Sunday, August 30, 2015

Not Made for the Sabbath: Sermon on Mark 2:18--3:6

Feasting with tax-collectors and sinners. Eating when the professional holy men say no. Finding snacks in the fields. Healing on the seventh day. What these four scenes all have in common is Jesus does not see eye-to-eye with the Pharisees. As things amp up and escalate, the Pharisees start getting more and more obsessed with trapping Jesus, finding some way to steal his thunder, something to discredit him and disband his following. Because, make no mistake, the Pharisees know that Jesus is a threat. He's fishing in the same pools they are, and his vision is not theirs. To the Pharisees, the only way to get the kingdom of God to come and set the people free is for all Israel to finally give up each and every sin, each and every compromise. Later rabbis said that if everyone in Israel could keep the whole Law for just two weeks, the kingdom of God would show up then and there. That's all it takes; that's what the Pharisees are after: just to teach everyone how to behave for even just two weeks – and God will work wonders.

For a Pharisee, the point of a law is to be followed to the letter as consistently as possible. Any gray areas have to be given clear definition. All the ramifications have to be worked out. They're sticklers – so much so, Jesus quips they'll even tithe a tenth of what's in their salt-shaker. The Pharisees were eager for the kingdom... on their terms. They wanted to lead by example, and they wanted to protect the common folk from accidentally breaking the Law. So they famously “built a fence around the Law,” fleshing out all the details through their traditions. The Law tells you what to do and what not to do; and the Pharisees will gladly tell you exactly what it means to do it or not do it. They'll tell you which days to fast, they'll tell you what counts as work banned on the Sabbath. The Pharisees will tell you who's acceptable company; they'll tell you what clothes are allowed and when you should find somewhere else to be, they'll tell you what you can drink and what you can't drink, what music you can like and what you can't. You don't have to be smart or wise; the Pharisees will do your thinking for you – isn't that good news for all them 'unedumacated' “people of the land”? The Pharisees have your back! Just be clones of the Pharisee down the road, mark all the boxes on his checklist every day, and you'll come nowhere near to breaking the Law. That comes with a money-back guarantee.

Jesus has a different outlook, though. Jesus wants nothing to do with that kind of thoughtless, mechanical faith. The Pharisees are all about the letter of the law; the Pharisees are not about the heart of the Law's Author. For Jesus, you cannot understand the law without reflecting on why it was given, what is it supposed to do, what is it for, how is it supposed to shape you and the people around you and the world to look more like his Father? That's the question the Pharisees aren't asking; that's the question the Pharisees aren't teaching anyone to ask. The Law is part of the saga of God's beautiful creation and his care for all people; the Law belongs to a story of mercy and redemption. The point isn't to look at the Law and see a list of rules; the point isn't to look at the Law; the point is to look through the Law and see God – a God willing to go eat with tax-collectors and sinners to win them back to him (Mark 2:15-17).

All the details of the Law point to the great themes. Jesus says the Pharisees miss the big picture: well, sure, they tithe mint, they tithe dill, they tithe all the spices they can, but they've “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). The Pharisees have tunnel-vision: they will strain their soup to pick out the tiniest little fly, but they will not bat an eye when a camel splashes down in the bowl (Matthew 23:24)! It's not that they should've ignored the details, Jesus says, but if you lose sight the big picture, what good are all the little jots and tittles? The Pharisee project of getting Israel to blindly follow their rules only makes for a surface polish, but even the Pharisees need deep-cleaning (Matthew 23:25-28). So for Jesus, when the Pharisees build their fence to cut people off from God's justice and mercy, when they apply a law in a way that doesn't serve the purpose it was given for, then forget the technicalities! Live instead by “faith that worketh in love” (Galatians 5:6). That's what Jesus is all about.

Now, in 2002, a school caught on fire. It was an all-girls' school. An unattended cigarette on an upper floor apparently started the flames, and soon the girls were scrambling to get out of the building. Rescuers came to help them, but there was a problem. This school was not the school next door. This school was not the school down the street. This school was the Mecca Intermediate School in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi religious police, the mutaween, blocked the rescue efforts. See, the girls didn't all have their headscarves or their cloaks on, so the mutaween did not want to risk the impropriety of allowing them around the rescuers or letting them be seen with their heads uncovered in public. So the mutaween pushed the girls back into the burning school. Fifteen of them died; many more were injured.

Nearly twelve years later, a medical emergency befell a student named Amna Bawazeer at King Saud University. The paramedics arrived, but the paramedics were men, and the administrators wouldn't let them into the women's-only campus to get to Amna – so she died. Both cases outraged even most people in Saudi Arabia, even though it's famed for its ultra-strict Wahhabi version of Islam, and both of those cases probably would have infuriated even the Pharisees – but the thing is, this kind of thing is where the Pharisee logic will lead.

What the mutaween totally missed, what the Pharisees gave short shrift, is that we were not made to fit into a nice, tidy box. We were not designed to be cut down or stretched out to accommodate some alien set of rules, some arbitrary list of dos and don'ts for us to live by. As Jesus said, we were not made for the sabbath; the sabbath was made for us, made for our benefit, for our well-being (Mark 2:27). We weren't made for the Law; the Law was given for us. Now, it's easy to twist that sentiment, easy to use it as an excuse to set our feelings and notions above God's word, as many in this country do. But that's not at all where Jesus' logic leads. We were made for a place in God's will. We were created with a definite nature that defines our health. Each of us was made to crave food and water, made to breathe air, made to work and play and rest, to worship God and be conformed to his character. And the rules God gave were always meant to safeguard our wholeness and teach us about our need and train us in the imitation of Christ, which we can only do by the grace of God.

When the rules get stretched and bent and twisted to lead us away from that – and that's exactly what made the Pharisees so spiritually dangerous, and also one of the great sins of supposedly Bible-believing churches in America that wreak spiritual damage left and right – when those rules get stretched, well, that isn't faithfulness to God's instruction. It distorts it. When they aren't guideposts on the narrow road that leads deeper and deeper into the life of Jesus, then they've been stripped from their meaning and denuded of the wisdom of God.

We were not made for the sabbath. The sabbath was made for us, for human flourishing. The sabbath was meant to give us rest. The sabbath was meant to let us recharge. The sabbath was meant to replenish our health and our joy. The sabbath is a vote of confidence in God's kingship, setting aside a day to admit that he can run the universe just fine without us. The sabbath points us forward to the rest of God's everlasting kingdom: “So, then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God's rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9-10). We were not made for the sabbath.

We also weren't made for fasting. Fasting isn't the reason we were created. Fasting was invented for us. Fasting was invented to offer checks and balances to our relentless desires. Fasting reminds us that we aren't God, we never will be God, everything we have is a gift from God. Fasting gives us a way to express godly sorrow for our sins and our failures, and turn over a new leaf. Fasting helps us show solidarity with the poor, with the disadvantaged, with the marginalized and oppressed of the earth. That's what fasting is for! We were not made for fasting; fasting was made for us. We weren't even made for lasting marriage between one man and one woman, but it was made for us – made to help us flourish, made to train us in forgiveness and self-sacrifice, made to raise up the next generation and train them in the love of God and neighbor, made to remind us that new life comes from the eternal union of God and his people, made to be a living parable of life and not of death, as so many twist it to mean. Every “thou shalt not” is a guard rail between us and a what's not good for us.

God gave “good statutes and commandments” to his people (Nehemiah 9:13), and “the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12) – that's not me talking, that's Paul: “The commandment is holy and just and good” – but following the commandment blindly isn't the best way. That's a good way to break it. If we believe, we should seek “good judgment and knowledge” to see how it all works and to navigate our complex world (Psalm 119:66), the places the Law can't cover individually. The Law points to God's wisdom for skillful living. Now, even the Pharisees admitted some of this. They prided themselves on being scholars, on being the ones who had sound insight into the Law and why it was given and how it works. The Pharisees could usually admit that emergency situations were special cases. Almost every Pharisee would have denounced the Saudi mutaween for not putting the rescue of precious human lives above lesser laws. But Jesus pushes them further. Jesus pushes the Pharisees further than they're willing to go.

Jesus insists that the kingdom isn't going to wait for Israel to get her act together. The kingdom isn't something that the Pharisees can earn by their loud and eloquent prayers or their flashy charitable donations or their squeaky-clean behavior. See, if patting yourself on the back could turn the kingdom's turbines and generate power for the new creation, well, the Pharisees can do that! They're experts at patting themselves on the back. But that's not what brings the kingdom. Jesus says that the kingdom isn't to be earned. It's here on your doorstep when you least expect it. When the kingdom rings your doorbell, you don't have to vacuum the carpet, you don't even have to brush your teeth before you bolt out the door. All you have to do is go, follow, commit without stopping, be cleaned on the inside and not just on the outside (Matthew 23:26). The kingdom is here, the kingdom is among you, the kingdom has already emerged out of the mysteries of the future held in God's hand – and if the kingdom has emerged, then the kingdom is an emergency!

What the Pharisees don't get is that Jesus is about the kingdom, and the kingdom is a feast of joy and peace and righteousness (Romans 14:17). The Pharisees want to know why Jesus and friends don't fast like they do (Mark 2:18). Fasting is all well and good for the mundane world, fasting is a great a way to spend every Monday and every Thursday during life as you know it, but the King's here – and he brought the kingdom party, the King brought a wedding feast (Mark 2:19). In Jewish culture, a wedding was a seven-day festival that superseded most other responsibilities, even fasting. You do not fast at a wedding – even the Pharisees knew that. What Jesus wants to get across is that he stands in God's shoes as Israel's bridegroom; he's here to celebrate as he draws sinners back to God and brings a dead nation back to life. He came to get the kingdom ball rolling! And that is every bit as much an interruption of daily life as anyone's wedding ever was, so until the days of sorrow, the days of the cross, the disciples are right not to by the rules of regular rhythm (Mark 2:20). The kingdom is here.

The Pharisees just don't get that the Jesus crew is on kingdom business. As he and the disciples walking along at the edge of the fields, the disciples get that familiar rumbling in their stomachs. As the Law allows, they reach out, grab some extra grains of wheat, they rub it, and they eat it as a snack (Mark 2:23). The Pharisees are watching, the Pharisees are using up their own precious Sabbath walking allowance to lurk in wait and spy on Jesus, and they see their chance (Mark 2:24). Here we go! This must be one lousy rabbi, to not have told the disciples that picking a couple pieces of grain does count as work that disrupts the sabbath rest! That's what the Pharisees are thinking. The Pharisees were bending the Law again: The Law says not to cook on the Sabbath, so normally Jewish families did all their cooking the day before. But if the disciples were too busy then, what are they supposed to do now – starve? That's not what the kingdom is about! The disciples are hungry because they're out on kingdom business!

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that the rest of the Bible unfolds what the Law looks like in practice. In the story of David on the run, we see another man, God's anointed, out on kingdom business. He has a real need, but he cannot stop and be distracted by all the legal niceties of finding food the right way. David didn't have the luxury of lugging extra cans of soup around, or he couldn't sit around all day making sandwiches in his cave's kitchenette. So as a last resort, David stops at the shrine, and he eats priestly food – he skirts the letter of the Law – because kingdom business comes first (Mark 2:25-26). The Law was not meant to get in its way. Likewise, as Matthew tells it, Jesus adds another example: the Law actually tells the priests in the temple to offer sacrifices on the sabbath – that's work! The Law tells those priests to do that work on the sabbath, because the salvation of Israel depends on it, depends on the temple and its system of sacrifices (Matthew 12:5). But mercy's greater than sacrifice (Matthew 12:7), and Jesus, well, he's greater than the temple, and he's here, looking the Pharisees right in the face (Matthew 12:6). He's Lord of all things, even the Sabbath (Mark 2:28; Matthew 12:8). If the sabbath was made to serve human need, how much more the needs of the Perfect Human, the heavenly Son of Man? He's Lord of the Sabbath, he's both Son of David and David's Lord (Mark 12:37), and he is on kingdom business, and the disciples are with him on that business, and the sabbath was not made to slow the kingdom down.

Well, after that, the Pharisees are desperate. In the synagogue, the whole community should be united, thinking and worshipping as one: followers of Jesus, followers of Shammai, followers of Hillel – those are the two great leaders of the Pharisees – all should be one Israel under God. But the Pharisees are bent on division. There's a man there with a withered hand, and all the Pharisees can think is to use him as a pawn. The Pharisees will exploit his disability to trap Jesus (Mark 3:1-2; Luke 6:7). That's all they see in him: what they can get out of him. The way the Pharisees thought, if something like work (or sort of like work) could wait 'til the next day, it had to wait 'til the next day Otherwise, it was breaking the sabbath. This man isn't in a state of emergency, he doesn't need a trip to the ER, he can wait. Some of the stricter Pharisees banned even praying for the sick on the sabbath.

They just don't get it. The Pharisees do not get it. (Sometimes, neither do we.) Can't they see past the withered hand? Can't they see a man, a human being made in God's image? This is the very creature the sabbath was meant to serve – and they think the sabbath should keep him hurting and broken for even one more day? Jesus says that restoring life and doing good is kingdom business, and the sabbath is no meant to stop it – not even put it on pause for a day. The Pharisees are lying against him. What work has Jesus really done? Can they admit he healed the man? Jesus didn't even touch him; he just spoke, the work is God's work (Mark 3:5). For Jesus, finding what's lost, picking up what's fallen, making whole what's broken – that is what God's kingdom coming to earth is all about. Mercy trumps sacrifice, kindness and healing trump even the sabbath. Doing good or doing harm, saving a soul or putting it to death – those are the only choices (Mark 3:4). There is no third way. Faced with his need, the Pharisees can't help doing one of those two things, and neither can we. The irony is that, after failing to make any of these charges stick, the Pharisees are reduced to making common cause with their enemies, the Herodians; the Pharisees are reduced to plotting murder – a blatant violation of the letter and the spirit of the Law they were trying to defend (Mark 3:6). All throughout history, no matter the noble motives at the start, those who defy Jesus end up not standing coherently for anything, just rabidly against him.

Now, as a church, we are called to be on kingdom business. That doesn't mean we disregard fasting; that doesn't mean we disregard the sabbath. It does mean we are about justice, mercy, truth, and grace. It does mean that we're about righteousness, love, peace, and joy. We're sent to heal the nations by pointing to Jesus and being like Jesus. If our traditions and our rituals stand in the way of that, we have to step around them. God is bringing his newness, and we cannot hold it in the same old wineskins (Mark 2:22). The Pharisees' rules on fasting kept them from joining the celebration of the kingdom. The Pharisees' rules on sabbath work kept them from kingdom mission, kept them from rejoicing to see someone restored from brokenness to wholeness. The Pharisees' rules on ritual purity kept them from embracing the outcast and the downtrodden. In their pursuit of holiness, they lost sight of God's heart. In their zeal for the Law, they ran right past what the Law was about. Counting thousands of twigs, they were blind to the forest – and to Him Who Planted It Long Ago (Isaiah 22:11).

If even God's laws can be distorted and twisted so that they can lead away from Jesus, if even the holy commandment of God can be shoved like an obstacle into the way of kingdom business, how much more our own traditions, our own rituals, our own popular sentiments and personal preferences and political talking-points? Does the way we “do church” unfailingly point the way to Jesus? Does the way we “do church” unceasingly reveal him to a starving world in denial of its hunger pangs, or do we take our pet agendas too far? Our hymns, our sermons, our service times, our structures, our walls and our windows and our parking lot – all are good things, I trust, and often beneficial, but they are not “the weightier matters of the law.” Are we sensible that justice is more important than 9:00 AM? Do we know that mercy has more gravity than stained glass? Do we see that God's amazing grace is so far beyond John Newton's “Amazing Grace”?

Or, does our obsession with preserving America as a “Christian nation,” however we define that – does that ever maybe conflict with the mission and values of the kingdom of God? Well, make no mistake, the church does have a calling to impact society; Christians disagree how much of that calling is lived out through shaping the governing institutions and laws. But if we gain every court and every Congressman, and yet we lose a million souls, where's the upside to that, what does it profit the kingdom to gain all that and lose souls (Luke 9:25)? Baptism was our naturalization ceremony, “Jesus Christ is Lord” is our pledge of allegiance, our citizenship is in a higher country (Philippians 3:20). We love our nation, but if kingdom business comes before the sabbath, it comes above a lot of other things we hold dear, too. Kingdom business trumps fasting and flower gardens and football games. Kingdom business trumps our complacency and our cars and our Constitution and our comfort.

Seeing where these things are good and useful, where they're guideposts, and on the other hand, where they get in the way – well, I'm not saying it's easy. Yes, it takes brainpower; it takes practice searching the Word and listening to the Spirit. It's not for the lazy, it is not the faint of heart. It just can't be outsourced to the religious professionals like the Pharisees – or like me. It takes all of us, all of us, working together, carrying our crosses and marching after Jesus. We are called to be disciples on kingdom business, doing good and restoring lives by living out the Spirit's presence as he extends Jesus' life through us. Don't let anything, no matter how good, no matter how decent, get in the way when you're on a mission for the kingdom of God – because man was not made for the sabbath.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lunch with Levi; or, Party in the IRS: A Sermon on Mark 2:13-17

Hot on the heels of his stunning activity in Capernaum, forgiving and healing a paralyzed man and making the scribes' eyes bug out with frustrated fury, “Jesus went out again beside the sea” (Mark 2:13). Once again, Mark offers us Jesus on the move. So many stories in his Gospel happen during a nice long walk, but with the frenzied immediacy that speaks to a laser-like focus, a march with a purpose. In the towns, in the fields, at the shore, there's no escaping a Jesus who's on the move. And Jesus is on the move – he was on the move then, he's been on the move for two thousand years and counting, he's on the move this very moment.

Yet for a church called to be the earthly presence of Jesus, joined to him as a body to a head, we don't go for many strolls by the sea. We don't breathe the fresh air, we don't speak the word of God over the rushing of the wind, we don't tread the dust of the open road beneath our feet. To look at the American church today, you'd easily think that the body of Christ had a bad run-in with Medusa – we're calcified, petrified, turned to stone, reduced to a statue – having a bodily shape, the form of godliness, but without the living power to animate it and give it its motion (cf. 2 Timothy 3:5). How unlike Jesus, to be a tame and motionless body, still as the grave Jesus was too lively to be held by! And how blessedly unsettling to finally see a church that is, like Jesus, once more on the move! If the church would thaw from its stony stability, melted into motion by a Spirit like fire from heaven, then we'd know the truth like new: there's no escaping a Jesus who's on the move.

Out on the move, out at the sea where he called four men to join him in snaring people in kingdom nets, it's no surprise to find the crowd tracking Jesus down. And it's no surprise to hear Jesus talking to the crowd, “and he taught them” (Mark 2:13). Even now that he has disciples, his words aren't for the select few. He isn't some mystical teacher who explains the kingdom only to the inner circle. His words are openly available to the masses, not locked away secretly in a temple or written down in a sealed book or whispered in hushed tones around a campfire or sold for a fee. His words are for the crowds. Did he pause for a while to give them a lecture? Or did the crowd walk behind him, around him, as he pressed forward on his way? I don't know, but the crowds couldn't hold Jesus up, not forever. He passed by the place where he'd been, all the way to the local toll booth, the tax checkpoint, where Mark introduces us to Levi (Mark 2:14), also known as Matthew (Matthew 9:9).

Levi was a tax collector. He had a booth all his own, sitting there with book and pen. Even today, you probably wouldn't think to invite the man who audits you to your birthday party. The IRS isn't popular, not least in the wake of the latest scandals. But the Roman tax system was far more corrupt, and what's worse, the tax agents often were collecting on behalf of a foreign power. With a name like Levi, you'd think that maybe this man might be a Levite, someone traditionally responsible for collecting the tithes for God's kingdom. But here he sits, collecting on behalf of a phony king like Herod, whose brutal rule was backed up by the fearsome force of pagan Rome. He grew up learning the word of God, he went to Sunday School, but he doesn't live it now.

From the standpoint of Jewish society, both the religious leaders and the average people, anyone like Levi who worked in tax collection was a traitor, a coward, a scoundrel, an informant, a snitch, and an oppressor. Under the tax system used in Galilee at the time, a tax-collector would buy the right to collect taxes for a certain region – and there were plenty of kinds of taxes to be collected. They'd often pay the whole area's taxes in advance to the governing authorities, and then spend the rest of the year recovering their losses – and, if they overcharged people enough, could earn a hefty profit. Some would use violence and intimidation to make sure they won. In some places, tax-collectors used torture and murder to find tax fugitives, or doled out beatings to people's family to get them to pay up. Less like the modern IRS, more like the Mafia.

Two decades before Jesus started his ministry, a man named Judas came from Gamala, a fort seven miles from Capernaum, and led the whole region in an armed uprising against the tax burden. After all, even not counting the added extortion by tax-collectors, the tax burden could be over 30% of everything you had. So it's no wonder that everyone hated tax-collectors. They got rich – at the expense of everyone and everything around them. The rabbis grouped tax-collectors with thieves and murderers. They said that the touch of a tax-collector, just like a leper, could make a whole house unclean. His family was disgraced; he couldn't give testimony in a Jewish court; he couldn't belong to the synagogue; all his wealth was treated like blood-money so that he couldn't even give charity – he was a social pariah, an outcast. Both major schools of Pharisaic thought said that there was nothing wrong with lying to a tax-collector.

That's the life that Levi had chosen. That's how he spent his days, hour by hour. He's probably the man from whom the local fishermen like Zebedee had to buy their fishing leases; he probably had his booth set up next to a main route near Capernaum; he probably stopped and searched the belongings of every traveler, confiscating his chosen amount with some hired muscle nearby. What led him down that road? He chose a life that led to being sneered at as a traitor, a puppet of monsters. You've met him in every action movie that pits a hero against an evil corporation – Levi is the nameless, faceless bureaucrat who gets mowed down by the protagonist's bullets without a moment's thought. He's just a cog in the machine, an ordinary man caught up in the banality of evil. He may not like Rome, he may not like Herod, but he has a job to do. He doesn't see people; he sees numbers. His motto might be, “Nothing personal; it's just business.” And so when people look at Levi, and countless Levis today, they see not a person but a demon or a statistic.

That's the way our world works too. We feel safe venting our outrage against everything nameless, faceless, anonymous. Our culture turns multinational corporations into vast inhuman machines – but every decision comes from some man or woman with a name, a face, a favorite food, a memory of falling in love and a feud with a neighbor, and above all fears and joys and pleasures and hurts and a desperate need for salvation. We do it with our government. “The government did this,” “the government did that,” but every senator, every judge, every governor and president is a person made in God's image and meant for a glory greater than any nation. We hear news around the world – a terrorist group kidnapped this many villagers, a drone strike killed this number of terrorists – but every villager and every militant is a particular human being with all those things, all those fears and joys and hobbies, a person with a story meant to showcase the mercy of God.

Jesus looks for the story. He could have walked past the booth the same way we go through lines at the DMV, the same way we pass a cash register or a panhandler, and seen just a tax-collector. Jesus didn't do that. He didn't see a tax-collector; he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus. He saw a man with a history, a man with baggage, a man with hardships and friendships, a man with hopes and joys and fears and sins like anyone else. Jesus didn't speak to an 'it'; he spoke to a 'him'. And what he said was, “Follow me.” Jesus came, the herald of God's kingdom, the emperor of God's empire, and handed down a decree: “You're coming with me.” So Levi left his booth, quit his job, broke free from the bureaucracy, left the red tape sitting in a heap all alone. Faced with the seemingly mindless daily grind, the repetition of patterns for weeks and months, years and decades, it's easy to despair in the face of monotony. If Levi ever wondered if there could be more to life, he knew then and there that Something-More-to-Life was looking him square in the eye and calling him (Mark 2:14). Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). Jesus calls him to be a disciple, a future teacher in training.

If the crowd hadn't already drifted off to the next pastime, seeing Jesus summon a tax-collector would've done the trick. But don't you find that just when we think Jesus is making us uncomfortable, he finds a way to ratchet it up a level? The next verse finds him at Levi's house, and so are his disciples, however many there are. But they aren't alone, and it isn't just a family dinner. Luke makes clear that it's a “great banquet” (Luke 5:29), and Mark agrees: they aren't just sitting at a table, they're reclining, they're feasting, they're having a party (Mark 2:15)! And Levi's brought his co-workers home, and then some. There's a large crowd of “tax collectors and sinners” – the sort of people the Psalms called the wicked and told you to stay away from for your own health. They're there in abundance, mingled with the Jesus crew, meeting each other not as stereotypes but as flesh-and-blood people. These people were the only kind of friends Levi had, a closed club of misfits, the unwanted, the perpetually avoided; but Jesus and his disciples want their company.

Needless to say, not everyone is happy. The local scribes, who belong to the Jewish sect called the Pharisees – the first time Mark names them – are mighty concerned (Mark 2:16). To a Pharisee, the fundamental purpose of a holy life is making distinctions: these people are living rightly, those people are living wrongly. These people are acceptable, those people aren't. And to eat with someone, sharing the same food, was to say that you accept and welcome them. To sit down at the same table was to say, “I approve of you, I welcome you, I call you a friend.” The Pharisees saw the power that had and insisted the purity of one's dinner company be carefully guarded. You want to have a dinner party, you seek out the local scholars, the respectable citizens. You don't go slumming it with ruffians and rednecks, much less crooks and creeps. But Jesus doesn't see crooks and creeps; he sees the sick and needy (Mark 2:17), sees people who need to be welcomed, people who need a holy friend.

When Jesus calls Levi, Levi leaves everything – sort of. Levi now lives in two worlds. And he does the only thing that makes sense after meeting Jesus: he gives Jesus his other world. He brings them into collision: the world of tax collectors, ne'er-do-wells, sinners, meets the world of God's kingdom. Levi knows that his friends need Jesus, and he arranges for them to meet Jesus – at a party. The wording in Mark suggests that it may have had a powerful impact: “Many followed him” (Mark 2:15). Does that mean that, out of this gathered crowd of tax-collectors and other sinners, a bunch of them became followers of Jesus, became disciples? If so, could any of the other apostles have joined up with Jesus here – and all because Levi had the guts to bring two worlds together?

Most American Christians today aren't equipped to do what Levi did. There are exceptions – I'm led to think of our friend Gary Carter and his motorcycle ministry, which is a beautiful imitation of Levi's witness – but most aren't like that. Within two years after becoming a Christian, the average new believer no longer has serious contact with any non-Christian friends. A couple years ago, the statistic came out that one in five non-Christians in North America doesn't personally know even one Christian. Take out the non-Christians who used to be involved in a church but drifted away, and it shoots up to three in five. Sixty percent of those who've never known Jesus, don't know any Christians. They don't know any of us because we choose not to know them, choose not to meet them, choose not to pitch our tents among them like Jesus pitched his tent on earth among “sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.”

If we don't do something about that, we can never be like Levi. And yet we can't go looking for 'friends' just in order to lead them to Jesus. That's treating people like a project; that's treating them as means to an end; that's using them to put another notch in our evangelistic belts. If we do that, then we aren't seeing them like Jesus saw Levi: as people. Levi didn't see the other tax collectors as projects; he saw them as friends, loved ones, the whole world to him until Jesus cracked his world wide open. He was so keenly aware of his own need that he didn't hesitate to see their needs with open eyes. And yet, barely aware of the word of God, he didn't feel the pressure to evangelize on his own. All he had to do was make sure that his needy friends and the Jesus crew were in the same place at the same time – he arranged the meet, and Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, and John took it from there. Can we do that?

In the church today, we'll gladly give lipservice to sharing Jesus with people. But when we see someone doing what Jesus does here, our inner Pharisee can easily creep out. I mean, to mingle with sinners and not disavow them, not trumpet in a loud voice that we stand apart from them – isn't that compromising? Doesn't that defile us? Doesn't bad company ruin good character (1 Corinthians 15:33)? If we become friends with the drunks or the addicts or the vandals or the people marching in pride parades, won't that corrupt our spiritual life and ruin our witness? That's what the Pharisees want to know.

How does Jesus react to the Pharisees' logic? He tells them that if they knew Scripture better, if they really had it in their hearts and minds, they'd have a better glimpse of God's heart. As the Gospel based on Matthew's own memory makes clear, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; cf. Hosea 6:6). Hosea was challenging the corrupt religious and civil authorities who “dealt faithlessly with the LORD” (Hosea 5:7), and through him God promised judgment until people turned back to him, acknowledging their guilt and seeking his face (Hosea 5:15). To the Pharisees, this was the core of their message: before Israel can see the kingdom, before God will send his favor to them again and drive off their pagan overlords, the sinners in Israel – all those who infringe even slightly against the Law – have to make themselves pure.

But to Jesus, the message is different. God has a higher priority than purity, a higher priority than the sacrifices of the temple, a higher priority than precise legalism. God isn't merely looking for us to give him the best, the brightest, the cleanest we've got – everything the Pharisees were ready to offer. God doesn't want burnt offerings half so much as he wants people to know him, really know him, encounter him in the gritty places of life. God doesn't want sacrificial purity; he wants people to imitate his mercy (Hosea 6:6). And to be merciful isn't to hold sinners and tax-collectors at arm's length; it's to embrace them, to show them that the kingdom of God is about grace that changes lives.

And grace does change lives; it doesn't leave them the same. That's what the Pharisees miss. They think that, unless we build walls up front, unless we frontload our words and works with disclaimers, we'll “compromise” ourselves and the message we bring. They think that unless we keep our social distance, we'll lose our moral distance and slide down toward the lowest common denominator. That's the road they thought Jesus was on, and it's the road a lot of modern Christians fear. We easily think that, if we socialize with those loud and obnoxious sinners, the God-haters, God-deniers, and God-twisters, and we don't preach at them first thing, we've compromised the message, we've failed to take a stand.

Jesus insists that the grace of God doesn't mean compromise. He goes, he parties with tax-collectors and sinners, he makes friends with them – and he doesn't deny they're sinners, doesn't deny that they need mercy from God. It's the sick who need a doctor, and it's sinners who need him, he says (Mark 2:17). Luke makes it extra clear: “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). In the very midst of socializing with sinners, Jesus doesn't compromise. He accepts them as people, he views them with God's eyes and holds them with God's arms, and he shows them a better way. None of the Gospels tell us exactly what Jesus did or said at that dinner party, but he and his disciples taught and illustrated that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). To avoid compromise, we don't have to take a stand; we can recline at the table and sincerely listen to their stories and speak God's wisdom into everyday life. Can we see God's wisdom offering hope and truth for the practical concerns of our co-workers, our neighbors, the people in the rough part of town?

Many years ago, the Welsh Mountain was notorious for being full of the kind of characters who populated this dinner party. The newspapers spoke often of the “gang of desperadoes who infest the Welsh Mountains.” They said that many “residents of the mountain” had often “figured in the criminal courts, charged with high crimes.” Even The New York Times said that the Welsh Mountain was “the home of people ignorant of God and Christianity, with thievery and outlawry generally their principal vocations, and an utter disregard of law marking their daily life.” In the days the Buzzard gang ran wild, in the days of shacks and shanties, the Welsh Mountain was littered with “sinners,” the wicked, the dangerous crowd. It wasn't the kind of place you wanted to go. But someone did go there, a missionary named Melford Hagler, who spent fifty of the seventy years of his life taking up work among what even his obituary called “as devilish a crew as ever held the fort in any fastness.” Rev. Hagler, it said, was fearless and labored to help the shanty-dwellers build “respectable homes,” he taught them to read and write, he organized schools, he put Bibles in their homes, he preached the Ten Commandments and the need to follow Jesus. He knew what Levi knew, and he did as Jesus did. His great-grandson sits among us today.

We need to recover the fearlessness of Jesus. We need to regain the love of Levi. We need to regain the zeal of Melford Hagler. We need to bring a party to the IRS – to not just stay safe in our sanctified walls, but to bring the holiness of God where the people are – the more broken, the more in need. We need to admit that no one is beyond the reach of God's grace. No one can be expected to jump over our hurdles before Jesus will welcome them with open arms. We can't afford to be afraid. We can't afford to just lament what the world is coming to – “the world,” we say, looking at a nameless, faceless mob, looking at them the way everyone but Jesus looked at Levi. Jesus didn't come to call “good people.” Nor did Jesus come to make us nice and decent and safe. Jesus isn't looking for our conventional piety, our domesticated rituals; he's looking for a reflection of the mercy and hospitality of God. He's looking for us to make him unavoidable, even in the tough crowds. But we can't do that sitting in our pews. May God show us where the need is, where the sick need doctoring and the sinful need saving (Mark 2:17), and send us among them to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). May we be, like Jesus, on the move!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Through the Roof: A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

Last week, we journeyed with Jesus on a preaching tour of Galilee, where he touched a leper to restore him to health in body and soul, because Christ's contagious holiness wins out. Now, returning to Capernaum, we find Jesus staying in a house – whether he owns his own house there, or maybe it's Simon's family's house, we don't know – and people find out he's there (Mark 2:1). Remember, Jesus couldn't even walk into town openly any more; he had to sneak in (Mark 1:45). I don't know what the capacity of a typical house in Capernaum was, but as soon as people heard Jesus was there, they crammed in like a tin of sardines. Violation of the fire code, is what it was. But everyone wanted to hear Jesus (Mark 2:2)! We find out in this story that even the scribes were there, and they had seats (Mark 2:6). That wonders me: Did people just clear a way for them out of respect, or did the scribes get there early? Were they there to judge, or were they there because they too were intrigued to hear Jesus? Whatever the case, the place was packed all the way out the door, and everyone was listening to Jesus “speaking the word to them” (Mark 2:3), explaining the message of the kingdom in greater depth, maybe for hours. What I wouldn't give for a video of that!

Enter a new cast of characters, stage left. We meet a paralyzed man – can't walk, can't move, can't do anything for himself. Where was he last chapter when the whole village gathered around so that Jesus could heal all the sick (Mark 1:33-34)? Mark doesn't tell us that, and Mark also doesn't tell us who it was who brought him this time. The paralyzed man has a house, and it's hard to believe he lives by himself, so maybe it's his parents, siblings, or close friends who are caring for him. But whoever they are, they run into a big problem – a problem the size of the crowd. The crowd of gawkers, half-hearted hearers of the word (but, alas, not doers of it), are an obstacle to reaching Jesus.

Sadly, that's often the case today. For many people, the crowds of churchgoers all thronging into the house present an obstacle for people seeking the healing that only Jesus can give. Surveys of people's dissatisfaction with Christianity seldom find it rooted in a reaction to the Jesus they meet in the Gospels. It usually has more to do with the actions and attitudes, real or perceived, of Christians, or at least people who claim the name. In too many cases, our multitude is “thronging round to keep them back from Jesus,” not to let them through. The good news of Jesus is a stone of stumbling enough without all the oil slicks of our hypocrisy, the icy frost of our judgment, the ball bearings of our nitpicking and fear-mongering, and the banana peels of our self-righteousness. Jesus doesn't need us to crowd the way to him; he asks us to point, love, lead, and get out of the way. “Oh! help them on to Jesus!” let that be our cry forever.

Yet still the crowd is so often there, obscuring sight of Jesus, making it hard for people to hear his voice through all our mindless chatter and senseless bickering. For many seekers, the crowd is the end of the search. Faced with the impenetrability of the crowd, who show no signs of making way to bring the needy in contact with the One they need, most seekers would dejectedly – or maybe scornfully and pridefully – turn around and walk away. “If I can't get through, it must not be worth my time,” they think. “No need to be a sheep and join the crowd,” they say. And think of all the rude and ill-tempered hypocrites in the crowd! Most seekers would turn away. But not the men carrying the mat. They didn't come to find a crowd. They came to find Jesus, and they intend to reach Jesus, crowd or no crowd. If we're a hindrance, they'll go around us. If the doorway's blocked, they'll make their own way. They'll persevere. They'll dig through the roof (Mark 2:4).

What does the crowd see when they do? Probably falling chunks of dirt, maybe straw. Maybe they dive out of the way. What do the scribes see? Probably a nuisance. What does Jesus see? He sees their faith (Mark 2:5). Not just the paralyzed man's faith – Jesus sees the faith of the whole group who brought him, the ones who lugged him up a flight of steps and ripped a roof apart because they're convinced that Jesus is capable and willing of helping someone they love. His disability isn't a crisis, not a sudden medical emergency; but unless Jesus intervenes, the status quo is here to stay. It takes more than just that one man's faith. It takes the faith of a family, the faith of a social circle. They carry their helpless friend to Jesus, because they believe, they really and truly believe. And that's a rarity in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus has been insisting that people believe in the good news, that they put all their eggs in one basket, the basket of God's kingdom breaking through here and now. Up until this point, how many people in the story have specifically been identified as believers? In so many words, none. Some, like the first disciples and like the imploring leper, are painted with faith-like colors (though even the disciples are frequently slammed for their cringeworthy lack of faith), but not a single person is called a believer until these four or five come on the scene. If we want to start seeing what faith looks like to Jesus as Mark knows him, cast your eyes on this: when the way is crowded, when the door isn't open, when Jesus seems out of reach, faith goes through the roof!

That's what Jesus sees in them: a through-the-roof faith. They have faith that, if they send their friend down through the roof, Jesus can heal him, Jesus can fix things, Jesus can make things right. They have faith enough to put Jesus on the spot. And so we expect Jesus to say, “Go in peace; your faith has made you well” (cf. Mark 5:34). But that isn't what Jesus does. He says, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Note what Jesus doesn't say. He doesn't say, “Child, understand, you were always perfect the way I made you.” He doesn't say, “Child, just love yourself the way you are.” He doesn't say, “Child, you can't help you were born this way, oriented to 'the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life' (1 John 2:16), so it's all good.” In telling the man he's forgiving his sins, he's saying that this paralyzed man has sins that need forgiven.

To this man, that's surely not news. To the average man on the street today, that might be a news off the station's blooper reel. As a culture, we've become beholden to a therapeutic worldview in all things – at our worst, we're still convinced we don't sin, we're just products of a broken system – or better, we're “differently habituated,” we're “ethically diverse.” So we don't need forgiveness or repentance, the culture says, just self-acceptance. The only sin, a modern might say, is to speak seriously of sin. Jesus will have none of this nonsense: he speaks unapologetically of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and all the rest. Aimed at a scribe, those words might be news also – not because the scribe doesn't believe in sin, but because the scribe believes in everyone else's sins but his own. Sadly, too many Christians' outlook could be summed up in that same phrase: we believe in everyone's sins but our own. May we instead say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Jesus reinforces the truth that the man has sinned, but not to condemn him. Jesus tells the bad news only to delight in the good news. Jesus announces, “Child, your sins are forgiven” – not just some sins, not just recent sins or easy sins, not just his personal Top Ten list of sins, but all the sins that this man's ever managed to commit in word, in thought, in deed. They're forgiven, erased, blotted out, dealt with and dismantled and discarded. Not a one of them is relevant to the position this man suddenly now occupies in the sight of God. Not a one of them has any rightful grasp on him any longer. His body may, at this moment, still be stiff as a board, but his soul is spotless and new, unchained by the mercy in Jesus' eyes. Don't fear a crippled body; fear a crippled soul (cf. Matthew 10:28).

This can be a hard lesson to learn. I talked last week about my college roommate for whom the life of faith was all about looking for miracles. But there's a miracle greater than restoring sight to the blind or making a paralyzed man run. And that higher miracle is the mighty act of God that breathes new creation into a human soul, transmuting sin into sanctity, inability into innocence, and death into discipleship. It's the miracle of being born again. It's the miracle of forgiveness, complete and heart-deep forgiveness, the forgiveness that Jesus gives to the paralyzed man and that he offers to you and to me as a continual well of blessing, to make us “holy and blameless and irreproachable” (Colossians 1:22) and “fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Oh, “blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1)!

It's a gift that only comes from God – and that fact doesn't go lost on the hecklers in the audience. The scribes have been sitting there the whole time, watching this all unfold. They may well have been in the synagogue where Jesus showed up their pedantic preaching: “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). They may have been in the synagogue to witness the crowds trumpeting Jesus' authority to chase demons away (Mark 1:27). Now, as Jesus keeps spreading his message, they've seen him announce that he can give God's special gifts (Mark 2:6). If they'd ever hoped to reserve judgment about Jesus and the authority he claims, he leaves them and us no third way out, he confronts us and demands a decision. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15), choose how to respond to this Jesus.

As for the scribes, they're being almost reasonable. They know that this kind of forgiveness has to be a gift from God alone. Every sin is a sin principally against God. Every lie is a denial of God's truth, every impure thought or act a denial of God's holiness, every uncharitable deed a denial of God's love, every attack on a neighbor or enemy an offense against God's image. And only God can forgive that core element of sin that is a transgression against God's kingship and God's character.  Sin, at its core, is always sin against God.  Yet here comes this man, presuming to forgive someone of all his sins against God, putting himself forward in God's role, to stand on earth in God's shoes! If it's not true, then he's slandering God and cheapening his glory by watering down God's uniqueness – and the word for that great offense is blasphemy, a capital crime (Mark 2:7).

The scribal logic has only one itsy-bitsy flaw. In practice, they skip over that crucial word: 'if.' If it's not true, then the charge of blasphemy follows. Now, for the scribes, there's no need for investigation; they just assume from the outset that Jesus is laying claim to what surely can't be his. They haven't even spoken their concerns, they're just grumbling in their inner monologue, but Jesus is determined to show himself as the Lord to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity).  “Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:4). Jesus pushes back against the scribes' secret faulty logic with a better argument of his own: Only God has authority to forgive, but only God has power to heal. It's easy to just say the words, “You're forgiven,” because there's no immediate visible change. So you could run around claiming to forgive sins all you want. But once you say, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk,” it's pretty obvious if your words are doing anything more than wasting breath (Mark 2:8-9).

So Jesus resolves to let them test whether “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). It all comes back to authority – the crowds have been amazed at the authority Jesus already showed, but does his authority cover even this? Here's the first time in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. In a world of wild animals, in a world where Herod's a fox (Luke 13:32) and Rome's a dragon-powered beast (Revelation 13:1-10) and the Pharisees are snakes, a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:33), Jesus stands tall as the Last Adam, the fresh start of a new way to be human. To the scribes, Jesus' humanity was the whole problem: he's human, so he can't do what God can do. But Jesus goes the other way around: Jesus is precisely the New Human who only God can be, and he came to sanctify many brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). He's the Son of Man who, when the beasts fall away, stands alone to hold “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). When Jesus calls himself “Son of Man,” you know the kingdom's near, and all that kingdom's authority – yes, authority to forgive, and yes, authority to heal – is in his hands.

So Jesus turns back to the paralytic, who could almost have dropped out of the story once the scribes pushed their way to the forefront. Jesus gives him the harder words: “I say to you, stand up, take up your mat, and go to your house” (Mark 2:11). Last week, the leper played fast and loose with Jesus' instructions (Mark 1:43-45), but this paralytic is a stickler for what Jesus tells him. Jesus says stand, he stands. Jesus says pick up the mat, he picks up the mat without hesitation. Jesus says go home, he leaves immediately, walking on legs restored by the Son of Man's grace. Jesus didn't ask him to climb a mountain or swim across the sea or soar through the sky. All Jesus asked him was to get up, pick up his mat, and walk home – yet not one of those things, all things we take for granted, was within this particular man's reach apart from the grace of God. Jesus didn't ask him to do the incredible, the headline-grabbing, the sensational. Jesus asked him to do what was personally impossible for him to do without the gift that Jesus was giving him. And because he believed, so he obeyed, and so he did.

I have to think that, as soon as the crowd let him and his mat out the door, the man's friends raced down the stairs and walked with him. Did they gibber excitedly to each other? Did they walk in stunned silence, knowing no words could ever do justice to what they'd just seen? But as for those left behind, the crowd was wowed, and they put the lie to the scribes' accusation: far from blaspheming God, Jesus gave cause to honor God's glory (Mark 2:12). But a one-time praise, just like a once-and-done prayer, is no substitute for a lifetime of faith. Are we like the paralyzed man and his friends? Or are we more like the crowds, surfing from one flashy wave to the next, praising God in Jesus sporadically without a continuous disposition of faith?

Here's the crux of the story: Without Jesus, we have no more power in us than the paralyzed man had in him. We're helpless without his grace. Paul talks dramatically about us being “dead in trespasses” in our former state (Colossians 2:13). “Apart from me you can do nothing,” said Jesus himself (John 15:5). Left outside the house, nothing's going to change. Spiritual paralysis isn't something we can shake off if we just stretch our moral muscles. Nor can we immerse ourselves in the virtual reality of so many distractions, dreaming we're spiritually in motion while we're atrophied and immobile. To be loosed from spiritual paralysis, to find the higher healing of forgiveness, we have to meet Jesus.

And spiritual paralysis can't be dealt with alone. The paralyzed man needed more than just his faith; he needed to be presented to Jesus by a faithful community, even a community as small as his household or his friends from cottage meeting. It didn't have to be a thunderous parade. The whole town didn't need to carry him. But he did not and could not go it alone. We were never meant to live the life of faith in isolation, playing make-believe that the world's a deserted island. The life of faith is a life of continually carrying the helpless to Jesus, a life of presenting each other to him and believing that Jesus will do great things, believing that he'll show us what the kingdom's wholeness looks like.

That kind of faith doesn't meekly crawl through the door. That kind of faith doesn't stand in line, doesn't wait its turn in the queue with a stiff upper lip. That kind of faith doesn't sit down on a scribe's chair and judge the word of God when it's being preached. When the way is blocked, when God seems distant, when hope is fading, faith goes through the roof! Faith breaks apart everything in its path that stands between us and Jesus. Faith doesn't wait outside; faith is desperate to enter Christ's house, desperate to join the church, desperate to discover Jesus there, speaking his word. Faith is adamant, insistent, on reaching Jesus. Faith doesn't care which of the neighbors is watching; faith doesn't care if the scribes scowl. Faith is eager to “just to take him at his word,” and faith expects Jesus to do more than talk the talk. Faith is ready to see Jesus unleash life!

Faith doesn't deny the dilemma. Faith doesn't back down from the stark decision: either Jesus has the authority of God on earth, or Jesus is a blasphemer. Either Jesus is the promised Son of Man or he isn't worth of a moment of your time. Disciples' faith and scribes' doubt is on the same page here: the one reaction to Jesus that he refuses to leave on the table is what the crowds mostly do: chant and cheer and gape and gawk, and think of Jesus as a nice curiosity, one more hobby, one added option for our relentless thirst for consumer choice. Jesus has no intention of being anyone's hobby. The Son of Man isn't a market niche. Jesus isn't looking for an entourage of faithless fans. Jesus didn't come to get fifteen minutes of fame; he came to reveal the kingdom come!

The scribes understand what the crowds don't. But they take the faithless option. To them, Jesus is showing himself as just another pretender, presuming to disgrace God by making much of himself. To them, Jesus is perverting the religion of Israel. That is the one and only alternative to the unthinkable notion that the kingdom has come precisely to those who were least ready for it. And that's what the scribes most fear. But people carrying a man on a mat also understand what the crowds don't. They stare down the same dilemma. But what the scribes dismiss as unthinkable, faith believes. Faith believes that the Son of Man is no blasphemer. Faith stakes everything on the Son of Man having God's authority on earth and in heaven. Faith believes that Jesus isn't worth just a moment of our time, but every moment of all time. Faith receives forgiveness as a free gift, not because we're ready to be forgiven, but because God is ready and eager and yearning to forgive. Faith humbly trusts Jesus for “full salvation, great and free.” Faith believes the kingdom comes exactly the way that Jesus says it does. Faith dares to stand tall when Jesus tells us to get up off our keisters and go make disciples. And when Jesus answers our faith, a through-the-roof faith answers him – obediently and joyfully. “O for grace to trust him more!” O God, give us faith that's through the roof!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"I Will; Be Thou Clean": A Sermon on Mark 1:40-45

In maybe the first few weeks of his ministry, Jesus has found four key disciples, set up base in Capernaum, preached the good news of God's kingdom, and even “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (Mark 1:34). Needless to say, he wasn't just controversial; he was wildly popular in any place he went. Crowds gathered at the doors of the house where he stayed (Mark 1:32-33), his fame spread far and wide (Mark 1:28), and everyone was looking for Jesus (Mark 1:37). Wouldn't that be a wonderful way to be able to describe a country: everyone was looking for Jesus? Whether for him or against him, whether self-serving or self-giving, at least no one was lukewarm? And why had Jesus come? To “preach,” to “proclaim the message” in all the towns, missing not a one (Mark 1:38). And so “he went through Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39).

Between that announcement and his return to Capernaum, the Gospel of Mark tells us just one story offering specifics of that preaching tour. Jesus has healed plenty of diseases, but you can be a respectable citizen and have a flu or a fever, cancer or a cold. But what about if you've got something much more serious, something that makes people keep their distance and look at you with fear in their eyes? What if you're falling apart, what if children shriek impolitely when they see you? If you've spent your years internalizing that shame, would you dare to draw near to Jesus and beg for help? One man did. He had a lepra, some kind of skin disease that could well have been a dreadful sight – maybe leprosy as we know it, maybe vitiligo or alopecia or psoriasis or any number of conditions. Serious leprosy was the AIDS of the first century. But this leper drew near to Jesus anyway, and when he expressed his faith, Jesus did something incredible.

One semester in college – what a wild place that was – I had a roommate, and you could say the two of us had our disagreements. One night, sitting on our beds across from one another, I pointedly asked him what he thought the most important truth of Christianity is. For my part, I said that it's that Christ has died; Christ is risen; and Christ will come again; and that he saves us by grace through faith that works in love. My roommate begged to differ. His answer was miracles, healings, everything pretty and flashy. It isn't that he disbelieved that Jesus died and rose again, but he said that those were the basics and no longer needed to be preached, because in our churches, everyone already grasps those. What really matters, he said, is miracles in our day and age, and that should be the constant theme of our preaching – not Jesus. Jesus is just the means to an end; miracles are the end. Where in the Bible he read, “I decided to know nothing among you except signs and wonders for our modern day,” I honestly couldn't tell you, because it's not there. The verse actually reads, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). My roommate would have said that was fine for Paul, but we've moved past the need for that now.

This man was obsessed with miracles: he went on miracle-themed mission trips, he claimed to regularly see angels flying around his head, he complained that no one else on campus was as “spiritual” as he. I don't say this to hold him up to ridicule, he had a lot of great virtues, but this mentality does exist in the church. He had great zeal for faith-healing: he believed that it is the responsibility of any Christian to be absolutely convinced that God is going to heal someone, whether that's true or not, because that's what faith meant to him. I always said to him that faith is a conviction in the truth of what God promises, not in what God hasn't promised; and that God has not promised to heal each and every person for whom we pray; and that God isn't pleased when we deliberately believe what just ain't so. He disagreed, and he said that it was a sign of faithlessness to hedge our prayers by conditioning them on what God wills. There are a lot of Christians today who agree with my old roommate – Christians who think that faith is just believing something intensely enough, and that anything that provides balance to our prayers is contrary to faith.  Many people believe that! Yet even Paul, a man of the utmost faith, was denied his continual request to be rid of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).

But look at this leper here in the Gospel. His prayer isn't, “Jesus, I know for a fact that you're going to heal me, so just hurry up and do it already.” His prayer isn't, “Jesus, you owe me a healing.” The leper absolutely does not “name it and claim it.” But neither does the leper say, “I wish healing were for today, but I know that ended with the time of Elijah and Elisha.” Nor does the leper say, “It would be nice if you could heal, but I don't know if you can, Jesus. I'm sure your intentions are nice.” What does the leper say? “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). He doesn't come to Jesus with arrogance – the leper kneels before Jesus and begs. The leper doesn't come to Jesus with the attitude of entitlement – he submits his wishes to Christ's will. The leper doesn't come to Jesus with any hesitation at all about who Jesus is or what Jesus is capable of doing. This leper knows for sure that Jesus is capable of healing him – that, if that's what Jesus wants to do, it's a done deal.

Think about this leper's faith! The leper has a bold faith, but not a presumptuous faith. He has a carefully considered faith, but not a weak and anemic faith. He desperately wants to be healed, and he is completely and utterly convinced that Jesus can do it! Knowing who Jesus is, if Jesus had walked up to him on the side of the road and snapped his fingers and said, “Hey, you're healed,” this leper would not be caught by surprise to find no sign of leprosy left in his body. He has absolute conviction of Christ's power and of Christ's goodness – but that doesn't mean he presumes upon being promised healing just because he's an Israelite, just because he's a son of Abraham and an inheritor of Abraham's covenant. No: he knows that God remains supreme, ready and eager to heal but also wisely choosing what's best.

That's the attitude this leper brings to Jesus. Why should our attitude be any less? Why should we divorce humility from boldness? This leper is bold enough to trust that Jesus can, and humble enough to leave it to Jesus to choose if he will. If Jesus had turned him down, if Jesus had chosen to make his power known perfectly in the leper's leprous weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9), can there be any doubt that this leper wouldn't have grumbled, wouldn't have complained, wouldn't have lost faith? That's the kind of faith Jesus is looking for: faith enough to be healed by one mighty word from his holy lips, and also faith enough to not be healed – to bear this illness as a lasting mark of the conflict between God's grace and a fallen world. Do we have faith to be healed, and faith to not be healed?

But look at how Jesus felt when the leper dropped to his knees and spoke those words of bold, humble faith. Mark tells us: Jesus was “moved with pity,” or “moved with compassion” (Mark 1:41). That's not really a strong enough translation, though. More literally, compassion wrenched Jesus in the gut, pulled at his innards, grabbed hold of his spleen. From the deepest and most visceral core of his body, Jesus was flooded with intense yearning to answer the man's heartfelt prayer. It's the same word used to describe a father's first reaction on realizing, after years and years of waiting, that his lost son's face is visible on the horizon and coming his way (Luke 15:20). In the face of that overwhelming jolt, nothing else matters; everything else pales in insignificance. Beyond a calm and sedate attitude of affection, beyond sincere condolences, Jesus isn't just “moved,” he isn't just “touched” – it's a powerful sensation like being torn open from the inside and having your every thought and feeling hang totally on the reality that confronts you. In our words, Jesus is absolutely heartsick over what he sees in front of him. That's real compassion, real “suffering-with.”

Wrenched in the gut by lavish love and overflowing compassion, feeling the leper's woes as keenly as his own, Jesus does the unthinkable: he “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41). Mark wants us to picture this vividly. If there's one thing you don't do with a leper, it's touch him. The Law said to expel lepers from the camp of Israel, to exclude them as carriers of impurity (Numbers 5:2). A leper was under strict guidelines as to how to live: he had to wear torn clothes, keep his hair uncombed, cover his upper lip – all signs of mourning and grief – and warn everyone around not to risk touching him and becoming tainted by his own impurity. A leper “shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45-46). The rabbis spoke of leprosy as consistently a punishment for sin, with the seven causes including pride, theft, gossip, even murder. Touching a leper can be frightful business – but it was the business of Jesus.

Over a century ago, a Belgian-born priest chose to do the business of Jesus. When he became a monk, he took the name “Damien” after a third-century saint who, with his twin brother Cosmas, both of them doctors, won many to Jesus through their ministry of free healthcare. Not that they were loved by all; Cosmas and Damien were then tortured, crucified, stoned, shot, and finally, for good measure, beheaded. Following their example, this later Damien was sent as a missionary to the Kingdom of Hawaii, where thousands of Hawaiian lepers were being forcibly removed to and quarantined in remote colonies. Damien was the first priest to volunteer to serve them there, writing six months later, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” He revolutionized their lives, caring for their physical and spiritual needs until his own death in 1889 – from leprosy. St. Damien, Apostle of the Lepers, gave his life to touch them in the name of that same Jesus who fearlessly touched lepers long ago. No wonder many charities that serve modern lepers or clinics that serve AIDS patients now bear St. Damien's name.

But where the scribes and Pharisees would never have touched a leper, fearing to catch their impurity, Jesus had a greater sense of daring. Jesus didn't act in fear. The Spirit of God dwelling in the Son of God is greater than any presence out there in the world, including impurity (cf. 1 John 4:4). The leper doesn't make Jesus unclean through touch, because the contagiousness of Christ is greater than the contagiousness of the leper! So Jesus “touched him,” and the health of Christ's holiness overcame all the sickness, all the disease, that the leper bore. The leper said to Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus replied, “I will; be thou clean” (Mark 1:41). With a touch and a word, it was a done deal, as immediate as all the action in Mark's story (Mark 1:42).

Jesus healed then. Does he heal today? We often say he does miracles, sure. I recover from a cold – we call that a miracle. Someone makes it through surgery, or their cancer goes into remission – we call that a miracle. In biblical language, a miracle is a “wonder,” something marvelous and awe-inspiring that points to God's power working in it, and a “sign,” something that expresses the nature of God's kingdom and the rhythms by which it operates. One of the professors at my seminary, Craig Keener, put together a fabulous two-volume work – it was meant to be a single footnote in one of his other books, but you know how professors can be – all about miracles. Christianity Today gave the book an Award of Merit. In it, he summarizes stories of healings in the name of Christ done all across the world – plenty with multiple eyewitness accounts, some with conclusive medical documentation, even in America, though he also suggests that God might “answer prayers regarding health through medical means in medical cultures.”

I can't speak to the many accounts this professor has put together, though Dr. Keener's not a man given to gullibility or grandiosity – I've scarce met anyone so humble and so meticulous. But I believe my college roommate was half-right. We do serve a God who is “mighty to save” the body as well as the spirit (Isaiah 63:1). Still he is “the LORD who heals you” (Exodus 15:26), a God “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3). I've seen the proof. After college, I went to seminary, a place where I mingled with pastor's kids and redeemed drug dealers, where I studied alongside Americans and Koreans and Indians and Kenyans. I made some of the greatest friends of my life at seminary.

I hope one of those especially close friends won't mind if I mention a part of his wonderful testimony. See, for years he suffered a condition – somewhat enigmatic to his doctors – that produced nerve damage affecting the right side of his face. He couldn't fully smile, couldn't shut his right eye, not even when sleeping. Looking back on it, his half-expressions were apparent. So the first time I saw him in a full-on grin, awash in the joy of the Lord, I had to hear the story. He'd just come back from a trip to South Korea, a place where Christianity is thriving in ways we can only dream here. And while he was there, he ascended a prayer mountain tended by one of the local churches. Wonders happen in the solitary places when the grace of God bursts through, as it turns out. Confronted by God's presence unearthing all the hidden things of his soul and transforming him in the refiner's fire, he pressed on past a statue of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, past the crucifixion, past Emmaus to an empty grave. And as he descended the mountain again, burning with the Holy Spirit, he laughed and smiled; his face, once numb, was sensitive to touch. When I saw him again after his return to the United States, the change was visible – not just one opinion among many, not just wishful thinking, but literally as evident as the smile on his face. It was clear and drastic – just like when Jesus cured that leper two thousand years ago.

In touching the leper, the leper was made clean – just as Jesus offers to cleanse our souls with one touch of his grace, and just as he may also choose to purge our bodies of ill health. He has the power, but may his will be done, and not our own. But for an Israelite, leprosy wasn't just a physical condition; it was a social standing. And the only way to resolve it fully was to get a bill of clean health from a priest through the proper procedures. So Jesus immediately sent the leper to finish the process: “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses has commanded, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44).

Jesus was not asking the leper to rebel against the Law. Jesus was not attacking the Old Testament. That wasn't why he came. No, he wanted the leper to go do exactly what the Law prescribed for the situation at hand. Why? As a testimony. It's one thing to say that Jesus has done a mighty work in you. It's another thing to be able to wave around the proof, to display it for the sake of his glory! Jesus came to preach and live the gospel of the kingdom – that the life-changing power of God had come to shake things up, to inject the peace and wholeness of God into our war-torn and diseased world. The leper was excited – almost too excited – and it isn't clear he even bothered to go get the priestly exam the Law mandated. In the Gospel of Mark, this ex-leper could be called the first evangelist: before any other specific figure in the story other than Jesus himself, he's the one who goes forth to preach and “spread the word,” so much so that Jesus is thronged by crowds and can't even walk through the town gates without causing a traffic jam (Mark 1:45). What an effective evangelist! Just as the one leper came to him, so now people come from all around. So Jesus sticks to “solitary places,” the places he goes to pray (Mark 1:35).

This story – Jesus and one brave leper – confronts us with some powerful questions. Are we ready to have the faith that Jesus could still heal, can heal, does heal? For many American Christians, we don't take the prospect all that seriously. We give it lip-service, but to see a man shout hallelujah and toss his cane to the wind – that would stop us in our tracks. There's plenty we can learn about openness to the wonder-working Spirit of Jesus from our friends at Pequea Presbyterian and other charismatic churches in our area and across the globe. Let's dare to seriously and persistently pray big, bold prayers, knowing that to restore sight to the blind or health to the ill is no heavier a thing for God than to make water be wet. When we give God our biggest prayers and treat their fulfillment as a live possibility, God may just take us up on that. “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).

Second, with this faith, are we also humble enough to have the faith to not be healed? My old roommate wasn't quite right on this front: we need the faith to not be healed. We need the faith to live in a complex and broken world. We need a faith like the faith Jesus himself had: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). God didn't ignore that prayer: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears … and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). But God delivered Jesus, not in avoidance of death, but through suffering and death and out the other side. Jesus “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4), yet we're called to “suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

Plenty of famous Christians suffered from medical conditions: Pope Pelagius II died of the plague, as did Luther's friend Andreas Karlstadt; Fanny Crosby was blind; Joni Eareckson Tada is a quadriplegic; Charles Haddon Spurgeon had rheumatism and kidney disease; Mother Teresa had heart problems and a bout with malaria; David Livingstone died of malaria and dysentery; John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace and Oft As the Leper's Case I Read, was often sick in his later years; Martin Luther had arthritis, a cataract, an inner-ear disorder, and plenty else; we've already mentioned St. Damien's leprosy; Billy Graham has Parkinson's disease and has dealt with pneumonia and cancer; and our very own Jacob Albright died early in his life partly because of tuberculosis. Jesus' own parable of the sheep and the goats implies that God's servants will at times be sick, just as they'll at times be in prison (Matthew 25:36).  In illness as in opposition and persecution, “let those suffering in accordance with God's will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).

Don't trust God only when it satisfies your wants, only when it seems to benefit you. Trust in God's wisdom to withhold for the sake of purposes of which we've scarcely scratched the surface. That means withholding physical healing, it means withholding physical safety, it means withholding physical security in finances. Trust like the leper trusted: “If you will, you can make me clean; yet not my will but yours be done, even if it means leaving me in leprosy until you make all things new.” Have a faith that knows how to wait upon the LORD. Have the humble faith that can stand to not get what you most want out of God.

Third, empowered by a bold and humble faith, are we willing be like Damien, imitating Jesus in touching the lepers of our world? For too long, the church has been afraid to get outside of itself, afraid that mingling with “sinners” will contaminate us. While Christian fellowship is limited to faithful disciples (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13), we were never told not to associate with “the immoral of this world … since you would then need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10). But we're “sent into the world,” Jesus said (John 17:18), and he prayed to his Father, “I'm not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the Evil One” (John 17:15) – precisely because, under God's watchful care, we're meant to go find people and touch them with the finger of God, the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Are we ready to go to the pubs, go to the prisons, go to the pride parades – or, less dramatically, just go into town and get involved in the lives of those who need the Jesus we know? Or are we living by fear instead of by faith?

And finally, are we eager to spread the good news, excited to share what Jesus has done in us? We may not all have been rescued from some specific ailment you'll find in a medical textbook. But we're all sick and in need of a Great Physician (cf. Mark 2:17). And if you've met Jesus, if you've entered his soul-healing care, if you've been scrubbed down in baptism and gone to his table for the “medicine of immortality,” if you still devote your life to the diet of the Word and to the exercise of carrying your cross, then “go in peace; your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34). “Go in peace” – that is, “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). If we've really grasped the depths of our own sickness and the healing that Jesus gives, how can we rest in the knowledge that others don't know where to turn for the wellness they so desperately need? We have one powerful imperative: to go out and “proclaim it freely, and to spread the word” so that people come to Jesus from every quarter (Mark 1:45)! Go spread the word!