privilege and Prestige to Service” Mark 10:35-45

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for the many.” (Mark 10:45)

Jesus told his disciples for the third time that he was on the way to Jerusalem to suffer and die (Mark 10:32-34). James and John reveal that they have no idea what Jesus is talking about by the conversation that ensues, because they are more focused on themselves and their status than what Jesus has promised he is about to do.

First, James and John demand Jesus do what they ask of him (Mark 10:35), treating Jesus as their subordinate.

Second, James and John ask for positions of power at his ‘right hand and left hand’ once Jesus ‘comes in to his glory’ (Mark 10:37). Even after all Jesus has done to heal the sick, cast out demons, forgive sinners, feed the hungry, love the poor, connect the outcast, rebuke the religious establishment, and teach about a different kind of kingdom of grace, mercy and peace; they still understood Jesus to be the one to overthrow their Roman occupiers, not as one who came to suffer and die at the hands of sinners for the sake of the world.

Third, James and John upset their fellow disciples for even making such a request of Jesus, clamoring for positions of privilege selfishly for themselves (Mark 10:41).

Jesus responds by telling them they have no idea what they are asking (Mark 10:40). While they are thinking of attaining power, privilege and prestige once Jesus establishes his authority; Jesus is preparing to drink the cup that is before him (see Mark 14:36); one that will lead to his death.

Jesus then reminds them (and us) what his mission is all about – selflessness humility and service.

In this upside-down age Jesus is bringing to bear; it will not be power, privilege and prestige that matter, but in how we live our lives for others. Power, privilege and prestige focus on what we can get from others whose purpose it is to give us what we seek and desire.

Jesus came not to be served but to serve. The way of Jesus is the way of service. Service offers our lives for the sake of others to make their lives better.

No one shows us how to serve selflessly with humility to live a life worth living for others better than Jesus does – and his greatest act for others is the cross.

Perhaps the ‘ransom’ Jesus offers by giving his life for the many (Mark 10:45) on the cross is not only salvation from sin and death, but also brings about our deliverance and liberation from only seeking to serve ourselves.  Jesus reminds us that a faith that lives in the here and now is focused on service to others – a truth we sometimes too easily forget as we long for the age to come.

What are some ways you could serve others; rather than looking on them to serve you?

What might this turn-around do within your relationships?

How could looking at the world for places you can serve – change you?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “The Richness of Grace” Mark 10:17-31

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘you lack one thing; go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Mark 20:21-22)
 
In a capitalistic society like our own, one would expect disgust, dismissal or blatant laughing in Jesus’ face at his demand to sell everything and give it to the poor as a prerequisite to following him. It is easy to imagine this man shaking the dust of his designer suit, adjusting his fancy sunglasses, tie and slicked hair before chuckling to himself and getting back in his limousine to leave this loser behind. 
 
As fun as it is to imagine that scene unfolding, that is not the story Mark is telling. 
 
Mark tells us the man walks away “shocked and went away grieving for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
 
This should tell us three things.
 
  1. This man actually wanted to follow Jesus. Why verbally spar with Jesus over the commandments if you weren’t serious about your faith life? His concern over living a righteous and abundant life (eternal life) – leaves one thinking that he was a true seeker. He was successful in life and now he was looking to live a meaningful one. There is a genuine, recognizable, endearing quality in this guy that moves us to like him, root for him and even see ourselves in him. We are him in many ways. On our best days, we want to make a positive difference in the world, but Jesus makes it harder (not easier) for us to do so by pointing out that our possessions and our wealth – hold us back from total devotion and humility. We are often too comfortable, and get in our own way of truly following Jesus with our whole heart, soul and mind. This interaction inspires reflection: What is holding you back from following Jesus?
  2. This conversation also reveals how enslaved by our consumerism we are. Would any of us actually give up “everything” to follow Jesus? We live in a culture that keeps us desiring the best things in the moment (even if we cannot afford them) and longing for more and more comfort and material goods. The disciples complain that they have “left everything” but still struggle. Perhaps there is some consolation in knowing we are in good company in wrestling with Jesus’ demands upon us while we try to make a living, provide for our families, share what we can and plan for the future as stewards of our finances. By inviting us to leave it behind and follow him, what kind if life is Jesus offering us to live?
  3. Salvation, discipleship and witness is impossible, but only if we seek to it for ourselves. The example Jesus gives of a camel passing through the eye of a needle reveals how outlandish a proposition it is to enter God’s kingdom on our own. But, Jesus insists, all things are possible for God (Mark 10:27). Ultimately this interaction with both the rich man and the disciples is a reminder of God’s undeserved mercy and grace. This invitation may come as shock and amazement to us, but Jesus offers it in love (Mark 10:21). Are you ready to trust in that love?
 
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
PGS

Sunday is coming! “That terrible divorce text” Mark 10:2-16

“Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote this commandment for you.” (Mark 10:5)

Jesus comes across as a hardliner against divorce the first time one reads Mark 10:2-16. While the breakup of marriages is a painful reality for people both inside and outside the Christian community – it is worth a closer look to see what Jesus is up to in this conversation with the Pharisees. There is more going on underneath the surface than just divorce.

This conversation is about humanity’s “hardness of heart.”

The Pharisees come to Jesus with the question of divorce; not to get an answer – but to test him. Their hardness of heart will never accept who he is or what he has to offer, since they saw themselves as the authorities of both law and tradition. They reveal their hardness of heart by the callousness of their question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2). Women had very few (if any) rights in that culture, and if divorced, would be shamed, rejected with little to no prospects of survival. Divorce for a first century woman in Judea was a death sentence. The Pharisees were asking, “It is OK to just throw these worthless women away because it is legal, right?” Jesus exposes their hardness of heart in their question, not only in his response, but by the virtue that there are no women present or given voice in this encounter at all and Jesus advocates on their behalf.

The disciples also reveal their hardness of heart by shooing away the children when they approach Jesus. Even more vulnerable than women in that culture were children who were completely dependent on adults for survival. Infant and child mortality rates were high. Children were deemed worthless until they came of age and began contributing to the family. Children of divorced mothers were often rejected alongside the women, making them even more expendable.

So what does Jesus teach here?

Jesus acknowledges that divorce is a real part of the human experience, but we are not to be flippant or dismissive about it. We are to take our relationships – especially our families – very seriously. When families are broken-up (because of our hardness of hearts) creation itself mourns.

Jesus highlights partnership and equality by quoting Genesis 2:24. As we come to greater understandings of human sexuality and gender identity in both the life of the church and our wider society, Jesus’ exposes our hardness of heart by advocating the goodness of creation and worth of each person; especially those we so often overlook.

Jesus addressing the hardness of heart that leads to adultery. Unlike his contemporaries that only blamed women for adultery, Jesus extends the equality of our sinfulness to everyone. With that equality comes both the shared responsibility of our treasured relationships; the possibility for reconciliation; and the need for community when what was once “one flesh” is put asunder.

Jesus cares for the powerless by inviting the children to come to him. Just as women in the first century were extremely vulnerable (few if any rights, little opportunity); children were completely dependent. Jesus is highlighting his care and blessing for the least of these and inviting us to relate to people out of compassion, mercy, inclusion and love – not judgment, exclusion, shame and dismissal.

The way of Jesus is to go looking for the vulnerable and suffering; then value, embrace and bless them as Jesus does.

The church has a lousy track record when it comes to caring for people in the midst of family trauma, separations, break-ups and divorce. Too often the message has been judgment, shame and blame; not compassion, mercy, love and an embrace of blessing when we need it most.

We can do better.

An ongoing practice of faith is to repent of our own hardness of heart; trust in God’s forgiveness, and seek to see others as Jesus sees them.

Questions to keep wrestling with:

-How do we care for, support and include those who are preparing to enter into marriage?

-How do we care for, support and include those who celebrate their marriage?

-How do we care for, support and include those who struggle within their marriage?

-How do care for, support and include those who are in the process of separation or who have gone through divorce?

-How do we care for, support and include those who are, and will remain single?

-How do we care for, support and include people who are non-binary, LGBTQ+, and/or are still discovering who they are?

-How do we care for and support children who live in a variety of family arrangements – so that they can know the welcome and love of Jesus who blesses them, and a community that cherishes them?

PGS

(Thanks to my colleagues: Pastors Sarah Barnes, Dick Burgess, Daphne Burt, Scott Harris, Brett Hertzog-Betkoski and Mary Robinson for their insights prior to the composition of this post.)

Sunday is coming! “An Appalling Passage” Mark 9:38-50

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…” (Mark 9:42-43a)

Stated simply, these words of Jesus are appalling. They conjure up thoughts of medieval torture chambers, cruelty doled out today by warlords in places of political turmoil and/or imagined dystopian futures where totalitarian regimes oppress the people in a world gone haywire.

Cutting off flesh as tribute and a consequence for one’s wrongdoing as a painful (and shameful) reminder of transgression justifies our call for vengeance, punishment and dehumanization of wrongdoers when we feel hurt and betrayed. Even though we live in what we believe to be a more enlightened and sophisticated age than ancient times, we still believe in ‘an eye for an eye’ (or worse) retributive justice even though Jesus rejects that concept in favor of non-violent resistance, love and prayer (Matthew 5:38-48).

To understand what Jesus is talking about; more context helps.

Jesus is still holding the child introduced in Mark 9:37, while talking about not putting stumbling blocks in front of “little ones” in Mark 9:42-48. This passage is a continuation of Mark 9:30-37, where Jesus told his disciples he would be betrayed, suffer, die and be raised, that to be first means to be last and servant of all, and that to welcome a child, is to welcome Jesus and the one who sent him.

I don’t believe Jesus is literally prescribing self-mutilation or imposing brutality as  the consequences of our sin. He is however, raising the stakes for what it means to care for the most vulnerable among us – especially children.

Perhaps such vivid hyperbole can stir us out of complacency to all the suffering in the world around us. Jesus asks, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (Mark 6:50)

Where are the most vulnerable near you? Can you see them?

You’ll find Jesus with the least of these. Don’t get in your own way as a stumbling block to welcome and care for them. Keep your saltiness and spice up the world around you.

And please, please, please take good care of your body, so you can serve well. 🙂

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “Living Upside-Down” Mark 9:30-37

“But they did not understand what (Jesus) was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Mark 9:32)

Years ago I participated in a mission trip where the theme was “Upside-Down Kingdom.” The idea was that Jesus often flips our expectations and that he invites us to operate backwards than the way the world normally works reveals what is at stake for his mission and ministry. We lived out the “Upside-Down Kingdom” by sending teams of young people to help with projects and programs in the area that worked with the most under-served members of the local community. We were being church together alongside them.

Following Jesus is all about the divine love, grace and mercy we don’t deserve, but is often best expressed by living in an upside-down way with others.

Our culture pushes us to strive for personal success and glory, and greatness is often achieved at the expense of someone else (even unintentionally). Jesus invites us to live another way – looking to the least of these and valuing their humanity. “Success” in this “Upside -Down Kingdom” isn’t monuments or trophies, wealth or influence. It is connecting with the forgotten, treating other people…as people. This typically involves a leveling of status as new relationships are formed, community is shared as help and healing is mutually shared.

The world doesn’t work this way. Jesus does.

The disciples in this passage were arguing about which one of them was the greatest (Mark 9:34). After having been Transfigured before them (Mark 9:1-13); and casting out a demon from a boy (Mark 9:14-29); Jesus for a second time told his disciples that he would suffer, die and be raised (Mark 10:30-31). They did not understand who Jesus is and what he was doing (Mark 10:32). Do we?

We often don’t see what Jesus is up to in our lives, our families, our church, our community and our world. It often feels like we are losing ground in this dog eat dog, kill or be killed, winner take all competition we have made of human life. Yet, Jesus, gently picks up a child (Mark 9:37-39), the least and most vulnerable of them all. In doing so he shows us in an upside-down way that each one of us matters, and the more we spend our time and efforts caring for the least, we will see Jesus among us as God is restoring our humanity and the world in which we live.

Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Where is Jesus asking you to meet him in an “Upside-Down” world?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Who is Jesus?” Mark 8:27-38

“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27b)

It may seem simple to ask: “Who is Jesus?” – but such a query can generate a multiplicity of responses.

One might answer by examining the symbol that framed his life and ministry – the cross; a tool of torture, fear, shame and execution by the Roman occupiers.

One might discuss Jesus based on the stories we know of his teaching and healing, found in the four Gospels of the New Testament.

One might contemplate the significance of his name, ‘Jesus’ (he will save); or his title ‘Christ’ (anointed one) means for an individual, a community, or the history of Israel.

One might frame twenty-centuries of reflection, creeds, statements, theology and practice by the expansion and ministry of the Christian Church in all its forms around the planet; or how a particular Christian tradition (i.e. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism) continues to express itself based on its understanding of Jesus in the context of its own history and culture.

One might ask how other religious traditions outside of Christianity (including modern secularism) view Jesus and his significance to human culture and development.

One might dig deeper into this question by asking questions about the historical context of his life and ministry in first century Roman Palestine, the Messianic longing among the populace at the time, the religious establishment throughout Judea as it related to the empire, how people back then heard and understood the prophets, and other historical topics of interest.

Each of these areas of study would prove useful for a fruitful examination of Jesus of Nazareth for either a group or an individual person. However, the only question that matters is the one that Jesus himself asks us to consider: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

His disciples gave a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, the Messiah (Mark 8:28-29). Why they might have given those responses, and why it was important for Mark to include them in this story as it is recorded and passed along to us all these years later would also be of interest to investigate.

Yet the question Jesus aims directly at you – is the most valuable: “But who do you say that I am?

Keep seeking him, and share what you discover along the way.

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “Keeping Your Hands Dirty” Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked (Jesus), ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5)

Then (Jesus) 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 that can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’” (Mark 7:14-15)

Jesus is not advocating that we don’t need to wash our hands, do the dishes or tidy up the spaces we are responsible for keeping clean (sorry kids). Our old saying ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ still seems like a worthy idea to pursue in an age where we have a greater understanding of microbiology and human health than people likely did in the first century.

Yet ‘uncleanliness’ is the wall Jesus breaks down in this encounter with the religious establishment.

Jesus confronts the religious leaders’ understanding of purity laws (that have more to do with projecting their disgust of certain people than about washing your hands and dishes). When we are physically dirty – we can be washed, restored and made whole again. When our very humanity is deemed ‘unclean’ by others – we can be vilified for simply being who we are or by the burdens we carry. This is what the religious establishment was doing in Jesus’ time.

Those who likely needed help the most were deemed ‘unclean’ and were to be avoided and/or shamed. (There are good parallels to how the religious establishment operates today in our own time and context.)

Jesus insists that what makes us ‘unclean’ is not who we are, the circumstances we face, or if we don’t wash or hands or not (BTW – please, wash your hands). What makes us truly ‘unclean’ is the way in which we treat one another, act selfishly and blame one another for our problems.

Jesus’ opponents justify their position based on tradition. Sometimes our call to purity is more harmful than good; even within our initially well-intended conventions. I find it personally empowering to remember that customs and time honored practices started for good reasons, usually to solve a current crisis at the time by making a decision to act and trying something to address it. Traditions are often the success stories of fruitful actions. What becomes a problem is when we lose ‘why’ we do what we do (or why we did it in the first place) and make it our purpose to preserve things the way we do what we do simply because it is what we have inherited. We often think it is our duty not to change anything – and equate change as failure; even when the circumstances dictate new strategies and actions.

When faced with traditions that no longer function the way they may have in the past (but did they?); could we consider it possible that our current set of circumstances, assets and understanding would lead us to meet the challenge differently now?

What do we let get in the way?

Jesus spent time with the outcast, the poor, the sinners, the sick, the possessed, the untouchables and all the people deemed ‘unclean’ by the wider community. In Mark 7 that will include gentiles as well. By his actions and his call to follow him, Jesus is revealing to us – if you are going to be part of the restorative kingdom – it is going to require you to get your hands dirty!

How willing are you to get your hands dirty in the kingdom with Jesus?

PGS

Season 3 Episode 5: Does the Gospel Offend You?

The last of our John 6 series where we talk about the Gospel and ways that the Gospel can and sometimes does offend us.  How does the Gospel offend you?  Let us know!