Beyond the Heresy Called Complacency

Posted: January 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 3B
Mark 1:14-20

Beyond the Heresy Called Complacency

The title today suggest that complacency is a heresy and that it is possible to see through it and find something that is beyond it. In short, the implication is that it is possible to see beyond a theory or a doctrine that is supported and confirmed by established beliefs, and customs. It also suggests that complacency as a point of self-satisfaction or a smugness about the present situation needs to be challenged so as to ensure there is an awareness of any potential danger lurking ahead. Last week we spoke of discipleship as being akin to physical engagement and a shared journey of discovery centered on the character and teachings of the wandering sage we call Jesus of Nazareth.

In the traditional teachings of the church, there is little doubt that following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has become an important theme in church life. In a world where membership and attendance of traditional forms of church are in decline, evangelism and encouraging others to join is a major question being faced. At face value today’s story by the storyteller we call Mark, is one such story. The calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John. And by implication, the commencement of a movement which centered on the character and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

What we do believe is that Jesus had followers, and last week we argued that conversation, engagement and shared development of thought and understanding played a significant part on the growth of the movement. We also believe that this engagement, conversation and shared journey included both men and women, despite patriarchal assumptions both outside and within the movement. We argued last week that the person to person contact was one of the most common ways in which teaching and learning took place in the time. And while we can learn something of the roles men took in this process, from the various stories in our biblical tradition, the role women took goes almost unnoticed until we read the Gospel of Mary – which didn’t make it into the biblical collection.

It is worth noting here that when we talk about a Jesus movement we believe that it was not ever an intention of Jesus to take any initiative in carrying out a recruitment drive. We do not believe he had any intention of organizing a movement. As we said last week the issue was always a person to person engagement without a party manifesto or a strategic organizational plan. It can be said that this personalization has worked against the movement in modern and postmodern times, because it accommodates diverse thinking and this works against a unified mass evangelism, not unlike our political experiences today we all need to be heard, to have our say, to be understood and this means we have to deal with differing views on almost everything. If we look at recent church history we see attempts to move beyond the personal and we find personality cults and short-lived personality driven programs. One might say that Constantine set us on a wrong path when he made Christianity a state religion because it gave us both a false sense of hope in a unified movement and established a model of institution that was doomed to failure because it was dependent upon sameness and a common understanding. The global ecumenical movement and the Church union events all show the difficulty of transitioning from personal to collective faith. Because I tend to agree with those who claim Jesus was a wandering or itinerant sage without organisational intentions, and a person who never intended to found a movement much less a church, I wonder why and how the movement developed, other than as a response to social, cultural, economic and political events of the time. For the movement to have as much popularity in the early centuries the sense of freedom from institutionalization must have played a significant part in its growth as a movement.

This I think leaves us with a Jesus who was thoroughly consumed in the religious/political concerns of his own time and place, and a Jesus whose focus was not on some mystified realm beyond time, or on some present world which we simply appreciate or accept. His focus had to be on a new realm of God here and now, and ready to emerge. This means that what we have in this particular story this morning, is more in the hands of the storyteller Mark or more focused on a particular community, he thinks he knows and a community he thinks he knows the needs of. What we have then is less likely to be a record of one of the actual deeds of Jesus.

So, with this limited information, we find a storyteller who seems to have a collection
of stories and sayings and theological reflections, some probably written fragments, but most retold and remembered from oral telling, and the storyteller is adapting and weaving them together with a particular purpose in mind. From what we can discern the reason for the storyteller’s writing is, so that a small community can honour Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, hear a link between “Jesus’ ministry and John’s preceding one” (Cairns 2004:16) and, hear and understand, remember and be empowered as people of the Way. The authority of Jesus in a mass setting without him is of concern to the writer. How does one walk the Jesus Way today is the question being asked even then?

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has also been associated with the evangelical missionary endeavour of ‘saving souls’. This today is suspect because it implies that something needs saving without saying from what or for what. It also struggles because of thinking around what a soul is. Do we have one? What is it in relation to scientific thinking? What does neurology say about the existence of a soul?

Today’s text gives us a metaphor that is at similar risk. Certainly, our text in its metaphorical form is how many preachers have treated it. They have concluded that it was spoken exclusively to Simon and Andrew: ‘make you fishers of men’ or the more inclusive, ‘…people’, fishers of people. But this metaphor is not only very tired and outdated, it is also, some of us would say, a misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Why do we say this? Well because the evidence of his intention to build a movement is a major question. Why the need for an evangelical approach if one if not building a movement. So, we need to consider some other options. Scholar Ched Myers, in his comments on this story, offers an important and different interpretation, which suggests that phrases like ‘fishers of men’ and ‘hooking of fish’ are actually euphemisms for judgement upon the rich given by ancient Hebrew Prophets. They are more about what this new kingdom will remove than about bringing more people to follow the Jesus Way.

Myers says initially: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”. He later goes on to say that: “…following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. We know this idea has merit because we know the Christianity is always an ‘in the world’ religion as opposed to an ‘out of the world’ one. Culture, is the operating ground for human endeavour. It is the connection with sociology, politics and psychology. Jesus is advocating that the first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple… To transform it and this is not a call to reach an ‘out’ of the world existence, but rather a call ‘into an alternative social practice.’ (Myers 2008: 132-133)

Those words by Ched Myers resonate with me. because they suggest to me that being a disciple in the 21st century requires us to engage in both social analysis as well as theological reflection. To be political, not in a partisan way or a mass control or manipulation sense but in the recognition that the person is not alone, the person is the person because of the person to person relationships one has. Individuals count because they are in relationship. The cultural, sociological concern is an engagement of the person in the science or art of government, be it family, clan, tribe, village, city, nation, world. This suggests that we need to remind ourselves when we read the biblical test and the extra-biblical stories and study and speculate about them, they are less about earthly stories with heavenly meanings, and more earthy stories with heavy meanings! So, returning to our title for today; the question is what does this doctrinally induced, industrialization created complacency look like?

Rex Hunt wrote on his website some time back about the American celebration called Martin Luther King Day, ‘which by the way’, was last Monday the 15th January. It is a celebration more at home in America than anywhere else, but the reason for it is common to all of us. Hunt recalls that a journalist named James Carroll, wrote an article called ‘The Dream and its Enemies’. In it he suggested that while the outright racism of white supremacists was one of King’s enemies, “almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.” (Carroll. ‘Globe’, a New York Times Co. 2008)

Carroll went on: “This nation honours Martin Luther King Jr because of what he forced on it.  Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth.  Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible.  What happened was that King’s work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.” (Carroll) One has to ask; was it treated like a call out of this world rather than a call into an alternative social practice… One can also ask similar questions of all our political parties, all of our concerns for justice. Are they calls out of this world, calls susceptible to an unworkable complacency or are they calls into an alternative social practice?

Discipling, as the storyteller we call Mark suggests is about accepting the urgent invitation to ‘break with business as usual’. To re-imagine the world, both personal and communal. It has to start with the person because that is the foundation of being in this world and of it at the same time. It’s also the way we keep the heresy of complacency at bay. One can’t re-imagine and be trapped in the same old, same old at the same time. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. New Zealand: Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Coverston, H. S. “Ears to Hear? Who is my Neighbour? Preaching with Integrity and Moral Reasoning”. Seminar Papers, Westar Institute, Fall. Santa Rosa, 2005.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.


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