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

Sunday is coming! “Trusting an external Word” John 6:56-69

Lord to who can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Some of us may hear an echo in Peter’s question from our liturgical tradition that includes this verse in the “Alleluia” we sing as we stand to hear the Gospel proclaimed in worship. It is an amazing witness of longing and hope as we look not to ourselves but to Jesus for good news. The external Word brings life.

In the context of John 6 Peter’s question comes after an even more pertinent question to Jesus’ teaching as the Bread of Life: “This is difficult teaching, who can accept it?” (John 6:60). Indeed.

We have been taught in our culture the importance of self-reliance and self-preservation. In our quest for knowledge and discovery of our world we have tools like the scientific method that tests hypotheses and analyzes data for understanding. Both are powerful assets today as we plan for the future and work on the challenges set before us in our emotionally charged political climate more concerned about winning and and shaming opponents than facts or the common good.

What faith teaches us – and what Jesus has been pointing to throughout the Bread of Life series – is that answers (or even our deepest questions) cannot ultimately come from within; but from without (outside ourselves). Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, “to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one wotyour whole heart”* and 21st century life offers plenty of gods in which our hearts could cling to instead of the Triune God.

Which other gods vie for your attention?

Our witness (alongside Peter) calls us to confess – we don’t have all the answers, we might not be asking the right questions, but ultimately this cosmos in which we live is not about us at all. “Lord to who can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Jesus feed us by your Word and fill us by your Bread of Life.

PGS

—-

“What does ‘to have a god’ mean, or what is God?

Answer: A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with all your heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these things belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism [1529],” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], 386).

Sunday is coming! “What if it is true?” John 6:51-58

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54-55)

The promise sounds a bit too good to be true. The practice sounds more than just a little disgusting. Jesus calls us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Gross. Weird. Abnormal.

Here are a few common explanations:

Perhaps it is some weird cult that believes in human sacrifice… the Romans thought that – so they persecuted the early Christians for it to eradicate what they thought was their cannibalism. (They were not too fond of Christians calling Jesus ‘Lord’ either – a title reserved for Caesar.)

-It must just be a metaphor. The word ‘is’ must not mean ‘is’ but mean ‘is like.’ That sounds more palatable… Some of the early Protestants believed and taught a much easier to ‘chew on’ doctrine (pun intended) that bread and wine somehow only “represent” Christ’s body and blood or that somehow we receive them only spiritually. Other Christians push back and say, “Wait a minute! the word ‘is’ means ‘is’ and if Jesus said ‘is,’ then it ‘is’ what Jesus says it ‘is’ (or something close to that – just ask Martin Luther at Marburg in 1529). The church is still deeply divided in understanding what is happening when we share the holy meal of Jesus (a.k.a. The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Sacrament of the Altar, Eucharist).

Maybe these words are not about the holy meal of Jesus at all, but about the relationship Jesus calls us into instead. That certainly would be a way to get around how disturbing John 6 is, especially when Jesus says, “Whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:57).

However…

What if – Jesus actually meant what he said?

What if – when Jesus said, “eat my flesh,” he was telling us exactly what he was calling us to do; to give us exactly what he has promised?

What if – when we gather around the altar today; when the bread is broken and the wine is poured, it ‘is’ exactly what Jesus says it ‘is’ – ‘his true body and blood give for us Christians to eat and to drink?’

What if – even though this story comes after the feeding of the five thousand, and the audience in the narrative were practicing first century Jews who were both offended and grossed out by Jesus words (as any normal person should be) – this story is really told for the church (then as much as now); to wrestle with and experience; to invite and proclaim, to practice and believe; as Christ reigns supreme not only over the cosmos but ‘for you’ in a real, tangible, personal and communal way in the eating and the drinking?

What then?

Perhaps we need fewer explanations and more invitations into the mystery in which Jesus proclaims. The eternal awaits, right now. Jesus is offering himself for you. Come and eat.

PGS

 

Sunday is coming! “Approaching Jesus with our hunger and longing” John 6:35, 41-51

They began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” (John 6:41)

We are beggars, this is true.’

This statement is attributed to Martin Luther as his last words from his death bed. It should be noted this statement is not meant as a slight to those who are in need, but is rather a reminder that we are to approach Jesus as if we have nothing to bring other our than our longing for him. As people of faith we are not to rely on our own personal strength, understanding or efforts, but instead depend upon the grace, mercy and love of God who gives us life, sustenance, forgiveness and salvation.

In a world that is built and personal achievement and often defines people by what they do (or fail to do); it is good for us to approach God with our utmost humility as we bring our deepest needs and longings.

How can we come as ‘beggars’ to God – trusting we will be fed and nourished?

One way is prayer. Jesus assures us that our prayers will be heard (Matt 6:5-15; Matt 7:7-12; 1 John 5:14-15).

Another way to approach God with our need to be fed is in the heavenly meal of Jesus we know the Sacrament of the Altar, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, and the Lord’s Supper.

How can this be?

A small piece of bread and a tiny sip (or dip) of wine hardly seems like a significant way to fill our deepest longings, yet each time we come to receive the means of grace we receive a true treasure – Jesus, “the bread of life” (John 6:35).

One can debate whether or not John 6 is a direct link to this heavenly meal shared among us but the dynamics between the people in this passage asking, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Jospeh, whose mother and father we know?’” (John 6:42) seems somewhat similar to our own question “How can eating and drinking do such great things?” (Luther’s Small Catechism – see below).

The people in the crowd seem to be asking (just as we do), “Does God really meet us in ordinary things, like a man from a small town in Galilee, or simple thing like bread and wine?

The resounding answer Jesus gives is, “Yes, that is exactly where I meet you. Come, eat and be filled.”

Jesus meets us in ordinary things, with an extraordinary promise of the eternal at work among us. “I am the living bread from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

As we will continue to see throughout John 6, this promise is (to use a bad pun) a tough word to swallow, yet all that is required of us is to come hungry, ‘beggars’ that we are, with outstretched hands and longing hearts to be fed by the Eternal One.

Come ‘beggar,’ come.

Eat, drink, and meet the Christ who will lead you to eternal life. And pray. Jesus will meet you there too.

-When has God met you in your deepest needs and hungers?

-What longings do you still have?

-Where could you meet others still longing to meet him?

PGS

From Luther’s Small Catechism:

“How can eating and drinking do such great things?

Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but the words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.’ These words, when accompanied by eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these words has what they declare and state, namely, ‘forgiveness of sin.’” (Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” [1529], Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], 1166).

Sunday is Coming! “Focus on the Bread, not on the bread” (John 6:24-35)

 

“‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that leads to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’” (John 6:27-28)

There is an old proverb that says, “Give a child to fish; feed them for a day. Teach a child to fish, feed them for a lifetime.”

The feeding of the 5000 was such a powerful moment, that after people experienced it, they hoped for another sign, and the guy who fed them with such abundance. To put it simply: the people wanted more bread. They were fed for a day, and want to be fed another day.

Jesus’ response to them is so interesting, because he is not just interested in feeding people for a day or even for a lifetime – but to offer a Living Bread that leads to eternal life…himself!

Jesus claims: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Yet the people are still focused on the meal they ate – recalling the story of the people eating manna in the wilderness in the time of the Exodus. Jesus reminds them it is not the bread that is the important part of the story but that it was sent from God, just as he is sent from God.

Like them, too often we miss the point.

The purpose of the signs Jesus give us is to point us toward who Jesus is as the One who is sent. Too often we focus on the bread we hunger for; only to miss the Bread of Life present with us that will satisfy all our longings.

We see this oversight at work all the time in our churches. Traditions, programs, furniture, and wallpaper become not the means which point us toward Jesus but instead become the end of our focus and devotion. While that might sound absurd, consider how many conversations you’ve had about the ‘good old days’ or what it might take to ‘save the church.’ Then ask yourself, ‘Are these longings really about seeking Jesus or are they about preserving the means we have used in the past to see Jesus?’ Or to put it another way: ‘Are our expressions of faith really about the bread that perishes or the Bread of Life that is eternal?’

The crowd asks, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ (John 6:28).

Is our discipleship about practice or is it about the focus of our practice?

When we focus our hearts, minds, bodies and souls to seek Jesus in the midst of whatever it is we are doing or experiencing, we are more open to not only receive the bread that will feed us for a day, but developing the skills and relationships that that will keep us fed for a lifetime. Keeping our focus on Christ reveals his grace that points us towards the eternal, here in our eating and drinking.

– Where in your life are you focused on bread rather than the Bread of Life?

– How might the Bread of Life re-order your focus in the way you live now?

– What do you see?

PGS