Monthly Archives: February 2015

Jesus Expects Disciples to Inhabit the Kingdom

I indicated yesterday that I’ve been puzzling over Mark 4:35-41 lately. Mark doesn’t indicate what the disciples should have done, so we can’t say with certainty. From the larger context, however, it appears that Jesus was expecting them to calm the storm themselves.

If this sounds outrageous, keep in mind that to this point Jesus has been announcing the kingdom of God, declaring that the reign of God has invaded the realm dominated by Satan and demonic powers. This invading and emerging realm is bringing with it the healing of creation and of humanity. God’s original commission to humanity was to exercise rule and dominion over creation, overseeing its flourishing and managing its life-giving and humanity-sustaining capacities.

Humanity has failed to rule creation for the glory of God, but this is precisely what Jesus has been doing in his ministry. Yes, he is God himself, but he is also the true human. He is overseeing the spread of God’s rule of shalom wherever he goes, freeing people from demons and sickness and calling everyone to enter the life-giving kingdom of God. And he has called the disciples to be “with him,” to partner with him in spreading God’s rule and calling others to enter it.

Rembrandt

Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee)

 

A clear instance of Jesus expecting his disciples to do the impossible comes in Mark 6. The miracle in which Jesus fed five thousand people with a few fish and loaves was supposed to be done by the disciples. Jesus challenges them in Mark 6:37 to feed the many thousands who have come to hear him.

And he is right to expect that his disciples could perform such a feat since they had just returned from a months-long mission during which they themselves cast out many demons and healed many who were sick (v. 12). Because they are with Jesus, they have access to the miracle-working power of the kingdom of God. They have seen it in action and Jesus here expects them to live into the fullness of it.

The disciples, like the rest of us, have well-worn patterns of responding to crises from within the realm of darkness and (self-)destruction, responses of fear and of failing to live into the reality of the kingdom. One of these responses to get out of the way and hope and pray that God will act. But God asserts his sovereign rule through humans whom he invites to embody his benevolent and life-giving rule through new creation oriented patterns of life. Mark narrates here how Jesus expects his disciples to begin to embody God’s rule by drawing on the power available to them.

 


Why Does Jesus Rebuke His Disciples?

Mark 4:35-41 is a fascinating passage. And, like many episodes in this Gospel, some aspects of it are head-scratchingly mystifying.

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Why does Jesus rebuke his disciples? It seems that they recognize clearly that they’re in trouble and that Jesus is the one who can do something about it. They call on him for help and he rescues them. But why does he then rebuke them? Didn’t they do what they should have? Didn’t they call on him to save them? From one perspective, it seems that he should have commended them!

Is it because they speak to him disrespectfully and sarcastically? I can see how some people might think this, especially since the question may imply that Jesus doesn’t care about their fate. But that seems to be a notion that stems from a post-Victorian conception of Christian piety in which politeness and placidity are supreme virtues. The psalmists and prophets of Israel are anything but polite and the disciples’ speech reflects how Scripture often portrays people wrestling with God, often in agitated fashion, as in Psalm 44:23-24:

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face

and forget our misery and oppression?

Does Jesus rebuke them merely for being afraid? Would he rather they be confident in some way as the boat continues to take on water, eventually sinking?

So, why does he rebuke them and what else did he expect them to do?


Preachers Behaving Like Brian Williams

Brian Williams has been in some trouble over the last few weeks for taking liberties with his experiences while on reporting assignments. He admitted that he exaggerated claims about being fired upon while in a helicopter in Iraq and NBC News suspended him for six months. The substance of objections to allowing Williams to remain in his post with NBC News is that he has lost credibility. If he is willing to embellish his personal narrative, can he be a trusted figure when delivering the news?

While considering this, a related question struck me: How should Christians regard pastors and preachers who embellish their personal narratives in sermons?

This phenomenon isn’t rare. When I was in college, I heard a speaker in chapel relate a very interesting anecdote about an interchange in a pre-marital counseling session. About a month later, another preacher used the very same anecdote with reference to himself! It struck me as very odd, but I didn’t give it much thought. A few years later, while on a ministry staff, someone shared an account about another pastor. A friend of mine sarcastically exclaimed, “hey, what a great story! Next time I preach I’m going to use that about myself!” We all laughed because we recognized that pastors did this sort of thing.

I can recall another time when a pastor I admired spoke of a situation that I had first-hand knowledge of, and I knew that it didn’t take place the way he reported it. But it served his rhetorical purpose from the pulpit. One final example: A small controversy erupted about eight years ago on our college campus regarding a chapel speaker. He preached an entire message from someone else’s online sermon, using even the same illustrations and personal anecdotes from the original as if they were his own.

Because so many sermons and preaching resources can be found online, I’m confident that such accounts could be multiplied many times over.

It seems to me that because credibility and integrity are so crucial for ministers, Christians ought to have serious objections when preachers embellish their personal narratives in sermons. Such embellishment is deceit. It’s a way of improving one’s image in the eyes of others, attempting to appear more virtuous.

Not only is this deceitful, it often leaves listeners deflated and discouraged. When pastors portray their lives as godlier than the average Christian, they make following Jesus something inaccessible to others. This mischaracterizes discipleship, making it something that only our pastor, the spiritual superhero, can do. The rest of us are stuck being second-class Christians, since our lives aren’t filled with such interesting and dramatic episodes of spiritual courage.

And this dynamic breeds inauthenticity. Pastors who portray themselves as above the fray and holier than the rest must maintain that image. They can’t risk being vulnerable and honest about their ordinary lives and mundane struggles. They can no longer afford to portray themselves as fairly average, their days filled with mostly unremarkable moments and sometimes awkward episodes. And the rest of us won’t be honest about our struggles, either, since we’re busy hiding how short we fall of the (supposedly) high standard set by the pastor and his manufactured anecdotes.

Discussions of what Brian Williams has done rightly include notions of credibility and integrity. This is also a good opportunity for pastors and preachers to reflect on how they can maintain integrity in reporting about their own lives.


Brooks on Rigorous Forgiveness

There are many interesting angles on the “scandal” involving Brian Williams of NBC News. But David Brooks took the opportunity to reflect on the character of forgiveness. It’s an excellent discussion. He notes that genuine forgiveness has nothing to do with sentiment. It faces down hard and harsh realities:

Forgiveness is often spoken of in sentimental terms — as gushy absolution for everything, regardless of right or wrong. But many writers — ranging from Hannah Arendt and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to modern figures like Jeffrie Murphy and L. Gregory Jones — have tried to think hard about rigorous forgiveness, which balances accountability with compassion.

His conclusion:

But the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?

I would add that forgiveness and reconciliation may involve strenuous efforts, but they are necessary to free both perpetrator and victim from enslaving guilt, desires for revenge, and the soul-corrupting bitterness of grudges.