Mark 10: 17-52: A different kind of Kingdom

We’ve all seen Disney princess movies. We’ve all heard fairytales. Most of us have watched The Crown on Netflix. I haven’t watched The Princess Diaries, but I’m sure many of you will have. These all, invariably, involve kingdoms. All of these give us the same image of what a kingdom is meant to be like. It is run on opulence and grandeur: huge castles, giant banquets, gold, jewels, tiaras, big ball gowns, sashes, ceremonies. There are those in power; those who want power. There are the heroes, who get elevated to celebrity status, often with a whole fanfare and parade afterwards. Don’t forget the glitzy weddings, where anybody who is anybody attends.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex get married (image from wikipedia.org)

However, the Kingdom that Jesus presents in Mark 10 is radically different. The only problem is that the disciples and other people who desire to follow Jesus haven’t realised this yet. The rich man is still consumed by ideas of worldly wealth, security and trappings. James and John want status and recognition. Jesus says outright that the kingdom is not for those who desire wealth, status, image, authority or power. It is for the least, for the humble, for those that give these things up.

The passages of the rich man who cannot let go of his possessions and the squabbles of James and John are ins stark contrast to Jesus’ prediction of his death and the attitude of Bartimaeus. Jesus is going to be handed over to be mocked, tortured and killed. He will be spat on, accused and executed. It is not a life of glitz and glamor. It is messy, painful, dirty, tragic, horrific. But in that, Jesus says that he will rise again. In submitting yourself to the pain, hardships, humiliation, Jesus gives us the power to rise in the midst of it.

Bartimaeus, a blind man, also has the right attitude. Rather than asking Jesus to exalt him and to give him status, he just asks for mercy. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cries. In our humility, we should all recognise our weakness and our vulnerability and our need for Jesus’ mercy. And in asking for this, he will show grace and kindness. We need to realise our spiritual blindness and our need for spiritual sight.

So, if you think the kingdom of God is about power and popularity, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it is a kingdom of refugees all seeking mercy from the divine saviour. This is the kingdom into which you are all invited.

In or out? Mark 9: 38 – 42

In verses 38-41, the disciples have rebuked someone simply because they were not one of them. This man had been driving out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples didn’t like it. This man wasn’t in their gang or clique and therefore he had no right to associate himself with Jesus. This was gatekeeping, first-century style. Funnily enough, Jesus wasn’t particularly happy with this. The disciples were trying to create certain criteria for entering Jesus’ group and Jesus reacted angrily.

In fact, he was so angry he told the disciples it would be better for them to die to try it again. Jesus tells them that they should tie a millstone around their neck and die at the bottom of the sea rather than insult another believer, especially one that is perhaps vulnerable in their faith.

So the question is this: how often are we guilty of gatekeeping in our churches? Do we set criteria that Jesus never intended to set for our churches? If their attendance is flaky, if they don’t dress up nice, if they don’t contribute to the potluck supper, if they are not a member of one of the Bible study groups, if they say the wrong things and can be a bit crass, do we still accept them as a believer? Or do we say things like, “Oh, they’re not real members; they’re not proper Christians”? Remember, in verse 41, Jesus sets the criteria. If someone believes in Jesus and just does the smallest thing in his name, they’re in. If someone however tries to rob them that, that person should be sleeping with the fishes.

Now, I’m doing a masters degree and at the moment my module is on anthropology and how its insights can help missionaries. (I think it’s a very useful subject to help Christians in general.) So, it’s got me thinking how some of these ideas can be used by the church. If you are reading this and wondering where this part is going, I will bring it around, I promise.

One concept that is often analysed when studying culture is views of kinship. There are different types of kinship to describe different things. One of my favourite types is fictive kinship. This is a kinship relationship which is entirely made up by those involved. We’ve all had those aunts that weren’t really aunts. Those are fictive kinships. You treat a person that is outside the biological or legal terms of family (i.e. in-laws) as if they are actually family. In Cambodia, this is pretty common. I’m in a fictive kinship relationship with Vitou and his family. From appearances, we are very obviously not related. However, the bond between us and the reciprocal obligations (go to birthday parties, bail each other out of problems, visit when the other one is sick or feeling down) are still there as if we were family members.

With kinship relationships, once that bond is created (through biology, law, or even other mechanisms) it is very hard to break. Even if you don’t see your uncle or your sister-in-law for years, they are still your family. The brother you only see at Christmas is still family. Your slightly inappropriate family member, perhaps the aunt that makes all the sexual-innuendos after a glass of wine, is still family. The cousin that you saw last sixteen years ago and they now live on the other side of the world, and you struggle to remember their wife’s name, is still family. When it comes to the criteria for being family, the bar is pretty low but it is still difficult to break the relationship.

The church, as the Bible tells us, is a family. Jesus is the head of the family and all other believers are your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in Christ. Therefore, the criteria for them being counted as one of us is pretty low. It is an association through Jesus. Regular church attendance, being a part of the flower committee, volunteering in the summer Bible clubs, or signing a pledge of church membership are not criteria for church membership. Giving a single glass of cool water in Jesus’ name, however is. So it doesn’t matter if you only see them at church at Christmas, they are still your brother or sister in Christ. It doesn’t matter if they say all the wrong things or don’t know the answers to the pastor’s questions, they are still your brother or sister in Christ. If they turn up in a t-shirt they bought at a rock concert, and jeans with holes in them, they are still your brother and sister in Christ.

We don’t actually get to choose who is in and out. We get to receive the love of Christ despite being sinners. Our only job is to accept brothers and sisters and encourage them to do the same. And if you don’t like it, well, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself thrown into the sea.

Mark 7:24-30 – the anti-Karen

This passage is quite difficult to read, sometimes. A woman comes to Jesus, asking for help for her possessed daughter, and Jesus, who we know is kind and compassionate, calls her a dog. It’s really jarring and hard for us to understand.

There are a few reasons why this happened. First of all is the relationship between oppressed Israel and the wealthy Syrophoenician region of Tyre. Essentially, they hated each other. Furthermore, the region of Galilee often lost a lot of its resources and wealth to the Syrophoenicians. So, usually, it was the Jewish bread being fed to the Syrophoenicians. (Thanks Biblegateway.com for the resources to know this by the way!)

Second, was that Jesus was a Jewish religious leader, serving the Jews. She was a gentle who didn’t even believe in God. It’d be a bit like me going to a busy Imam, asking he stopped everything he was doing for his Muslim community to help me. Aren’t those in his community his priority? Would it be wrong of me to assume I should have preferential treatment?

Jesus is basically pointing out that she isn’t really in the position to be asking for his help. Who is she that she should think Jesus would help her? She is the least of his worries. First, he has work to do for his fellow Jews.

It’s a bit of a slap in the face. So, the woman does what any of us would do, argue, storm off and make a fuss, demanding that she deserves to be helped and that it’s within her rights to be listened to. Actually, she does the opposite. She agrees with Jesus. She a agrees, through her clever and witty response, that she is a dog, but even sometimes, the dogs get something, even if it is just a tiny bit. This takes great humility on her part. She accepts her status; she acknowledges Jesus’s priority. She also testifies to Jesus’s power. Even a crumb would do; just something tiny from someone so powerful would be enough. And, because she is willing to approach with humility, she is blessed.

The NIV Application Commentary you get with a Biblegateway.com subscription (I’m not advertising or sponsored, but if I were… looks at Biblegateway.com) has been really helpful. It asks what would Jesus have said to us to challenge our pride. I think, Jesus would have probably said I was stupid or foolish (often like he says to the disciples). And I would have left. I would not have stayed around and accepted the insult. My pride would have prevented me from accepting Jesus’s blessing.

I think that we often see in Western society an inflated sense of our entitlement and status. The internet meme sensation of the term ‘Karen’ perhaps exhibits this. (I think this term should be used carefully, because it could be used to police well-meaning people’s behaviour and is somewhat misogynistic.) However, the woman in this story is perhaps the opposite. She accepts that she has no entitlement, priority or influence. Yet, she is still persistent in asking for her help and realises that the blessings are actually for those in her position. So, in her humility, she is given what she came for.

Mark 6: 1–6: What are you missing?

If you were to talk to people from different stages of my life, you’d likely get a very different interpretation of my character. These stages don’t have to be particularly far apart. Take two of my friends who I’ll refer to by their initials, K and S. K was a friend during secondary school and college. She knew me at the awkward teenager stage. S was a friend as university. She knew me at the awkward university student stage. (All my life stages are awkward, just at different points and in different ways.) If you asked K and S whether I was organised, the answer would be completely different. K would say not at all: I constantly forget things; I don’t keep deadlines well; I’m a scatter-brain. S would say that I was extremely organised: everything was submitted well in advance; I could handle a wide-range organisational challenges simultaneously; I managed my time well. A part of this is the massive effort I made in my first semester to get systems in place (I had a diary where I wrote everything. The receipts of my book loans were stapled inside. I had a cover-page template for all my reading notes where I kept extensive bibliographical notes so I knew the references to quotation with ease…)

Despite this apparent transformation, I think K would find it hard to believe that I’m considered to be pretty well organised by most people I’ve encountered in my adult life. (I’m still working on the tidy part…) So, when I read the first part of Mark 6, I sort of understand the situation Jesus finds himself in. I also understand the perspectives of those around him. It must be hard for those that knew Jesus as a child and as a carpenter to believe he was indeed the Son of God. In fact, I believe (and may be wrong) that it’s indicated somewhere that his brothers were very hard to convince and only believed after Jesus’ death.

My favourite verse, perhaps, of this part is verse 5: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” The fact that healing a few sick people is seen as unremarkable. Imagine if your complaint was “I only managed to do one miracle today. Yesterday, I could do fifty-six.” (I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether miracles still happen or not. But they do but might not necessarily meet our definition of a miracle—whoops, I got into it.) What is incredible here is that Jesus performing many miracles was the expectation. It just goes to show how incredible he actually was. Also, it makes me think about how Jesus is responsive to the wishes and attitudes of those around him. He doesn’t thrust miracles on people. He graciously allows them to accept them.

The questions it raises for me is what have I been unwilling to accept in my life? How have I stymied Jesus’s untold, unfathomable blessings through a hardness of heart? I am pretty sure that it has happened. Jesus is still good and patient and I am still exceptionally blessed. But, maybe there is more that I could be receiving if only I opened my hands and heart to accept it. I wonder if that’s the same for any of you?

Mark 3: Conflict

In this chapter, Jesus gets in to more conflict. First it is with the Pharisees, who disagree with him healing someone on the Sabbath. Then he gets into conflict with his own family. He famously says that those around him are his mother, brother and sisters, rather than those looking for him.

This does make me wonder whether conflict is just a normal part of the Christian faith. Will there always be people who disagree with us, even to the point where they want to kill us. Now obviously this is tricky for a number of reasons.

First, it is discerning whether the conflict is motivated for righteous and good reasons. The conflicts Jesus found himself in were obviously acceptable. He was sinless; it was always the other parties that were wrong. How do we know then when our conflicts are sinful or righteous? This is especially the case when, throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to show unity and love for one another. In fact, unity is one of the most important pieces of evidence that we are sent by Jesus. Therefore, if we are in conflicts with one another then we are not being particularly good witnesses for Christ. So, I suggest, that if the conflict is with another believer, it is wrong. Of course, the fact that we are reminded so often to live peacefully, patiently and lovingly with one another means we are likely to forget this. (You don’t remind someone to do something that comes naturally to them.) It takes effort but it’s an effort we should take.

Then, it is perhaps that we should expect conflict with non-believers. Perhaps not to the extreme shown here, but we should expect it nonetheless. But, we need to check our hearts and be humble. I don’t think we should be antagonistic, frustrating, stubborn or arrogant in this, as this is not a good witness. In fact, our words should be seasoned with salt and our answers should be full of grace. We should not pick a fight the the sake of picking a fight. However, we should not be surprised if opposition comes our way.

1 John 2: being without sin

This chapter picks up where the previous one picks up: in the tension of being a sinful but also redeemed. Here it reminds us that we should not sin but that we also have Jesus to rely on. It reminds me a bit of when Peter writes about how God provided everything but invites us to have a role. We often try too hard to rely on our own strength to reach purity, but the fact is we can only have it because God redeemed us through his son Jesus Christ. Our human efforts do nothing; it’s only through the cross and the good work Jesus is doing in us that we can achieve anything.

Verses 3 to 6 expand on us further. We are to keep Jesus’ commands out of love for him. Therefore, it’s so important to daily focus on him and what he did for us to motivate us. In times of trouble or temptation we look not to ourselves or our own strength but we look to the cross. Then we can love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

The next part of John looks at another way the love for our Lord is express: our love for others. It’s not coincidence that Jesus responded to the question about the greatest commandment with a twofold answer. We are to love our God, which is expressed here in how we love others. These verses also remind us of how Jesus said in Matthew 5. You can’t offer worship if you know a brother has something against you. Jesus came to redeem us with God and each other. Therefore, if there are relational issues within the church, we aren’t living in the fullness of Christ’s redemption.

Verses 12-14 are interesting, exciting and encouraging. The fact that we are told that we have overcome the evil one is an interesting concept in the fight against sin. As we battle against evil desires, we must remember: the victory is won! That’s another good reason to look toward the cross.

The last sections talk about not loving the world because it is temporary and to love what God has given you. We are also warned not to deny Christ. We are to remain in him and remain confident in his promises. In that way we can be pure when he comes again.

2 Peter 1: an invitation to participate

The introduction of 2 Peter seems to wrestle with ideas that can cause confusion within the church. In fact, it probably has been seen in a number of the large theological debates since the death of Jesus. It is this: how much of our salvation and sanctification depends on us and how much depends on God. I’m not going to make an effort to delve into these deep topics and the history of such debates, but here is my rather simple and probably flawed interpretation of the matter.

We are told first that God has given us everything we need to live a godly life. This puts the power into God’s hands: he provides. It goes on to say that he has called us, again making the impetus God’s. Furthermore, he has given us promises for us to cling onto and to receive. Then it goes on to say that this is so we can “participate in the divine nature” of God. First, before I analyse it to death, let me just say what a beautiful statement that is. Through our salvation, we get to live in the holiness of God. That sounds crazy and wonderful and strange. But, going back to my first point, “participate” tells us that we get a role to play.

God does all the ground-work and all the hard stuff. He sent his son to die so that we may live. He saves us. He has the absolute power and authority in this. But, he still invites us to join in with him. He invites us to use our mind, hearts, strength and soul in what he is doing. I get the picture of a father doing a job and letting his young son or daughter “help”. Their child imitates their father but doesn’t really do anything particularly constructive in the effort. The father could have easily done the task on his own. Instead, it’s about the participation and the communion between father and child. That is what our Heavenly Father daily invites us into: a participation and a communion with him as he builds his kingdom. It really does not depend on me. I’m just to join in and enjoy the relationship I have with God.

We are also invited to participate in our own spiritual growth and development. We are to add goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual-affection and love to our faith. This, again, seems to be something for us to do as well. A metaphor perhaps for this could be a patient following the exercises to allow them to recover effectively after an operation. The surgeon does the hard work to fix the problem and oversees the recovery afterwards; the patient makes sure that they live in a way that enables them to take the best advantage of the operation and new lease of life they have been given.

So, how do we participate? Well, it seems that we do it through constantly reminding ourselves of the grace we have received and the cross. We look to Jesus. This inspires us to participate and to make the most of the freedom and salvation we have received.

1 Peter 4

This passage deals with living for God in a pagan society. I think that people often forget that the much of the Bible, especially the New Testament, was written when the cultural values it describes is against the prevailing culture. The Bible has always been counter-cultural and often deals with how the cultures that surround the believers, whether it is the nations surrounding Israel or the occupying Empires, have a moral and religious impact on God’s people. This passage was not written in the straight-laced Victorian people or in today’s Bible belt of the US. It was written in the Greco-Roman Empire, where morals were very much different to what the Bible professes.

So it’s interesting that when reading it today, it resonates with the experience of living within a Western society. Verses 3-4 says, “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.” We live in a culture where the are court cases debating whether men who accidentally kill their parters during rough sex are liable to prosecution. Sleeping with your partner before marriage is now the norm. In fact, to have had sexual partners still numbering in the single figures is deemed as having only a few. Although there isn’t direct persecution, there is a prevalent culture where chastity is an outdated oddity. Indeed, friends are surprised when you don’t get drunk on weekends and don’t seek out sexual partners.

However, as we follow Jesus, we are to follow a different standard. It’s hard because often society and Christian standards are at odds. It can be hard to uphold these differences in the face of what society says is right and wrong. So, how do we live counter-culturally that is welcoming, loving, seasoned with salt and also offensive to those around you? It’s a really hard tension and it’s really hard to know where we draw the line. I think in these things, however we need humility and faith in God’s Spirit, working in us. Helping us to discern and to have wisdom and strength whilst living lives so different to those around us.

1 Peter 3

Perhaps the most famous part this chapter is “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason to the hope that you have.” This verse has always made me ask myself a few questions.

  • What is the hope that we have?
  • What is the reason for this hope?
  • How do we give the answer in a clear manner?
  • Who is asking us these questions and why?

The passage this verse comes from is in the context of suffering, mainly suffering on account of your faith. It asks us to give account of our hope in the face of threats and problems. Now, this is perhaps why the question is being asked in the first place. Hope and optimism is not unusual when things are fine. If you’ve got a nice house and healthy bank account, no one is going to be surprised when you seem a bit perky. However, when you are facing genuine trials and opposition, it may seem a little more unusual. (It is a possible barrier to evangelism for missionaries in poorer contexts. When we preach how joyful we are because we know Jesus, they may be thinking it’s not Jesus but our wallets that are making us so cheerful. But that’s probably another blog post entirely.)

Now, these passages about suffering always trouble me. I’ve never really suffered for my faith. There was one time at secondary school where someone said, “I hate how you always tell me about your faith.” I then pointed out, she was in fact at a Christian Union event and I was answering a question she just asked. (And then I burst into tears.) But that’s hardly suffering. So it makes me wonder if I’m doing it wrong if I’m not suffering. And then, should I be asking the Lord for suffering? (I haven’t made my mind up on that one yet, so I may hold off on that prayer for a while.) But it makes me wonder about the state of the church in the West. Is the legitimacy for our witness hindered precisely because we have it too good? If you listen to stories of the persecuted church, there are incredible testimonies of churches flourishing under heavy opposition. In Europe, where everything is more comfortable, it is seen as a dying out-dated phenomenom. In America, Christianity is perhaps too closely associated with the “Karens” of the world. We have what we want, and often we believe we deserve it. In fact, the stories of suffering believers often come as a surprise even to “comfortable” Christians, and are perhaps a bit unsettling. So it’s easy to see how a testimony of hope is powerful in such a context.

And the reason for the hope is clear: in their hearts they revere Christ as Lord. It’s interesting that the word “revere” is used here. It’s not love or some other warm emotion. Revere suggests a respect or fear towards someone. There is perhaps a clear implication: Christ is Lord. If suffering in obedience is a part of his will, then it is right. I interviewed my Khmer best friend about hope in troubles, and he said the most important thing to do is to fear God. This is, of course, interesting and jarring to the ears of British (and I suspect of other) Christians. We often soften God and perhaps do a disservice to our faith in doing so. Of course, God is love and cares for us. But he isn’t safe and cuddly.

How then do we bring a theology of suffering and fear of God back into our churches? How to we then give reason to the hope that we have?

1 Peter 2

The second chapter of 1 Peter begins with a continuation of the theme of holiness and living an obedient life to which we were called. It tells us to remove anything that hinders this holiness. It’s interesting that in Peter’s list in 1 Peter 2:1, the priority is the relationships we have with one another. Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander are all about how we view or interact with others. Therefore, our holiness is not an individual thing that we obtain through distancing ourselves from others, but it is actually obtained in communion with others.

This idea is further expanded upon in verses 4-10. Each believer is a spiritual stone, that is being formed to create a temple. The foundation stone of that temple is Jesus. What is also interesting is how a temple is where God’s presence that dwells on earth. We have often been told about how God dwells within us. But often we consider it an individual idea, but there seems to be quite a few verses that explore the idea of a community believers being his dwelling place. I imagine that it is a bit of both: we are individually chosen as stones for a wider body which creates a dwelling place for the manifest presence of God in the world. Verses 9 and 10 use a variety of images that have a group and community aspect to it.

Peter then tells us to live under the authority and rule of unkind masters. First, he discusses the emperor, who would have been Nero. Nero oppressed and killed Christians, so it was not something that was easy. Then, again the topic of slavery comes up. This is because slavery was widespread during the writing of the New Testament, in the context of the Roman Empire. Here, Peter acknowledges the injustice of it, but also asks the slaves to patiently endure. We are to take our model from Jesus, who suffered the greatest injustice of history without retaliation. The key is to trust God as the one who his just. Therefore, it is through remembering Christ’s sufferings that we too are able to endure sufferings.