‘Powerful Love’

Posted: January 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 1. 7.1.2018

Genesis 1:1-5            Mark 1:4-11;
‘Powerful Love’

Mark the writer of the first Gospel looks back from his time which is after the Jewish War in 70 CE to the time of Jesus in search of an understanding of a Messiah amidst the destruction of the Temple priestly system and the redundancies of religious and scriptural ideas that supported it. Judaism was in a period of transition from a Temple based understanding of a God to whom one made sacrifices to a Torah based religion based in synagogue communities inside and outside of Judea. One can imagine that for Mark the type of Messiah, the character of the Messiah and the place of the Messiah in society was crucial. Superheroes are fun but they need to have deep roots in society and they need to have longevity if they are remain important.

I don’t know about you but we played superheroes often when I was young. I think the choice of superhero was based on which was the latest comic to be on the shelves. Superman and Batman were the key superheroes that I remember. We hadn’t heard of Spiderman and some of the others back then, let alone wonder-woman but we would make up stories of daring rescues and fighting bad guys. I can remember sometimes making other superheroes. One of my favourites was Rob Roy McGregor, mainly because my mother was a scot and wearing my mother’s old tartan skirt as a kilt was a bit of a novelty. I am sure others were also enlisted as superheroes on occasion but at times we confused things a bit. On our slide there were people who technically were not superheroes. Hercules is there and he is one of the Greek gods and not a superhero in its purest sense. It seems that many of us played Hercules, too, and just like superheroes.

Here’s the thing that I want to wonder about that. Do we think about gods like superheroes? Hercules for the Greeks of Jesus’ time, believed in Hercules like a superhero. He would make daring rescues of people in trouble. He would fight the bad guys and win. I sometimes think we think about our God that way, too.

But in Jesus we see someone different. We have in recent times developed a belief system that makes Jesus an untouchable God, a superhero that always wins, but we have also dramatized and sanctified what is the most important thing he did, which was to die on the cross. We have made the suffering of execution a commendable sacrifice, a gift rather than a horrific suffering and death. Deprived, alienated and ridiculed he died a human death. He suffered like us. He was not a superhero who always wins. The stories about Jesus are very different than the ones about Hercules or Superman or any of the superheroes. We need to keep that in mind, because it’s possible that Jesus reveals a different kind of God than we tend to think about, a God who rescues us in different ways than the superheroes and one of those ways is the topic for today. That of healing. What is this healing that is different?

Healing has always been bound up with religion. Even with modern medicine, which is largely a secular affair, I suspect many alternative health theories are attempts to find a more wholistic understanding and often people of faith will make prayer a part of their efforts to receive healing. But I’d like to keep in mind our beginning this morning: when we pray for healing is it for a superhero sort of rescue from our sickness? Or do we in Jesus see a different sort of God and a different sort of path to healing.

Just as Mark uses scripture to shape up his messiah so we use our resources to paint the workable picture beyond superhero and Geek God. The myth of Jesus and the cross and resurrection shows us a God who is fundamentally different from the superhero versions of gods. Superheroes always win the day. They always save us from our situations of suffering. And they especially never ask for help. It’s pretty hard to think of a time when Superman needed the help of the person he or she was saving? They wouldn’t be super if they needed the help of the rescued. With the God of Jesus Christ, that isn’t quite the case. Yes, he was an amazing healer. Some of his healing miracles are so startling that we may be tempted to think of him in terms of a superhero. But in Mark’s story of Jesus, after a fantastic start as a healer, Jesus starts talking a lot about healing. And the disciples he has called seem to want to see him as a superhero. So, when in the middle of Mark’s story, Jesus speaks numerous times about the Son of Man undergoing suffering and death, and then in three days rise from the dead, they simply couldn’t hear him. They couldn’t imagine that sort of fate for their superhero or they felt the resistance to see Jesus as superhero.

And what’s even more challenging is that Jesus started talking about his followers picking up their crosses and suffering, too. Jesus wasn’t coming to rescue them from all suffering after all. In fact, in some respects, he was coming to lead them into more suffering. What was this all about? Well, we aren’t going to be able to answer all our questions here and now, or solve all the mysteries about the healing we receive from the God of Jesus. But we can take a few moments to introduce some themes about healing that we see in the sacrament of baptism, both through John’s baptism of Jesus that we remember today, but also in our subsequent practice of it that we share each time we participate in a baptism. Paul J. Nuechterlein has three points as a reflection on healing that we might find helpful.

One, is his bottom line: It is that God’s Spirit of love in Jesus Christ is a different power than the one we humans usually look for in our gods or superheroes. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” says God’s voice to Jesus. It is the same powerful spirit of love that we are all baptized with., We know about this love, as something that nurtures the best in us. The struggle we have is that for us it gets mixed in with the power that tries to force things. In following Jesus, we see and know this Spirit of love as a power that never uses force and always makes room for freedom. Here we have an important clue to explaining the mystery of suffering, not all of it but because this kind of love allows the freedom to use the power of force instead of the power of love. It thrives on the ambiguity established by its acceptance of force and it is clarified by that action as well. No force, no suffering it seems. We rely so much on the power of force that we hardly recognize love as a more important power. the truest power if you like. Even John begins his Gospel by restating the first several verses of Genesis, so that the reader will know that this power we see and experience in Jesus, the word made flesh, is the power behind life itself.

To number two now: in baptism we see not just a cleansing, a washing, but also drowning, a dying and rising, a suffering of a loss that leads to gain. Nuechterlein sees this as the death we always need to undergo to see our reliance on the power of the superheroes, a superior firepower that’s stronger than the other guy’s power of force. He suggests that faith or reliance on the power of force is so ingrained in us that we need to suffer it as loss. And Jesus teaches his followers that we will always find his powerful Spirit of love residing with those who lose out to the powers of force. When human beings rely on a politics of the powers of force, there are always losers. And Jesus himself took his place with those losers on the cross, in order that we might see the true power of love behind life itself. So, our standing with those who suffer, those who are losers to this world’s kind of power, brings a dying and rising to new life, a participating in the real power of God’s love.

No to point number three: Baptism, the promise of God’s powerful love for our lives, doesn’t create or rely on superheroes in any usual sense. Jesus himself submits to the baptism of John along with others; he doesn’t exceptionalize himself. In fact, as we just said, Jesus took and takes his place with the losers to this world’s power. You and I, as followers of Jesus, appear more as anti-superheroes, the opposite of superheroes. It is normal, everyday people of faith that Jesus needs to help bring healing to this the world he cherishes.

Brian McLaren, in a recent essay, tells this story about his home congregation, a church not unlike, St David’s. He writes: Under the guise of “ministry as usual,” positive things are afoot. I feel it. I believe it. I felt it a few weeks ago in my home church on a typical Sunday. The music was good, as usual, and the sermon was thought-provoking and inspiring, as usual. The prayers were solid and meaningful, as usual, and the people were warm and welcoming, as usual. What stood out for me was the family seated next to me, a dad, a mom, a daughter, and a son whom I didn’t recognize. Based on the boy’s movements and the attentions given him by his mother and sister, the son seemed to have some form of autism, maybe Asperger’s syndrome.

His foot and leg were bouncing almost constantly, calming only momentarily when his mother gently touched his knee, which she did every five or ten minutes. Before and after communion, he crossed himself repeatedly. He sang with more enthusiasm than musical ability, but if one must choose, enthusiasm’s the one to have

The moment that really touched me says McLaren, came at the offering. He didn’t have money, but when I handed him the basket, he bowed toward it. At first, I thought he was reverencing the basket as if it were an icon or some other holy thing. But then he leaned forward even more, placing the basket on his knees and nearly touching his forehead into the checks, bills, and envelopes inside. His family didn’t intervene, as if this were his normal routine. Then he sat up again and handed the basket to his mother.

Suddenly, it dawned upon me: he was putting himself in the offering basket, diving in head-first, if you will. And this must be what he does every week, his own self-made ritual. And at that moment, I was awash in a baptism of grace. Yes, there are many things in our churches that are easy targets for criticism. Yes, some of our churches and some of our Christianities are part of the problem. But be careful, as the old parable says (Matthew 13:24-30): if you try to pull up all the weeds, you’ll dislodge some of the wheat too . . . the tender shoots of faith and devotion growing up in truly important people like that special boy.

McLaren, who speaks to Christians all around the world concludes: “I feel it week after week, speaking in congregations across the country that include people so sincere and bright and ready to go that you can’t care how many or few they are, how rich or poor, how old or young, or how influential or marginal. You just know that people like this have what our world needs, that they’re part of the solution. You know that their spark is going to catch fire and spread, and that what is in them — faith, hope, love, wisdom, humility — can heal what ails us, and will heal it, as long as they don’t lose heart.”

So, people of St David’s, let us not lose heart, let us rather, leave here with the healing that this hurting world needs. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein Sermon Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, January 8, 20121. Brian McLaren, “The Church and the Solution,” an essay at www.patheos.com

Lorraine Parkinson, “Made on Earth’ How gospel writers created the Christ Spectrum Publications 2015

 

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