As we explore the remainder of Mark chapter 6, we encounter four passages (technically, called pericopes). The first is an account of the beheading of John the Baptist (6.14-29). A couple things jump out at to the reader. First, why does Mark place this report here, and not place it earlier in his Gospel where he introduced us to John and tells us about his ministry (where Luke places his account of John’s execution)? Mark interrupts his narrative about the disciples’ and Jesus’ ministry to tell us about John’s murder. As I implied in the last blog post, there’s a reason! Mark wants his readers (and the hearers of his Gospel as it would be read aloud from one congregation to another) to understand the cost of discipleship. There is a clear pattern being established by Mark:
John ministers and is delivered up to death,
Jesus ministers and is delivered up to death, and
The disciples minister and are delivered up to death (explicitly stated in 8.34; 13.9-13).
[For a powerful look into the meaning of Jesus’ death and its relationship to his disciples, see:
Fleming Routledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015)].
Second, a reading of the event where John’s fate is sealed shows a collection of vain power present in the people who connive his death. There is an incestuous circle of governmental, military, and commercial interests at work. In Mark’s Gospel, the court of Herod, like the Sanhedrin, is viewed with stark realism, seen as deeply corrupt and cynical, where even good intentions are engulfed by ambition, envy, fear, and compromise. In this ecology of pathology, God’s servant becomes a victim, an instrument to be used by others for petty and vile ends. A story like this rings true, of course… to our reading of our times and our analysis of so many institutions that penetrate our lives. By the way, when I mention the “incestuous circle of governmental, military, and commercial interests,” I have named the core elements of a system political theorists call fascism. [But note that fascist regimes are usually aided by majoritarian religious institutions as well, e.g., at present: Hinduism in Modi’s India, Russian Orthodoxy in Russia, and conservative “evangelicalism” (in a nominal sense) in the United States].
In verses 30-44 we come to the story of the feeding of the 5000 men (who knows how many women and children?). This is the only miracle found in all four Gospels. The separate story of the feeding of the 4000 is found in Mark and Matthew. It is easy to see why masses of poor people who lived day by day, hoping for their “daily bread” with little pretention to financial security and access to three square meals a day, would cherish the memories and stories of Jesus feeding the hungry. After all, how many of our own cherished memories include meals shared with friends and family? We’re told that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (.34). And out of this compassion, Jesus provides something to meet the material needs of these shepherd-less people. The Greek word for “compassion” means, literally, to have one’s “guts torn apart” (spagchnizomia). We think, in our present moment, of Sudan, Libya, Morocco, Ethiopia, and elsewhere… are our guts “torn apart” with compassion? And what are we doing as a compassionate response to such
Above I referred to this event as a miracle. But was it? Mark does not tell us that the people experienced it as a miracle (unlike his habit of doing so, usually noting that crowds were “astonished” by Jesus after his miracles). Perhaps the “miracle” of the event is the triumph of a radically different economic and social model—one of sharing within a community, over against a model of individualist consumption in the anonymous marketplace. Rejecting the idea of sending people off to buy food for themselves, Jesus tells the disciples, “Let’s see what we have here,” in effect, “Let’s see what we can come up with.” It turns out, plenty! Everyone ate until they were full, and there was food left over! When Jesus referred to the people as sheep without a shepherd, he was not using a slander against the people. This was a common trope to describe the lack of decent political/religious leadership in ancient Israel. Jesus’ observation is about the lack of leadership that might have provided the infrastructure for a caring, sharing community materialized in economic and political forms (cf. Acts 2). Jesus’ language here is sacramental. Mark tells us that he took the bread and “looked up… and blessed… and broke... and gave it” (.41). The same words are used, of course, at the Last Supper with his disciples (14.22), words we repeat when we share the Lord’s Supper with one another. Jesus feeds us. He nourishes us. He sustains us. As Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel, he is the very Bread of Life (John 6).
The disciples have just returned from their adventure in ministry in nearby villages. Jesus sees that they need respite, rest, and prayer. He insists that they take a boat to the other side of the “sea” (actually, a lake) so as to escape the crowds. He goes to a “mountain” to pray. While on the water, during the fourth watch (3:00-6:00 am) Jesus can see that they have encountered a storm (again!) that imperils them. So, he walks out to the boat. Unlike the feeding of the 5000 where we cannot be sure that a supernatural event took place, here, we can only understand the event as supernatural. Everyone knows the story of Jesus walking on water. Whereas Hellenistic miracle stories depicted gods and heroes walking on the sea, this text is tied to Old Testament pictures of a God who “trampled the waves of the sea… who passes by… and I see him not” (Job 9.8, 11; cf. Ps. 77.19; Isa. 43.16). What is this image of God “trampling” the waves? The ancient Jews feared large bodies of water—the location of Leviathan and other sea monsters, and the cold dark depths. Thus a modest lake is for them, a “sea.” Recall the first creation account, the swirling, boiling, dark and wild waters upon the earth, before God creates the safety of land. When Jesus walks on the water to his disciples, he too walks as a force above, a conqueror of the dark and evil forces below. In the earlier storm, Jesus shouted the storm down and told it to stop. Here, he tramples upon it. In both stories, the faith (trust) of the disciples is put to the test. In both cases, the question was whether their fear would get the best of them, or if Jesus would get the best of them. “Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid” (.50). The Greek form of “it is I” (ego eimi) is used in the Gospels, especially John, to echo God speaking to Moses at the burning bush, who declares “his” name as “I Am” (“Who I Am”). We are reminded of Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel: “I have spoken these things to you so that you might have peace in me. In the world (cosmos) you have suffering; but take heart—I have overcome the world (cosmos) (16.33). After the encouragement to trust and courage, Mark notes their astonishment at the storm’s ending and Jesus’ presence, and he notes that they had not “understood about the loaves, while their hearts remained hard” (52). Jesus’ powerful (let alone miraculous!) works in our midst ought to have the effect of building up our trust and the deterioration of the surprise that comes to us when he provides!
When they get out of the boat, they are near the village of Gennesaret. In this region, they find people all around bringing their sick into the spaces where Jesus and the disciples might be encountered, even carrying them upon their beds. In villages, towns, marketplaces, and open fields, they set the ill and afflicted down, so that they might simply touch the fringe of his cloak. And “all who touched it were healed” (.56). In contrast to the disciples (the ones “sent out” to minister to others!)— the crowds demonstrated immediate and powerful faith! Immediate and transparent faith, or struggling to understand, or the hostility to Jesus evident among some of the Pharisees and Scribes— these are ways that people continue to respond to Jesus. Perhaps they are also ways that we all respond to Jesus at one time or another. Each kind of response has certainly been a part of my journey with Jesus. It is so very good to know that he keeps showing up and offering healing regardless. Our faithfulness to Jesus has little to do with his faithfulness to us.
Thanks for reading,
If you’ve ever seen the logo of the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches, you seen a boat on rocky waves, the boat’s mast is also a cross. The boat that is safe harbor (so to speak) even in midst of a threatening storm is an image that has long inspired and comforted Christians. That image comes from the story of Jesus’ calming of the storm in Mark 4.35-41. Jesus didn’t just calm the storm—he shouted it down—“Knock it off!” is the sense the Greek gives us (he “muzzled” the storm in the Greek). Jesus has, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, used teaching, preaching, healing, and exorcism to confront the religious authorities of his day. He has engaged in a kind of combat mythology in which he has claimed and demonstrated power (authority) that is posed against the power and authority of the scribes and Pharisees.
But when he crosses the Sea of Galilee (Mark 5.1-20) he moves that discourse of confrontational power to a new location, which is in part, a new world. There, he enters a Gentile-inflected territory, filled with swine, for example (swine being, for Jews, the symbol of paganism par excellence). The Roman Empire has colonized this region, and the pork agribusiness is used to feed the Roman army’s garrisons. Jesus is met by a demon-possessed man who has been so out of control, beyond the management of others, that chains were said to be insufficient. The man is not simply possessed by a demon, but by a “Legion” of them, indeed he identifies himself as “Legion”—the Roman army’s division of 6000 foot soldiers. Jesus does not condemn the demon-possessed, but rather he sends the demons into swine, as they requested, and 2000 of them rush into the sea to their destruction. Jesus is, of course, attacking the economic-political structure of Roman imperialism. But that is not all.
Jesus is moving from a campaign of repudiation to a program of reconstruction. It is powerful and necessary to diagnose problematics and reveal our sinful practices and structures. But it is not enough. We also need a constructive program of healing, wholeness, peace, justice, and love. Gandhi called in Satyagraha. Martin Luther King, Jr., used the thematic of the “Beloved Community.” Jesus referred to his program of rebirth and reconstruction as the “kingdom (rule, reign) of God.” This new community and social order manifest as embodying God’s power, exists in confrontation with religious power and political power—as the west side and the east side of the Sea of Galilee symbolizes.
The demon-possessed man is a shocking incarnation of pathology. But what we sometimes see, yet most often do not see, is that pathological communities, traditions, societies, cultures, economics, and politics create pathological persons. This was true in Jesus’ day, on both sides of the Sea of Galilee, and it is true in our day, and in our society. Jesus was not then in support of economic forms that made the rich richer and the poor poorer, and he was not then in support of political forms that colonized and dominated others. And guess what? He is not in favor of them now either, even if we are so very comfortable with such forms ourselves.
When Jesus transitions his mission from one community to another, crossing the Sea of Galilee to do so, demonstrating his power over nature sends a signal: I am more powerful than anything which gives you fear and threatens your life. The Sea of Galilee is a surface of transition and of triumph. Those living on the east side of the water, seeing the destruction of 2000 pigs and the threat to the economic and political structure of the region, ask Jesus to leave. William Placher writes, “We modern readers are fooling ourselves if we think that we, by contrast, would have liked having Jesus around. We do not understand Mark’s picture of him unless we recognize that he is terrifying.”
Thanks for reading,
This past Sunday, as part of our "Semper Reformda: Always Reforming" series, I shared with you all, virtually verbatim, a dream for our church that I share back in 2016. I have shared and preached this dream/vision virtually every year since then. I do that because I believe it captures something true about how our heart beats as a church.
As we struggle and wrestle and seek the winds of the Spirit for our next season as a church, I don't think we need a new vision or dream --- we have that, it is part of our DNA, it is core to we are as a church.
What we need is to discern what form our ministry and community will take in the coming year and years in order to together move the reality of RFC closer to our dream for RFC.
We will be spending most of our Summer Sundays focused on this question. No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, and no matter what your current relationship and involvement with RFC is, I invite you to be part of the faithful community trying to enflesh our dream.
OUR DREAM FOR THE CHURCH:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
You know that is still happening today. What was true then is true now. The Holy Spirit hasn’t stopped working, hasn’t stopped moving, hasn’t stopped inspiring. And young men and women will see visions and old men and women will dream dreams.
And we are still dreaming dreams and seeing visions here at RFC. We are.
Did you know that we -- Jen, Liza and I -- get together for 2-3 hours every Tuesday morning and we dream dreams. We gather with the Board and see visions. We sit with Pastor Nancy and pass emails back and forth full of dreams and visions for this church in our day.
But we aren’t dreaming big dreams any more. No, we are dreaming small dreams for us and our church and our community.
We dream of a church that gathers -- devoted to the apostles' teachings, to the breaking of bread, to doing life together, and deep abiding and listening to prayer.
We dream of a church where people share with each other and help each other in practical ways -- as needs arise. A church where people are filled with awe and praise whenever they gather.
We’re dreaming not of a church with massive Sunday services, but small huddles scattered throughout the community. We’re dreaming of a church that is not about revolution, but revelation, where miracles are normal and small changes and breakthroughs are celebrated.
We dream of a church that is as diverse as the Kingdom of God. All ages and colors and genders and orientations. We dream of a church where kids encounter Jesus every day and parents are growing in their love of God and singles are finding real community and [those who have experienced great loss] are embraced and cared for. Where [children who need forever parents] discover their families and where our broader family embraces every one of the lost, least, lonely and forgotten in our community.
We dream of a church that creates safe places for people to seek after God -- black and white, old and young, men and women, gay and straight, cis-gendered and trans-gendered, the able and differently abled -- one family, one church, one God we worship.
We dream of a church that will be known for our love and our grace and our pursuit of truth -- for our generosity to our neighbors and those less fortunate and less resourced.
We dream of a church -- that doesn't fill stadiums but ignites a viral movement of the Holy Spirit in our day. A movement of hope and healing and restoration and reconciliation.
We dream these dreams because we believe that what was true then can be true now. Because we believe an Acts 2 church can happen in Hartford CT in our day just as it happened in Jerusalem in 33 AD. We dream because we have tasted and we believe and we long for all that God has promised for us.
We dream because we believe… that because of Pentecost… because of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our day.. That we can go forth into the world full of faith in a God who loves us all, following Jesus our Lord, striving towards good, loving one another, rejoicing in God’s Presence, and using our gifts to make earth more like heaven.
We hope and pray that you will dream this dream with us...