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.

Just a child: Mark 10: 13 – 16

One of the hardest aspects of coming to a new country, especially one which is so different to where you grew up, is how you are suddenly stripped of your competency. You suddenly need to relearn pretty much everything: how to talk, how to get around, even in some cases how to walk. (I had to learn to walk slower because of the heat, and not to flick my feet up, especially in the rain otherwise your trousers get really dirty). I had to learn how to ride a motorbike, how to cut up a mango, how to recognise fruit and vegetables, how to speak, my way around the city.

I had gone from being relatively competent in my life and being regarded as so by others, to then suddenly not being able to do anything. Khmer people recognised this; I was often guided or even prevented from doing somethings (like trying certain food, or helping out in a situation), lest my incompetency or weak stomach got the better of me. Suddenly, I had to learn to be vulnerable and unknowledgeable and weak again. There are still days and weeks, four years on, where Cambodia totally floors me. (In fact, that was pretty much the month of October.) I am once again reminded of my frailty and weakness.

This is what I think is the privilege of being a missionary. Being powerless and vulnerable in so many situations is perhaps the most important lesson we learn. It doesn’t feel like privilege at the time though. People don’t like feeling weak and powerless. In fact, we try anything to avoid it. We assert ourselves, become demanding, throw our weight around, become manipulative or passive aggressive. However, Jesus calls us constantly in to a posture of humility, weakness and vulnerability. Without that, we cannot recognise our huge need for him. Without realising our sinful, fallen, weak, even pathetic, nature, we have no need to run to the arms of a loving God.

Here in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples are once again reminded of this. (This has been a recurring theme in Mark.) They try to through their weight around again; this time they are using their power over children. They are preventing the children, who are, especially in this society but the same today, without status or influence, from getting to Jesus. The gospels are full of people obsessed with asserting authority and control (the disciples are no better than the Pharisees in this). However, Jesus clearly says that this is not the way of the kingdom.

The kingdom is for the weak, powerless and vulnerable. The kingdom is for the children, the blindman and destitute. The kingdom is for those who recognise their need of a good, powerful saviour. The more you try to assert your own power, the more you think your self as having authority, the more you care about status and influence, the less of the kingdom you will see. But humble yourself, and Jesus himself will welcome you in.

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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 8:1-21 – Sourdough and signs

This passage can be obscure in some places, and we perhaps feel a bit like the disciples when reading it. However, there is one thing that is clear in the passage: it is easy to fail to recognise Jesus for who he actually is.

Throughout Mark, Jesus has performed miracles: healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, calmed storms. Here is no exception: he feeds a crowd of at least 4,000. This crowd has been with Jesus for three days. (I often feel like a 90 minute church service drags. Shows how pathetic my thirst for the word is.) Naturally, they are hungry to the point of potentially fainting on the journey back. Now, Jesus hadn’t forced them. They were aware of the risks. When have I ever thought, I feel dizzy and starving, but one more church service? These people obviously did.

So, Jesus feeds them and again multiples bread to a miraculous amount. Another miracle. Then almost immediately, the Pharisees ask for a sign. You can’t help but wonder at their thinking. (One commentary suggests they asked for a particular, apocalyptic sign. But still, Jesus is obviously powerful and has authority, yet they still want to test him.) Jesus does not give them what they are looking for.

Then the disciples get in a boat and they’ve forgotten to bring bread. The disciples squabble and are fixated on this. Jesus tells them something, which although related, is not about the bread. Jesus warns them not to let the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod taint them. This is where a bit of historical context is very helpful.

When we think of making bread and yeast, we often think of the instant yeast packets you get from the baking aisle in supermarkets. That’s not how you made bread in ancient times. It was more like a sourdough. You would keep back a part of the dough, and use it the next day. This process happened pretty much everyday. Take your portion of old day, work it into the new dough, then keep a portion back, and repeat. Therefore, if your dough went bad, it would contaminate all your subsequent doughs. Therefore, Jesus is saying the Pharisees and Herod are a bad batch that have a pernicious potential to contaminate many others, and for a while.

When the disciples hear this, they are still thinking about the lack of bread. In verse 4, they were concerned about the lack of bread too. Previously, they were concerned about the lack of money or food or other resources. The disciples are very concerned about the lack of provision. They have Jesus with them and they still worry about whether they will have enough. Jesus has proven his ability to provide again and again and they still fail to trust that their needs will be met.

They are such bad disciples, aren’t they? We would never doubt or focus on world worries, would we? We are far above that. It’s easy to judge the disciples, especially as they literally have Jesus in front of them. But doesn’t Jesus promise that he will be with us, just like he was with the disciples? Doesn’t he promise to fulfil our needs? Doesn’t scripture reassure us again and again that God cares and provides?

What bad yeast have we been kneading into our lives again and again? What evil, what doubts, what blind spots do we keep back then work into our thinking everyday? What is the source of our bad yeast? We probably can’t blame the Pharisees for this one. Is it consumer culture? Individualist cultures that push self-fulfilment and independence to an unhealthy degree? Old fears? What is your unhealthy yeast?

Mark 6:30-56 – Powerful Compassion

There are two evident themes in this part of Mark 6 is Jesus’ power but also his compassion. Jesus’s power reveals itself in a number of ways: his power to provide, his power to control nature, his power to heal. However, his power is always marked by compassion: compassion towards the crowds, compassion towards the disciples, compassion towards the sick. The mix of holy, supernatural power and holy, righteous love here is amazing.

This section comes after the news that Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist has just been killed. This was probably extremely distressing news for Jesus. In the midst of this, huge crowds flocked around him, denying him the chance to rest as Jesus had intended. If I was in that situation, I would be very impatient, grumpy and resentful. Jesus obviously wanted some peace and quiet, but he couldn’t get it. But when he saw the crowd, verse 34 tells us, ‘he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Despite his grief, weariness and own desires being unmet, Jesus still responded with compassion.

In his compassion, he taught them. He met their need for spiritual edification and answers. After this he also provided for their physical needs through the miracle of feeding a huge crowd. Jesus has the power to meet all our needs.

In the next section, Jesus walks on turbulent water, against a strong wind. This is a powerful miracle. He walked into the middle of sea and revealed himself to the disciples. Furthermore, when they were fearful, Jesus had compassion, joined them and reassured them. Jesus can meet us wherever, having the power to overcome every obstacle (including a massive and petulant body of water). In his compassion, he is also able to calm our fears as we encounter the Son of God who was there at the beginning of creation.

Finally, Jesus heals the sick. He has the power to restore the broken in body and spirit. He is so powerful that even the hem of his cloak can restore health. Those that come to him find restoration.

Power and compassion, woven together.

Now, when I read the gospels, I sometimes imagine how I would have reacted if I were there. Or ask, what were the disciples thinking at the time? Surely, they were in joyful, blissful awe. How could you react in any other way than sheer amazement? Well, verse 51 tells us they were indeed amazed. But verse 52 then adds an interesting, startling but also so human twist to it. Mark tells us they do not understand and they harden their hearts to it. It is easy to be confounded at this and ask how could the disciples, witnessing Jesus’ power, harden their hearts. But I know that I am guilty of the same very thing. My cold logic, or my over-familiarity with the stories, means that I am numb to the true power and compassion revealed in this. How often do I not see Jesus for who he is: the compassionate, powerful, Son of God?

Lord God,

I thank you for your son Jesus Christ. He is powerful and compassionate. He has power to provide, to overcome nature, to heal. He is loving and cares for his sheep.

Lord God, I am often like a sheep without a shepherd. I wander, lost and uncertain. May I know Jesus’s guidance and compassion. Lord God, meet with me and calm my fears. May I know your son’s presence in my life. Lord God, there are so many times my heart is hardened to your words and your power. Open my heart so that I may have faith and receive your son.

Lord God, hear my prayer.

Amen

Mark 6:6-11 – Relying on God.

I’ve recently returned to Cambodia. It was definitely a bit of a battle. Furthermore, I have quite a bit of luggage. I’ve brought loads of t-shirts, shirts, trousers, socks, two pairs of shoes, some jumpers and a big winter coat (I had to take it to the airport with me). If I had followed the instructions of 8-9 I would have certainly had less to carry! I would have probably also been very cold. I also had to take $2000 in cash, just to get into the airport, so in this situation, I wouldn’t have even arrived in Cambodia. However, there was a reason for this request. Jesus wanted his disciples to rely on God.

Now, to be honest, I am actually pretty poor at this. I am a relatively competent individual – or at least I’ve become adept at applying the adage “fake it until you make it”. I’m relatively good at coming up with solutions to problems and I will plan and write lists for most situations so I know that I have everything in control.

One thing, however, about moving abroad is that it very much reduces your capacity for being competent. In fact, I read a post on the OMF website which very much describes some of the feelings of being abroad. Simple things you take for granted become far harder. Finding certain ingredients or foods in shops. Getting your laundry done. Finding your way around the city. You suddenly become a bit helpless. Sometimes, you find yourself in situations where you have no idea what is happening, or you don’t know how to solve it. It definitely makes you feel less confident in your own abilities.

Now, the temptation here is for you to reassure me. “You’re doing so well!” “You seem to cope in Cambodia perfectly!” However, I’d rather you didn’t. You see, there’s something actually liberating in letting God take control. I’ve been in so many situations where it was me trying to be in charge that caused the most stress. But, once you realise that actually, God never wanted it to be your burden, it’s a lot easier. God wants us to do things in his strength. This is for his glory and our blessing. We do not have the ability to do everything (and on some days, anything). But God does. God created the universe. He is all powerful. He wants to take the weight of any problems or situations.

““Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30.

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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?

Jude: A against false teaching

It’s somewhat reassuring (at least I think it is…) that there are so many New Testament passages about false teachers. That might seem like an odd statement to make, but hear me out. As I hear about some preachers today, many of them with a lot of fame and a lot of money, who distort the truth, it’s hard not to become disheartened. However, we are warned time and time again that false teachers will come. They will distort the message of God into something evil for their own desires and gain. So, I may get disheartened, but God knew what would happen and God, in his justice, will deal with the issue.

So, what do these false teachers look like? There’s a number of things that they do or say, which tells you they are false teachers, set out to only help themselves:

  • they give permission for immoral behaviour;
  • they reject other authorities;
  • they pollute their own bodies;
  • they think about profit;
  • they are grumblers and fault-finders;
  • they boast about themselves;
  • they flatter others to manipulate;
  • they scoff;
  • they are divisive;
  • they follow their own desires or instinct;
  • and, most importantly, they deny the significance of Jesus Christ.

So, then, this helps us realise what a real teacher is:

  • they don’t permit immorality;
  • they are humble and submit to others;
  • they lead a life of purity;
  • they are self-sacrificing;
  • they are joyful and encouraging;
  • they admit their faults;
  • they praise others with authenticity;
  • they honour and respect others;
  • they seek unity;
  • they seek the kingdom first, pursuing the Lord’s will through the leading of the Holy Spirit;
  • they preach the importance of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

Jude also tells us how to treat others, and given the context, perhaps those who are caught up by these false teachings. It is to show mercy, “snatching them from the fire” (v. 22), but also to hate the practices of those who err.

He also gives advice on how to stay in line with the faith. You are to build up your faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. In that way we can stay in God’s love and be patient for the mercy of Jesus’ arrival.

And finally, Jude ends with this doxology, which I am just going to paste here because it’s great:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

verses 24-25

1 John 4: God is love so we should love

This chapter seems a bit repetitive. However, these are truths that we need to know completely and fully. We need to know that God is love, and to be in God is to love one another.

The first part of the chapter carries on from 1 John 3. It talks about how denying Christ is the sign of a false prophet. Jesus, as one person of the triune God, came as fully God and fully man to the earth to save us and reconcile us with God. If someone denies the wonders of these truths, they do not speak the truth.

Then verses 7-21 reiterate some simple ideas. It tells us God is love twice; that God loves us three times, and discusses loving our brothers and sisters about four times. Verses 9-11 sum it up like this:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

These truths are amazing and are worth repeating. God, who is love, loved us by giving us life through the atoning sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ. As we dwell in the truth of such love, we are to be filled with this love. The evidence of God’s love in our life is, funnily enough, the amount of love in our life. As the love that God showed was immeasurably generous, so should our love for others.

I’m often amazed at the testimony of new believers, especially in Cambodia. It is often the love they experienced from believers that testified to the truth of God’s love for them. Therefore, it is so important that we testify of Lord Jesus in our words and also in how we show love for others.

Today, I was really challenged because someone (who I think has a lot of wisdom) said that the idea of “friendship evangelism” was wrong. I agree. Or just that it’s tautological. If you love your friends and if you also believe that the best thing for someone’s eternal soul was for them to know Jesus, then you’d naturally tell them about Jesus. If you don’t, then either you don’t love your friend or you don’t believe in the gospel. That was a bitter pill to swallow and I know I have a lot of repentance to do, either for being an unloving friend or being an unfaithful disciple.

1 John 3: child of God

Sometimes when I read a passage, I just want to copy and paste everything here. The words are so encouraging, striking or beautiful. The first two verses are just great. They remind us of our status as children of God, because of his great love. Then it speaks to what we will become when Jesus returns; we will become like him.

John then goes on to remind us that we are not to continue sinning because we are in Christ. Sin is of the devil, for he is the original sinner. (Not Adam and Eve!) But we are born of God, being his children, so we no longer have sin in us. Again, this holds in tension the now and not-yet aspect of the Gospel. However, transformative change is possible and God does work in our hearts.

We are also to love our brothers and sisters. This is not because of how we are treated or because those around it deserve it. In fact, we should expect to be hated. We love despite this and because of God’s great love.

Loving others is a command from Christ and is in obedience to God. Again, it brings together the two-fold aspect of the greatest commandment: love the Lord your God and love your neighbour. You cannot do one without the other.