*Given at Midtown Christian Community, one year ago today*
What in the world are we doing here as Midtown? We’re a group of friends committed to one another and committed to loving one another in the name of Jesus. And we’ve committed ourselves to one another because God committed himself to us. We’re a community that has already committed itself to love and serve one another, knowing that as we embody the life of God on earth—here in Springfield—we will experience the presence of God in power, and that has a super-abounding effect on everyone around us. When we love one another in practical and sustained ways, the presence of God is stirred up among us, in us, and around us, to empower and enliven us, and to radiate blessing and God’s own life to the surrounding neighbourhood.
Midtown is a really pathetic “work” in terms of the world. We meet in this dingy, moldy old building and we don’t have any full-time people. There is much that we don’t do very well. The compulsion, then, for this place and our community requires that we see through all the distractions and failures to the beauty and power of this place and this ministry—the beauty and wonder of each other and of all us together as a community. And that, of course, requires that God is truly present among us, always opening our eyes, always giving us life, always renewing and redeeming us.
When we gather on Saturday nights, we are not putting on a show. If that is what we do, we’re a miserable and spectacular failure. When we meet on Saturday nights, we’re spending family time together. We’re meeting to be reminded of what is real and what reality is all about. We’re here to be reminded that God so loved the world that He sent his Son, who came into this enslaved world and loved the unlovely, the rebel, the outcast, the downtrodden, the poor, the orphan, and the widow. And he gave himself unto death for the healing of the world.
We gather to celebrate this reality, and to put our heads together to figure out how to be the Body of Jesus in the world—how to be the hands of Jesus as he seeks to love the world and give it life. And we gain strength to actually put those plans into action, to love and serve one another and this little portion of Springfield in the name of Jesus. So we gather to find out what it would look like practically to translate John 3:16 theologically: “For God so loved Springfield, that he gave Midtown…”
That’s what Midtown is all about. It’s about giving, loving, serving, knowing that throwing ourselves into this “work” is putting ourselves in position to be drawn into the very heart of God, feeding off his joy and feeling his heart break as he looks out on his lost sheep who desperately need the Shepherd.
We’re going to do again what we did last Fall – we’re going to study Mark throughout the Fall up until Advent, after which we’ll follow the church calendar. We’ll have the schedule printed up that we’ll follow throughout the fall so that you can read that chunk of Mark that we’ll cover and be ready to discuss it.
Mark is perhaps the most challenging of the four Gospels. It’s written in a very jarring and dramatic way. Next week we’re going to study Mark 8:31-9:29. Several lessons we’ll hopefully learn from Mark:
First, we’ll learn about Jesus – who is he and what does it mean to follow him? What does it mean to inhabit the Kingdom of God, to lay our lives down for others, to participate with God in seeking and saving what is lost? Our hope is that as we study Mark, our minds and hearts will be transformed so that we come to gain a clearer vision of what this will mean for our community.
Second, we’ll be confronted with the ways in which we are complacent. In Mark, Jesus constantly calls religious authorities to account and he favors outsiders. Jesus spends time with those that society considers of no account. We might say – “hey, great! That’s us! We’re not the hoity toity of society and we’ve all left the comfort of the evangelical churches we could be part of. We’re the ones who ‘get’ Jesus and what he’s all about.”
But beware. That’s just what the disciples did in Mark. They “got” Jesus in the beginning, but then they became complacent and Jesus begins to become a bit of a mystery to them. They become confused and start to fight one another and can’t understand what he’s saying. He ends up calling Peter “Satan,” and asks if they are the ones who have hardened hearts.
The lesson here is that we must not take Jesus lightly. We must not take following Jesus lightly. We can’t put our discipleship to Jesus on cruise control, or presume that we have an inside track with God to any extent. We all need to live consciously. We all need to make our Kingdom identities our fundamental identity, and act from it at point after point.
What will that mean for us?
I can’t quite say, but it might mean that we end up responding to the constant calls for repentance in Mark in ways that we didn’t anticipate. What relational dynamics need to be repented of? What personal idolatries need to be identified and repented of? What well-worn community divisions here at Midtown need to be identified and redeemed?
The form that Kingdom-oriented repentance takes may surprise us, but we know that any repentance we do will only fire up God’s presence among us and stir up his life in us.
I’m sure we’ll see more of that as we go along.
Third, we’ll talk lots about living in the Kingdom of God over against the Kingdom of this world. Mark is written to encourage disciples to continue in faithfulness, to persevere in following Jesus despite persecution and conflict. Throughout Mark, Jesus faces conflict at every point. He is challenging religious authorities who have used their positions to accumulate even more power, exploiting those they are supposed to serve. He also faces conflict with the powers of darkness, as he casts out demons and frees people from Satan’s grip.
Mark’s readers, of course, lived during the time of the Roman empire, and this provided a serious and immediate challenge to their Christian faith.
How should we apply this dynamic in Mark? What empire do we currently inhabit that provides pressure on our little community, on each of our walks in truth? I think we’d be foolish to say that we live in an empire that provides persecution, even though some of us might believe that we’re persecuted for our faith in the public arena. I hardly think that’s the case, but even if that were true, being thought lightly of by some television talking head isn’t the same as having your parents hauled off to be mauled by lions.
I think we ought to consider our situation within what one theologian calls the “empire of desire.” In the ridiculously rich West, we currently inhabit an “empire of desire,” subject to a wide variety of pressures that call on us to invest our lives, energies, money, fantasies, imaginations, and time involved in all sorts of pursuits that are very far from persecution, but just as threatening to Christian faith—perhaps even more so, because they’re so subtle.
In Mark 4, Jesus talks about how the word is broadcast like seed being sown in a field—the preaching of the Kingdom goes out and it finds a variety of soils—different kinds of hearts. After telling the parable, he then gives the interpretation:
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown” (Mark 4:13-20).
Mark is written to a situation where people are being persecuted and the word is often snatched away by Satan immediately after hearing it, or because of persecution, they fall away.
But I think we ought to consider hearing Mark from the standpoint of the third soil and see the threat to our perseverance as the many other things that are available “out there” that draw out our hearts and lead us away from the simplicity of following Jesus. And this following Jesus takes the form of faithfulness to one another and a commitment to creatively love one another and this neighbourhood in the name of Jesus.
All of us are stretched and stressed. Most of us are part of the middle-class pursuit of establishing our identities through involvement in activities or climbing our career ladders. We don’t live in an empire of persecution, but one that manipulates and enflames our desires into a frenzy so that we have chaotic and disordered lives—too busy to be Kingdom people. We need to hear Mark so that we inhabit shalom and experience the rest and joy of the gospel along with our brothers and sisters in the community of faith.
That is the only way we’ll be the kind of community that is good news for this neighborhood.
Mark is a trouble-making Gospel. Jesus is always stirring the pot and going after anyone and everyone who is complacent. But he always does so in order that he might bring people into Gospel pathways. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of trouble Mark stirs up in our community – all with the purpose of God redeeming us for the glory of King Jesus.
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.