The Bible in a Year – 12 November

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12 November. Mark chapters 15-16

Today is Remembrance Sunday.  Along with hundreds of people of all faiths and none from our local community, I attended the act of remembrance at our local war memorial in Bramley Park.  We had readings from the book of Micah (common scripture to Jews and Christians) and prayers from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith leaders as well as some words from local councillors and representatives of the armed services.

The common theme of such acts of remembrance is praise for those who have died in the service of their country.  If pressed, I am sure the families of those victims would admit that their son, brother or uncle was not a perfect person, for none of us is perfect.  But this is not the time to point out faults.  If someone has taken it upon himself (or increasingly, herself) to fight in defence of their people or for the sake of human rights, then it is commonly acknowledged that such sacrifice deserves more than mere respect. It is accepted that laying down one’s life for others is of such moral value that it wipes out any faults that the person might have had, and leaves them fit to receive the accolade of “hero” – maybe even a posthumous medal.

Jesus did not give up his life in military service. In fact, while accepting the necessity of armed forces (he told soldiers who wished to follow him, not to desert their posts but to do their job faithfully and impartially), he himself was a man of peace, critical of those among his disciples who wished to take up arms.  Yet, we recognise that he did voluntarily lay down his life.  He could have just been a provincial rabbi, but instead he followed the insistent calling of the Holy Spirit to a unique ministry that he knew from early on would lead to his being martyred.

In giving himself up in this way, the perfect man for the sake of the imperfect, Jesus won a title that is far greater than that of a war hero, or even an ordinary person killed for their outspoken words of truth such as Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero.  Even the Roman centurion who was in charge of the execution called him “a son of God” (15:39).  To the writers of the Gospels, including Mark (who may have been one of Jesus’ disciples), the resurrection and the place at the right hand of God (16:19) were the fitting reward for this sacrifice.

Once a year we remember the war dead of the world.  But every week (or in some communities, every day) Christians gather to remember the death of Jesus as we share the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.  As we approach the communion table, we proclaim: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!”  That is true remembrance.

The Bible in a Year – 11 November

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11 November. Mark chapter 14

Only a single chapter of the Gospel today, but one worth pondering closely.  It covers the “anointing at Bethany”, Last Supper, the arrest of Jesus and his appearance before the High Priest, and Peter’s three-fold denial.  There could hardly be a greater contrast  than in the attitudes towards Jesus of the people here.

The High Priest (Annas or Caiaphas depending which Gospel you read – they shared the role), when he asked Jesus “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61), presumably had already decided in his mind that the correct answer was “no”.  So when Jesus replied “I am” (not only an answer to a closed question, but also an implied identity with God himself), the High Priest took the straight answer to be a lie, and the “I am” (and subsequent declaration that he would sit at God’s right hand and return in power) to be a blasphemy.  He must have known the reports of Jesus’ miracles and teaching, and could have drawn the obvious conclusion for himself.  So either he didn’t believe in the concept of the Messiah that he professed, or (more likely)  he was, like so many other people in power, prepared to set aside his own integrity and conscience in order to keep the status-quo.

Peter was motivated by fear and the instinct for self-preservation, rather than power and riches, when he denied Jesus not only among other men but even to a servant girl. But at least he acknowledged his failure, and we see him a few weeks later as once again Jesus’ chief disciple. As Jesus said in chapter 3 (see my commentary ), all sins are forgiveable except the sin against the Holy Spirit.  To deny that you know Jesus the Messiah is a sin but a forgiveable one.  To deny the possibility of him being the Messiah is to resist the Holy Spirit, and is (spiritually) unforgiveable, for the Spirit cannot work in such a person.

At the start of the reading we meet not a High Priest, not an apostle, but an unnamed woman (though often assumed to be Mary Magdalen).  Not only does she believe in Jesus, but is prepared to acknowledge him in an unusual way, a way that costs her dearly and attracts criticism, as she pours perfumed ointment over his head.     “She has anointed me for burial” says Jesus, but the act of anointing also acknowledges him as the true High Priest and King.  But for Jesus at that moment what probably mattered most was giving him her full attention and devotion when he was highly troubled and stressed. A woman’s touch, the scent of the nard, and her tears would have touched this most sensitive of men.   Mark, in recording this little cameo scene, obeyed what Jesus also said, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

So what is your reaction to the Jesus who says “I am” – by implication “I am the Messiah”, and as John records, also “I am the way, the truth and the life”.  Will you deny the possibility of the truth of those statements, or deny that you intend to follow him, or offer him your most precious belongings and your undivided attention?


The Bible in a Year – 10 November

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10 November. Mark chapters 12-13

Mark chapter 13 is one of the strangest in the Gospels, or at least the hardest to interpret.  It concerns prophecies about the future that Jesus made a few days before his death.  In commenting on Matthew’s version of this  I explained that the prime meaning seems to be aimed at the  early Church which certainly suffered persecution and wars in its first few centuries, but that Christians have always understood a second meaning of an eventual “end of time” or “second coming” when we, the followers of Christ, will be saved from the final destruction that will come upon humanity. Once again, this is too big a subject to explore in depth here but I will offer a thought.

Jesus was, of course addressing Jews, and his intention seems to have been primarily renew their faith for the future by replacing the sacrificial system of the Temple with his own sacrifice for redemption and reconciliation.  That is why he told a scribe who agreed that loving God and neighbour was more important than burnt-offerings and sacrifices that he was ‘not far from the kingdom of God’ (12:34).  Without denying that Jesus’ death and resurrection were effective also for Gentiles, that seems to be secondary in his teaching.  Therefore we should think of the Jews first in interpreting these prophecies.

So when Jesus speaks of a time of persecution and hardship such as there has never been or will be again, to be followed by a “gathering of the elect” (13:14-26), it is not surprising that some people see the events of the mid-20th century when the persecution of Jews under Stalin and Hitler was followed by the re-creation of the state of Israel with millions making Aliyah (a pilgrimage of return to the holy land).  That is quite different from the traditional Protestant Christian understanding of a bodily return of Jesus to separate believers from non-believers. That’s not to say they might not both be true and valid interpretations of the prophecy, as well as the immediate one for the people of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time and for his followers in the next few generations.  History has a habit of repeating itself, and the mystery of God and his saving acts reappears in many forms.

At the end of this passage Jesus gives a clear warning that we must not lose sight of: whichever interpretation we might put on this, we may well be wrong, and be caught out suddenly when either persecution or salvation comes suddenly.  “Keep awake” is the message of Jesus, and the theme of Advent, which is fast approaching.


The Bible in a Year – 9 November

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9 November. Mark chapters 10-11

From the point yesterday where Jesus talks about ‘taking up the cross’ and ‘giving up one’s life’ to follow him, events move swiftly.  Within a couple of pages of Mark’s Gospel he teaches his disciples more about the servant nature of ministry, faith and forgiveness, during which time he also arrives in Jerusalem with them, then confronts the money-changers and traders in the Temple that was supposed to be a place of prayer.  Finally, he is challenged by the “priests, scribes and elders” about the source or authority of his teaching.  Authority was a big matter for them – Jewish rabbinical tradition is based on tradition, precedent and the moral authority of one rabbi over another.

Jesus once again answers their question with another: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” It was a trick question, and Mark explains their reason for being reluctant to answer it by saying it was of human origin, for “they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet” (11:31-32). I think they did really know it was from heaven, but were too embarrassed to say so.

There is an English saying that dates from the 16th century if not earlier, and particularly popular in Yorkshire: “There’s none so blind as those who won’t see”.  In other words, if we have a reason for finding a certain truth “inconvenient” (as Al Gore might say) then we will deny it, at least outwardly to other people; and if we deny it often enough to others we will convince ourselves that it is not true as well.  The priests and scribes would have found it very inconvenient at this point to acknowledge to others or even themselves that John’s baptism was from God, because in that case they would have had to accept that Jesus who did more miracles than John ever did, and whom John called the “[sacrificial] lamb of God” was also sent from God.  But they had spent the last couple of years publicly criticising Jesus’ teaching, doubting his miracles and denouncing his authority.

When someone is in this “denying something they know in their heart to be true” mode, there is no point trying to argue further, as the more you convince them of the rightness of the argument the more they will argue against it – just look at the climate change deniers today.  All you can do is leave them alone until they convince themselves inwardly and “eat humble pie”. If they eventually stop opposing the obvious truth, then they know they have lost the argument and there’s no point humiliating them further by saying “I told you so”.    Unfortunately Jesus didn’t have time on his side to wait for this to happen.

The Bible in a Year – 8 November

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8 November. Mark chapters 8-9

It has often been remarked that Jesus’ closest disciples seem to have been particularly slow-witted men.  They are given the privilege of seeing Jesus perform many miracles, both those in public (such as the feeding of the four thousand and several healings, just in these two chapters) and those he performed just for them such as calming the storm. In addition, he took three of them with him up the mountain where he was transfigured into an angelic being alongside Moses and Elijah, and they all heard the voice of God (9:2-8).   Peter did, eventually, come out with it and say “you are the Messiah” (or Christ, 8:29).  Yet they still found it hard to accept it when Jesus performed another miracle, and when they tried and failed.

They also failed to understand Jesus’ “servant heart”.   He has just told them about having to “take up one’s cross” to follow him, and becoming great by being humble.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (8:36) is one of my favourite Bible verses, because it always challenges me to ask myself what I am giving up in order to serve God (the answer, usually, is “not enough”).  But only a short while later he has to reprimand them for arguing about which of them was the greatest (9:34) when he was trying to get them to work together as a team and be examples to others of self-sacrifice.

Jesus’ frustration with his disciples is echoed by the frustration felt by church leaders and preachers when most of the congregation seem to find it so hard to take on board the basic principles of the faith.  Like those whom Paul chides for being like infants who only want milk when they should have been weaned onto solid food, many who come to church seem to be unable or unwilling to even try and live Jesus’ way the rest of the week.  Those of us who do try, know that we never succeed completely, or much at all; but at least we are trying.

Jesus has a stern warning just after the “taking up the cross” challenge: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (8:38).   He is not asking to find people perfect when he returns, just to be “unashamed of me and my words”, in other words to be openly practising their faith and making enough of a difference in the world to be known as Christians.  The cry of the father of a troubled child might be ours too: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24)

The Bible in a Year – 7 November

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7 November. Mark chapters 6-7

In these chapters we see Jesus giving his closest disciples – “the Twelve” – an intensive training course.  For some time (months? Possibly a year or two?) they have been following him and watching him preach and heal. Now it is their turn.  They are sent out in pairs (still good practice, both for ‘safeguarding’ and as an encouragement to each other, but for Jesus it may have had more to do with the Jewish rule about the testimony of two witnesses being required to be valid).  They are told to take no food or money, and minimal clothing (6:7-11).  I have come across one missionary organisation working within Britain that applies this rule literally to their own volunteers – they must not use any of their own money, and must stay with host families and accept hospitality from them.  It’s not necessary, of course – St Paul took completely the opposite view and insisted on working for a living alongside preaching and pastoring, so as not to be a burden on his hosts.  But for these disciples, it was right, as they had to learn to live by faith.  The test of whether a village or household was willing to bear the cost of feeding and clothing these travelling preachers was a good indicator of whether they would accept their teaching too.

When they returned, tired from their ministry, Jesus took them away for a ‘debriefing’ and also rest and relaxation (6:30-32).  But it was just at that point that they found themselves followed by the great crowd of 5000 men (and women and children).  In feeding them miraculously, Jesus again gets the disciples to work – “no, I won’t feed them – you will”. By this, and the healings they had performed in the villages,  he shows them that his power can be at work in them even though he was not physically with them.  But it was not an easy lesson to learn – that same night when they were in difficulty in stormy weather on the lake, it was only when Jesus appeared that the storm was calmed – although he had probably knowingly sent them out on a stormy night as a test of their faith, and they failed.

When it comes to healing, though, faith is required in both the healer and the recipient, as Jesus found when he could perform few miracles in his own town where people did not believe that someone they had known well as a boy could be so extraordinary as an adult.

The power of Jesus is still available to those who believe – and yet the vast majority of his followers today, most of the time, do not use it.  I include myself there.  I, and most other Christians, are reluctant to try praying for people to be healed because I doubt that it will “work”. I think those who do exercise this gift must know in some intuitive way that God’s power is within them, and so must those who are healed.

The Bible in a Year – 6 November

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6 November. Mark chapters 4-5

What strikes me from today’s reading in that great crowds gather round Jesus.  As I remarked yesterday, from time to time there are great preachers (though obviously none to equal Jesus himself), who draw similarly large crowds. Some of them also have the gift of healing, but not all – Billy Graham, for example, attracted many converts just with words and music, and made no claim to be a spiritual healer.  What all churches do have, though, is the Bible, and particularly the record of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels.  Why is it then that so many churches find it difficult even to get their regular members enthusiastic about Jesus’ radical teaching, let alone draw people in from outside?  Whole books have been written on the subject, but “culture” often seems to be presented as a reason – “you can’t make this ancient religion relevant to modern people”.

All Anglican clergy, and Readers such as I, are charged by the Bishop at our licensing with “Proclaiming the Gospel afresh to each generation”.  The idea is that the message never changes but the best way to present it, and the practical implications of it, do change from one place to another across cultures and down the generations.  The fact that within forty years after Jesus’ resurrection (and crucially the gift of the Holy Spirit) the Church had spread across the widely varied cultures from the Near East to India in one direction, North Africa in another, and to the pagan city of Rome, shows that culture should not be a barrier to spreading the Christian faith.  Nor is the lack of education –  many of Jesus’ hearers in Galilee would have been illiterate, which is why he spoke in the picture-language of parables, and the Church is growing today more in poorly-developed countries than in sophisticated Western or Asian ones.

One clue can be found in the story of the Gerasene man in chapter 5. Sometimes I am sceptical about the idea of “demonic possession” whether in the Bible or today – I think it has often been misused to describe people with a range of psychiatric illnesses.  But there are some cases such as this one where there is no other explanation – if he was merely mentally ill, why would he have shown superhuman strength, or why when he was healed would the pigs have rushed lemming-like into the lake?

Most of the people Jesus healed were told not to spread the word about him, but simply follow the Jewish ritual for being officially cleansed. But this man across the other side of the lake was not a Jew, as can be seen from the fact that his people kept pigs.  And Jesus actively told him to spread the word.  Why?  I think it was because Jesus knew that he himself would not be accepted by people whose whole culture and history made them opposed to the Jews. So he had to raise up witnesses – apostles – from within those Gentile cultures to be credible speakers to their own people.  We see this happening in the book of Acts, but perhaps it is this unnamed former ‘demoniac’, rather than St Paul (a Jew) or St Thomas, who truly deserves the title of “first apostle to the Gentiles”.  And whom will God raise up within your own local community, or mine, to preach the word to their neighbours, if we ask him?

The Bible in a Year – 5 November

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5 November. Mark chapters 1-3

As I mentioned at the start of Matthew’s gospel, Mark is widely believed to have been written first, and although he covers much the same ground as Matthew he tells the story in a more compact way, with more of a sense of movement and excitement.

Mark is uninterested in Jesus’ birth and childhood, only the stories from his adult life. These first few chapters show Jesus appearing first as one of John the Baptist’s disciples, but being marked out by the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God as having a unique relationship to God.  Mark has no time for plot development – he reveals immediately who Jesus is, and then goes on to the miracle stories.

The idea of an itinerant religious teacher drawing crowds by his captivating way of speaking, the power of his message and the healing miracles he performed was not new.  Some of the old Jewish prophets such as Elisha and Jeremiah were similar, and right down to our own day the same can be seen with ministries such as that of John Wimber.  But most such people are forgotten soon after their lifetimes – who talks of Smith Wigglesworth today, for example?

Mark wants us to know from the outset that Jesus was not just another rabbi or faith-healer.  His opening line is “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Gospel means “good news”, Christ (or Messiah) means “anointed one” and Jesus’ name – a common one for Jewish  men – means something like “God saves”.  So, “The beginning of the good news of the God who saves, the anointed one, the Son of God.”

Not everyone believed in him, of course.  Towards the end of chapter 3 we read of those who thought that Jesus himself was possessed by the Devil or some other evil spirit.  In explaining why that could not be so, Jesus adds that while all ordinary sins can be forgiven, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:29-30).  This “Unforgivable sin”, then, seems to mean doubting that a work of God really is from God, or not being able to distinguish between the Holy Spirit and evil spirits.  If you cannot see God at work, you are not in a position to receive the healing and wholeness that he offers.