Good News from Mark
Our country is in a crisis. The church is in a crisis. There may be other countries in which both of these sentences are true, but certainly they are true in the United States. The church’s crisis is manifest in at least three ways. First, the rise of “Christian” nationalism, “Christian” partnership with white supremacy and authoritarianism, and “Christian” fear, bigotries, and hatred that have aligned with the radical right. Second (and related), the Christian support of neoliberal institutions and structures that are destructive to human life and human security. Third (and related), the loss of a compelling story to tell, the loss of reasons to give, the loss of demonstrating the radical love, justice, and peace of the Reign (“Kingdom”) of God inaugurated by Jesus. People are declining the invitation to give their lives to Jesus. Why would they? The church does not make talk about Jesus appealing, to say the least. Far too often, we do not walk what we talk—except when our talk is bigoted, fearful, and hateful.
In the second section of Mark’s story of Jesus (Mark 2.1—3.6), we are presented with five episodes that demonstrate Jesus’ true and powerful authority, in contrast to the weak and narcissistic authority of the religious authorities. The paragraph above notes a crisis of the church related to our lack of spiritual and moral authority (“authority” is one word for power).
In the midst of these episodes, Jesus uses two metaphors to indicate something of his power and the Reign of God he is initiating. He says, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
Jesus’ metaphors are meant to help us see that the Good News of God’s Reign (rule, or regime) is not simply some modification of the religious, cultural, social, and political forms we already have. God did not “tear open the heavens and come down” (Isa. 64.1) just to make us into reformists. Tinkering with sinful structures, whether religious, cultural, economic, or political, is, to say the least, not enough. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world… “Romans 12.1-2). Reforming is too much conforming. To be conformed to a deceitful world is to be deceitful. To be conformed to a inegalitarian world is to be an inegalitarian. To be conformed to a world filled with systems of oppression is to abide oppression. To be conformed to a violent world is to participate in violence.
And yet. We live in a world where small steps are often necessary. Where we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Where we have to have patience and practice “a long obedience in the same direction” (Nietzsche). The early modern Reformers spoke of a “reformed church always reforming.” The Anabaptists said reform is not enough, but rather the church needed to be restored. There has always been a tension in the church between the wisdom of reformation and the Gospel call to rebirth, new life (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.17), and radical change. New wine must have new wineskins. Our Mark study group had a fun time discussing this tension. A tension that we cannot escape.
I am blessed to belong to the community of Jesus called Riverfront Family Church. It is a community where we struggle with this tension rather than ignore it. We strive to embody the Reign of God in powerful and authoritative ways that are compelling and healing. We strive to embody Love for everyone. We strive to share the new wine of the Gospel and to be a new wineskin for it. As I write this, I do not mean to engage in self-congratulation. We embody failings too. Perhaps we are not as radical or loving as we claim to be, or not as consistently so.
But it is a powerful measure of grace for me to belong to a community such as ours. I believe we strive in the tension, seeking to be agents of God’s Good News in the world. Riverfront feels like new wine to me, still fermenting…
Thank you for reading,