Pursuing the Faithful One: Reflections on the Fifth Week of Pentecost

The Gospel Text for the fifth week of Pentecost, Mark 5:21-43 (CEB)

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse.27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?”

36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” 40 They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was twelve years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat.

In the previous text for the fourth week of Pentecost we found that, true to Mark, the identity of Jesus and the nature of the kingdom is in view. Jesus, as the Messiah and liberating King, calls his disciples to ‘faith’ – to recognition of who he is and faithfulness to his kingdom. Jesus does this because, even as the forces of evil gather, even in the presence of disbelief and disobedience, even in the presence of faithlessness, from the moment of his testing in the wilderness and baptism – Jesus, himself, stands as the Faithful One. In the text for the fifth week we find the stories of two separate people, Jairus and a very sick woman, who, believing that he can bring healing in their respective circumstances, come in pursuit of the Jesus the Faithful One.

Kingdom Happens!

What we find in these stories is what scholars sometimes call a ‘Markan sandwich’. What this means is that one story (the woman with chronic bleeding) is wrapped up inside another (the story of Jairus and his daughter). What this means is that these stories exist in what Ricoeur calls “intertextuality” (157)* – that these stories are meant to be read together and each gains meaning from the other. Actually we find a sense of intertextuality among all the stories and parables of Mark’s Gospel. We find that we are being moved ever closer to the great reveal with Peter in chapter 8, or what is really better put ‘the great confession’ of Christ’s identity as the Son of God (what has been in actuality something of an open secret, what has been called the Messianic secret).

An important reminder we need to keep before ourselves is that neither Mark nor the other Gospels are for the purpose of simply teaching a life ethic (though there IS an ethic involved), or for ‘life application’, or so that we can become the best people we can be. The thing is, we can have ethics and life application and be people who do good things without Jesus. We don’t need the Gospels for this. In fact, if this is all we are aiming for we might as well just pick up some Dr. Phil or other self help literature. And this will certainly be far less intrusive than what the Gospels are aiming for.

Here Stanley Hauerwas comments helpfully regarding the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus; that the Sermon’s purpose is not mere ethic but Jesus, and that ‘what is taught should not be isolated and abstracted from the teacher’. Ricoeur comments similarly on Mark’s Gospel,

“What progressively happens in the Gospel is the recognition of Jesus as the Christ. We can say in this regard that the Gospel is not a simple account of the life, teaching, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but the communicating of an act of confession, a communication by means of which the reader in turn is rendered capable of performing the recognition that occurs in the text.” (162, emphasis in bold mine)

and

“…the kingdom of God is not what the parables [and stories] tell about, but what happens in parables [as well as stories].” (165)

In the coming of Jesus the Kingdom of God is happening … right now, right where you are, whatever you are doing, no matter how mundane … the Kingdom of God is happening, is inaugurated, in the person of Christ!

Repentence and Kingdom Orientation

From the beginning, Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom of God. But Jesus and the kingdom are disruptive; they are interruptions to the status quo. As such, in proclaiming the kingdom Jesus calls upon his hearers to repentance and a kingdom orientation. Jesus and the inauguration of the kingdom calls into question all that we have previously believed about what the kingdom should be like, it moves us into a crisis of understanding or belief, and lastly into a second knowing or ‘faith’ on the other side as we stake our hope in the kingdom.

As one read the text(s), what Ricoeur calls the reader’s ‘productive imagination’ (160) is exercised by the surplus of meaning in the metaphor and narrative. We do not simply learn about the kingdom through a three point lecture, but we jump into and are actively shaped by something that is already on the ground. This ‘jumping in’ into the kingdom of God can be thought of as a conversion of the imagination. Such a conversion is not a one off thing, but gradual and continual and even slow. In this, interruptions to our routine, agendas, or life plans become occasions for us to die to ourselves and convert our imaginations toward a kingdom orientation even more.

It is this sort of repentance and imagination that enables us to see Jesus as the liberating King and to see where the kingdom is happening – where Jesus is and to follow him into wherever that may be. This, I think, is the kind of faith that Mark has been talking about all along. And we should well note that in the pages of Mark (as well as the other Gospels) that those who seem to ‘get’ Jesus almost intuitively are the ones that are outcast, oppressed, sick, diseased, grief stricken – ie, the suffering (like the woman and father in this story). Suffering it seems has the capacity to function as a hermeneutic of the kingdom enabling us to pursue the cruciform way of Christ.

We do well to take heed here, because our relative affluence may help us to be able to get all our theological ducks in a row and have all manner of debates, but it may also blind us from Jesus and the ‘happening-ness’ of his kingdom. Theology is a great thing and I, for one, embrace my identity as a theologian. But we should also be willing to call ourselves into question. We should also realize that our theologies serve as lenses that can help us see clearly as well as obscure. We do well also see that the story of our liberating King is also the story of a suffering King, a story of downward mobility for the sake of others. If we are going to follow Jesus we must follow him down. This is the cruciform way! Its simply amazing how threatening this is to many people.

Kingdom Intertextuality

A repeat of the previous Ricoeur quote may help us to understand the purpose of these intertextually related stories for us,

“What progressively happens in the Gospel [of Mark] is the recognition of Jesus as the Christ. We can say in this regard that the Gospel is not a simple account of the life, teaching, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but the communicating of an act of confession, a communication by means of which the reader in turn is rendered capable of performing the recognition that occurs in the text.” (162)

Mark here presents us with the story of two people, one a woman with a chronic illness and the other a man with a sick child (I can’t help but identify with these stories) who seem to, even if only intuitively, recognize Jesus. These stories are intertwined – one wrapped up in the other and meant to be read together. But there is another level of intertextuality at work in Mark’s Gospel. Not only are these stories intertwined but both together are wrapped in the Jesus story and the story of the inaugurated kingdom.

What we find I think, is that we are not simply called to recognize Jesus and the kingdom simply on our own. We, ourselves exist in an ‘intertextual’ relationship with each other. We follow Jesus into the kingdom and repentance not simply as individuals but as an interrelated community whose ‘texts’ and stories are interdependent. Not only this but our intertwined stories of suffering, like Jairus and the woman, are wrapped up in the story of the kingdom and Jesus the liberating King in what we might call a kingdom shaped, cruciform intertextuality. May we seek the way of the kingdom, may we pursue the Faithful One together.

*All page number attributions are from Paul Ricoeur’s essay ‘The Bible and Imagination,’ in Figuring the Sacred.

Prayer for the fifth week of Pentecost

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; 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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Recognizing the Faithful One: Thoughts on the Fourth Week of Pentecost

Note: Paul Ricoeur is one of my favorite philosophers and I had planned a much more full interaction between the text below and his thought, particularly his ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ and ‘hermeneutical arc’. This did not materialize as I had hoped. But because I need to get caught up with these (and some other things) I’m going with a seriously truncated version of what I had originally planned. Despite the lack of a more substantial engagement, hopefully those familiar with his thought can see the Ricoeurian undertones.

The Gospel Text for the Fourth Week of Pentecost, Mark 4:35-41 (CEB)

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

A Note on Hermeneutical Horizons

I received some trenchant feedback via email concerning my previous lectionary reflection about my statement about the parable of Jesus,

they first and foremost tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God and the identity of Jesus before they tell us anything about us. Or we could say that whatever they tell us about us, they tell us about ourselves in relation to Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus and the kingdom of God first, us second.”

To make a long email short, my critic seemed to have two main concerns: first that I was saying that the text says nothing about us and second, that I had hindered one’s ability to ‘immediately apply’ (their words) God’s word to our life. To this I simply repeat my contention that the parables say something about Jesus and his kingdom before they say anything about us. Again, its not they say nothing about us, but what they say about us is within the context the kingdom and liberating kingship of Jesus. I would also say here that it is, in actuality, within this kingdom context that we truly see ourselves as we are (for good or bad).

Second, I would question the immediacy of the text most readers of the Bible simply assume and the way so many are driven to ‘life application’ that is so often displayed. There is potential for misunderstanding here so let me try to be clear. I am not saying that we can’t ever understand the text, nor am I saying that Scripture has no bearing on our lives. What I am saying is that typical evangelical readings of the Bible seriously lack any sort of contemplative or hermeneutical patience in which we allow the Spirit to apply the Scriptural text to us and form us.

There are three main horizons, contexts, or ‘worlds’ involved in our reading of the Bible – the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world of the text. Most Christians it seems jump straight to our present context, or the world in front of the text. But without the patience to ponder and spend time in the other two worlds or horizons, our reading will be skewed and we will be severely temped to force ‘life applications’ out of the text ourselves rather than listening to the Spirit in the text. We need to slow down and learn hermeneutical patience.

Got Faith?

These same concerns are at play in the text at hand, where Jesus calms the storm. I can’t count how many sermons I’ve heard that treated this text as mainly saying something about the disciples and us – that we should have ‘faith’, meaning that we should not question and that doubt is bad, bad, bad. However, I am going to stick with my hermeneutical rule of thumb and say that we should read this parable firstly in the context of what it is saying about the identity of Jesus and the nature of his kingdom. I am also going to contend that by not reading the text this way we not only misunderstand faith (and doubt), but in the end we also are far too harsh on the disciples (and others that fail to display what we think of as true ‘faith’).

Even today, boats on the Sea of Galilee have cause to worry about high winds and waves swamping boats. So the disciple’s concern here was not misplaced. But this story is not simply about danger and rescue. Mark’s readers likely would have heard other and older references in the text. They may have thought of Jonah who was disobedient and thrown overboard during a great storm. Or perhaps they thought of the Exodus (a common theme in the gospels) when God made a way through the sea. But also they may have thought back to the creation stories where God brought order to the chaos and God’s world emerged from the waters. There is also the Psalms (65:7, 89:9, 93:3-4, 107:23-30) where the God who is Lord over all calms the raging seas.

The fact here is that Israelites have been a sea fearing people rather than a seafaring people. The sea and the waters represent evil and chaos that is the absence of creation or that threatens to destroy God’s creation. In Daniel 7, the sea is where monsters came from. What Jesus has been teaching in parables and word-pictures prior to this, we now have in more tangible terms. The power that created in the first place is now being displayed in the inaugurated kingdom of Jesus – in the liberating King himself. Its not a kingdom like everyone wanted or expected, but Jesus tends to deconstruct what we think kingdom is or should be. And there are some noticeable differences. Jesus is a not a disobedient Jonah, but is instead obedient. And Jesus does more than vanquish some monsters, he calms the sea itself (which terrifies the disciples). We find here, that in the midst of disobedient and faithless Israel who do not recognize Jesus for who he is; Jesus, himself, is the Faithful One. This is the stuff kingdom and new creation is made of (notice at the end of Revelation there is ‘no more sea’).

In fact, Jesus seems so calm, even while the forces of evil threaten, that he sleeps. His disciples are put off by this and question whether he cares or not. Jesus responds with ‘Be still! Silence! Shalom! Peace!’ and the storm calms. What follows here is Jesus calling their faith into question. Before we are too hard on the disciples we should stop to consider how faith is being used here. We should keep in mind first that up until this point the issue at hand has been the identity of Jesus, about having ‘eyes to see’ and ‘ears to hear’ – not something one figures out by adding up clues, but something that is revealed.

Second, this story points us straight to Mark chapter 8 and the great confession by Peter about who Jesus is. Faith here is not simply mental assent. I would suggest that in the context of Mark itself that ‘faith’ includes recognizing who Jesus is as the Messiah, the liberating King and the Faithful One (remember that Jesus had given the disciples some extra tutoring sessions just prior to this) and that faithfulness is never far away from faith (remember also that many in the crowds would fall away after this). Jesus is asking them in the midst of the gathering forces of evil and de-creation, “Don’t you recognize who I am yet … are you not yet ready for faithfulness to the kingdom?”

Calling Ourselves into Question

These are the questions that are posed to us as well. Here we should, we must, be willing to call ourselves into question – we must greet ourselves with a hermeneutic of suspicion. And we must especially do this when we have not experienced suffering. In fact, to follow Jesus is to follow in the way of a suffering Messiah. We don’t really know the answer to the question Jesus asks us here until we encounter suffering. The experience of suffering becomes our ‘critical moment’ or ‘dark night’, calling us into question whether we like it not – maturing us from a precritical naïveté to a matured second ‘knowing’ on the other side (or what Ricoeur refers to also as a second naïveté).

In this, doubt may actually play a constructive role as a necessary part of the process of deepening our faith. Doubt can actually serve as the condition of faith and not its opposite (this of course assumes that we are not thinking of ‘faith’ here as rational assent in Cartesian terms but Spirit revelation of who Jesus is and faithfulness; nor is our end or telos modern ‘certainty’ but biblical hope and assurance arising from the story of Jesus). The practice of ‘calling into question’ is the only way to be sure that our preconceptions and unquestioned theologies do not become idols.

As Walter Brueggemann says,

“Theology that is ‘pre-pain’ must be greeted with suspicion.” (Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living, 26)

We must point out that there is great hope here however as well. Mostly I have seen Jesus statement about the disciple’s faith, or lack thereof, interpreted as a stern rebuke. I don’t think this is necessary. Jesus here certainly is calling the disciples to take stock of their understanding and fittingness for the kingdom. But notice also, that despite the fact that the rhetorical answer to his question to them is ‘no’, Jesus does not send them away. This to me is BIG! Just like Jesus does not send the disciples away, neither does he send us away. We can have patience and we don’t have to have to understand it all right now. Jesus, the Faithful One, takes us as his followers – doubts and all.

Prayer for the Fourth Week of Pentecost

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving­kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

N.T. Wright on Kingdom, Atonement, and Cruciformity

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says,

“I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not saying that usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 41)

Wright here speaks to the stark reality one will find as they peruse the shelves at the local evangelical book store. At the store where I work there are plethoras of books and curriculums that talk about ‘the gospel’. There is even somewhat of a cottage industry on books about ‘the gospel’. The only problem is they are almost all subject to Wright’s critique above. They speak of good things, and some really good things, but the vast majority have the effect of minimizing the gospel to various elaborations on the ‘plan of salvation’. This results in what Scot McKnight has called the ‘soterian gospel’ (from the greek word for salvation, soteria – from which we get our word, soteriology, or what is referred to as the ‘doctrine of salvation’) which places emphasis on individualist salvation – which functions as a reduction of the biblical gospel. The effect here is that ‘evangel-icals’ don’t really live up to their name and should properly be called ‘soterians’ – or the ‘saved’ ones. Some features of this reduction of the gospel to the plan of salvation is the misplacement of the story of Israel, the separation of kingdom and cross, a lack of a proper emphasis on cruciformity, and an overly individualized atonement.

Wright most recent work addressing these concerns is How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Below is a video of a lecture Wright gave at Fuller Seminary called Kingdom and Cross: The Forgotten Message of the Gospels which covers much of the same ground as the book. Among the things that Wright covers is the essentiality of the story of Israel to the gospel and the (re)connection of kingdom and cross for the gospel. Additionally, in this video, Wright covers the relationship of atonement to kingdom in which atonement enables us to embody the cruciform nature of the kingdom and describes an alternative, cruciform way of manifesting God’s power in the world.

At the Next Reformation blog, Len Hjalmarson discusses and summarizes Wright’s lecture. He says,

Connecting Kingdom and Cross, NT Wright. This is possibly the best summary of kingdom theology I have ever seen, and Wright makes the connection to the cross explicit at a number of points. (I wish he had also made the connection to shalom, but he does mention the jubilee..) But this video is SO MUCH MORE.

Wright begins by talking about the meaning of the Gospel. To the early church, the Gospel was made clear in the life, words and work of Jesus. But this early Gospel had virtually no concept of the much later Reformers version – “justification by faith.” That word occurs only a single time in the gospels. The early church had only the Old Testament, and preserved the oral traditions that would eventually become the four gospels.

The four gospels preserve the life and words of Jesus, and so we hear Jesus’ declaration of the Gospel: no reference to justification, but rather the declaration that “the kingdom of God” has arrived. But this little phrase is absolutely meaningless apart from the story of Israel – apart from the Old Testament, and in particular Daniel, Isaiah and the Psalms.

It becomes crystal clear, as in nearly all Wright’s work, that the Gospel cannot be understood apart from the story of Israel. Implications?

“Jesus died for my sins” — a phrase that sits at the heart of the telling of the Gospel in the west, indeed in some circles has become all that the Gospel is — is a reductionist statement that does at least two things: it abstracts the meaning of Jesus life and sacrifice from history, and it de-politicizes the Lordship of Christ by isolating Jesus from the kingdom.

Other things to note: at the one hour mark, Wright summarizes the relationship of the atonement to the coming kingdom. In evangelicalism we have made atonement all about a personal relationship and a future other-world destiny. Wright argues — and the only conclusion possible in relation to a theology of the kingdom — that in restoring us to right relationship with God the king, the atonement enables us to embody an alternative kingdom – an alternative way of bringing God’s power into the world. (At the cross God himself becomes our deliverer: in God’s kingdom power is used to serve others. Of course there is MORE to say but Wright is hitting at the themes we ignore).

Atonement – from the earliest stories, like Abraham’s almost sacrifice of his only son – demonstrates an alternative to power. It is not meant to take us out of this world but is an entry point into God’s kingdom now.

[At the] 1.00 hour mark – Jesus atonement enables us to embody an alternative kingdom – an alternative way of bringing God’s power into the world. (emphasis in bold mine)

The individualist soterian ‘gospel’ of evangelicalism effectively undercuts the cruciform nature of the atonement and deconstructs the church. Cross … kingdom … cruciformity. The cruciform gospel of the cross necessarily produces a cruciform people or ekklesia who embody and give witness to the cruciform kingdom of Jesus the Liberating King.