Posted by on Sep 30, 2018

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Jesus Live on Scarth Street Part One: Jesus’ Philosophy on Greatness

Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 124; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Sunday, September 30, 2018 – The Season of Creation and Emergence

Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory

Cameron Fraser

How would the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, as we encounter on the pages and in the narrative of the Gospel of Mark be received today?

This is the questions we’re asking over between now and the end of October in this series we’re entitling Jesus: Live on Scarth Street as we encounter in the appointed readings for these weeks, some of Jesus more challenging sayings.

This week we encounter Jesus musing on subjects of greatness, success, solidarity and suffering — perhaps words that feel intuitively like they should not go together.

I can imagine perhaps Jesus being welcomed onto to the set of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, two plush chairs are set up facing each other in front of a breath-taking vista, a lovely old tree, lush green grass, water in the background, warm mugs of coffee on the small table between the chairs.

The show is described as interviews with thought-leaders, best-selling authors, spiritual luminaries, as well as health and wellness experts. All designed to light you up, guide you through life’s big questions and help bring you one step closer to your best self.

The interview opens with Oprah perhaps getting straight to the point, asking her guest to sum in a few short sentences his guidance to bring viewers and listeners, one step closer to their best self…

Jesus perhaps pauses for a moment, maybe thanks Oprah for having him and then says something like: “it comes down to this, to be great, be a servant, for the human one came, not be served, but to serve, and to offer his life as random for many.”

Oprah perhaps looks awkwardly into the camera, and suggests they go to a commercial.

Maybe not a perfect metaphor — and I certainly don’t want to take a cheap shot at Oprah who may be satirized for being all about giving away scented candles, but I imagine intuitively knows the truth of what Jesus offers in this passage — born in the deeply segregated American South into a vulnerable family situation, a woman of colour eventually entering a male and white dominated industry.

I do however like pondering how Jesus’ teaching might be seem initially in conflict with the premise of her show — how to take one step closer to your best self.

Several weeks ago I referred to the Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of a Jewish spiritual revival in the US who asks the questions, should religion make your life easier?

Although sometime it has been assumed to be or taken up to be about personal success and an avoidance of suffering and hurt, when one actually engages with the words of Jesus’ teaching as we encounter them in the Bible, this becomes a difficult leap to make.

This morning we read about two of Jesus’ followers come forward and ask that they be given seats of honour when Jesus, as they say, comes into his glory.

They have made an assumption, that this path they walking, in following in the way of their teacher, will lead them to success, will lead them to notoriety, will somehow lift them above the normal, the everyday.

I wonder how we might read Jesus’ response? Is he sympathetic? Is he irritated?

I wonder if he is mostly sober, and with a degree of gentleness trying to lay things out for them and what indeed will be in store for those who walk the path that he walks.

This is course happening while they are literally walking along a path.

If we had begun our reading but two verses earlier, we would have read this:

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

Jesus is reminding them, as he has often in this section of the Gospel of Mark, that the path they are taking is not leading to a glorious overcoming of those in power against whom Jesus is about to face off.

Jesus instead states that the reward if you will, of his way of being, a way that has meant solidarity with those who suffer, and a confrontation — an open naming and critiquing — of the powers that have brought suffering to their bear, that this way will lead to experiencing the same suffering from those in power — mocking, spiting, flogging and death — there is rising at the end of this invitation, but it occasionally is over-emphasized as either a reward for that which came before, or something that makes the previous parts irrelevant.

It is hard to begin from todays words of Jesus and wind up with a spiritual path that is simply interested in personal piety, or one that leads to avoiding challenge. It is not an unfair characterization to label much of what passes as Christian philosophy in a public sphere today as being about these things — or maybe in a liberal expression, about becoming a well-behaved polite person.

I wonder if you were to try to sum up the teachings, or philosophy if you will, of Jesus what you might come up with.

One of my favourite authors of theology and spirituality is Peter Rollins who credits his growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland during a time of deep civil turmoil when fear of violence was ever-present, as formative to his work.

One of his most well-known and thorough books is The Idolatry of God: Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction – which James and John certainly seem to be seeking in our reading. On the back cover, the publisher has quipped “You Can’t be Satisfied. Life is Difficult. You don’t know the secret” – which I’ve always wondered how that might play on Church Sign.

Rollins critiques a trend within modern Christian Spirituality wherein he sees God “approached as a product that will render us complete, remove our suffering, and reveal the answers” to which he would argue alternatively for a “faith that invites us to joyfully embrace our brokenness, resolutely face our unknowing, and courageously accept the difficulties of existence”.

I see in Brous’ question and Rollins pondering a reflection of Jesus’ words in today’s passage, and in all fairness to Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, she too is not afraid to confront these sorts of truths as well.

Now there are a lot of places one could go with this, and in the time we have available, we can’t possibly explore them all, so please if this brings up more questions than it answers, please be invited to follow up with questions, comments or push-backs, but with the time we have remaining I want to return to a point we just touched on earlier.

Jesus had been speaking with his disciples that the Human One (which is likely a better translation than ‘The Son of Man’) would suffer, die and then be raised.

I want to name some of the problematic ways that suffering has been taken up in Christian Philosophy — one is that it is natural, and inevitable, which is different than acknowledging and naming it. You see one way courageously accepts the reality of suffering, while the other can risk spiritualizing it, imagining suffering as simply redemptive.

This idea has been used perniciously throughout history causing victims to assume that their suffering is the result of a problem within themselves, rather than the acts of violence and exploitation on the part of those who cause their suffering — and in the history of European Christian ideology these victims have overwhelming been women, Indigenous people, the poor, the foreigner — those who lacked power.

Jesus’ words on suffering in this passage, must be read in the context of his confrontation of forces of violence, of words, actions and even systems. For Jesus suffering itself is not redemptive, it is the result of injustice and misuse of power which he seeks to unmask. The people to whom he ministers are not poor because life is like that, they are poor because of the exploitative system of economics that privilege the elite and fuel the military engine of Rome.

The divisions in society that Jesus challenges are not merely natural and inevitable but a consequence of years of military control. The people do not suffer because they are inherently deserving of it, but because of real acts on the part of others — and Jesus’ particular suffering will come from his unmasking of these forces and his naming them for what they are — cruelty that continues from unwillingness to see and refusal to act.

This is where we can find, I believe, a sensible place to interpret Jesus’ conviction that the suffering one will rise again, not as reward for going through the suffering, and not as consolation, but as divine judgement on the forces that caused that suffering, and a vindication that the sufferer is not the Godforsaken, but those closest to God’s own heart.

So when Jesus links greatness to a call to serve, with his words on suffering, I read this as a call to radical solidarity, not just sympathy, with those who suffer the consequences of violence in any given time and place — and the message to we who read these words today might be akin to what James and John are told on that road to Jerusalem — engagement over escapism — inquiry over inaction.

How would this play on Scarth Street today? I wonder what you think, and would love to hear your thoughts.

We’ve of course only scratched the surface of a complex and rich idea, and there are of course so many challenging, confounding and disturbing contemporary situations which we might ponder through the lens of these ideas — so let’s keep the conversation going.

A worthwhile continuation is how the words joyful and glory mentioned in this context might relate, not as contradictory terms but perhaps terms who require troubling and reconsideration in this paradoxical arrangement.

As we continue in this season of Creation and Emergence, what might we find kindled inside us as we open ourselves, what is emerging in our world today in movements of empathy and unmasking, and courageous truth-telling.

How might we find in this the voice of the Human One speaking today?

For in life, in death, in life beyond death;

God is with us. We Are not Alone.

Thanks be to God.