Give and Take (Part 1)
Give and Take (Part 1)
September 16, 2018
So, I love a good story! Don’t you? Some good stories keep us in the dark and force us to discover the unfolding plot along with the characters. We struggle to put the pieces together. We make the connections. Then, a good storyteller throws in a twist that makes us see everything differently. A great storyteller leads us to believe that we have seen the big twist and then blows us away with a final twist that is not contrived and that makes the whole story come together. So, (spoiler alert!) the guy in “The Sixth Sense” turns out to have been dead the whole time; Tom Hanks life off the island in “Castaway” totally depends on him having saved the FedEx Package with the artist’s symbol on the front because that package and that symbol will lead him to the next love great of his life; and Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” turns out to have some serious mother issues.
Other great stories tell us the essential truth upfront. Just about every Greek tragedy tells us, “Hey…here is the tragic story of…” Here’s how “Romeo and Juliet” begins: “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Bruce Springsteen (who is almost Shakespearean, right?) captured the spirit of 9/11 by singing about the firefighters, “Up the stairs, into the fire…” We know what’s up those stairs! Generally, when we know what’s coming, if the story is well-crafted, we will sit on the edge of our seats and squirm as we watch the characters discover what we already know.
Historically, the Gospel of Mark has been greatly underestimated, in my opinion, as a literary work. I think this has to do with its brevity, with the economy of it’s language (hardly a wasted word) and with the least satisfying ending resurrection account of all. Of course, if you are a fan of great writing, things like brevity and an economy of language ought to call up a whole host of amazing writers. (Try Hemingway, for starters!) So, in part, I find myself wanting to argue on Mark’s behalf.
Let the argument start here: the very first thing Mark tells us is: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s the first verse of the Gospel. “May I have your attention please? Here is what you need to know—Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Got it?” We know the truth. For a large portion of the Gospel, no one else does—just us and, apparently, the demons when Jesus heals people. Everyone else seems clueless—which is exactly what Mark wants us to understand: Jesus was the Son of God and almost no one understood that.
The second layer that Mark lays on with literary mastery is the Messianic secret. So, when Jesus heals someone, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. When the demons recognize him, Jesus tells them to be silent. So, it is not just that no one “gets it.” It is also essential to not rely on someone else’s understanding of who Jesus was since their understanding would likely be wrong or the source would be less than faithful (the demons). Rather, what is essential is that everyone has to wrestle with who he is until we come to see the truth for ourselves. So, Mark keeps telling us about blind people who come to see and deaf people who hear, in part, because we are blind and deaf to the truth. Great storytellers tell us stories that lead us to see the meaning that lies beneath the surface action. Great storytellers lead us to core truths.
In one of my favorite texts from Mark that immediately precedes our text, Jesus heals a blind man. However, the first attempt fails. The man says he, “can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Even with Jesus’ help, the first step leads only to a partial vision. Of course, Jesus hangs with that man and tries again (which ought to be a great source of encouragement to all of us who know that our vision of the world has changed but also know that it is not clear.) This is the point—we can be on the right path but our vision can be more than a little clouded.
Or, in our text for this morning, we can be blinded by the past and the expectations that we carry that are grounded in the past. So, in this turning point in the Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples the question that Mark has been getting his readers to ask all along: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples offer up all sorts of examples. Some people think you are John the Baptist, back from the dead. Some people think you are Elijah. Some people think you are one of the prophets but they are not sure which one, yet.
Think about this… We are programmed to understand the present by using what we’ve learned in the past. We expect things to fit into the categories that we’ve used before. On 9/11, when the first plane had flown into the tower, we all expected that what we were seeing was an accident. When a hotel catches on fire, one of the biggest challenges is to get people to take the alarm seriously because they have never been in a hotel that has caught on fire before. I read not long ago about a guy who received a call at 4:00 a.m. from the Nobel Prize Committee and hung up—because that just couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be real.
We use the past this way because sometimes it works. There is a lot of useful insight and information that can help us if we carry the wisdom of the past with us into the present. The wisdom of the past can provide a little much needed (but often false) sense of security that “we’ve seen it all before.” Who wants to walk around just waiting to get blindsided, right? However, when the past becomes the dominant way in which we see the present, two things happen. Old prejudices get perpetuated because change just “upsets the apple cart.” And, we stand to completely misunderstand anything that is truly new.
Here is the problem: the world has never met Jesus, the Christ before. However, a whole host of people had imagined a Messiah. So, when Jesus turns the question to the disciples and asks them who they think he is, Peter—ever the bold disciple—steps up and answers: “You are the Christ, the Messiah!” Perfect answer, right? “A+” for Peter, right? Well, he’s got the title but he doesn’t have the meaning. The only thing worse than not having a clue what’s going on is thinking that we’ve got the answer down pat.
This little ticking time bomb of a turn only takes a moment to explode. Jesus tells them to tell no one this truth. He practically raises a finger to his lips and says, “Shhhh!” Then he proceeds to tell them the truth that none of them want to hear: the Son of man is going to suffer. He is going to be tried and found guilty by just about every authority around. He is going to be killed. And then, (and I’m pretty sure everyone was too terrified to still be listening at this point) after three days he will rise again.
In the translation that we read this morning, Peter literally grabs Jesus in protest. Jesus takes a look around and all the disciples are reeling in the face of this truth. They don’t have a clue what to believe. Jesus looks Peter—his best friend in this world—in the eye and says, “Get out of my way!” He calls his friend, “Satan.” Why? Because Satan was the personification of temptation: “Don’t tempt me, Peter.” And our text concludes, “You don’t have any idea how God works.”
At this point, we ought to feel ourselves reeling a bit, too: “Hey, I thought if we don’t have anything nice to say then we should be quiet. Isn’t that in the Bible somewhere?” (No!) This is a more blunt, forceful Jesus than most of us cut our teeth on in Sunday School years ago. This Jesus makes us feel that if the old hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is true, then that may not be such good news.
Here’s the thing though. If we are stuck in our present understanding and that understanding is truly blinding us to what’s happening right in front of us, it is going to take something pretty blunt, someone who is pretty honest, something that jars us loose, to get us to see things differently. Peter, along with just about everyone else, was sure that the Messiah—in Greek, the Christ (Surprise…Christ wasn’t his last name!) was going to be a powerful figure who would liberate the people of Israel from oppression. He was going to be a warrior/king like David—only without the whole Bathsheba problem. The Messiah wasn’t going to suffer and be disgraced and die. The Messiah was going to win and everyone on “the team” was going to win with him.
Before we dismiss this understanding, take an honest look at how we still cling to the God who wins in the worldly sense. Look at how much we want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses (not a God who suffers with us), a God who makes us prosperous (not a God who puts wealth in context and focusses on the poor), a God who keeps us safe and secure (not a God who keeps telling us that there are things that matter more than being safe), a God who guarantees our military victories and who is responsible for our sports team’s best plays (not a God who seems to keep caring about the people who seem to be the losers).
We live in a “What’s in it for me?” world and worship a God who answers, “I love you but you need to know—this is not about you or what you want.” To really take that to heart is to hear something you will never hear in this world. This life is not about getting. It is about giving. This life is not about deciding what the world owes us. It is about waking up to the sheer grace that we have been given this amazing chance to live and love and trying, in some small way, to be a source of grace for someone else.
It is so tempting. Jesus has that right. It can even be the folks who love us most who tempt us the most into avoiding what’s hard and true, into skipping the real suffering that faith will entail. And yet, Jesus brings us to the brink of something entirely different. This life is not about getting what you can while you can. This life is about self-sacrificing love. We’ll spend some more time on this next week.