Misunderstandings, Gospel, and Identity: (Late) Reflections on the Second Week of Pentecost

Note: Due to what Eugene Peterson calls ‘life, life, and more life’ (which can sometimes be a pain and a blessing at the same time) I’m still playing catch up on weekly lectionary reflections. These are from the second week of Pentecost. Hopefully the third weeks will be up Monday afternoon – depending of course upon on what ‘life’ throws at me.

The Gospel Text for Second Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 3:20-35 (CEB)

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24  A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25  And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26  If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27  No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28  I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29  But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”

Gospel: Starting at the Beginning (of Mark)

To understand what’s going on in Mark 3, we need to go back to Mark 1:1, ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.’ Good news … gospel! But this isn’t gospel as most of us have probably learned about it – gospel reduced to individual forgiveness of sins and a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ No, this is the gospel of the kingdom and the reign of the Messiah, God’s Son, our liberating King Jesus. Working in Christian retail I can attest that the bulk of materials advertized as ‘gospel’ should more accurately be called the ‘plan of salvation’ (I’m with Scot McKnight on this!). In fact, there is even a book called The Explicit Gospel that is currently very popular. I want to root for it for no other reason that the author has local ties (not that I share his particular Calvinist bent). I won’t offer a full review of the whole book here except to say that the more I have read of it, the more I have felt it’s simply an extended treatment of the typical evangelical plan of salvation (not the gospel) with a Calvinist twist (See McKnight’s reviews here and here.)

But in Mark we don’t begin with individual, personal ‘salvation’ or benefit. Instead Mark starts with Kingdom and the fulfillment of scripture and the story of Israel in the reign of God’s Son, the Messiah. We find John the Baptist leading the way and saying that one ‘stronger than him’ would come and baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit (ie, Petecost). We then find that this Messiah, Jesus himself, is forced (or ‘pushed’ as the force of the Greek indicates) into the wilderness immediately following his own baptism. After his wilderness experience, in Mark 1:14, Jesus began his public ministry declaring that the Kingdom itself was at hand. Those wishing to defend the gospel merely as individual forgiveness of sin may object and point to the call to repentance in Mark 1:15 and the express forgiveness of the personal sin of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:5.  In reference to 1:15 we can note that while personal repentance is necessary for entrance into the Kingdom, nowhere is the gospel itself reduced down to repentance or individual forgiveness. In fact, the verse explicitly tells us to ‘repent’ and then ‘believe the good news (or gospel)’. Repentance here indicates how we stand in relation to the gospel – how we stand in relation to the Kingdom of God’s Son. And in reference to 2:5, we do indeed find that Jesus forgave the paralyzed man his sins. But Jesus can forgive sins because he is the ‘Son of Man’ (or ‘Human One’ in the CEB), a clear Messianic reference to Daniel 7. And the proof he had this authority and that the paralyzed man was forgiven was he got up and walked – he was healed! As always, the point of the passage here is about who Jesus is as Messiah. The liberating Kingship of Jesus is always the starting point of the gospel, not the individual forgiveness of sins. To be sure, forgiveness of sins is included, but only within the wider context of the Kingdom and reign of Christ.

(And as an aside: we should note that Jesus is able to forgive sins here even though he has not yet died on the cross. I am not here questioning the importance of atonement theories, even substitutionary ones. I do think however we need to recognize that Jesus forgives sins because he is Messiah or King. We do well not to separate cross from Kingdom and not to reduce the cross down to individual salvation as happens far too often.)

Satan is Strong … Jesus is Stronger

This gospel of the kingdom forms the context for where we find Jesus in this passage. There seems to be a familiar pattern: 1) Jesus does something he’s not supposed to do like forgiving sins, healing on the Sabbath day, driving out demons, etc. 2) The religious leaders murmur amongst themselves and/or charge Jesus with all sorts of wrongdoing and chicanery. 3) Then Jesus and the religious leaders have a confrontation further revealing his Messianic, kingly status and which in the end gets him in even more trouble. And this is where we find ourselves now in Mark 3. One of the main things that Jesus has been doing up until now, along with healing people and calling his disciples, is casting out demons (as he is doing here). It is striking that over and over the forces of evil get the identity of Jesus but those most studied in Israel’s laws and scriptures don’t – either that or they get exactly who Jesus is and feel their power and control threatened.

And it is also striking that Jesus tells those he heals, and he tells the demonic spirits, not to tell anyone who he is – not to reveal what he has done or that he is the Messiah. This is what scholars have called the ‘Messianic Secret’. This it seems is more like an ‘open secret’, but one that is easily misunderstood by the masses (perhaps one reason why Jesus exhorted silence from those he healed and the demons) who craved celebrity and one that seemed to frighten and threaten those ‘in charge.’ This is striking to me because in my experience in Christian retail I have seen how the Christian publishing ‘market’ is driven by celebrity and ‘developing a platform.’ I’m not saying its wrong or sinful to be a popular author, it just strikes me that most of the attempts to ‘promote’ the kingdom actually end up making a commodity of the kingdom. (And the celebrity driven nature of the Christian retail market has done nothing to raise the depth of material available. If what sells is an indicator of what our church leaders are reading then I am sad for the state of the church today (just being honest here!). Those items that truly deserve our attention (ie, Eugene Peterson, et al) languish on the shelf where I work.) We must contend with the fact that our Lord, the Messiah of Israel, the King of the universe actively resisted building himself a ‘platform’.

Yet, despite his resistance, he still attracted huge crowds interested in seeing what he would do next. And it seems that his family was not quite on board with what he was doing at this stage if his ministry since they thought he was mad. This leads us to the second thing in the pattern mentioned above. The religious leaders and legal experts sent down some representatives from Jerusalem to see if they could nip this Jesus thing in the bud. Jesus, they said, could drive out demons because he was in league with Satan himself! Jesus responds with a parable that makes two main points.

The first is to illustrate how ridiculous it was to say that Jesus cast out demons with the power of demons. A kingdom divided can’t stand. And no one can break into the house of a strong man without first tying up the strong man. The point here is simple: Satan is strong, but Jesus is the Stronger One. This draws on the wilderness experience of Jesus where he was ‘tempted’ by Satan and the subsequent casting out of demons, all which implicitly indicate the defeat of Satan by Jesus and the arrival of the Kingdom in the person of Jesus (ie, Christus Victor).

The second point is that the sin that can’t be forgiven is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Remember here that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit by which Jesus was moved along in his ministry. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Kingdom. To sin against the Spirit is to label a work of the Spirit a work of the devil. To do this is to cut oneself out of the Kingdom, since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Kingdom of God’s Son. As usual there is a double meaning in Jesus’ words here: 1) those who ought to understand Jesus and the Kingdom the most oftentimes don’t (or are simply the most threatened by it), and 2) those who set themselves up as self appointed guardians of the ways of God should be careful lest they actually side themselves against God’s Kingdom. We do well to heed these warnings ourselves.

What (or Who) Defines You?

Then Jesus gets word that his mother, brothers, and sisters were looking for him. The setting is crucial here. In the context of these three audiences – the crowds looking for another miracle, the religious leaders looking to undermine him, and his own blood family who thinks he’s nuts – he cuts through another one of the traditional Jewish identity markers. And so, the statement that whoever does the will of the Father is the true family of Jesus, while not spectacular to Western ears, would have been downright disturbing to Jewish ones. Family bonds were right up there with Sabbath observance in terms of Jewish identity (and we see how that went for Jesus). These identity markers were supposed to be among the things that made the Jews a ‘light to the nations.’ These markers themselves were not bad, but had become over time barriers that cut the Jews off from the nations, and overall sources of legalism and pride.

Jesus has a way of slicing through the tradition, legalism, and pride in one clean cut. There is again a double message here: many, if not most, of those who think they are in on the Kingdom because of heritage or tradition really aren’t and those just along for the show won’t make the cut in the long run. Unless we read his statement in verses 33-35 as deeply shocking we haven’t gotten the message. I hesitate to use the word ‘radical’ since the word gets overused and domesticated so much these days, but what Jesus has to say here is in fact deeply radical in its context. Jesus is not simply a mildly interesting figure or merely a good teacher of morally therapeutic platitudes to help people live better lives. Following Jesus is an ‘all in’ sort of thing – one that can engender resistance, one that marks out the people of the King as rather peculiar, one that binds us to the paradigmatic cruciform Christ narrative. The radical thrust here is that in a world with endless ‘kingdoms’ bidding for our allegiances (and even more so since its an election year), in order to get in on Jesus’ Kingdom, to be a part of what Jesus is doing, one’s identity must be completely defined and centered around the liberating King himself. What, or who, defines you?

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Pentecost (Book of Common Prayer):

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Remembering to Breathe: (Late) Reflections on Trinity Sunday (2012)

The Gospel Text for Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-21 (CEB)

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.

19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”

Catching Up

I have made it my goal to present weekly reflections on the lectionary readings. That being said, I missed last week’s reflections, which would have been on Trinity Sunday. So, today I am going to play a little catch up. The formal study of Trinitarian theology makes up one of my three main theological emphases – the other two being ‘narrative’ and ‘mission’ (see the tag line at the top of the screen). Get me started on any of these, or especially how they interpenetrate each other and its hard for me to stop. This is one of the reasons why I resonate with the conversational approach to church that Crosspoint offers. It fits my approach to theology and life in general. There is always ‘more’ to the triune nature and life of God, and always more to the story and faithfulness of Jesus, our liberating King. This aspect of ‘more-ness’ to God and the Kingdom is often times ineffable but at the same time inexhaustible – we may not be sure what to say sometimes, but say something we must, and what we do say will often seem … well, small. When it comes to the triune nature and life of God or the story and mission of Jesus, there is always more … more to be said, more to explored, more to be lived into. The passage quoted above, the story if Jesus and Nicodemus, offers an entry into this ‘more-ness’ of the triune God and the Kingdom.

Breath and Spirit and New Creation

I have come to look forward to Trinity Sunday each year. At first glance it may appear to be out of place. From Advent (when we prepare for the birth of Jesus) to Lent (when we prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus) to Ascension Sunday (when we celebrate the reign and kingship of Jesus) to Pentecost Sunday (when we celebrate the sending of the Spirit after Jesus) the church calendar is dominated by the story of Jesus. And then we get to Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday that is set apart for a theological doctrine – or so it seems. I say ‘or so it seems’ because if we just think of Trinity as a doctrine, we miss the point and we risk missing out God’s very life. Trinity is not just about saying or thinking or affirming the right things about God. It’s not simply about having all our theological ducks in a row. Trinity, like incarnation, isn’t simply a box to be marked off on a systematic theology checklist. To name God as Trinity is to describe the reality wherein 1) we are brought to participate in the story and mission of Father, Son, and Spirit in the world and 2) we are brought to participate in the very life of Father, Son, and Spirit – life, life, and more life.

Perichoresis is a word that that theologians have used for centuries to describe the interpenetrating communion between Father, Son, and Spirit. Taking a cue from the word itself, peri – ‘around’ and choresis – from which we get our word ‘choreography’ (though some theologians disagree with etymologizing the word in this manner), many have used the metaphor of a dance in reference to speaking of the triune life – the dance of Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal communion with each other, a dance that we are brought into as participants. As classic as this metaphor is, I want to tie in with the John 3 reading for last Sunday with another metaphor … the metaphor of breathe. In this passage we find the typical Johannine themes of light vs day, night vs day, life vs perishing, and so forth. Even while making no presumptions on the motives of Nicodemus coming at night as he did, it is striking that he, a religious leader, goes away without understanding (night, darkness) but the Samaritan woman in the following chapter does understand (day, light). The occasion for the non-understanding of Nicodemus is his request to know how to get in on what Jesus is doing, to which Jesus responds by saying one must be born again.

Here that we need to remind ourselves that the new birth Jesus speaks of isn’t an individualist, ‘happy things happening in your heart’ kind of spirituality. Though I’m not particularly opposed too and like happy things to happen in my heart, it is a misstep to reduce the new birth Jesus speaks of in this manner.  It’s not simply a ‘me and Jesus’ thing. The new birth is a kingdom of God oriented reality, not a kingdom of me oriented reality. The new birth Jesus speaks of relates to the new creation reality of his kingdom. Entry into the new creation kingdom, getting in on what Jesus is doing, requires new birth by the Spirit. And here is where ‘breath’ comes in. After Nicodemas asks Jesus to explain the first time, Jesus responds in vs 5-8 by combining the images of birth and Spirit or wind. Four times the verb for ‘to be born’ is used and ten times reference in some fashion is made to pneuma­ – which just happens to be the same Greek word for wind, spirit, or breath. Could this be another Johannine allusion to the Genesis creation stories where not only did the Spirit hover over the waters and order the chaos ‘in the beginning’ but the very breath of God was breathed into the first man and woman? So here we have breath and Spirit and entry into new creation. This entry into the new creation Kingdom of Jesus, getting in on what Jesus has inaugurated, requires birth by the new creation breath (Spirit) of the triune God. This is what Pentecost is all about.

Breath and (Triune) Communion and (Triune) Mission

All of this falls within the incarnational modus operandi of the triune God. The incarnation, that is – the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign of Christ, flows from the perichoretic love and life of Father, Son, and Spirit – this is what we might call the breathing out of the triune God revealed to us in the liberating King, Jesus. And it is this same incarnational reality through the sending of the Spirit of the incarnated One to dwell within us that takes us up into the love and life of Father, Son, and Spirit – this is what we might call the breathing in of the triune God. Thus our participation in the incarnational mission of Jesus, the narrating of ourselves into the story of Christ, is a wholly perichoretic reality. We are breathed into the divine life of the triune God by the Spirit and we are breathed out in mission by that same Spirit as participants in the triune life and the story of Christ. (As a not at all unrelated aside on this note, here I would like to point out that we are very much the poorer for ignoring Eastern Orthodox theologies, particularly theosis, which concerns our participation in the triune life of God.)

Those of us wanting to get past the schizophrenic splitting of the sacred and the secular and who claim to want to speak of church, ministry, mission, and life in general in more ‘organic’ ways ought to latch onto the metaphor of breath and breathing. There is perhaps nothing that has the everydayness, ordinariness, and organic quality to it than breathing. Most of us do it without thinking. And perhaps when we do have to think about it, is when we realize it is the most important. Nothing is more connected to our life than breathe and breathing. Wherever we go we have to breathe, we ourselves breathing in the Spirit and being breathed by the Spirit. We ourselves breathing out in incarnational mission and being breathed out in incarnational mission. There can be no participation in the life of God without also participating in the mission of the triune God in one’s own locality.

Is it possible to breathe in without also then breathing out?

Does God forget to exhale?

Do we make ourselves blue in the face by desiring all of God’s life, but none of God’s mission?

Or perhaps we go the opposite way, gasping for air by sending ourselves on God’s ‘mission’ without any of God’s life.

It’s all an organic whole – the life and mission of the triune God go together – the breathing of God. We, the people of the liberating King, are called to match the rhythm of our own breathe with God’s breath.

Breathing in … perichoretic, triune life.

Breathing out … perichoretic, triune mission.

Breath, Repetition, and Remembering to Breathe

How many times have you heard someone complain about having to do the same mundane thing over and over again? How many times have you complained of this yourself? But how many times have you ever heard someone complain about breathing? So basic to living, breathing is, proof that there is at least one thing we don’t get bored of doing. And proof that at least some things are worth repeating. My granddaddy used to tell me that ‘in repetition there is learning’. There is wisdom in this I think. By learning to breathe well, we are made more and more into new creation people. Like a runner, when her legs are burning, the learned rhythm of breathing cultivated through repeated steps, one after another, enables us to persevere through the ‘in betweens’ of this life caught between the inauguration of the Kingdom and its final consummation. In repetition (in breathing) there is learning … this is true. But this is not all that is true.

It is also true that in repetition (in breathing) there is loving. We can imagine the kind of intimacy and oneness shared between a husband and wife as the rhythm of their breath matches the other. In this kind of repetition we become a part of another … we are brought into participation in communion with another. This is perichoresis … the rhythm of our breath matching the rhythm of the breath of love of Father, Son, and Spirit. But, again, this is not all that is true.

It is also true that in repetition (in breathing) there is living. Without the repetition of breathing we die. Surely this goes without saying. And this is why, when we gather together, we repeat the practice of Communion (serving one another the bread and the fruit of the vine) with each other. This is an act of mutual breath, of mutual life, of being filled with the breath and life of Christ himself. (I can’t imagine how churches only do Communion anything less than weekly!) This is also why we continue to create places to dwell within like Monks Coffee shop, places in which we can fill up our lungs with life and breath. This again is perichoresis … living within the reality named by the life and mission of the triune God.

Let us be a new birth, new creation people … let us remember to breathe!

Prayer for Trinity Sunday (Book of Common Prayer)

“Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”