Tag Archives: Mark 1

26 April – Christ our beginning and end

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Easter 4

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 85
Mark 1:1-15

There seems to be a general consensus that the beginning is a very good place to start: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”; so begins the book of Mark the Gospeller.

Beginnings, however, are rather less straightforward than we usually imagine. There are, in fact, no true beginnings in history. There was always something before what we choose as a beginning, so that – were we to be comprehensive – we would have to push back the start as far as our historical knowledge could reach. But, in fact, we don’t do this. While everything really begins somewhere prior to the beginning we choose, we nevertheless do choose: we do identify and magnify certain points within history as somehow being “the beginning” in a special kind of way.

In this process, what is likely to be less clear to us is that in such a naming of a beginning we are not so much identifying where things start as identifying the end from which we take our view of the beginning. The beginning is what creates us ourselves. The beginning we choose is chosen because it speaks us – not only speaks to us but speaks us, announces us, relates us. If a history and a starting place do not do this, then they are someone else’s story and not ours.

In the last few weeks, of course, and more intensively in the last few days, we have been reflecting as a community on the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. Among the many angles of reflection, there has been no small amount written on this event as an Australian beginning. The language is sometimes quite extreme, and has been challenged from a different quarters, but it conveys the thought that this event defined the spirit of the nation. The event itself, and the way those soldiers conducted themselves, constituted the arrival of the nation on the world stage. In all sorts of often quite surprising ways, the ANZAC spirit is seem somehow to reflect what is “typically” Australian – even to have been the genesis of these characteristics. In this way they were us – our beginning – because we are them. Our Prime Minister remarked yesterday: “If they had not been emblematic of the nation we thought we were [read: “are”], Anzac Day would not have been commemorated from that time until this.” There is something fundamentally “us” behind the commemoration, and so it lends itself to serve as our “beginning”.

Whatever might be said about the continuing remembrance of the Gallipoli campaign, the point here is simply what sits behind the choice which is exercised in selecting this event as somehow being definitive and so somehow constituting a beginning: in this way we note ourselves.

What, then, of Mark’s sense for a beginning: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? All that we have just noted about the choice of a beginning applies also in this beginning: this, too, is a choice about where the beginning is. In the opening passage there are intimations of other, prior events – the preaching of the prophet Isaiah anticipating John; the echo of the even earlier Elijah in John’s mode of dress; and perhaps even of the very creation event itself echoed in the movement of the Spirit over the waters of Jesus’ baptism (Genesis 1.1f).

Yet the beginning Mark chooses is the appearance of Jesus on the scene and the first thing we hear on his lips: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

If the need to choose a beginning – as Mark does – is a matter of expressing something of ourselves, expressing something of the end which is reflected in that beginning, how is that the case for Mark? What is the end – the goal – identified, chosen, in this beginning?

It is, again, us: Mark himself, or those to whom he writes – we are the end in mind here. The evangelist Mark writes to a community which is itself the fruit of the gospel which begins here. In the first instance it was a particular community: largely Gentile, probably in Rome, small in the face of the over-whelming presence of all things Roman, apparently under increasing persecution in the early to mid ‘60s. Some interpreters read the famous calming of the storm episode in chapter 4 as being a word about – and to – this little community, tossed about on the waves by seemingly irresistible forces of criticism and persecution, crying out to God, “Do you not care that we perishing?” (Mark 4.38).

The “beginning” which is the appearance and proclamation of Jesus makes sense of the identity and experience of that small community believers. They are different, off-centre. They are marginal to the dominant narratives which spring from different beginnings and imply different endings. As Palestine was marginal and problematic to the vast Roman world, so also are they, although living in the very heart of Rome itself. As wild-eyed crazy as the Baptist appears in his desert ministry, calling people away from the relatively safe city into the dangers of the desert with its “wild beasts” (1.12), so are these believers seen to be odd, eccentric. For this message – this gospel – speaks of a different centre. Just as the more jingoist readings of the ANZAC event see it as a characterisation of the Australian spirit – the centre of our identity – so for Mark the way the gospel begins characterises the community which is now formed by that beginning.

And just as any rampant nationalism, or fanatical extremism, or political ideology sees itself as finally arriving at the goal of human history – the “filling up” of history in this particular way of being human – so also Mark’s Jesus announces “the time is fulfilled” (1.15). Now, finally, it comes to completion.

And, yet, it is a strange “completion”, for it is an “incomplete completion”. This is because the filling up of the time takes shape in the creation of something which is not yet at its end, its perfection: the church itself – that community which sees its particular present springing from this beginning. For, despite occasional triumphalist outbursts, the church is scarcely “complete”; the very writing of the gospel itself as an encouragement to a troubled church is evidence of this, quite apart from the inadequacies of the church more obvious to us today.

The church’s end is in this beginning, but it is not there yet. This is because of the strangeness of this particular beginning: its call to repentance. This repentance is no mere turning from this or that “sin”, no mere saying “sorry”. It is, as the English word itself implies (re‑pent : re-think), a re-thinking: a re-perceiving of what matters. This call to re-imagine ourselves and our future is an address to us who tend towards crystallising a particular sense of what it means to be human. These crystallisations are hardenings, exclusions of other possibilities. It happens, continually, in churches as it happens in nations. In these imaginings of ourselves we imply that we have already reached what it means to be whole and human. Or, in the terms which Jesus uses, we imply that we have already reached “the kingdom”: God’s kingdom has come, and we are the proof of it. It is this sense of completeness in ourselves which drives us to conflict with each other: the claims we presume to make on others on account of their being less, or deserving less, than we because our beginning, our end, are the “true” beginning and end.

But the kingdom of God – our completion – has not yet come: we are not complete. As then, so now, this world “draws near” in the person of Jesus in whom alone there is a true beginning and a true end, and who calls us out of parochialisms, nationalisms, triumphalisms and the self-righteousness which justify selfishness and give rise to fear. We are called from our sense of our own perfection and the narrow beginnings from which this sprang to a beginning and an end which is not yet quite ours, but the approach of which is announced in order to unravel us a bit.

Our first reading this morning was taken from Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news.

This announcement of peace in Mark’s gospel takes the form of the approach of a God who calls us out of our firm and fixed identities and centres into something as yet unimagined. This may not seem good news at first, and indeed Mark’s gospel is filled with shock and awe as the world meets the surprising, disorienting liberty Jesus brings. But it is liberty – a liberation from the powers and principalities which hold us in thrall and cause us to imagine that we need to distance ourselves from, or even kill, each other, and can then bless that as a beginning.

We give thanks, then, for Mark and for all who have told the story of this strange one in whom our beginnings and endings are re-worked to bring life and freedom.

May God’s people grow ever more fully into that story, becoming themselves new beginnings and endings which testify to where life and liberty are to be found. Amen.

8 February – All things to all people

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Epiphany 5

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Our rights – as citizens, as individuals, as human beings – have been much in view over the last few years. Against governments responsible for limiting the behaviour of a few, the many wonder whether their own rights are also being unnecessarily limited. Against the forces of globalisation, big business and the greed of the developed world there is a growing concern for the rights of the “two-thirds” world which lags behind us in so many ways. Against the memory of a time when we were defined by our past, our gender, our race, our age, our religion or any other thing inflicted on us by fate, today we strongly assert our “rights”, our freedoms from all which might make a claim somehow to limit us.

At the same time, with increasing regularity, there is also talk heard about responsibilities although, over against the urgency of the talk about rights, talk about responsibilities seems to have a weariness or an irony about it. Once it was the other way around, but today responsibility is on the back foot and has to defend itself against right. Rights tend to win over responsibilities because it is part of our lot that my “right” to exist or prosper or be secure will eventually come into conflict with yours. When it does there enters another principle, “might is right”, and the conflict is intensified. Even so, if in practice one seems to have precedence over another, in our better moments we still seek to balance the two: rights imply responsibilities, and vice-versa.

The fundamental nature of talk about rights and responsibilities is legal. The attempt to balance my rights with yours – my rights with my responsibilities – takes on the character of a transaction, a social “contract” in which certain things are required of me, and certain other things guaranteed to me. Contracts reflect an economy of exchange. My responsibilities serve your rights; your rights imply corresponding responsibilities: balance without excess.

And this brings us to Paul, the apostle of excess.

Paul says of his preaching: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!!” (9.16). That is, there is no freedom here. There is an obligation or responsibility laid on him by God for the benefit of others. This responsibility, however, is to be met by the responsibility of his hearers to provide him a living. We might say that the congregation has the “right” (in a qualified sense) to hear the gospel, and it’s Paul’s responsibility to meet that right. Conversely, Paul has a right to eat, and it is his hearers’ responsibility to meet that right.

This is all well and good. Even if we think that hearing the gospel is no desirable thing, we know the logic of exchange and can follow Paul’s argument to this point. Yet Paul is not really interested in spelling out how the rights and responsibilities of preachers and their audience should be balanced. Rights and responsibilities are natural components of human existence, and not the content of the Christian ethic Paul goes on to describe. Christian existence does involve rights and responsibilities, but you don’t need to be a Christian to assent to them. If this were all Paul has to say to us, then the gospel is simply a particular flavour of law. It’s Jesus-flavoured law, but merely law nonetheless.

Paul is under obligation to God and to the world to preach, and he does. The crucial point, though, is that although he has this responsibility and the corresponding right to claim an income, he does not claim money for his work. While he speaks of rights and related responsibilities, he points beyond these merely legal, contractual requirements to the possibility of good news: news which is not legally necessary but surprising and liberating. For the good news is concerned not with what is due, but with over-payment, with what is in excess of what is due, with the delivery of more than is legally required.

In the first instance, this means for Paul the exercise of ministry without claiming the payment it is his right to claim. But he opens the issue right up with the language of freedom and slavery which is so much a part of his way of thinking about the gospel.

Although free in the gospel to claim his rights from others, instead he denies himself these rights and so makes himself subject to those to whom he ministers: to the Jews he is as a Jew; to the Gentiles, he is as a Gentile; to those under or outside the law, he becomes as one under or outside the law. God has embraced Paul as he is and sent him with a commission to preach as he is, and so Paul can rightly expect of others that they accept him as he is. Yet, for the sake of the gospel Paul becomes as they are, that there may be as few obstacles as possible preventing them from receiving the gospel.

Yet, we have to push still further than this. He is not simply being helpful or accommodating here. Paul turns his way of relating to others into the gospel itself. In another place he exhorts his readers: be as Jesus was, who, although he possessed all the rights of God, did not think them things to cling to but set them aside, taking on the form of a servant, humbling himself to the point of losing himself – even through the cross (Philippians 2).

This Paul does himself. He does not merely speak of what God has done in Christ, as if it were some piece of historical information to be delivered to the ignorant. God’s work shapes the way Paul himself works. Becoming all things to all people is not a missionary strategy, although we quickly turn it into that. The point is not that evangelism works best if we become like those we seek to evangelise. The point is that evangelism is excessive service, responsibility which does not claim its right. Evangelism then becomes not the presentation of information, but the very expression and embodiment of the gospel itself – a giving of self in excess of what might justly be required. The message becomes the medium.

In his closing remark in our passage this morning, there is one final point Paul lets us in on: “I do all this on account of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings…” (v.23). “I do this, so that I may share in the blessings of the gospel…” Not only does Paul embody, or realize, the gospel in the way in which he relates to those who have a “right” to hear the gospel. Paul also experiences the gospel himself through his excessive and unbalanced service to them.

There are clues here for churches like ours. Our Synod’s Major Strategic Review springs from a concern for sustainability, realised through strategy. Yet sustainability is an ecological concept, ecology being a profoundly “legal” (here: natural law) space of predetermined cause and effect. Strategy is a military concept, again the realm of cause and effect: bigger guns, cleverer plans and sneakier commandos win the day. Strategy unto sustainability is a commitment to balance and not to the excess of the gospel. It assumes that we already “have” the gospel, and that the question at hand is one of delivery; for Paul, the delivery itself is the possibility of further experience of the gospel.

But this is not just “their” problem: we too, as a congregation, have to resolve how to move into the future: what to do with the enormous resources at our disposal. None of what I have said pre-determines what we decide because gospel excess is not a natural, legal – determined – category: it is an historical one, a question of decision, a casting of ourselves in trust in the one who looks and waits to see what we will choose, and promises to work with that. While we might – perhaps even must – be as clever and careful as we can as we make these plans, we need to be aware that in fact we are more “forcing” God’s hand, so to speak, than reading it. This would be an appalling thing to say were it not that this God can take our worst excesses – even crucifying the Lord of life – and make of them something life-giving.

The empty economy of right and responsibility cannot bring us life, but only a precarious balance and, with it, anxiety. The good news about Jesus tells instead of an excess of love which is undeserved, but nevertheless is pressed down and flows over through his disciples into a cascade of hope.

Paul finds himself caught up in the whirlpool of the gospel. Having been drawn into the current, he uses its force and power as the means of reaching others, and yet that same force again swirls him around, shifting, buffeting, cleansing and empowering for more such work. This is our calling, and the promise which carries it to us.

May God’s people ever continue to hear the call and trust the promise, for their own sake and for the sake of those who do not yet know themselves to be daughters and sons of this God and Father, sisters and brothers of this Christ, women and men sustained by this Spirit. Amen.

1 February – Demons

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Epiphany 4

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

1973, The Exorcist: an archaeological dig in Iraq, a young girl, shaking beds, pea soup vomit, a 360 degree head turn – demon possession! Central to the action are a couple of priests, indicating the roots of this kind of story in the church and its Scriptures. While New Testament references to demons or evil spirits are something of an embarrassment to many modern Christians, they seem be the source of an endless fascination for movie makers.

The demonic in the movies is all pretty laughable, although the chances are we laugh at the wrong thing. What seems so funny is that there are no such things as demons, but it is fun to have the b’Jesus scared out of us occasionally. But what is “funny” from a New Testament point of view is that demons are treated these days as something like diseases. In popular imagination there is no difference in substance between the battle the exorcist has with the demon and the battle immunology scientists have with a new rampant virus threatening to destroy the whole human race – another familiar storyline for films and TV series. The movies are straightforward and moralistic: human person = good guy, possessing demon/lethal virus = bad guy; human person = free agent, demon/virus = enslaving agent. The drama is resolved when the bad guy is finally dealt with, with the implication that the exorcised victim will now returned to her fundamental, free self. When it comes to looking at the New Testament, then, the stories of demon possession seem little more than quaint interpretations of illness. Jesus appears now as a gifted therapist, able to put a finger on the problem and relieve these sufferers of their illness; off they then go, happy ever after.

But we do little justice to the stories, and rob ourselves of a great deal, if we simply reduce New Testament demonology to primitive medicine. The exorcisms in the New Testament are stories of the liberation of people who find themselves inextricably entangled within things greater and more powerful than themselves. And the emphasis must fall on inextricably, for while we typically draw clear distinctions between the demon and the demon-possessed, the stories themselves show how the spirit and the person become confused, to the extent that it is not really clear where the person actually is and where the demon is, other than that they are wrapped up in each other.

Listen again to the first part of today’s reading
1.23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us…”
While it probably sounds straightforward, in fact it’s not at all clear who is speaking here. If it is the man who cries out, “what have you to do with us”, why the “us” which seems to include the man himself with the demon? This confusion is even more dramatic a little later, in chapter 5 (vv6ff). When a possessed man sees Jesus, he shouts “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For we are told that Jesus had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” That is, Jesus has addressed the spirit, but it is the man who speaks; or is it? Has Jesus been “tormenting” the man, or the spirit? The account then goes on: Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” While it might seem that Jesus has addressed the man and asked his name, “the man” replies, “My name is Legion; for we are many”. Presumably here the demon speaks, though it is the man’s reply. Finally we hear, “He” earnestly begged Jesus not to send “them” out of the country. Who is the “he” here? If it is the man, why does he refer to “them” as a group distinct from himself? Does the man not want to be exorcised?

The important thing here is the slippage between the identity of the man and the identity of that which possesses him, such that the one is addressed, but the other answers, but the one answering seems to speak also for the one possessed, and so on. In these stories we encounter something much more subtle than what features in popular representations of the demonic. If all a demon can do is throw you into convulsions and twist your head 360 degrees on your shoulders then, by comparison with what the gospels describe, you’ve really nothing to worry about(!). The demons of the New Testament are far more dangerous than this, for they suppress their victims in such a way that the victim seems almost to embrace his oppressor. By contrast, the neat separation of the powers which possess and those possessed by them does not speak the truth about our condition. It imagines that I exist independently of the things which have formed me, or that I am clearly distinguishable from the things which bear down on me from without. This portrayal of the demonic imagines that, fundamentally, I am free but occasionally limited by some external and unfriendly force: just deal with that and I’m free again.

When we look to see what Jesus the liberator encounters in this broken world, it is rather a confusion of identities, such that it is not clear whether I am myself, or the things which have happened to me. Am I as free as I and others imagine, and so responsible for what I have done; or is my hand forced by things beyond my control, such that I don’t know how I could have done differently? Although we speak of “I” here, perhaps we should learn also to say “we” – not to be inclusive of each other but to be inclusive of all the powers which seem to direct our lives – those things the New Testament calls the demonic: “What is your name?” My name is Legion, for we are many.

For most of us, identity- and freedom-blurring “possession” is much less dramatic than that of the man in the synagogue in Capernaum. But it is there, and it is powerful. Consider our love of democracy – that “worst form of government except for all [the] other forms”. This is the only political system for us and yet the source of endless political and social frustration as senators are elected on a fraction of the vote and outgoing governments can knowingly expose a community to enormous compensation payments, without any accountability.

Or we might consider our situation as a congregation, enjoying both the benefit and suffering the burden of buildings like these. We know that the church is not its buildings, and yet also that a gathered community needs a place to gather. Our buildings have generally served us well and, yet, they also constitute an enormous burden, particularly at a time when most congregations’ fortunes are declining. What does freedom look like in the tension between the call to be the church, and the call to maintain structures (of all kinds – buildings, committees, reporting regimes) which are not of the essence of being the church? If we were to make a simple statement, what most has us as a congregation in its possession? Clues might be found in what we spend most of our time talking about when we get together, or what we spend most of our money on.

The “demonic” is symbolic of what is external to us and yet also within us in such a way that we are both distinguishable from it, and not. To understand what Mark has to say about powers is to able be to see more, and less, clearly than the simplistic demonologies of the movies and of contemporary politics and moral discourse. That is, we are learning to see how hard it is to see clearly here; we and our demons are not easily prised apart. While the political “right” pins everything on the free individual, and the “left” on the binding structures of society, the New Testament is less optimistic about our capacity to know which is which.

This is the realism of the gospel, although, perhaps it also seems to be the pessimism of gospel: what can save us from this body of death, this ever being enthralled by things which are not us, this never being fully ourselves? Yet this realism is a necessary preamble to the good news, and what causes the response of the people to Jesus in the synagogue: here is a teaching with authority, and not what we have been used to. The authority has nothing to do with whether Jesus has a deep voice or penetrating eyes as he speaks, but with his being “author” of those he addresses. A truth is expressed which is not merely true but which resonates, which moves. Here is a surgeon who understands what we are, who can separate flesh and bone, preserving what matters and excising what is wrong. In a modest and derivative way this is also the ministry of the people of God, but it is derivative from Jesus, and it is modest. For it is Jesus who expels and heals, and not us. The heart of New Testament demonology is seen in a place where no demons are actually manifest: in the crucifixion of Jesus. Here, for all the right reasons, the wrong thing takes place. When most clear-sighted, the people of God take a wholly wrong course. Here is the same kind of confusion the possessed man has with his demon. As it is unclear what is good and bad in us, where we end and the powers begin, so also a broken thing is made a sign of healing: “This is my body broken by you” becomes “This is my body broken for you”.

To be called to into the kingdom of this God is to be called to a discovery of the true nature of the kingdoms within which we already live, the powers to which we are already subject, our incapacity to extract a pure “me”. To be called into the kingdom of this God is to hear a promise that, despite all which seems to envelope us, we belong to God: You are mine and I am yours (to recall our Advent reflections last year). God discerns and claims us even in the midst of all the world’s confusion.

For such healing and liberation, and such a share in the life and work of God, all thanks and praise be to him, now and always. Amen.