Proper 16, Year B
Do you have to be a loser to be a Christian? The answer from this week's gospel might be "no, but it helps."
It really does, and it always has. Christianity was successful in its earliest days among women, slaves, and outcasts, and it's not hard to see why from our epistle reading for this Sunday. This passage often gets quoted starting with chapter 5, verse 22: "wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." Often, this verse even gets set apart from what precedes it by means of a subject heading. For example, my old NIV study bible has "Living as Children of Light" as a subject heading for a section ending at the end of verse 21, and then "Wives and Husbands" as a subject heading for a section starting with verse 22. This is a place where the huge, looming agendas of today's Christians have really messed our English bibles, starting with this:
There is no verb in verse 22. Here's a literal translation of Ephesians 5:22: "wives to your husbands as to the Lord." That's it. The "be subject" isn't in the verse at all, because verse 22 is just the second part of the sentence that starts in verse 21: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," and then we get a sketch of what MUTUAL submission might look like in the context of Christian marriage -- i.e., wives love their husbands as they love Christ, and husbands love their wives as Christ does the church.
The terms used in that example might sound lopsided at first. I think they are, and I think that's intentional: the terms in which husbands are invited to love their wives if anything demand that the husbands are MORE intentional in exercising humility. Ephesians tells husbands that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and since Ephesians is a letter written very intentionally in pauline tradition, it's worth looking at the central description of just what Christ's love for the church looks like in Philippians 2. Christ's love of the church isn't even remotely domineering; indeed, Christ humbled himself and became subject as a slave to all -- even to the point of death on a cross.
All that's to say that Ephesians puts forward MUTUAL submission as the standard for all Christian relationships, including the relationships between sisters and brothers in Christ who happen to be married to one another. So why the lopsided terminology with respect to marriage, in which women are invited to think of their care for their husbands as service to Christ, while husbands are invited to think of themselves behaving as slaves? It reminds me of a quip I've heard about why there are so many commandments in the Torah that apply to men but not to women, and why St. Paul spends so much more ink yelling at misbehaving men:
It's not that God loves them any less; it's just that they require more supervision.
That's a flip way of describing Ephesians 5's relatively brief comment that women are to be subject to their husbands, followed by much more ink devoted to how husbands are to be subject to their wives. First-century women -- and a lot of twenty-first-century women -- know all too well what submission looks like, but more of the men need a remedial instruction in the concept. That's not because men are particularly dim, but many of them have to overcome far more cultural baggage to be able to emulate Christ's humility -- much as many women have to overcome far more cultural baggage than men do before they can emulate Christ's boldness in proclaiming Good News and prophetically challenging those in power.
So there was a lot about the Christian message that was easier for women to see as Good News. Jesus called women, as he did men, to make an individual and very costly decision to follow him. That gave them a measure of responsibility and a burden to carry that was in many sense far greater and heavier than what their society would give them, but it wasn't hard for women to give up claims to patriarchal authority since nobody thought they could make them legitimately anyway.
But as Scott Bartchy (my supervisor, and author of a forthcoming book called Call No Man Father: The Apostle Paul's Vision of a Society of Siblings) likes to say, patriarchy isn't about the rule of all men over all women; it's about the domination of a few men over everyone else, men and women. In other words, there were a lot of men to whom Jesus' call -- the responsibility of the costly decision to follow him, but also the promise expressed in the Beatitudes that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and those despised and persecuted would be honored -- came as equally Good News of freedom from patriarchal domination.
We see that throughout the canonical gospels, as a motley band of misfit women and men are formed into prophets and pastors who will change the world. The path on which we follow Jesus is not easy. Jesus' values are not the world's values, and people who place Jesus' values at the center of their decisions about how they want to spend their money, use their power, and treat other people will find that the more closely the follow Jesus, the more friends, relatives, bosses, co-workers, and onlookers who aren't following Jesus will shake their heads and cluck their tongues.
Treat poor people with MORE honor than rich people, even rich people who donate very generously to the church? That's nonsense, by worldly terms -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to the letter of James. Prioritize a stranger in need as you would your own mother or brother, even if that means placing strangers above your own flesh and blood? That's crazy talk according to the world's "family values" -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Jesus. Looking for ways to exercise charity instead of to win lawsuits over someone trying to exploit you? That's just stupid according to the world -- but it's biblical Christianity, according to Paul. Respond with aid instead of violence when you and your family or nation is attacked? That's insanity in the world's reckoning, but that's the witness of the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation, the witness of Christ crucified and then raised and exalted by God.
That's a hard message to preach -- no easier now than it was in Jesus' or Paul's day. It's a hard message for many to receive. Who, then, can accept it?
People like Peter. Jesus knew that what he had to say was nonsense at best and destructive subversion of everything godly or good at worst in the world's eyes. He heard even his closest friends and followers muttering, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And when he said, "do you also wish to go away?" Peter said, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
I hear two things in Peter's response that have come to be central in how I preach Jesus' hard words. First, Peter knew the cost of his old way of life. I love the way Luke portrays the calling of the first disciples, when Peter decides to follow Jesus. Peter set out that day as a fisher with one question on his mind: Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family? There was rent to pay for the boat, the cost of materials for the nets, taxes imposed by occupying armies and local officials, and it required luck as well as backbreaking labor to have anything left to eat after the rich and powerful had all taken their share. Peter wasn't a recreational angler; he was a poor man trying to get enough to get by, and that can be a very anxious existence. So every day, the question on his mind was "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" More than once, he might have muttered to himself, "this is no way to live!" -- but what choice did he have?
Jesus offered him a choice. It was a hard choice, but Peter was willing to consider it because he knew the cost of NOT following Jesus, of staying where he was and doing what he did, of staying within the network of relationships and obligations he knew.
But that's not all. Choosing to follow Jesus wasn't just about choosing the unknown over "the devil you know." Luke says that on that fateful day by the lake of Gennesaret, the miraculous catch of fish Peter drew was so large that it threatened to swamp the boats. In other words, in one moment the big question on Peter's mind changed from "will I catch enough fish today to survive?" to "can I gather enough people to take in all of this abundance?" That's what made Peter a fisher of people: in Christ, he came to believe that the world in which he grew up -- the world in which we need to be anxious about all of the causes for worry the world gives us -- is passing away, and he had a chance NOW to experience the abundant life of the world to come.
In short, Peter not only knew the cost of staying in his old life, but also had caught a glimpse of the possibilities, however costly they come, of Jesus' new life. So Peter said, "Lord, where else would we go?" -- since the possibilities the world presents have their own cost, and it's far steeper for a far less fulfilling reward -- and "you have the words of eternal life" -- since he saw that the longings for abundant and eternal life instilled in him by God as a human being made in God's image would find their truest fulfillment in Jesus' way, the way of the cross.
People say that every preacher really has just one sermon that gets preached in a slightly different way each time s/he steps in the pulpit. I think I've got about three or four, but this is the sermon I preach on Jesus' hard words. You can see an example here, in a sermon on the Beatitudes I did for a wealthy congregation I knew well. I ask these central questions:
- What is the cost, the difficulty of the point with which God is challenging us? We can't really move forward in discipleship if we're not intentionally walking the path of the cross; if we decide we want to follow Jesus because it's the respectable or easy thing to do, we'll drop everything but the name the second the path proves counter-cultural or difficult.
- What is the cost of staying where we are, of swallowing worldly values of achievement and power-over, of getting as much as we can to call our own and then guarding it jealously?
- How will be more able to take in Jesus' abundant and eternal life if we do choose to follow Jesus, however much that challenges and stretches us? What is that life in Christ like?
The bottom line, I think, is that like Peter, we follow Jesus as Lord because we've seen the toll that following worldly authorities takes, and because we've glimpsed the joy, peace, and freedom that following Jesus can bring. There is much that is challenging and costly moving forward on that road, but it is what we were created to do, and it is the way to full, eternal, and abundant life.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 12, Year B
2 Kings 2:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16 - link to NRSV text
Mark 6:45-52 - link to NRSV text
"They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52).
But what was it that they didn't understand? I've heard a lot of sermons over the years that suggest that the line of thinking that would have indicated Jesus' followers did understand would be something like this:
"Hey, this guy managed to make a few loaves and fishes feed thousands of people. He must be powerful. Heck, only God has that kind of power. I know ... he must be God!"
But that's not really the issue, and that's not how Jesus' followers would have thought or ought to have thought. Jesus' followers knew something that I think we also know intuitively -- and if not intuitively, by cold hard experience in the world:
Not all power in this world is used benevolently.
A lot of it isn't. Indeed, we tend not to think of power when we have it, or when it's used to our benefit; we think about it a lot when it's being used against us. That's also when we tend to think about justice as a category; power is used to an end with which we don't agree, and nine times out of ten we'll call it unjust, or at least unfair. Ask any teenager, and you'll probably hear a lot about it: the powers of this world can be capricious or malevolent ("out to get you") as well as just and good. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I so much enjoy ministry alongside teens. They're willing to speak up when they think they see power used capriciously or destructively; they understand that the powerful aren't necessarily good, and often they haven't bought in to the idea that the distribution of power in the world is pretty much as it ought to be.
Jesus' followers certainly knew that. You'd have to be living under a rock since infancy not to see it. The Roman Empire occupied not just Palestine, but the whole world as they knew it, and they cared mostly if not entirely about whether taxes were paid, commerce uninterrupted (see the "taxes paid" point), trouble minimized, and their power acknowledged as supreme on earth (sounds familiar, actually -- the same could be said of most empires). The same goals applied when it came to appointing local authorities -- building a city dedicated to the glory of Caesar (and paid for with taxes on the poor, not from compromising the lifestyles of the rich -- another phenomenon that sounds familiar to us) earned you a lot more points in the competition for Rome's favor than sweating about the welfare of peasants. And spiritual powers came in the same range as worldly ones -- some good, many capricious or malevolent. When a wonder-worker came to town, people would be asking not whether maybe he did it with wires or mirrors, but whether it was done with good or evil power. Miracles proved power, not goodness or godliness, and levitating around the town square would inspire more fear than worship or trust.
That's a theme we see in Mark from the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It comes up explicitly in Mark 3:20-27, when the scribes from Jerusalem question whether Jesus is casting out demons with the power of other evil spirits, and comes into play in many explanations of the so-called "messianic secret" in Mark -- Jesus' telling those healed by him not to tell others. But I've been thinking lately that the "Beelzebub controversy" in Mark 3 is a part of a broader theme prominent in Mark: the theme of power and its proper and godly use. It's a theme that comes up repeatedly, and on the day before our moving van arrives, I don't have time to treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves, except to point to the discussion that sets the context for Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, namely Mark 10:32-45, in which Jesus talks about death at the hands of Gentiles and new life to follow, and answers the request of James and John to sit at his right and left with what I believe is the centerpiece of Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Mark:
You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
So what does all this have to do with this Sunday's gospel? Our lectionary editors' wise choice of Hebrew bible readings for this week is a clue: the way in which Jesus uses his power over waters and the deep evokes, as does Elijah's parting the Jordan, the story of the Exodus, of a tiny and enslaved people being led out of slavery to a worldly power and into the desert where they are free to become a people who use power differently -- to feed the poor and care for the widow and orphan, or, as the prophet Micah sums up what Israel was formed as a people to do, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What Jesus' followers didn't understand about the loaves wasn't that they showed that Jesus had access to power -- Jesus' enemies said that much.
What they didn't understand was what their response ought to be. They didn't understand what it meant that God was, through Jesus, feeding all the people such that each had enough and no one accumulated too much -- much as God fed the Israelites in the desert with manna. They didn't understand that God's power over winds and waters in Jesus was like the parting of the Red Sea. They didn't understand that in Jesus, God was fulfilling the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 to raise up a prophet like Moses to do what Moses did. They didn't understand that what God was and is doing through Jesus is no less than forming a motley and marginalized crowd into a people, one people, God's people -- a people called to do with power what Jesus does with his: healing, empowering, self-giving even to the Cross, to knit together a whole Body joined in love and building up its weakest members.
That's who we are -- what we have been freed through Jesus to become.
Thanks be to God!