The Lectionary This Week: The Love That Surrenders

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 4, 01 February 2014 (Year B)

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

Let’s start this week with Jesus teaching in the synagogue — a Good Greek word which means “assembly” — at Capernaum. It’s Friday evening, most likely, and he is busy teaching. I find it interesting that Mark constantly tells us Jesus teaches “with authority, and not as the scribes” but we don’t actually have the teaching here.

Mark is a short Gospel, and Jesus teaches mainly in parables and acts of healing. This is not like Matthew’s or John’s gospel, in which Jesus talks and talks and talks. He’s on the move here, constantly, and he says comparatively little. It’s as if here, in Mark, for the community Mark is relating this story to, the words of Jesus actually get in the way of meeting Jesus.

Or perhaps more importantly, for Mark, the actual words of Jesus aren’t so important. What’s important is who Jesus is, and in getting Jesus, in being with Jesus, in watching him work, we’ve met God.

The only words of Jesus actually quoted in this passage are his response to the man with the unclean spirit, who cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.”

“Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus says.

The unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. And confesses it publicly, before the gathered crowd of worshippers at the synagogue. And Jesus silences that spirit, and the man it inhabits, by casting the spirit out.

So, we know who Jesus is largely by what he does but at the same time Jesus is constantly telling those he heals and cleans and forgives, and those (largely forces of evil) who confess his real identity to be silent. It’s an odd juxtaposition. This is a gospel of silence, and all we can do is marvel at the authority with which he preaches, an authority seen even before he cast out a demon.

“And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” As much as he wants us to keep our mouths shut about all this, we tell the world about Jesus. “Can you believe what we’ve seen?”

This probably anticipates what some biblical scholars see as the original ending of Mark, where the two Marys find the tomb empty and see an unnamed “young man” telling them that Jesus of Nazareth “has risen.” And that he is heading back to Galilee, where all the action started.

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

(A few verses were likely later added giving us a great commission, an ascension, and the disciples finally going out an telling the world. Interestingly enough, Jesus has to rebuke those who don’t believe, but send them out to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” anyway.)

And yet, even afraid of all the signs and wonder, even in our silence, somehow we’ve told the world.

Because we’ve seen signs and wonders. Real authority. And it has been given to us. Real authority. And the ability to work signs and wonders.

* * *

In the reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is concerned about the way our love expresses itself for each other. Especially as we live together as followers of Jesus.

1 Now concerning food offered to idols:we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (ESV)

So, Paul asserts a right here — that he can, in fact, eat food sacrificed and devoted to idols, to false gods, because those gods are not real, and therefore the sacrifice made to them has no value. It cannot condemn the one who eats in and of itself.

But he goes on. Because this isn’t so much about rights as it is about… well, I’ll let Paul say it.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Paul here is not talking about compromise, he’s talking about surrender. Yes, he can claim a right — and I think he rather noisily does half the time he claims he isn’t — but here the principle is clear. Even if meat sacrificed to idols has no moral value, there will be believers out there whose faith still puts them in fear of those false gods. Or who believe that consorting with such puts the one who eats at risk.

Claiming the right is pointless when it wounds the faith of others, and when it divides the church. Paul is clear about this.

And this is a difficult teaching. Because surrendering rights — even surrendering the claim to be right — is difficult. Perhaps impossible at this point in time. It certainly is something no one wants to do.

I think of the issue that has divided the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and the wider US church) so much in the last few years — that of the place of homosexuals in the community of the faithful. Can they lead? Should they lead? Can they even belong? So many claims to righteousness here, so much justifying positions of the basis of scripture and reason. Claims of truth, of right, demanding adherence and compliance. Pronouncements of anathema to those who believe is practice differently. Nowhere has anyone sought to surrender their rights, or the claims to be right. For too many people, too much is riding on this.

For many, the very claim to be church rides on this.

I’m not sure what surrender of rights would look like here. For some, it means their continued abuse and exclusion from a community they feel called to belong to (or the abuse and exclusion of those near and dear to them). For others, it means accepting as righteous something that God clearly proclaims as sin. Maybe this is a matter bigger than mere meat sacrificed to idols. And certainly, no one in a fight like this is going to surrender first.

But this is also a hard teaching because it puts the weakest, and often times the shrillest, often times the most narrow minded in charge of what faith means, of how it can be expressed publicly. It suggests no one’s conscience can ever be offended. And it has the potential to put the most narrow minded and pietistic in charge.

It would help if this were truly a mutual process. And ideally, it should be.

However, that’s not what Paul writes here. Paul is talking about the kind of surrender Jesus made. A surrender based not on reciprocity (or even its possibility), but one made solely in faithfulness to God. It’s a risk we’re asked to take, and a very difficult one at that. He says nothing about the surrender of those with weak faiths or narrow minds (though one hopes at some point they toughen up and broaden their understanding a bit), and he does this with real concern about their well-being. I am my brother’s keeper, Paul tells me. The well-being of their souls matter to me. Because they matter to Jesus.

This injects a tension into the community. Because it’s important to walk into dark and difficult places to preach the gospel and meet those most in need of hearing the gospel. And yet, frequently, they will be in disreputable places, surrounded by disreputable people. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of, “If you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised when you get up with fleas.” Wisdom spoken by good, faithful people, as if it were the gospel.

Which it isn’t.

There is no way to solve this. It just needs to be lived into. Because this tension, between those whose faith and understanding allows for the eating of meat, and those who do not, will always be at odds with each other.

Such is our life together. Never solved and never perfect.