September 30, 2018

Homily for the XIX Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 21 - September 30, 2018

Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29

James 3: 1-12

Mark 9: 38-50

I have been asking myself recently if the authentic teachings of Jesus have any chance to flourish in the context of the present culture. If we are interested to pick apart the text of the Gospels to find exactly what Jesus taught and what instead are the additions of the early Church, we might get in a very complicated mess. But I am quite content with examining a list of teachings about a specific subject as they stand now in the Gospel pages, that is, how they have been bequeated to us, if you would like, in their canonical form. About half-way into the Gospel of Mark, after an interesting detour in territories inhabited by non-Jews, Jesus and his disciples start walking toward Jerusalem, toward the cross which Jesus knows will meet him there, and along the walk he teaches them what it means to be his disciples. This is the literary construction that the Gospel of Mark presents us during this season. What matters to me, again, is not so much how reliable this is in terms of historicity in the modern sense of the word, but what these particular teachings about being a disciple do talk about and what chances do they have to flourish in the culture in which we live today.

The general context of the teachings on discipleship in Mark is marked by two elements. One, the awareness that both Jesus and we, the readers, have of the fact that he will meet his death in Jerusalem. The shadow of the cross makes this series of teachings urgent and poignant, as one would expect from the mouth of a wisdom teacher who is marching toward his violent death at the hands of his enemies. Second, the lack of awareness of the disciples who, throughout the whole journey toward Jerusalem, play the counterpoint, constantly missing the central point of each of the teachings and remaining apparently unfazed at their teacher's frustration.

At the very beginning of the journey toward Jerusalem, we find the famous episode of Peter's recognition of Jesus as Messiah followed by Peter's complete misunderstanding about the direction of the journey itself. Jesus is going to end up on a cross, and Peter cannot accept that. He cannot accept to follow a loser. First teaching: following Jesus means to follow a Messiah who is a loser, not a winner.

And then, as we heard last Sunday, the disciples discuss along the way who is the greatest among them, prompting Jesus to improvise a practical lesson. As you remember, he places a child in the center of their circle. He does so not to talk about children but to make once again, before his astonished followers, a powerful statement about the “great reversal” which was, without a doubt, even according to the most strict historians of today, at the center of all Jesus did and said. Second teaching: the kingdom of God begins now, within the circle of Jesus' followers, when those without power are moved from the periphery to the center.

And then we reach our lesson for today, in which we go back to the topic of purity and impurity which the Gospel of Mark examines just before the beginning of the journey toward Jerusalem. As you might remember, Jesus teaches that impurity does not come from the outside, it is not a result of contamination, but wells-up from the inside of people (in a similar fashion to what the Letter of James teaches us today about bad words soiling the ones who speak them). And then, through Jesus meeting a pagan woman who manages to encounter him, we find an illustration of the notion that impurity is not contracted through contact with people who do not belong to our tribe or our faith.

In our passage, the apostle John is intent, instead, at keeping intact the purity of the group. He believes that outsiders cannot use the name of Jesus, the brand-name of the company with which he fully identifies and to which he professes total loyalty. He confesses that he and his buddies have not been very succesfull in stopping the healings that are happening in the name of Jesus. “We tried”, he says (Mk. 9: 38 - Mark's sarcastic attitude toward the apostles should never be missed because is too much fun!). He does not seem to be remotely interested in the fact that there are healers who do good to people. His point is that we can use the name of Jesus, they cannot. And Jesus answers: “Let them use my name!” The silence following Jesus' answer to John resounds with his puzzlement. The boundaries of our group are actually permeable? Are we not supposed to be the right ones? Clearly John did not study very well the passage in the book of Numbers which we heard earlier, or indeed the many other passages of the First Testament clearly indicating that the point of the existence of Israel and, by extension, of the Church, is that of becoming a blessing to others, not that of being “right”, and most surely not that of being blessed by God to the exclusion of others. Third teaching: our religious labels do not matter as much as we think, and keeping away from other groups which are engaged in the same work as we should be enagaged in, that is, bringing God's blessing into the world, is a big mistake.

The next teachings of Jesus are again about the “least”, that is, the powerless, those who do not count. The first saying, that about the glass of water, is indeed reported by Matthew as follows: “Whoever gives a cup of fresh water to one of these little ones... will not lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42) while Mark says: “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (Mark 9:41). Mark places this saying very clearly within the context of discipleship, making Jesus call his followers to identify with the micron, the very small ones. Fourth teaching: if you identify yoursef as a disciple of Jesus, as John just did in the previous scene, even flaunting the name of Jesus, you are called to learn what it means to be on the receiving side, to be a beggar; you are called to welcome the help of outsiders, those who do not belong with “us”, and it is they who will receive an eternal reward.

Finally, we reach the famous teaching about not giving “scandal” to the little ones, which means not preventing the little ones to reach the kingdom. Again, the “little ones” are not primarily the children, but all those who, for any reason, are seen as having little importance, including children, and who are often violated by people who claim over them power and control, even in the sacred name of Christ, thereby committing the ultimate blasphemy. The litmus test for the disciples is stated here very strongly: if you think you can reach God's kingdom, what you may call the joy of your eyes and the goal of your desire, to the point that you can almost grasp it with your hands or almost enter it with your feet, but if you did not take care to help first the small and the powerless to reach it with you (actually, you even prevented them from reaching it) what you have reached is hell. Fifth teaching: if you do not, first and foremost, take care that those ashamed and rejected are enabled to overcome their shame and rejection, there is no kingdom of God for you, even if you call yourself “the Church”.

And so, here is my question: do these ancient teachings in their authentic form have a future in this culture? The kind of Christianity that is prevalent today seems to go in the opposite direction altogether on all five accounts: it proclaims a victorious Christ forgetting his execution as a criminal, it fights for who is more important inside the circle of believers, it supposes that the power of Christ resides entirely within such circle and shuns those who operate for the kingdom of God outside of the Church, it never places itself in a humble position of receiving from non-believers or non-Christians, and pretends to take care of the weak by patronizing them, when it does not violate them outright. So where is the “Christianity of Jesus”?

The time of cultural Christianity is over: the time when people went to church on Sunday morning because... that's what you do. Some of us are heirs of that system, but our children for the most part are not. The popular model of Christianity adopted by so many Christian groups is a mockery of the real thing. Some of us have reminiscences of the Catholic understanding of the “way of the cross” but it is all about accepting suffering, which makes no sense if abstracted from the rest of the teachings that I just spoke about. This is the time for reinventing Christianity altogether. Take one of these authentic teachings to heart, any of them. Don't choose the one you like the most. Choose the one which troubles you the most. There might lie a new beginning. Amen.