Terror or Hope

Posted: November 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 13:1-8

Terror or Hope

For followers of the three-year lectionary as I am and I guess you are as listeners; today is the last week we will hear a gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. Last, Next week is the end of this liturgical Year B with Christ the King Sunday. Then after that we enter a new Church year and a new season of Advent. And the cycle begins all over again.

One of the things I have noticed within myself is a degree of sadness at two things. One being that; with all that I have read and with my growing understanding of who Jesus is for me I have come to value Mark more as one of the earliest of the gospels we have, and two; I think the lectionary short changes him as one of the most valuable gospels when looking for the most important stories of Jesus spoken by the early Christian movement. It does this by leaving out a lot of what it says and by replacing it with other gospel content.

I tend toward this response because the lectionary misses out many of Mark’s good Down-to-earth stories. Stories which preserve the Jesus Movement’s memory of Jesus. And because those stories demand great respect, not only because they are some of the earliest in our gospel storytelling tradition, but also because there is less ‘layering’ onto these stories. In other words; there seems to be more of an honest Jesus than a church Christ in these stories. And as a follower of Jesus, that has become an important difference for me.

When I think about where this began, I remember a colleague who suggested the book by the late Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg “Seeing Jesus again for the first time’ was a good place to begin. Especially when going “Against the Stream” in theological bible study discussion. It wasn’t long after that I began to grasp the important difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ.

The key point being that when we take the stories about the post-Easter Christ
as historical reporting about the pre-Easter Jesus, Jesus becomes an unreal human being, and we lose track of the utterly remarkable human person he was.

The next learning was with the arrival of John Shelby Spong on the set of my journey and my having to reassess the Jewishness of Jesus and discover the Jewish structure of Mark’s stories. While some people find this discovery of the human Jesus and his Jewishness a threat to their faith and don’t want to go there, I found this a liberating experience.

Jack Spong has written and lectured on Mark, as a Midrash storyteller, telling the Jesus story based on the Hebrew scriptures and organised around the liturgical year of the Jews from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Passover. He has claimed that it was inevitable that the first members of the Jesus Movement, who were Jewish people, would: interpret Jesus, organize their memory, and shape their religious life based on their Jewish religious heritage, which was the only tradition they knew.

On reflection I recognize that his Jewishness had always been implied but only as a problem and not as a human, cultural and historical setting for his life. The Post Easter Jesus was always prevalent in my mind dismissing or conditioning this reality and I have never seen the need to explore what it meant until recent years. So, from the Borg and Spong engagement my curiosity as both a storyteller and a liturgist was aroused and excited.

This stood in contrast to the suggestion by my teachers who had shaped my prior thinking.
Where, as Rex Hunt suggests, Mark’s stories were modelled on the parable of The Sower (Mark 4). We remember that story where… some seeds fall on a hard pathway, some seeds fall on rocky ground, some seeds fall among thorns and are choked, some seed fall on good soil. It is claimed that with this story as background we journey through Mark and the other stories like the rich young man. The healing of a man with an unclean spirit. The widow and the coins. And many more, hearing the stories but only responding because for some of the words have fallen on a hard pathway, on rocky ground, among thorns. All through Mark, according to some is this theological vision of sown seed and productive and unproductive earth. The challenge has been to become more sensitive to the stories about outsiders and outcasts in Mark… And Jesus as an outsider.

I really warmed to what Robert Funk has said: “Jesus apparently regarded himself as an outsider.  He was in exile from his hometown, from his friends and neighbours… he was a guest, a traveler, a stranger, an alien in most contexts.” (Funk 2002:45-46).

Jesus appears to have ignored the social boundaries of his time. He embraces the beggars, the poor, the hungry. He becomes known as a friend of toll collectors and prostitutes. All these, fall outside the boundaries of his society in the most radical manner.

While this seems obvious the level of importance in my walk and I am sure most of us is significant. The new awareness is as I argued for a few weeks ago, that, “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts…  No wonder Jesus auditors were puzzled by his vision of… God’s domain – it contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out.” (Funk 2002:55)

I think this might explain why I feel a sense of sadness at coming to the end of the Mark lectionary year. There is a clear sociological challenge in the pre-Easter Jesus not only because of Marks focus on the radicalness of the social change and the place of the poor and destitute, alienated and excluded but also because of the evident change in direction the Jesus movement seems to take as the gospel, the Jesus story, is taken to the gentiles and especially into the Greek and Roman worlds. The cultural expectations of those worlds affect the story, so much so that it becomes institutionalized, and we are then on a path of who is in or out on a different scale. So, maybe this is why I am a bit disappointed that Mark’s year is coming to an end. Then again maybe it’s even deeper than that.

Maybe my difficulty in letting go of Mark is because controversy in the church is seldom about biblical exegesis and theological formulations. It is more about creating social differences rather than address the theological issues underlying the problem. Today’s story by the one we call Mark is a pretty scary story. Historically it probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple many years after the death of Jesus. Theologically it probably warns of those who offered the small Jesus Movement false hopes through dubious signs and wonders. Either way there would be real human memories: the brutality of war, the rape and pillaging, the burning and torture, the killing and mutilation. Historically in the late 1980s the PCANZ began the vilification of gay people by creating the social differences, the unnatural, the non-procreational and the minority value as human beings as opposed to the theological arguments of their being a child of God, and a stranger needing welcome and inclusion, it us not isolation and identification that is justifiable in theology.

The Jesus of Mark takes us into this world of terror and offers a vision of hope.
A defiant hope. A hope centered on the vision of the domain of God. Where inclusiveness is its rule. And a passionate concern for others fires imaginations and compassionate acts. Love cannot be obtained by being right and pure and being defined as different. William Loader goes further when he says that Marks world is a “Terror beyond description being matched by hope beyond description.

I want to leave you with a question today and it is to ask ‘if we opened the gates to a real theological debate, would we be prepared to contemplate and discuss theological ideas? And let’s be sure about the response. It would be that we are abandoning every aspect of traditional Christianity. That is because we would say that despite whether or not one wanted to start new or make change without losing the goodness of tradition, we have to ask whether or not the Christianity we have inherited needs to be abandoned. Spong says he is not ready to surrender Christianity to a secular future nor is he willing to abandon the Christ experience. He would say however that the words traditionally used to describe that experience no longer translate meaningfully in our day. He says that he is willing to sacrifice all claims to possessing a literal bible, literal creeds or historical liturgies in the Christianity he seeks to create. This is rooted in his conviction that there is something real that draws him beyond himself which he calls God. This is also why he claims membership of a church that has courage to seek after the truth of God, come whence it may, cost what it will.

Spong cites Luther as believing that institutional Christianity had ceased to be ‘the body of Christ’ service the world and instead had become a profitable business, designed in such a way as to increase and even enhance the church’s worldly power. In order to finance its institutional need the Vatican had endorsed the practice of selling indulgences. A sinner could purchase one such indulgence and thereby forgo the need to repent. Like Jesus in the temple Luther was challenging the practice and, in his view striking a blow to the economic well-being of the Christian Church of his time. The significance of this was the challenge to all the authority claims being made by the church on its journey through history. And remember that by the sixteenth century the power of the Christian church was so deeply entrenched in the life of Europe’s culture that any challenge to its authority to define truth was regarded as an act of heresy.

Maybe it is time for use to expect the claim of heretic being levelled upon us. And this might mean challenging to Nicene Creed adopted by Christian leaders in Council in 325 ce, It was the essence of the Christian faith for all time and the church had the sole right to interpret the sacred scriptures. Shades of this claim still exist today among some traditionalists trapped in a literalized faith and remember that most lay people learned the stories of the bible by looking at paintings painted by artists whos, biblical knowledge was often minimal.

God was portrayed as a supernatural all-seeing figure who lived above the clouds, watching human behaviour. This God wrote down the deeds and misdeeds of all the people in the ‘Book of Life’ which would determine the eternal destiny of each individual soul. The difference between heaven and hell was enormous and espoused regularly in sermons week after week and in paintings depicting ‘judgement day’. Guilt was the coin of the church’s realm to ensure the number of sinners existed to sustain the story and add value to the indulgences. The time in purgatory was the commodity sold by the church.

Perhaps all we can say about this story in Mark is that it is a challenge that asks us ‘Can the Christ experience be separated from the dying explanations of the past? The reality is that if we can’t then Christianity is doomed to continue its relentless journey into declining state of irrelevance. If we can separate the Christ experience from the past then there will be a need for a reformulation of Christianity that is so radical that Christianity as we know it may dye in the process. As Jesus challenged his time with the need for an alternative social, cultural; and religious world so he does to us today The status quo suggests that we will die in boredom and the alternative offers controversy, maybe even a new reformation. Maybe Mark is the last opportunity to find the pre-Easter Jesus? Maybe Mark is freer from the influences of institutionalized Christianity than even Paul, given that his chosen task was to bring the Jesus story to other cultures i.e. gentiles.

Amen.

Notes:
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Spong; J S. Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today. Kindle.

rexae74@gmail.com

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