"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for June 2015

The Radical Community of Christ

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Pentecost 2, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3: 20-35.  June 7, 2015, St John the Evangelist

Pray. Lord, we seek your will in all things and we ask you to guide us through the changes and challenges before us. We know with your presence, and filled with your Spirit, we shall walk only the road which you have prepared for us. Open our hearts, minds and souls to receive your word. Amen.

I wanted to start with a bit of a true story about a police chase (from http://www.forcescience.org/fsnews/index.html number 278).  A police officer is chasing down a suspect who climbs over a chain link fence, and falls to the ground on the other side.  The police officer, thinking he has caught the suspect, manages to hook his duty belt over the spikes on the top of the fence, and finds himself dangling helpless several feet in the air above the suspect.  As the suspect looks up and realizes the police officer is caught on the fence, he reaches down to his waistband and starts to pull out a semi-automatic pistol. // At that moment, the suspect recognizes the police officer and says, “Oh, it’s you McCall”, puts the pistol away and helps him down from the fence.  The suspect is quickly arrested.  The reason behind the suspect’s sudden shift is his recognition of the police officer, who he had arrested three times previously.  The police officer had struck up conversations with the criminal in those prior arrests, and had established a rapport of sorts, including discovering that the two of them shared the same birthday.  That small bit of humanity, expressed by a peace officer to an arrested suspect, ends up saving his life.  I’m starting with this somewhat out there story to make a point about what it is we’re about here today – this thing called the Body of Christ, because this is one aspect of what Jesus and Paul are both on about today.  My point from the story is this: if two humans in this secular and adversarial situation can find a place of community that ends violence and leads to correction for sin…what more can we expect in the midst of a Christian community where those values are a fundamental part of the fabric of our reality?

As a second small example of the Kingdom breaking through into our usual routine…I had my teeth cleaned on Friday morning, and my hygienist asked me what my plans were for the weekend.  I replied, simply, that I was going to be working.  She asked if that was a normal thing for me.  Now at this point I had a choice, I could just say, yeah…part of the Alberta advantage; or I could take the small risk, and tell her that I was going to put on my finest 18th century church robes to be the Body of Christ in a physical way…to do church.  I chose the church option.  Now something interesting happened…in the midst of a secular workplace, my revealing that I was spending my weekend preparing for, or delivering a sermon in a Christian community, resulted in her telling me that she had just needed to give her daughter her baptismal gown for a school event teaching about baptism.  My small personal risk, reveals to me a sister in Christ in the midst of the secular world.  In that moment, we form a community.  What’s even more startling, is that we have Christ’s promise that whenever two or three of us gather in Christ’s name…he will be there.  So the next 30 minutes of torture as I had my teeth descaled, was converted into Church time by virtue of discovering that my hygienist was a sister in Christ.  It’s marvelous.

We hear this clearly in the Gospel reading today.  Jesus is out doing what Jesus did, speaking to people.  We hear that the house is so packed with people that they couldn’t even eat…like one of those parties so tight you can’t even raise your hand to your mouth.  Something interesting intrudes, first his family, then the scribes – both seek to intervene in this assembly.  I want to start by making the point that these are both groups that were on the ‘inside’ of Jewish society.  Family, well family was everything…closely followed by the Temple.  The huge body of Jewish cleanliness regulation was intended to govern those interactions to make sure everyone followed the rules and it was nice and safe.  Into this comfortable community comes Jesus, who from the first moment of his public ministry becomes an outsider to the establishment.

There had been lots of debate in the theological liberalism movement (most publically by the Jesus Seminar) and from science to explain why Jesus did not really work any things that we would consider to be ‘miracles’ today.  That is, there was a naturalistic explanation for each event, and the only reason it was ascribed to ‘magic’ was because a primitive people did not understand things the way that we enlightened moderns do today.  I think this to be almost complete bunk – if anything the Jewish culture of that day had a far more balanced view of the creation, in that there was a recognition of powers that acted beyond the physical realm of human reality.  Even as a scientist, I think that perspective to be far more balanced and reflective of our reality.  Those powers were not the weak force or gravity or entropy, but rather were powers that sought to destroy and bring chaos with intent.  It’s hard to do away with large parts of the New Testament just by saying they didn’t understand science.

We see in this text the impact of Jesus’ ministry.  His family’s first reaction is to come to take him away because he is “out of his mind”.  Jesus was saying things which they could only understand on the lips of someone with a serious delusional disorder.  It is interesting that this statement is a part of the rational approach CS Lewis took in what is called the trilemma: reading the account of Jesus it is clear you have three choices: he was a lunatic, a liar, or actually Lord.  Without going down that road, it is clear that his family’s reaction is a clear flag to the truly radical nature of Jesus’ proclamation even at this early stage.  This fits well into the urgency which you can feel through Mark’s Gospel.  Right from the first words we’re into this list of miracles and challenges to the status quo of the society:

Jesus calls his disciples

Jesus casts out an impure spirit

Jesus heals many

Jesus heals a man with leprosy

Jesus heals a paralyzed man

Jesus eats with sinners

Jesus proclaims himself Lord of the Sabbath

Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath

Jesus appoints the twelve

And on the heels of that opening act, his family and the scribes arrive to make a two-fold attack on Jesus, the insiders: the lawyers or scribes and the family attempting to unseat the one who proclaimed himself outside of everything.  What on earth would have led his family to conclude that Jesus was having mental health issues?

This is an interesting question – a question that likely stands in judgement of our society’s continued marginalization of mental health sufferers as well as in judgement of the misunderstanding that greeted Jesus’ ministry.  This tension, the coming of God marked by questions of mental stability, is one we have seen repeated throughout church history, particularly with those considered to be the great mystical saints of the church.  This people were often first considered mentally ill when they started talking about what they were experiencing when they prayed to the Almighty.  Those often considered most disturbed by the world’s standards, are often the most godly.

This is not so foreign a concept – if you happen to know someone in the church community who is gifted with spiritual gifts that lean more to the mystical, you may have heard them talk about things that both confound and delight you.  Confound you because the experiences are so far beyond your experience that you can’t understand how they can happen, but delightful because if those things are true, it is a manifest and overt sign of God’s presence in the community.  I’ll also say on a personal note, that people with such spiritual gifts learn rather quickly not to speak about them too loudly in gatherings, and particularly clergy gatherings, for fear of having their friends or colleagues say the same thing about them that Jesus’ family has just said about him.  Things are not so different today – although we should not be surprised when God’s glory breaks through in magnificent and confusing ways whenever we gather and invoke the name of the Lord.

Apparently the only thing stopping his family from seizing Jesus was the press of the crowd.  The family story is then put on hold for a scribal interlude where the scribes now take their attempt to discredit Jesus’ early ministry.  The only way he could do these things, they assert, is because he is in fact possessed with a senior demon.  This too is a marker of the seriousness of the authority already displayed by Jesus.  If he wasn’t doing things that were miraculous, there would be no need to attempt to explain away this great authority with an alternate spiritual explanation.  The scribe’s charge does serve as a form of confirmation that there were some pretty amazing things happening as Jesus moved around the countryside.  It also tells us something about the era, in that the question of exorcism and possession were accepted parts of the reality.  Scholarship suggests that exorcists were one of the most common practitioners of visible power in that day.  In fact, if you read the Gospels seriously – you’ll also note that these exorcisms are one of the modes through which the proclamation of the kingdom is made most apparent.  In Mark’s Gospel do you recall what is the first external affirmation of who Jesus really is?  It’s not any of the people on the inside, or the disciples, but a demon in the synagogue in Capernaum.  When Jesus confronts the possessed man, the demon answers: Mark 1  24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Amazing that the first confirmation comes on the lips of Christ’s greatest foe!  This world view is one that people of faith need to seriously consider, and not dispense with by applying simple modern biases.  This call is one reinforced by Paul in the Corinthians reading today, that we are not to focus on the transient things that we can see; but rather the eternal things that we cannot see.

This text includes this assertion about the ‘unforgivable sin’, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  One of the most hotly debated and analysed bits of the Scripture – possibly not for the best of reasons.  We love to know the rules for everything, because once we know the rules we know we’re safe.  So in our daily lives, as long as we don’t commit the ‘unforgiveable sin’ we’re still redeemable, regardless of how badly we mess up.  I’m not going to explain the ‘unforgiveable sin’ because, frankly, I’m not sure I understand it.  My hope is in the Lord, and in his forgiveness, and not on following any specific rule that, even if I understand it, I’m eventually going to break.  Don’t get caught up in the rule, rather read the sentence just before that: “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of men and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  My suspicion is that the line about the ‘unforgivable sin’ had far more to do with what the scribes were saying at that encounter: that Jesus could only do these things with a possessing demon.

That too is not an ancient practice or bias.  My Anglican background is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, a blend of early catholic practices in the Anglican context.  Anglo-Catholicism focuses on liturgical expressions of worship, ornate clothing, incense, iconography…which leads to the collective description that it’s all about ‘smells and bells’.  It’s also a tradition deep in the social justice movement, as the early expressions of the movement were done in working-class neighbourhoods of London in order to give people with little beauty in their daily lives a taste of God’s majesty.  Now, I have a good friend who is a military chaplain and Anglo-Catholic.  In an ecumenical gathering one day, he was told by someone from a more reformed tradition that his focus on liturgy was in fact the result of possession by a demonic spirit of religion.  This charge – that a demon is permitting Jesus to do these things is not so distant from this story.  My friend’s response was nearly the same as Jesus: He told the man that he was indeed possessed by an indwelling spirit, a spirit he liked to call the Holy Spirit.

Once the scribes have been dealt with Jesus’ family reappears.  They’re trying a more subtle approach now – simply calling out to Jesus.  The word gets passed through the crowd who say to Jesus: your mother and brothers are outside seeking you.  Jesus says something truly remarkable at this point, and this is what I want to conclude with – who are my mother and my brothers, he asks, and then provides the answer: those sitting around him are his mother and his brothers, for anyone that does the will of God is his brother, sister or mother.

In the culture of the day, this was an even more radical statement than all that had gone before, because family was literally everything.  This is often heard in the modern era as something hurtful…how on earth could Jesus say that to his mother?  This perspective on family is something that we’ve heard about throughout Jesus’ ministry, and it marks his absolute refusal to capitulate to the expected order of this world and that includes family.  You may have experienced family wounds around issues of faith, which can be quite profound.  This is particularly so when faith and cultural practice become intertwined so as to be inseparable: the faith is the culture and the culture is the faith.  This statement by Jesus is a direct reinforcement of many other comments about the relative place of family: let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8:21-22), a profound attack on the obligations to bury relatives; blessed not be my mother, but rather anyone who hear the word of God and keep it (Like 11:27); I come not to bring peace but a sword that will set father against son (Matthew 10:34-9).  You might say that Jesus’ message is one we might identify as the promotion of a deviant lifestyle away from home and living on the street.

In fact, what Jesus came to proclaim was an alternate family.  This is one reason I love the reformation tradition of addressing people as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ within the community of faith.  It is a constant reminder of that alternate family.  It is not necessarily a call to abandon your biological family; although sometimes that is an impact of that sword.  What it brings us is a call to remember that the following of Christ demands a loyalty that transcends that of our biological or adoptive families.  The call of Christ is a call to be a subversive to the call of the world, but to be a subversive who has their priorities straight meaning centred on Christ.  This is what we are in the midst of here today, this community of worship, fellowship and mission with Christ at the centre and service to all that radiates out from that centre, to neighbours, family, society, the state and the rest of the world.  We should not minimize this sacramental reality.  As I mentioned a few weeks back, the very presence of a Christian in a secular context mediates Christ…so too is it with the community of faith.  Our presence in Lendrum brings a reality of Christ’s presence to this neighbourhood, as does our presence in Edmonton.  This high opinion of the Body of Christ as a community is not to be understated – in the same way that the prayer of even the newest believer is a literal matter the existence of the creation turns on.  We are individually and corporately called to be the keeper of the teachings and the proclaimer of those teachings.

As it was for the Jews in Jesus’ home that day, the call to us is the same.  For a people tied in unhealthy ways to family, land and Temple, there is now another path, to be a people who no longer need land, family or Temple because the Spirit dwells within each of us.  That calling does not guarantee peace in our families, in fact sometimes it guarantees a lack of peace.  We know that there is no more immunity for us individually than there was immunity for Christ from the cross.  While that calling may bring us to places of deep challenge and unrest, it will always be a place that is full of the light of Christ.  And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, enter into your calling to be the children of God.  Amen.


Portions of these last three paragraphs are taken from J. Stackhouse, Making the Best of It., pp. 144, 352.

I also found something called the blasphemy challenge – make a YouTube video stating that you deny the Holy Spirit.


Written by sameo416

June 6, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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