With Gladness

I started reading the Gospel in the wrong place this morning, a little early, and began with a passage that was actually from the previous week, and I saw something I’d never noticed before:

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35-37 ESV)

Jesus is quoting Psalm 110:

The Lord [YHWH] said to my Lord [Adoni] (נְאֻ֤ם יְהוָ֨ה לַֽאדֹנִ֗י)

At this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been called “Son of David” (υἱὸς Δαυίδ) exactly once — by Bartimaeus the blind, the last person Jesus heals in Mark. I think here, he’s responding to a general belief, that the Christ, the anointed one, will be a descendant of David, a legitimate king.

The question is actually posed in Matthew 22, where in Matthew’s recounting of this story, he has it begin this way:

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” (Matthew 22:41-42 ESV)

And all this is interesting. But it isn’t what excited me this morning.

What got to me was that last phrase:

And the great throng heard him gladly.

Gladly — ἡδέως. It’s a word that shows up again in the New Testament only in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, in chapters 11 and 12, where Paul attempts to shame the Corinthians into putting up with him as they gladly put up with fools, in which he gladly boasts of his weaknesses (because the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness), and when he says he gladly spend himself and be spent for the souls of the church at Corinth. This is a gladness that does hide itself. It pokes and it prods and it even boasts. This is a gladness that cannot be kept to itself.

And this is the kind gladness this crowd has when they hear this strange news. Why would the crowd be glad of that? After all, a restored Davidic kingdom with a proper king from the line of David is allegedly what everyone has been waiting for. But that, apparently, is not what has been promised after all.

The crowd listening to this in Matthew is apparently too afraid to ask Jesus any more questions after this. But here, in Mark, they are glad — glad to hear this news that the Christ, the anointed one, is not the Son of David, but is rather David’s Lord.

It also means that all these attempts in the Gospels to link Jesus to David — the genealogies in Matthew and Luke — are akin to window dressing. True, but also completely beside the point. The Lord who is coming, who will sit at the right hand of God, who will have his enemies put underneath his feet, is not a Son of David. He’s something else entirely.

And the crowd heard this news gladly.

I’m struck by that gladness. It truly is unexpected.

SERMON — Giving From Your Poverty

Today I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. And this is what I preached.

Lectionary 32 / Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

  • 1 Kings 17:8-16
  • Psalm 146
  • Hebrews 9:24-28
  • Mark 12:38-44

38 And in his teaching [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows ‘houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44 ESV)

Today we have Jesus sitting in a very public place, watching people as they come and go and do something very public — make their contribution to the temple treasury. And in doing so, as Mark notes, they show to the world who they are.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And no doubt they made quite a show of putting their contributions in the temple offering box. Think of how the wealthy in our day behave, donating money to causes and institutions, building and endowing and putting their names on things — so that everyone knows, and will know for some time to come, who is responsible. Who gave that cancer could be fought, or malaria combatted, or illiteracy and ignorance alleviated.

Or that knowledge may be spread, or God worshiped, in this place.

Who gave enough. To leave a lasting, permanent, named mark on the world.

Today we have press conferences, well managed affairs where reporters are invited and told a glorious story, that so-and-so has given such-and-such moneys — millions, or maybe even a billion or two — for some wonderful cause that will better our lives. Or make it possible to lead better lives in some far-off day.

There are some people who simply cannot give away their fortunes fast enough. I’m thinking of Microsoft found Bill Gates, though the foundations created by the 19th century robber barons — people like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who both died long, long ago — are still busy funding causes and research, trying to make the world a different place.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And Jesus watched. He watched as those rich people, some of whom I’m certain made a show or even a spectacle of their giving just as the rich do in our day, of telling all those around them — whoever could see, whoever could hear — of the great and wonderful things they were doing in giving so very much to the upkeep of God’s house and the priests who keep it.

And Jesus does this not long after condemning the scribes — the officials of the temple — for their very public demonstrations of piety and probity. He is especially critical of the scribes for “devouring” the houses of widows, for leaving the old and very vulnerable destitute in their faithfulness — in their faithful giving to the temple — while they strut around in nice clothes, seek public honors, and and pray long and ornate prayers. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Jesus tells his disciples. And us. Though, to be honest, he is not entirely clear about the “the greater condemnation” is.

And honestly, I’m not sure I want to know.

So, is what this widow does when she pops her two copper coins into the treasury box — everything she had, Jesus tells us — is she being faithful? Or is she being exploited?

Is Jesus celebrating her contribution to the upkeep of the house of God? Or is he condemning a system that further impoverishes and exploits this woman? And her simple faith in God?

We know what the condemnation of Jesus looks like. We see it, in the very words he speaks earlier in this passage about the scribes devouring the houses of widows. We see it earlier in this chapter, when he tells the sadducees “you are quite wrong” after they ask him a very silly question about marriage in the resurrection. We’ve seen Jesus angrily teach in the temple that this house, which is supposed to be a place of prayer, has been turned into a den of thieves. We watched Jesus curse a fig tree, condemning it to permanent fruitlessness. We’ve seen him rather pointedly tell a crowd that his mother and his brothers are those who do the will of God, and not those related to him by mere blood.

So, Jesus is not condemning this widow or her giving, even as he rebuked the very system she is giving to. We’d know if he was. He is, in fact, celebrating her faithfulness.

And that’s hard. Because, if we can believe what Jesus says here — and I think we should always believe what Jesus says — she has given everything, all she had to live on, and put it in the temple offering box. She is destitute. Her house, her livelihood, has been devoured by this temple. How she will live, being a widow, with no income and probably no one to protect or care for her, is anyone’s guess.

She has sacrificed everything. Because she loves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so much, and she trusts that this place, this house so meticulously rebuilt, so vast and ornate, is the place where God in his glory and his fullness dwells.

Even as the fruits of her faithfulness are devoured by the scribes who squander her meager gift on their squalid lives, her faithfulness still matters. It is real, and true, and she gives not from her surplus, not from her excess, not from what she can spare. But from the very substance of her life. How she lives after this is anyone’s guess. But she clearly trusts God.

She clearly trusts God.

I want you to consider, however, the next thing Mark reports Jesus as saying, something not in this week’s passage. When his disciples remark at the beginning of chapter 13 that this temple complex is amazing, wonderful buildings made of wonderful stones, Jesus tells them:

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

In the end, no one’s gift to maintain this temple, whether two measly copper coins or a sack of gold, will matter. The Romans will come in force and great number and demolish this place, stone by stone, and almost nothing will remain. Every gift given for its upkeep will have been wasted.

I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to consider the impermanence of things. In fact, there are few thoughts that make me despair more than knowing that at some point in the far distant future, our sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel, begin fusing helium, expand, and then eventually collapse in on itself, with nothing left but a cold, dwarf star and a few ruined planets. That this is billions of years in the future doesn’t lesson my sadness about this any. Just knowing that someday, nothing will remain of humanity and our efforts, struggles, and passions seems to me to very definition of pointless and futile. Why do we bother living at all?

And yet … her faith mattered. Her life was likely precarious and short, her wealth squandered by those she gave it to, but her faith — the faith that compelled her to share all she had — that mattered. It mattered to Jesus. It mattered then, and it matters now, and it will matter long after entropy claims the light and heat of the last star in the universe.

Because Jesus matters. Because Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but the faithfulness of Christ will be there. Always.

I have spoken of cosmic things, things that drive me to despair sometimes. But scripture, scripture is not so concerned with the cosmic. Scripture is worried about a here and now that we live in, that we can touch. In our first reading, we have another widow, out gathering wood for a fire. She meets Elijah the prophet, and he asks her for water and something to eat. There’s a drought, a drought Elijah has effectively commanded upon the world. He is fed by ravens who bring him bread and meat, but eventually the stream he drinks from dies up. So he goes looking for water.

That’s when he meets the widow. Hungry, he asks for something to eat. And she says she has nothing. She is getting to ready to eat the last of her food, at which point, she and her son will lie down and die because they have no more. No more is coming. And Elijah tells her to make him something of her flour and oil anyway, and feed him, and do not be afraid, for the jar of oil and the bag of flour will not run out until the rains return.

Trust me, and trust God, Elijah says. And give me all that you have. Trust that you have not been forgotten. You have not been abandoned.

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has, several times, predicted his own death, just as he predicts the coming destruction of the temple. In Mark, whenever Jesus tells his disciples he is going to die, he always finishes by telling them he will rise again on the third day. He does not predict the restoration of the temple. But he predicts his resurrection.

Trust me, Jesus tells his disciples, do not be afraid. Give me all that you have — not some ostentatious show of your marvelous surplus, but every pathetic copper coin you possess, all that you have to live on, all that you are — and know that you will not be abandoned. You will not be forgotten.

Though what you give may be squandered and misused by those you give it to, the lives you live not valued by those who should value them, and all you contribute given for things that will in the end burn and collapse and be forgotten by the ages, what you faithfully give to Jesus will always matter. Because Jesus matters.

Because Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead. He matters. Now, and forever. Amen.

SERMON — On the Outskirts of the Kingdom

I’m not scheduled to preach this Sunday, but if I did, it would be something like this. This Sunday is All Saints Day and Reformation Sunday, and this is not the text for the day according to the Revised Common Lectionary. But I’m using it anyway.

Lectionary 31 / Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

  • Deuteronomy 6:1-9
  • Psalm 119:1-8
  • Hebrews 9:11-14
  • Mark 12:28-34

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:28-34 ESV)

It was the first thing Jesus told the world in the Gospel of Mark:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The kingdom of God — βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ — is at hand. This thing, this place, this state of being, this condition that God is giving to us, this government, this arrangement of the world, is looming or impending or coming or just around the corner.

At hand. It is within reach. You can touch it. Hold. Feel it. Grasp it. This kingdom. This thing overseen by a king.

Jesus is constantly describing this Kingdom to his disciples — and to us. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t teach many parables. In chapter four, Jesus tells the parable of the sower who scatters seed, and some of it falls on bad soil and some of it falls on good soil. He also speaks of another sower who scatters seed and then waits while the seed sprouts — “he knows not how” — and then harvests that which he has not really worked for, plentiful fruit he knows has come but has idea what brought it into being.

And finally, also in chapter four, Jesus speaks of a mustard seed, a tiny seed, which grows into a plant of such size that birds find shelter and home in its branches and under its leaves. The Kingdom of God is like these things. This kingdom isn’t a place or a thing so much as it a verb — a sower scatters seed, a tiny mustard seed sprouts and grows. The kingdom in these few parables is a series of acts that, from beginning to end, show the mysterious work of God scattering and multiplying faith. And eventually harvesting the fruit.

And that’s about it for the parables in Mark. Mostly, in Mark, Jesus is on the move, never stopping, healing and casting out demons and feeding thousands and constantly confronting the pharisees over how — how, and not whether — to adhere to the law.

Because the law, the teaching God gives to Israel through Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, is never in question in Mark. If he condemns the religious leaders of Israel for anything, it is a narrow legalism that takes the law literally without taking it seriously.

Jesus … Jesus takes the teaching of God seriously.

In today’s reading, Jesus answer a question from one of the scribes — “Which commandment is the most important of all?” — by quoiting the Torah itself. “Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord your god is one” and all that follows comes from Deuteronomy 6. Past what Jesus quotes is an exhortation to contemplate and talk about and teach this law, to think about night and day, from the moment we rise in the morning until when we go to bed at night.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19, and it’s an amazing bit of teaching that I’m going to cite all of here. Because God doesn’t just tell us to love our neighbors — God also gives us some very concrete ways that love will and should manifest itself.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:9-18 ESV)

It’s quite a list here, that ends with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “I am the Lord.” A longer list than the “thou shalt nots” we tend to remember. Because love isn’t just a feeling. God speaks of a love that insists upon actions. Love of neighbor demands consideration for complete strangers here, for the weak and the vulnerable, for clean hearts and a refusal to take vengeance for any wrongs suffered.

When the scribe praises Jesus’ answer, and adds that love of God and love for neighbor are worth so much than “burnt offerings and sacrifice,” Jesus replies:”

“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Not far. Close. We don’t know how close — another three hours of travel time, next state over, or basically take a left and go two blocks and there you are. But close.

These things we do, in our relationship with God, to love God and to love neighbor — these get us close to the Kingdom of God.

Now, I’m a little ticked off by how this passage ends. No one asked Jesus any more questions. I mean, really? Because I’ve got a question. In fact, I’ve got several. How close?! What’s missing?! What’s left to do?! And who does it?!

And what is this Kingdom of God, this thing you talk so much about, Jesus, that you have proclaimed is near, so that we should repent and believe in your good news?!

I wish someone had asked. I wish we had an answer from Jesus. A real, concrete answer.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, we like to pride ourselves on discovering — or rediscovering, an Martin Luther and his co-reformers were fond of saying — a gospel of unearned grace. We cannot do the work of redeeming ourselves, and we cannot even begin to try. Christ did everything on the Cross, when he rose from the dead, dealing not just with the original sin that separated us from God and corrupted our own human natures, but also from our own individual sins. We are mere participants in the saving work of God, caught up in Christ’s passion, raised to new life in Christ’s resurrection, justified to … well, do what, exactly?

Because that’s been quite an argument over the years. Among Lutherans, speak of deeds and someone will, at some point, shake their head in stern judgment and utter the term: works righteousness. And suddenly, any notion that might have some kind of obligation to God, or to each other, gets stomped on, and set on fire, and doused with water, the ashes scattered to the four winds.

To such folks, our job is clear — to speak words of warning to sinners, grace to the repentant, and hope as many people as can hear will hear. And depending on their understanding, hearers will decide to believe in Christ, or (if you are a good Lutheran) the Holy Spirit will work upon their hearts and move them to Christ.

Scatter seeds. The rest of the work, well, that’s not really up to us.

But here we have an understanding of law as love — the love of God, and the love of neighbor — grounded not in belief, but in deeds. This is love that is as solid as the ground we walk upon.

And Jesus says that understanding — the one the scribe asks him about, and confesses his agreement to — is not far from the Kingdom of God.

Our deeds of love, respect, kindness for our neighbors, for the poor, for complete strangers in need — those deeds get us some way to this kingdom. To this place led, governed, ruled over, by a king.

We make this kingdom, at least some of it, by being people who love. That’s not a terribly Protestant understanding.

But Jesus is also clear. This love of God and love of neighbor by themselves are not the kingdom of God. We still have a way go, a few more blocks, some more miles, a few turns before we find ourselves there.

What is the kingdom? This is the question we Christians have long struggled with. And long disagreed about its answer. I’m not entirely sure what the kingdom is. I’m not. I wish I was. It is, I think, somehow embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — in what he did, his teaching and his healing, his calling the lost and the sinners to repentance, this is all some part of the kingdom. And yet, all that is also sign of its coming, a foretaste of the feast to come. Even in his life, we only have a taste. We don’t have the kingdom. Not completely. Not yet.

Perhaps its an understanding that when we love God as Deuteronomy teaches, and when we love our neighbor as Leviticus teaches — all things endorsed by Jesus — we are scattering seeds, witnessing the growing of something we cannot understand. And shouldn’t try to. All we know is that sometimes, and not because we really know what we are doing, there will be good fruit. A bountiful harvest. More than we could ever imagine.

I know we have a kingdom — because we have a risen king, who in glory sits at the right hand of the Father. He has judged the nations, and he rules them with a rod of iron. I can’t point to it, and I don’t rightly know quite what the kingdom looks like. But I know we have it. I know it’s here. Jesus said so. And I trust him.

Because of that, I know that when each one of us loves God, when we love our neighbors, we are not just living in anticipation of the kingdom of God, but somewhere on its outskirts. We are not far from the kingdom when we live according to the teaching of God.

For the rest, we trust our Lord. Our king. Who lived with us and died with us and rose so that we might rise to everlasting life. Because he is faithful and true. Because his is the kingdom. And the power. And the glory. Unto ages of ages. Amen.

SERMON — Naked With Nothing Left

SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015

  • Amos 5:6–7, 10–15
  • Psalm 22:1–15
  • Hebrews 4:12–16
  • Mark 10:17–31

I think we’ve all heard this story before, the story of the man — in Mark he’s just a plain, ordinary rich man, in Matthew he’s a rich young man, and in Luke he’s the rich ruler — who comes up to Jesus and asks with all honesty and reverence:

Good teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life?

And, of course, Jesus responds by telling the man to follow the teaching of God as given to Israel through Moses — do not murder anyone, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud anyone, and honor your father and mother. All those “thou shalt nots” with a nice dollop of “thou shalt” on top.

What were you taught, Jesus is asking him, and did you actually do what you were taught?

Yes, the man says, from the days of my youth, I have done all these things. As Protestants, most of probably snort at that — we all know everyone is a sinner who has fallen short of the glory of God. Somewhere along the line, I suspect, this man lusted in his heart, or hated his neighbor, or wanted something his neighbor owned, or cursed his mother and disobeyed his father. No one is sinless, no one is righteous, except Jesus. We know this to be true, we confess it regularly. Maybe not in worship, but the founders of our churches did, in writing, confess our essential sinfulness.

So, the man is clearly lying. We know this. Right?

There’s something I want you to consider when we hear Jesus say something or do something. I want all of you to consider the possibility that Jesus meant it. Perhaps even literally.

So, consider what Jesus doesn’t do. He doesn’t argue with the man’s assertion that he has, in fact, kept the law. That he is righteous. he gospels frequently suggest that there are people who are righteous, and don’t need to be healed. He doesn’t make this a theological discussion — “really, you are sinner.” He agrees with the man. Yeah, you’re righteous, you’ve done all God has commanded.

And then he adds something — something not in the Torah. “Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

It’s an interesting conversation Jesus and this man are having. See, the man knows something, something in his choice of words that he forgets as he speaks. He talks of inheriting eternal life. Not acquiring, or earning, or building, or creating, or seizing. He understands that this life eternal he so desperately seeks isn’t a thing we earn or make. It isn’t the product of honest labor, or a reward for services rendered. It’s unearned. It may be expected — the heir to a fortune always has some idea that money and property will land on him. But he doesn’t know when.

And the heir cannot be entirely sure that he will inherit. There’s always a matter of chance. Wills can be changed, New heirs can be found. The fortune can simply dry up or get washed away before it will ever be passed on. That there will be nothing left, and the heir will stand there, empty handed. With nothing.

It’s unearned, this eternal life. We don’t get it for ourselves. And yet, there’s a sense that all the good we do must somehow contribute to it. The man just wants Jesus to tell him — how do I guarantee that I will be an heir? That there will be eternal life coming my way?

“Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

As good modern human beings, inheritors ourselves of the liberal capitalist order, we know the role Anglicans and Lutherans good Scots Presbyterians played in creating the modern world — a wealthy world where the virtuous worked hard and saved and created their wealth carefully and scrupulously. And we know how little of value there would be in the world if this instruction — go and sell all you have and give to the poor — were actually followed. It’s absurd! Think of all we would never have accomplished if everyone just gave everything away!

Well I have good new for you — Jesus isn’t telling you to do that. He’s telling the man, who asked him what he could do to inherit eternal life. And in all four gospels, so far as I know, this man is the only person Jesus specifically instructs to leave everything and follow him. So, whatever property and wealth you have, you can relax. Take a breath. You’re okay.

But I do want you to consider — suppose Jesus really does mean this. Leave everything, and follow him.

Because from the very first encounter Jesus has with his disciples, when calls them to be fishers of men, they respond that way — they leave everything and follow him. When Jesus looks at Levi the tax collector and said, “follow me,” Levi gets up, leaves his work, and follows Jesus. Time and again, there are people Jesus meets and he calls them to follow. And they do follow, they leave whatever it was they were doing, they get up, and they follow. They leave work, home, father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children. They leave property and obligations behind, and they follow. They follow Jesus.

He never had to tell Peter and James and John and Andrew and Levi to sell everything, give it away, and follow. Because they abandoned nets and boats and homes and even families. To follow Jesus.

And the man, when faced with the cost of following Jesus, walks away.

The passage said he is disheartened, and sad, but think about it for a minute — he’s actually giving thought to what it means to follow Jesus. Peter never did. Neither did his brother Andrew, nor James, nor John, nor Levi. None of them considered the costs when Jesus walked into their lives, they heard the call, and dropped what they were doing and left it all to follow Christ. We would hope a woman or a man when faced with such an immense decision would at least consider the matter, give it some thought, weigh the costs and consequences with the benefits. Make some kind of rational choice.

Jesus stepped into my life on September 11, 2001, underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center. He didn’t tell me, “follow me,” at least not that day. But follow I did. It wasn’t a reasoned choice (maybe it ought to have been), but I left everything. A solid career as a journalist in Washington, savings, financial security. And now all of it is gone. I went to seminary, through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s candidacy process for ordained ministry, failed spectacularly at it, was asked to write a book about my life, which has — as of this morning — only sold a few hundred hundred copies despite being an astounding tale of my journey through Islam and the kind of terrorism that flies airplanes into tall buildings to meeting Jesus underneath those very same burning buildings. I’ve been unable to find work, Jennifer and I have been wandering from place to place without a proper home, and no one will call me to be their pastor. I’ve not only left everything, I’ve just about failed at everything I’ve done as well.

I feel like Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” And i’m not sure I’m wrong. Because Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter, doesn’t shut him up, doesn’t correct or contradict him, and does not tell him, “get behind me Satan!” Like the man who came looking for the secret to eternal life, Jesus takes him seriously, and at his word. Yes, you have left everything. I know.

But more importantly, Jesus tells Peter and the rest of his disciples — and us — that even as we leave everything behind to follow him, we will receive in return a hundred times what we left.

This is not some prosperity gospel claim. We don’t, as followers of Jesus, name it and claim it. Rather, we become part of a community of people — the followers of Jesus — who become brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. This is the kingdom of God, the miraculous and marvelous provision. You who have nothing, who left everything to follow, you have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and even children in Christ. You have homes and lands and more than enough. Because God, and God’s people, provide.

We no longer own. We no longer possess. We no longer acquire. But we do inherit. In this kingdom we belong to each other. In all the time I have been unable to find work, Jennifer and I have thankfully never been without a place to live. Occasionally it has been cramped, but we have been cared for. By brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and fathers, and yes, even children. The people of God. Sharing what they have. Allowing us to inherit.

All this, and eternal life too.

Now, I suspect we’re used to thinking that this man walked away, sad, dejected, so entranced and attached to his wealth that he could not part with it. Certainly not for the poor, and certainly not to follow Jesus. An object lesson. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it into the kingdom of God.

But this is where the Gospel of Mark is interesting, because while this story appears in Matthew, Mark, and John, only this detail appears later — at the time of Jesus’ arrest — in Mark, chapter 14:

51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.

It doesn’t say who this young man was. Mark does write that at this point, everyone else had fled, and this young man was the only person left. I like to think he is rich man who came to Jesus, seeking eternal life, righteous in all he had done. He walked away, grappled with his sadness and his sorrow, and then — he sold all he had, gave to the poor, and followed Jesus.

Because with God, all things are possible.

Enough to Eat and Then Some…

I’m currently working on a sermon for this coming Sunday (yes! I’m preaching!), and the Revised Common Lectionary has, as it’s Old Testament reading, portions of Numbers 11:4–29. The reading itself largely focuses on the appointing of the seventy elders of Israel to help Moses administer justice and govern Israel. The Spirit of the Lord comes to rest on the tent where the elders are gathered, and the seventy approved elders prophesy.

But two Israelites — Eldad and Medad — who are not on the list, and not in the tent, suddenly find themselves prophesying too. Joshua complains — “My lord, make them stop!” And Moses shows some magnanimity. After all, he knows God better than everyone in this story. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in Israel could prophesy.” So, Eldad and Medad join the club. Even though they haven’t been “approved.”

Interesting, that.

In the midst of this reading, and left out of the RCL text (because the focus of these readings is on the Spirit of God going farther and wider than we expect or even want), are the details of Israel’s grumbling. This all begins with Israel thing and complain that the food in the wilderness — manna from heaven collected every morning save on the sabbath — lack variety. It isn’t as tasty as what they had in Egypt.

Because if it isn’t one thing, it is another with God’s people.

It’s at this point both God and Moses both get angry — God with Israel and Moses with God. “What did I do to deserve being saddled with this people? Can I do this alone?” Moses asks.

And God plots a plot to satisfy the “strong cravings” (Num 11:4) of some of the “rabble” of Israel. And the passages hints at more than just a little anger and even vengeance in God’s plan:

18 And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” 21 But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month! ’ 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” 23 And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not. (Numbers 11:18–23 ESV)

One of my theories about the Book of Numbers — where God is at God’s absolute worst, always angry, never particularly happy with Israel, and always visiting some kind of plague or disaster in a fit of pique upon Israel — is that God and Israel are busy working out their relationship here. (This theory is not explicit in scripture itself, but it is how I read the torah.)

God has done this marvelous thing, yanking Israel out of Egypt after hearing their suffering and remembering his promises, and discovers rather late that Israel isn’t particularly grateful or even all that happy about its liberation. They whine. They complain. They make an idol from their golden jewelry and madly dance around while Moses is busy up on the mountain receiving the teaching, thinking he may never come back again. After that, Israel’s God is really, really, really angry at Israel. He even has to be talked out of annihilating Israel and starting over again with the descendants of Moses (Exodus 32) when Moses tells him that he will look bad in front of the Egyptians and everybody.

But God is not happy. And Numbers is a reflection of that deep unhappiness. Breathe wrong in the presence of God, and BAM! You are smoted deader than a drowned Egyptian Pharaoh.

In effect, God has to learn how to be God. Not the God of all creation, which he has been since the beginning and can do without much thought, but the God of a very specific people — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has to learn who we are, and how to deal with us. God has to learn how to have a relationship with us, what it means to be in a relationship with us. (Some call this “process theology,” but I think it’s just a very faithful reading of the Bible.) And slowly, God begins to realize that the people he has called are not really capable of very much, certainly not the kind of faithfulness he’d like to see from his rescued and redeemed people.

From Sinai to Calvary, God slowly surrenders to this people he has called. He surrenders his assumptions, he surrenders his expectations, and he even completely surrenders his power to this ungrateful, misguided, and idolatrous people. In this, God’s wrath is slowly transformed into a self-giving love that willingly lives and dies with us, convicting us of our sin far more forcefully than any angry judgment ever could.

This is what is means to be Israel, to have struggled with God and prevailed. Not because we’re stronger than God, but because God has utterly surrendered to us, thrown the contest in our favor.

Getting back to the reading, the encounter between Moses and God in Numbers 11 brings to mind, at least for me, the feeding miracles of the Gospels.

There are some significant similarities. If we look at the feeding miracles in Mark 6:30–44 and 8:1–10 (because this is the year of Mark for the RCL), we see both are prompted by the need of the people who have gathered and followed Jesus and his disciples into desolate places, much like Israel wandering in the wilderness. In Mark 6, the disciples want the crowd sent away so they can forage, or buy food, for themselves, something similar to Israel’s complaining about the lack of good food, the food they had back in Egypt, on their wanderings.

In all three instances, the disciples — like Moses — wonder at the logistics of feeding so many people in such a desolate place. “Where will we find the money?” they ask in Mark 6. And because they didn’t get it the first time, they ask again in Mark 8, “How can we do this in a desolate place without bread?” Moses asked God if flocks and herds would be slaughtered, or all the fish of the sea be caught to feed God’s miserable people in the wilderness.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Numbers 11:23 ESV)

And just as in the Gospels, it comes to pass — quail are brought on the wind, so many quail that Israel has piles and piles of meat to eat. They have a feast, and God follows it all up … with a “very great plague.” (Num 11:33)

It’s an abundance that God gives Israel, quail meat running out of Israel’s nose, more meat than even whining Israel knows what to do with. But it’s a wrathful, angry, wasteful abundance, an abundance given in spite, to show the people who God is.

And that’s the difference with the Gospel feedings. Yes, there is a similar overflowing abundance. In Mark 6, the disciples show Jesus five loaves and bread and two fish, and twelve whole baskets of leftovers remain after feeding five thousand men. (Mark 6:43–44) In Mark 8, seven baskets of broken pieces are collected. (Mark 8:8)

But most importantly, the people are fed out of a sense of compassion (Mark 6:34 and 8:2), and not spite or anger. They don’t complain about being hungry and thirsty, not the way Israel did in the wilderness, at least we don’t have them complaining in scripture. This is not about God and the people so much as it is about Jesus and the disciples. “See what you can do when you trust me and have me in your midst?” In both Mark 6 and Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples, “How many loaves do you have?” Unlike Moses, who wondered where sheep and fish might come from — because there was none on hand — the disciples have a little bit of bread (and fish, in Mark 6), which Jesus blesses, breaks, and then gives to his disciples to then give to the people.

“And they all ate and were satisfied,” (Mark 6:42 and Mark 8:8) something Israel is not as God piles meat before them and then sickens them. Neither God nor Israel is much satisfied with quail coming out their noses.

But God and Israel are satisfied with bread and fish.

I think this is how God has finally learned to deal with us. To have us take a little of what we have, to bless it knowing that Jesus is still in our midst (always in our midst), and then pass it around. All are fed. And satisfied. This is the miracle. Not meat magically appearing from nowhere, falling upon us like rain, filling us and then some until we are sick of it and can eat no more.

On Bearing The Cross

This last week’s Gospel reading from the revised common lectionary contains what I suspect for many is a familiar passage about what it means to follow Jesus:

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38 ESV)

The whole passage read for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost began with Jesus asking his disciples, as they were visting Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that I am,” and a whole clutch of answers. Jesus, of course, asks who people — οἱ ἄνθρωποι — think Jesus is. And it’s funny, given all Jesus has done, none of the disciples report that anyone thinks Jesus is ὁ χριστός / המשׁיח. Instead, they think he is Elijah, returned from heaven, or some resurrected version of John the Baptist. Or even a prophet. But only the disciples seem to know that Jesus is God’s anointed one, come to deliver and redeem his people.

Jesus then tells the disciples what that means — that he must suffer and be rejected and then be killed, only to rise against three days later. This does make Peter happy, who pulls him aside, and decides to tell the boss off. This is bad news, Peter says, and you should be giving us good news. Jesus then rebukes Peter, and tells him in no uncertain terms — what he described, about suffering and dying and rising, is good news. Because it is the work of God.

The work of God.

And then to make is clear, Jesus gathers not only the disciples, but the crowd who follows as well. And tells them what it means to come after him, to follow him — it means carrying a cross, it means suffering, it means dying. It means focusing on the glory of God, as opposed to the glory of the world, and running toward that glory.

But here’s the question. What does it mean to deny ourselves, to take up his cross, and follow Jesus?

As long as I can remember, fairly conservative Christians in the United States — especially fundamentalists and those who have called themselves evangelicals — have told themselves a story of imminent persecution. The narrative, stitched together from bits and pieces of prophetic and apocalyptic scripture, predicts a time when a single world government will abolish true faith in Jesus Christ, and real belivers — if they haven’t already been snatched away — will suffer terribly for their faith.

And for a number of conservative Christians, the notion of being persecuted has an appeal. Being hated in the name of Jesus means they really truly follow Jesus. It means their faith and their following is both sincere and genuine in one of the few ways the gospels actually measure faith. I remember, if not quite a yearning to be persecuted, at least a kind of envy of those who truly suffered for their profession of Christ.

At the same time, while anticipating and predicting this series of events (they pre-date Left Behind by many decades, and came into their own in the years immediately following the Six Day War in 1967), conservative American Christians have also always claimed the cultural high ground. They see America as their country, and their society, one in which they get to set the rules and determine the meaning. In effect, they have always seen themselves a persecuted majority, with all the perks of both majority power and the claim to powerlessness that persecution endows.

So, you will see rapture beleiving Christians on the one hand claiming current events means the end is nigh, and yet vociferously and enthusiastically supporting U.S. government policies and actions that will effectively delay or postpone the end. Saddam Hussein might be the antichrist, but the United States still needs to fight him. The end will be ushered by an attack on the State of Israel, and the coming end is a glorious thing in which Jesus comes back, but the United States should, at the same time, protect Israel from attack, thus delaying the end. Perhaps indefinitely.

(In my time, I’ve only found one conservative rapture preacher who would even consider that the United States might not be on the right side of God and history in the last times.)

I’ve always found this to be something of a paradox. It certainly isn’t really denying one’s self.

I suspect some of this paradox is at work with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who temporarily went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For some conservative Christians, I suspect the long-awaited (and hoped for and feared) persecution has finally come. And yet, they still can’t square that with the belief both in righteousness and their own status as the majority.

And no doubt some believe Davis, in taking her stand, is denying herself and taking up her cross.

We speak of crosses to bear as our own suffering. I’ve heard a few things in my days described as crosses — health problems, troublesome spouses, ungrateful children, a difficult job. Crosses to bear.

And no doubt now some are calling Davis’s kind of standing up for Jesus a “cross to bear.” It is losing life for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of the Gospel.

I think we miss the point of what Jesus is saying here when we focus on our suffering as a cross to bear. Jesus didn’t come to bear his own suffering, he came to bear the suffering of the world. He bore my suffering, and your suffering, on that cross.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15 ESV)

Remember, this isn’t about a self-righteous proclamation on our part. This is about following Jesus, and he is in front, leading us. And so, this isn’t about our suffering (even as it is), but it is about a full-on encounter with the suffering of others, of the world — meeting it without flinching, without fear, without turning back, and bearing it with those who suffer.

We who suffer stand with a suffering world, telling the world that suffering is how God meets the world.  Suffering is how God most loves the world. By suffering and dying with us, Jesus shows us what it means to love, to be loved, and to bear a cross with him.

Jesus would not be standing in a county clerk’s officer forbidding the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But he wouldn’t be handing them out either. I’m not sure Jesus would care much either way. He had little to say about the governance of the world except that, in the end, it didn’t matter. Because the truth he proclaims is not the kind of abstract right and wrong that seeks to order the world or have us get right with God, but it is a truth about God’s presence in the suffering of the world. And our calling to be part of that presence of God.

To show the world what that means, we who follow Jesus — both the disciples whom Jesus calls and the crowds who choose of their own free will to follow Jesus — are called to join Jesus on that long journey to Golgotha, facing and meeting the world in its fear and loneliness and suffering and telling it the most important thing we can say — that God so loves the world that Jesus came to tell the world, to show the world that it has not been abandoned to despair, to sin, and to death.

The Lectionary This Week: Tell Your Children

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

Lectionary 22, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

  • Deuteronomy 4:1-9
  • Psalm 15
  • James 1:17-27
  • Mark 7:1–23

Be doers of the word. For the sake of the world. That’s what both Deuteronomy and James are telling us this week.

The reading in Deuteronomy has God reminding Israel through Moses to remember what they had witnessed when some Israelites took to cavorting with Midianites and worshiping the Baal (lord) of Peor, and that those who are alive to hear Moses speak the words of God this day are those who held fast to their faith in Israel’s God. (This is all of Numbers 25, though it gets mentioned in Psalm 106 and Hosea 9, where it becomes part of the prophet’s general indictment of the northern kingdom.) God then tells Israel that this teaching has a value. Not just that Israel will prosper and inherit the land that God has promised, but that Israel will show the world what it means to have a teaching תורה torah, and have the Lord God as their God.

6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. ’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6-8 ESV)

Here, we see what makes Israel a “great nation” (גוי גדול, or goy gidol) — it is not wealth, or military might, or the conquest and control of great territories and many subject peoples. It is the torah, this teaching, that makes Israel great. That makes Israel stand out from the peoples around it.

In fact, God goes so far to say that this teaching makes the peoples around Israel stand up and pay attention. This is true wisdom, they will say. These are a wise and understanding people, they will say. This teaching will inspire. It may even, as Isaiah 55 says, draw some to Israel, to become part of this covenant, to share in this teaching. This wisdom. This understanding.

But God is clear to Israel — don’t just teach these things, but remember them. Because Israel has witnessed them. “Your eyes have seen,” God tells Israel. So teach these things to your children, and their children, that you may not forget them. That you may not forget them.

I try not to watch video or even look at pictures of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Because I was there, and I want to remember what I saw — what I tasted and heard and felt. I don’t want those images, those memories, contaminated with media pictures, with the CNN feed, with what the world saw mediated on its television screens.

I was there. I saw and experienced that day with my own eyes.

But in order to remember that day, I need to bear witness to it — to tell my story. Again and again. In the telling, I remember what I saw. What I felt.

The same applies here. We are witnesses to the teaching of God, to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because we were there, but because we have been told by people who have been told by people who have been told by people who were there. Who knew that that bear witness to a truth that they made real again in the telling. That’s what it means to witness. It’s not just watching, it’s telling. It’s both things. In telling the story, we make it real.

When I heard those words in my head on 9/11, “My love is all that matters,” I had no idea who spoke to me. I didn’t get an introduction like Saul did on the way to Damascus. I didn’t know quite who this was. It took meeting Jesus in the pages of the Gospel of John, meeting Jesus in the love of the people of Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, to know who it was who spoke to me. I am a witness to the risen Christ, but only because I speak of what I experienced. And what I experienced makes sense only in the light of what others — in this case, the Gospel writers — have witnessed.

James approaches this from another angle. While God says we will impress the neighbors as a people of wisdom and understanding thanks to the teaching, James tells us that we will love the most vulnerable in our midst and around us because of this teaching.

James also says there is no real hearing without doing. There is no watching without speaking. There is no bearing witness to the love of God without loving.

And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells us that what defiles (makes common in the Greek) is what comes out of us. His list of things — evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness — dovetails nicely with the things James warns against as well.

Now, it’s easy to take these as matters of personal piety, things one avoids in order to be right and stay right with God. But that’s not what’s at work here. This isn’t about piety. It’s about showing the world what wisdom and understanding look like, what real religion (ceremonial or ritual observance here in the Greek) looks like. It is concern for the most vulnerable. This is a constant theme, especially once the prophets began to call Israel out for its sin and faithlessness as the armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians loomed. It is part of the constant reminder that we don’t use or abuse others, or ourselves. We don’t treat each other, or ourselves, as objects for pleasure or profit.

Because we are not objects. We are not things.

This is a tough task. The world is all about things. We are in the world (κοσμος, the thing God so loves in John 3:16) but are to be untainted by it, by its wisdom and understanding, by its way of doing business. This means, at least here, visiting those most wounded by the world, those most at risk at being objectified and exploited, those least capable of succeeding in the world according to the world’s terms. For James, that was widows and orphans. (And in many ways, it is still true, especially for orphans.) For us, it is likely to be the poor, the broken, the cast off and discarded people, refugees, anyone subject to violence simply because they draw breath.

And we treat them not as objects, but as human beings, children of a living God who has created them, formed them, shaped them, made them. As beloved sisters and brothers.

In this strange way, we are to show the “great nations” around us what understanding and wisdom looks like. Whether the peoples around us will be impressed or not hardly matters. (We have God’s assurance some will be, and the evidence of our eyes that some aren’t.) And what it is to have a God who is so near to us that he became one of us, lived and breathed and ate and slept and laughed and cried with us. Suffered with us. Died with us.

And rose so we might rise.

Two New Songs

I have two new songs — and I mean new, I wrote them during the last two weeks — over at SoundCloud. Please give them a listen…

“Fighting the Wind” is taken from bits and pieces of Matthew, but it was mostly about Jesus telling the disciples (as they faced a storm, and then as he walked upon the water) not to be afraid. And the disciples being afraid when they come upon the empty tomb, and are told Jesus is off to Galilee.

The second song, which I wrote at the end of last week, is based on the Ephesians reading for last Sunday — 2:11-22, and it was one of those deeply inspired pieces of music. I sat down with the guitar, my Bible, fixed the capo, stemmed that first Bbm/Fm progression, and had the melody and words immediately. I have no idea where it comes from. That happens a lot, and I both really like it and am deeply unnerved by it. Because I feel like I’m being used the τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος (the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Breath, which is actually a better rendering, simply because breath is what animates us, brings us to live, and it’s what Jesus gives us again.)

Anyway, I like both these songs. I hope you do too.

Apostles -or- The Ones Who Are Sent

So, it is back to the Bible today.

Some time ago, I noticed there was a difference between all of the different ways one follows Jesus. There are the crowds, who press in on Jesus, follow him everywhere, do not give him a moment’s peace. They are the people who Jesus has truly come for — they are the people Jesus heals and casts demons out of.

It is from the crowds that some of Jesus’ more “aggressive” followers — the lame, the lepers, the crippled, the blind who cry out, the demon possessed, the centurion of Matthew 8, the rich young man of Luke 18 — come to him and ask to be made whole, to be healed, and to find out what must be done to inherit eternal life. But they come from the crowds, from those who see Jesus, see and know that he is the Son of God incarnate, that he does the work of God, and they respond.

This is faithfulness. And if this is what brings people to Jesus, then all the good. Because these crowds who cannot give Jesus a moment’s peace, who proclaim him “Son of David” one moment and a blasphemer deserving of death not long after, these crowds are the people Jesus came to find. So, when someone is drawn to Jesus, and chooses to follow Jesus, this is good.

But there are those Jesus also calls to follow. People who are minding their own business, bothering no one when Jesus steps into their lives and commandeers them. “Follow me,” he says to Matthew/Levi in each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32; John 1:35-51 bears some similarities), and Matthew/Levi follows:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. (Luke 5:27-28 ESV)

His calling of disciples (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11; again, John 1:35-51 tells a similar but somewhat different story) is not a matter of people choosing to follow Jesus. His disciples are not the crowds. Jesus finds them — almost exclusively at work — and calls them.

“Follow me,” he says.

And they drop everything. And follow.

This too is great faithfulness. But it is a different kind of faithfulness. In the synoptic gospels, the crowds see Jesus and know, “God is at work!” But for the disciples, they don’t see Jesus at work that way. They don’t hunger for the justice and mercy and redeeming work of God in the same way that the crowds do.

Instead, God sees them at work, minding their own business, and meets them. And calls them. Because they are not the people to be healed. Or made whole. Or even have their demons cast out (assuming they have any, which is unlikely, but you never know). Because they are called to help Jesus do that work.

In the feeding miracles, the disciples are anxious, because feeding the crowds in the wilderness is a logistical nightmare, one they have not prepared for. In commanding them, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13), and then blessing and breaking the bread (foreshadowing the final supper that will come), Jesus is giving them all the instruction and preparation they will need to feed the crowds — their meager supplies and the blessing and presence of Christ.

It is a lesson that the disciples have to learn over and over again: what they have at hand, and the blessing of Jesus, is all they need to care for and feed the crowds who hunger for the redeeming presence and boundless mercy of God.

But there is one more distinction. Because not all disciples are apostles. Matthew puts it this way:

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:1-4 ESV)

Mark describes it like this:

13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:13-19 ESV)

And Luke relates the account this way:

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16 ESV)

It’s funny, but Mark’s account of this is actually the longest, and it actually has a detail that neither Matthew nor Luke have — it refers to the twelve apostles as “those whom he desired.”

The Matthew account is followed immediately by Jesus sending the twelve out specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. (It’s the beginning of a very long speech of Jesus’, so we don’t really know how this mission goes, though we can guess from what comes next — disciples of John the Baptist coming to Jesus and asking him, “are you the one who is to come?” So, we can guess the disciples were successful in carrying out their charge.)

Jesus calls disciples in Mark and then goes straight home. Where he’s mobbed by crowds while his family in Nazareth are convinced that Jesus is completely out of his mind. Being the Son of God will do that with the family, I suppose.

The Luke account is followed by Jesus ministering to crowds throughout Judea, Samaria, and what is now southern Lebanon. And then he gives Luke’s version of “the sermon on the mount” (called “the sermon on the plain” from 6:17, “And he came down with them [the apostles] and stood on a level place.” So, the calling of the apostles in Luke is followed by the Beatitudes.

Luke has Jesus dispatch the apostles in Chapter 9, giving them the “power and authority to over all demons and to cure diseases” and to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. Instead of John the Baptist, though, in Luke, it’s Herod who hears of this (because John is dead), and who wants to see Jesus. (But he doesn’t, apparently.) And this is followed by an apostolic report, and the feeding of the five thousand.

I’m not entirely clear if apostle and disciple are interchangeable here. I suspect if they were, then we wouldn’t have two distinct terms — disciple (one who learns) and apostle (one who is sent). Clearly, one can be a disciple without being an apostle. Can one be an apostle without being a disciple? (Probably not.) Can one be an apostle without being called by Jesus in the flesh? St. Paul clearly sees himself as an apostle — one who is sent — but whether that means the same thing as it does when Matthew, Mark, and Luke use it, I do not know.

(I think it would be tremendously presumptuous to claim, in this day and age, to be an apostle. I am not claiming that title.)

In the great commission, as related at the end of Matthew, Jesus speaks of disciples, and not apostles. So, it may be without a physical Jesus calling “those whom he desired” that apostleship is impossible.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

There is, however, still a distinction between the crowds — those who follow Jesus of their own will — and disciples — who are called by Jesus to follow. It’s an important distinction, one that gets lost in arguments over just how much human will is involved when we discern God present as Christ somehow in our midst. I generally think that argument is a pointless one, because it tries to exclude at least one of these ways of encountering God. If we do all the choosing, then what of Jesus’s call to Matthew/Levi, “follow me”? And if we do none of the choosing, what then of the crowds, and those who emerge from the crowds, who have a vastly different experience of Jesus, as someone they come to?

And what does it mean for the church if this is an important distinction that was supposed to persist? What if there is, always has been, and always will be, a distinction between the crowds who follow and the disciples who are called to follow?

I, of course, default to the irresistible call of Jesus, Follow me. But then, I would. I have learned to respect, however, the notion that some — many, perhaps — choose to follow Jesus of their own accord. Indeed, discipleship clearly seems to be a minority option, something only a few would experience. It speaks to the abiding “unfairness” of God. Not everybody gets treated the same. Not everyone gets called the same. Not everyone even gets loved the same. To be called like this isn’t necessarily a good thing, either — for many of the first disciples, it eventually led to suffering and death.

There are followers of Jesus, and there those called to follow. And they aren’t necessarily the same people.

But all are beloved of God.

The Lectionary This Week: Coming Out

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

Epiphany 5, 08 February 2015 (Year B)

  • Isaiah 40:21-31
  • Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
  • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
  • Mark 1:29-39 (Green)

Last week’s introduction to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark — casting the demon out of a possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum — gave a foretaste of the Jesus to come, the Jesus who will wander the countryside, go from busy town to dusty village, healing and expelling demons and proclaiming, in all this, the good news of the Kingdom of God. Continue reading