Come and You Will See – Week 3

“A new teaching authority.” 
Mark 1:27

 

My Dear Friends in Christ,

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New and improved!

These are three of the best-known marketing tricks to attract new and renewed attention for a product. It’s more about the concept rather than the words. Take for example, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile,” is simply another way of saying “new and improved.” These tricks (or the politically correct word is strategies) are about shaking up the status quo: maintaining a strong connection to current customers but also reaching new customers who may have been waiting for it to be more or cheaper or just plain better. It’s expanding the audience without losing the base. Often, it’s more about form than content, the box over the product, about changing just enough to entice, to reach a new market, to get better sales, to think outside the box.

Over the past few weeks, our message series has been focused on the invitation of Jesus, “Come and you will see.” John the Baptist had pointed out Jesus to Andrew as the Messiah, God’s chosen one, God’s anointed, the Christ, the title taken from the word “chrism,” the oil used to anoint priests, prophets and kings, the most important people of their day. Even from a distance, Jesus had sensed in the heart of Andrew and his friend an unmet need, an ache that seeks healing, an emptiness that looks for fulfillment. It was what opened their heart to Jesus, even if they were afraid to follow Him too closely. “Come and you will see.” Jesus invites them to come close, wants them not only into His Posse, not only into His home (the place where He was staying at that moment), but wants to welcome them into the very heart and the life of God.

At that early stage, Jesus asks nothing of them except an openness to see who God is and how God works, an awareness of the possibility of discovering God’s infinite mercy and extraordinary gentleness, the chance to encounter a God so radical love for us, so radical in the offering and in the opening of the kingdom. And they are changed in that encounter with Christ. Andrew invites Simon; Simon gets a new name and then, once they are aware of God’s love, of God’s plan (no matter how confusing it may seem, they are ready for God’s call.

And we heard that call, made to Peter and Andrew, James and John not because they were high born, greatly educated or well connected. In fact, they were none of those. Jesus calls them as men of faith, open and willing and vulnerable. With their openness, Jesus has called them each by name, both to follow Him and to fish for others. And now we see them dipping their nets into the water.

Jesus and his four new disciples have made their way from the shore into the town of Capernaum, the home of the four just called and chosen by Jesus. When the Sabbath comes, Jesus goes into the synagogue and immediately begins to teach. They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes… All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. The teachings of Jesus are not some marketing strategy, not simply a repackaging of old stuff for new ears, not novelty only for novelty’s sake. And the people are amazed at these teachings of Jesus; they’re astonished. A new teaching with authority. They’re engaged, asking questions, startled, awakened to a whole new reality in the little local synagogue.

Unlike the temple in Jerusalem (the most sacred spot, on the most sacred hill, in the most sacred city) where animal sacrifice was practiced by priests, Jewish synagogues, according to rabbinic nomenclature, were “assembly halls” or auditoriums where the Torah was read and expounded. There was but one temple and it was the dwelling place of God on earth, the very footprint of the eternal Divine in the world of the ever-changing world of the mortal creatures. It was here that the High Priest would make sacrifices for the people and bring the people’s prayers to God. And it was tradition to make a pilgrimage to the Temple at least once, if not more often, for the high, holy days. Synagogues, though, the Greek derivation of which simply means “gathering places,” could be found throughout the Jewish world. Any town worth its salt, every town that could afford to build one, had a synagogue, a place of learning more than prayer, a place of study and scripture and more than ritual. The only official in charge of a synagogue was the “ruler of the synagogue,” a position that included the responsibilities of librarian, worship committee, custodian, and perhaps schoolteacher. The ruler of the synagogue did not preach or expound the Torah, however, which meant that Sabbath teaching and exposition fell to the laity, and on this occasion to Jesus. That Jesus does not wait for such an invitation, or at least that the invitation is not recorded, implies his amazing charismatic power. The grace and power of God, the attraction which breaks down barriers, is beginning to make itself felt. Something is happening. Let’s look at what was so radical, so shocking, so astonishing, so amazing that it stopped people (and demons!) in their tracks.

It started with the method Jesus used. The usual teachers – priests and scribes, the literate ones, and Pharisees as well – always taught by referencing another. ‘As Moses said’, or ‘as Rabbi so-and-so said.’ They were focused on the law as the self-appointed scrupulous guardians of Jewish ancestral traditions. In the first century, before the advent of universal education and literacy, there was a great demand for scribes throughout the ancient world, and especially in Judaism where the written code of the Torah regulated Jewish life. The Hebrew word for scribes, sopherim, has to do with counting, reckoning, and keeping written documents provides an initial understanding of the scribe’s function. Later, the word “scribe” came to designate an expert in the Torah. Their importance and fame grew when the Torah began to be rivaled and threatened by contemporary Hellenistic ideals. As experts in the Torah, Scribes could issue binding decisions, and so devolved into assuming further the role of legal jurists.

With the growth of the synagogue, scribes also became, teachers of the Torah, whose reputation was honored by the title “rabbi,” meaning “my great one.”  Their “control” over Torah was almost absolute and they were regarded (including by themselves) as the chosen few, those called by God to protect and pass on the Torah. In all actuality what they actually passed on was their own teachings which limited, obfuscated and sometimes, even challenges the Divine teaching of God. “Scribe” thus combined the offices of Torah professor, teacher and moralist, and civil lawyer. Their erudition and prestige reached legendary proportions in the day of Jesus. Only scribes (apart from the chief priests and members of the patrician families) could enter the Sanhedrin. Commoners deferred to scribes as they walked through the streets. The first seats in the synagogues were reserved for scribes, and people rose to their feet when they entered a room. They became the chosen frozen, focused on the technicalities of their own teachings rather than on the gracious and divine laws of God. That made themselves the arbiters, not only of the Torah but of God’s mercy and forgiveness: who needed it, who got it and who DIDN’T.

And then there’s Jesus, not a scribe, not even one of their recognized teachers. Yes, Jesus attended both temple and synagogue; but, He did so unlike any other teacher. He didn’t quote nor rely on any great scriptural or rabbinic names as precedent; He doesn’t reference any other teacher or rabbi. He’s not focused on the law or what was kosher. Rather, Jesus begins to speak on his own authority to tell people what God’s will is, how the kingdom is coming, and His hearers are amazed at the assumption of personal authority.  Jesus speaks in personal terms of a strikingly personal and intimate connection to God, revealing personal call and responsibility. Jesus spoke of a much bigger picture than the scribes. Jesus spoke of a God who wanted to fulfill the promises made earlier to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and Noah, to Jeremiah and Isaiah; a God loves and delights in His children, a God of mercy and forgiveness, a God who offers and opens and inaugurates the promised kingdom right there in their midst.

As we heard in last week’s gospel: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” But Jesus does not merely speak His teachings. There is also a new power in His teaching. It’s a strange commentary on the spiritual situation in Capernaum that a demoniac could worship in the synagogue with no sense of incongruity, confronted neither by the scribes nor any other member of the synagogue, let alone by the heavenly armies of God led by Michael the Archangel. Further, there is apparently no initial desire to be delivered from his affliction until confronted by Jesus.

It’s the demon who recognizes who Jesus is and seeks to gain control. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” The instant response of Jesus was to muzzle this involuntary demon-testimony and free the man from the incubus. Better translated ‘be muzzled,’ the original Greek word is both strong and blunt, like ‘shut up’ in modern colloquial English. It’s a technical term in Judaism “by which evil powers are brought into submission and the way is thereby prepared for the establishment of God’s righteous rule in the world.” The main emphasis is on the silencing of the demon. The evil spirit knows that Jesus’ mission is not simply to defeat one demon, but to lay waste the entire demonic power structure. The first clash with Satan’s minions following the temptation is a no-contest event. The strong Son of God prevails over evil and “binds the strong man.” Jesus will not accept compulsory witness to his god-head, when given by the powers of evil. Jesus is no ordinary exorcist, who has learned techniques for channeling and manipulating spirits; he comes, rather, as the sign and agent of God’s eschatological reign, in which there will be no room for demonic opposition to God. And there isn’t any. The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. Again, the original has been cleaned up a bit. It’s “convulsed” as much as ripped him apart, tore him into pieces, the same word as when a predatory animal gnaws the flesh off of wounded prey.

It’s no accident that this exorcism happens here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. With a quiet but compelling authority all His own Jesus not only taught but healed. Jesus spoke with a quiet but compelling authority all of his own. And with the same authority he spoke words of healing. Sometimes people for whom life had become a total nightmare—whose personalities seemed taken over by alien powers—confronted Jesus; indeed, they seem to have had a kind of inside track on recognizing him, knowing who he was and what he’d come to do. He’d come to stop the nightmare, to rescue people, both nations and individuals, from the destructive forces that enslaved them. So, whether it was shrieking demons, a woman with a fever, or simply whatever diseases people happened to suffer from, Jesus dealt with them, all with the same gentle but deeply effective authority.

All of this, though, is only part of the newness of the teaching of Jesus. Notice, that Mark references how Jesus taught and how the people responded. But Mark makes no mention of the content of Jesus’ teaching in that synagogue that day.  It’s an important and intentional omission. The accent falls rather on Jesus the teacher. The word for “teaching” occurs in various forms thirty-five times in Mark, and in all but one Jesus is the subject. In the synagogue of Capernaum, the “teaching” indeed amazes the congregation, but because of the authority of the teacher, which is so unlike that of the scribes. In the Gospel of Mark, the person of Jesus is more important than the subject of his teaching. If we want to know what the gospel or teaching of Jesus consists of, we are directed to its embodiment in Jesus the teacher.

And this is the most radical newness of the teachings of Jesus. “New” is a relational term, implying both comparison and contrast. Jesus does not merely teach about the Kingdom, He inaugurates it, establishing in His person a new and definitive reality, a divinely and ultimately established order of things.  This newness of Jesus acquires an eschatological connotation, related to a Jewish understanding of time and an apocalyptic world view. All of history is under the direction of God and oriented to its ultimate realization. Newness is characteristic of God’s ultimate and definitive action in history in Jesus Christ.

Later on, (in Mark 12:29 ff) a scribe will ask Jesus what’s the greatest commandment.  Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Jesus offers a recognized answer but in a whole new way. John portrays it in His gospel in slightly different words. At the last supper, following His example of the washing of their feet, Jesus said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Here, Jesus is not referring to the 10 Commandments nor to other specific tenants of the law. Jesus is referring to the heart of the law, to the essence of the 10 commandments, the love of God for each of us. This is the radical newness that shocked those listeners in the synagogue, that gave Jesus not only His authority and connection to the Father but also the power to drive out demons. This is the uncompromising newness that led to Jesus’s fame, to His clash with the religious and civil leaders of the day, and to his death. His is love so radical that God is willing to suffer the passion, bear the cross, and to die for us. The eternal, omniscient, omnipotent God is willing to shed all of that for us. 

Oh, and it is to be our love for others as well. John will later clarify this in his first and second letters: Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. And yet I do write a new commandment to you, which holds true in him and among you, for the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:7).

The newness of the teaching of Jesus which operated out and called for love. This was in direct contrast to scribes’ focus on the insignificant, petty legal details, on their willingness to judge and hate and cast aside. Indeed, Jesus handling of law and tradition must have seemed completely cavalier if not outright dismissive. And frightening in the upset such an outlook could have. The immediate result of the preaching and teaching of Jesus, of the life of Jesus was not harmony, but division and strife, exactly as Jesus would later warn, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword… whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This strife might lie concealed in the minds of the congregation, but it was made plain in the outcry of the demoniac. He, at least, bears unwilling witness to the person and work of Jesus, though he recoils instinctively from his purity, realizing that Jesus is a preacher of pure love, a reality with which he had nothing in common. Again, this is the newness of the teaching of Jesus. He wants us to love others and to love them as He loves us, with concern, without judgment, in gentleness, with consolation.

This is the radical nature of our call as individuals and as a community.  As individual disciples, we are called, as Peter and Andrew, James and John were to follow Jesus and to fish for others.  “Following” Jesus does cannot be reduced to lip service or to the shrunken, petrified world of the scribes and Pharisees focused only on the law and what we get. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, as Jesus Himself made clear, by loving as He did, by sacrificing as He did, by fishing for others as He did. This is the most basic definition of a disciple.

In Church culture, we often use the term “disciple” without defining it or, worse yet, without fully understanding it.  Since the term represents the heart of our marching orders from Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20). The word comes from the Greek word “mathetes” which, in turn comes from the verb “manthanein” meaning “to learn” (think of the term ‘math”) To be a disciple is to be a learner. TO be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be engaged in a lifelong process of learning from and about Jesus the Master, Jesus the teacher. The English term “Disciple” comes from the Latin, “Discipulus,” and provides the connotation that this learning is not haphazard but intentional and disciplined. To become a disciple is to commit to such a process.

To become a disciple is to accept the invitation of Jesus to Come and See. To become a disciple is to be welcomed by Jesus into the Heart of God, to enter into the dance that is the interchange of Trinitarian Divine life so fruitful and so filled that it leads to creation. To become a disciple is to accept the call to follow Jesus and to fish for others, to fish for those not necessarily of our choosing and in a manner far more radical than we are comfortable with. It’s not that we do any of this perfectly or that we are ready to finish the race.  Rather it is the beginning, a tentative step, an openness, a vulnerability to allow God to be at work on me, in me, with me, and, so importantly, through me.  This is what God wants of us as a pastorate. I dream of a community of disciples like this who are comfortable with their faith even as God calls them to make uncomfortable leaps, to leave their comfort zone. I dream of a community of disciples who realize that being comfortable in our faith doesn’t mean being complacent in service or accepting of a status quo that leaves anyone out no matter how different or difficult he or she is.  I dream of a community that is comfortable in their faith but so very anxious to live it out by following the new command of Jesus Christ.

Our Mission is to Love God. Love others. Make Disciples. Six simple words, but with the “new” command of Jesus something so radical as to change not only our lives but the whole world as well. Join us as Jesus invites us closer, as Jesus welcomes us and all into God’s Heart, as Jesus calls us to follow and to fish for others. Join us as we continue to look practically at what it means as individuals and as a community to follow Christ, to become comfortable with our faith, and uncomfortable with ourselves unless we share that faith with others, to live better the call Jesus gives. “Come and you will see.”

Peace,

 

 

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