Sunday, March 31, 2013

That's the Ending?

New Testament scholar Donald Juel tells the story of a young seminary student who developed such a deep passion for Mark’s gospel that the student decided to develop a dramatic monologue where he would recite the entire narrative account.  The young man labored to develop a captivating performance that would immerse an audience into the world of Mark and his faith community.  The problem came, however, when he reached the ending.  Deciding to take the traditional ending of 16:8, the young man found it awkward to conclude with the women cowering in fear.  However, he pressed on and recited the final words with great intensity.  Then the moment came.  What to say next?  Juel records that the student shuffled his feet for a moment, finally announcing, “Amen!”  The audience paused for a moment and offered a thunderous applause.  Yet, when the young man critiqued his performance, he thought that he had cheated the ending.  When he was asked to perform the monologue again, the young man delivered it with the same pristine ability as before.  However, when he came to the ending, he simply recited the text of 16:1-8, and walked off the stage.  There was little applause following this performance.  Yet, as the audience left the sanctuary, a conversation regarding the meaning of this awkward ending buzzed among those who were present.[1]

To be honest, the ending of Mark is nothing short of a head-scratcher.  I have been studying Mark’s gospel for a number of years, preaching and writing on it whenever I can.  However there is something about this ending that always leaves me incomplete.  If we accept the long-standing tradition that the gospel ends at v. 8 (and I think that we should), we find a group of women hiding in an undisclosed room somewhere terrified about what they have seen and heard, unsure of what to do next.  They have been to the tomb.  They have heard the proclamation that Jesus is not there.  They have been given a message.  And. . .they huddle together in fear.  Wait. . .that’s the ending?

Some have offered some alternatives.  Some have suggested that the original ending has been lost to us, arguing that v. 9-20 was added on to make up for the awkwardness of v. 8.  Some have suggested that Mark was unable to finish his gospel account.  Perhaps he had been called away on a pastoral visit and the letter was mailed off by his secretary without his approval.  Perhaps he had been arrested and executed by the Romans.  The reason for these explanations is because the literal reading of v. 8 goes something like this: “They went out and fled from the tomb; terror and amazement had overtaken them; they said nothing to anyone for. . .”  Now there are some grammatical differences between Greek and English, however it still sounds like a poor way to end a sentence.  Isn’t there more?  What is missing?

Well, perhaps nothing is missing.  Perhaps Mark has left us the message that he purposefully intended to give us.  Notice the scene with the young man.  Here is a young man, dressed in white sitting at the right hand of Jesus’ tomb, who proclaims that Jesus has risen from the dead.  In essence, he becomes the first true Christian missionary![2]  “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7).  Yet the women do not go.  They do not share the message.  They hide in fear of what might happen.  However, what if Mark is speaking more to his audience than simply telling a story?  After all, where just the gospel narrative begin?  It begins in Galilee (Mark 1:14-15)!  Mark encourages us to not simply dismiss this as a poor ending but to go back to the beginning and re-read the story.[3]  We now know the ending of the story; therefore we will be more alert for Jesus’ signals of his identity.  And we will be ready to proclaim with the Roman soldier, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39)!  “That’s the Son of God, hanging there on the cross.  I know the end of the story.  Death will not contain him.  And I choose to follow him!”  You know what, I think I like this ending after all.

[1]Donald H. Juel, The Gospel of Mark, Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 172.

[2]John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina 2 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Books/Liturgical Press, 2002), 460.

[3]Thomas G. Long, “The Word: Dangling Gospel,” Christian Century 123 (4 April 2006): 19. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Laying with the Dead

I spent some time as a hospital chaplain in between the times that I served in full-time congregational ministry and teaching at the university level.  The period was about four years, and I could share some stories with you that would likely turn even the most stout-hearted reader of this meager weblog pale.  Not all of those nights, however, were traumatic.  In fact, some were quite funny. . .or could have been.  I remember one evening when the Emergency Room was slammed with patients, and I was finding it difficult to retire to my on-call room for some sleep.  Sensing a lull in the action, I asked the charge nurse if I could crash in one of the empty overflow rooms.  At least I would be close by if and when something came up.  Fortunately the lull lasted long enough for the hardworking nurses and physicians to get their work completed and for me to get some much-needed sleep.  However, I did wonder what the reaction would be if someone had accidently entered that room and found someone laying on a stretcher covered up with a sheet.

Another part of pastoral care in a hospital, of course, is ministering in times of death and grief.  There is no cookie-cutter approach to this area of ministry.  Although I consider myself somewhat of an expert in this field, my only piece of worthy advice is simply to be present with those who are mourning.  And, sometimes, that means being literally present with the one who has died.  In one particular instance, I was asked by a family to stay with the patient’s body until the funeral home attendants could arrive.  The family had traveled some distance to our facility, and it would also be several hours before those from the funeral home could come and collect the body.  Knowing the hospital policy for ushering the bodies of patients to the morgue after a certain amount of time, I informed the family that I could not stay with the body the entire time.  This brought about some concern from the family.  They were simply afraid of leaving their loved one alone.  It’s an irrational thought, I know; yet it was a legitimate thought.  Ministry, it seems, occurs most often in those moments.  So I agreed to sit with the body as long as I could, which was satisfactory.  The family departed peacefully, waiting their eventual reunion with this loved one.

As I sat there in the room with this covered body, I began to think about the time that Jesus spent in the tomb.  The accounts of Jesus’ death in Mark and Luke inform us that the bodies of those crucified had to be removed from their crosses before sunset in order to avoid a violation of their civic and religious customs (Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54-55).  Jesus’ body was removed from the cross, wrapped in the appropriate burial clothing, and placed in a sealed tomb that was guarded by a contingent of soldiers (Matthew 27:57-66).  Have you ever wondered what happened between the setting of the sun on Good Friday and the rising of the sun on Easter Sunday?  To be honest, we have no idea what happened.  Some have suggested, based on Peter’s curious comment that Jesus preached to those who were imprisoned in the Underworld (1 Peter 3:18-20).  However, as Allen Black notes, whatever that passage means, it is unlikely that this has anything to do with Jesus’ “three days in the tomb.”[

So what exactly are we supposed to do with the Saturday in-between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?  In one of his more famous sermons, Tony Campolo proclaimed that we should not mourn for long on Friday because “Sunday’s coming!”  And I certainly agree with him.  Sunday, the day of resurrection, is coming.  Yet, what are we to do with Saturday?  Perhaps John Mark Hicks, in his post from yesterday (Friday) said it best:

Saturday, however, is a lonely day.  Death has won.  Hope is lost.  Jesus of Nazareth lies in a tomb.  His disciples are afraid, hiding, and deeply depressed.  Everything they had invested in for the past three years seems pointless now.   They forsook their Master; they lost faith in that moment.  They are leaderless, hopeless, and aimless. 

Holy Saturday is the day we sit by the grave.  It is the day to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself.  It is a day to weep, fast and mourn. . . .Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament.  It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity.  It reminds to protest death and renew my hatred for it.  It reminds to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.[2]

Perhaps there is not much we can say except this—sit and wait; pray and lament; be angry at Death and hope for the best.  For the moment, it would seem, we must be quiet, be still, for we have nothing else to say.

[1]Allen Black and Mark Black, 1 & 2 Peter, College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1998), 102.
[2]John Mark Hicks, “Holy Saturday…Lest We Forget,”; accessed 29 March 2013.

Friday, March 29, 2013

"Good" Friday?

Although we are celebrating the Good Friday holiday at the university where I teach, I am sitting in my office working.  To be honest, I am not really sure what to make of this particular holiday.  First of all, is it really a holiday?  If we are referring to the original meaning of “holiday” (that being “holy day”) then every single Christian or non-Christian seeker should be worshipping today.  Whether it is an elaborate liturgical service at the community cathedral or a small, private vigil in the village chapel, all people of faith should be gathering to remember Christ dying on the cross for all humanity.  However, today is more of a civic holiday for those of us who are employed in institutions that are religiously affiliated, giving many a three-day weekend so that consumers can take advantage of some extra spring sales while their business counterparts pine away for 5:00 to come.  In this reality, the only good to occur will be the green that is exchanged in bookstores and boutiques across our land.  Sure, a pretty dress or handsome tie may be purchased for Easter Sunday worship.  Yet, is that really a reason to call today “Good Friday?”

Second of all, is it really “good?”  This word is an odd duck in the Bible.  God defines “good” as something that He creates to proclaim His majesty and compel humanity to seek Him for life and purpose.  Creation is the beginning of Gospel.[1]  This, then, becomes the theme of the Hebrew Scriptures—“For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:5).[2]  Therefore, it should not surprise us when Christ questions the motives of the young politician who refers to him as “good:” “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19).  Jesus asked the young politician if he really understood what divine goodness means.  As Kierkegaard once said, the acceptance of God’s goodness compels us to “fear and trembling” because we realize that nothing is greater or more good than God.[3]

Also, how can we remember this particular day as “good?”  When God created, he referred to his work as “good.”  Yet, on this particular Friday, I struggle to see goodness.  I am writing this around noon.  By this time, Jesus, exhausted physically and spiritually, has endured an all-night trial, been beaten and spit on, shuffled between the palaces of Pilate and Herod, whipped to the point of death, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, nailed to the cross, and abandoned by just about everyone who knows him.  “It was not about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’  Having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:44-46).  What is the “good” in this situation?  “This has to be the Son of God,” comes the feeble cry from the back of the room.  What is that?  Speak up!  What was that you said?  “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39)!  Ah, perhaps there is something “good” about today after all.        

[1]Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 20, 26.

[2]Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge/Edinburgh: Eerdmans/Handsel Press, 1998), 327-328.  

[3]Soren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity and the Edifying Discourse which “Accompanied” It, trans. Walter Lowrie, ed. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, Vintage Spiritual Classics (New York: Vintage/Random House, 2004), 75.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Hope for the Nations: A Homily on Revelation 6:9-11

Note: This homily was preached in a chapel service at the Harding School of Theology in October 2012.

Today, we begin with a question: What is our mission?  Now, this is not some hokey, cotton candy, “best life now” kind of question.  This question, as it is phrased, strikes at the very heart of why we are at this institution, of why we have accepted the call to ministry, of why we were willingly plunged beneath the waters of baptism.  What is our mission?  Our theme passage for the year offers a clear answer: “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples” (Psalm 96:3, NRSV).  Quite simply, our theme passage calls us to proclaim the Gospel to the nations.[1]  Our own Dr. Bland elaborates on this call by saying,

The church is founded upon the revealed truth that Jesus Christ is the longed-for Messiah of Israel, through whom the covenants, promises and commissions given to Israel are now to reach their fulfillment (Luke 4:14-21; 24:25-27; Matthew 5:17-20; 16:13-20).  Upon the community of the Messiah (the church) falls the privilege and responsibility of Yahweh’s commission to Israel.  God calls the church to serve as a light to the nations (Matthew 5:14-16); it is “a royal priesthood” called to proclaim the mighty acts of God to the whole world (1 Peter 2:9).[2]

Yes, our purpose is to proclaim the Gospel to the nations.

            And, honestly, there are few greater joys than proclaiming the Gospel.  Yet, for many of us, we ascend the pulpit steps each and every Sunday without even a second thought about the privilege that we have been given.  We drink from wells that we did not dig and live in cities that we did not build.  Yet, how can we accomplish our mission when all we receive for our work is criticism, ostracism, and the occasional execution?

            Now that I have your attention, let us turn our minds away from the glory and grandeur of the bright lights and large pulpits and focus on reality.  Our text for this morning comes from Revelation 6:9-11.  Let us give ear to the words of John the Prophet:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 6:9-10, NRSV)? 

This is a haunting image, as it should be.  John has just witnessed the opening of the first four seals, which brought forth the Four Horsemen and their divine carnage.  Still reeling from this awesome display of holy power, John returns to the scroll. 

This time, when it is opened, he sees a sight he was surely not expecting.  When the seal is broken and the image emerges, he sees the souls of the martyred faithful “under the altar” (6:9).  Naturally, our exegetically inquisitive minds rush to the thoughts of sacrifice, of “being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).  Yet let us remember that this is John, not Paul, speaking.  Here sacrifice carries a different notion.  Here the focus is not on the blood that flows mingled down.  In fact, there is no blood to focus on.  Here, we have only souls, souls that have been placed under the altar due to their proclamation of God’s “glory among the nations” and God’s “marvelous works among all the peoples” (Psalm 96:3). 

However sacrifice is not the only thread of theology that is woven in this passage.  There is also the thread of sanctuary and refuge.  The image here is not of the souls being “under the altar” as if they had been crammed under it like my wife will cram presents under our Christmas tree.  No, this is a matter of perspective.  The souls are “under the altar” because they are clinging ever so tightly to the horns that ascend off of the four corners of the altar.  They are “under the altar” claiming sanctuary from the persecution that they have suffered.  As a result, their claim has been heard.  These suffering saints “are safely in the presence of God.”[3]   

Yet, there is this cry that we must hear.  We all know this cry.  However, we are often too ashamed, too embarrassed, or too angry to acknowledge it.  It is okay to lift our eyes to the sky while we stand helpless midst the chaos and carnage and cry out, “How long, O Lord, will you allow this to continue?”  To be able to utter these words is not a sign of weak faith.  Quite the contrary, it is the sign of mature faith.  As we have, these suffering saints have put their hope and confidence in God.  Yet, it seems that God has abandoned them.  Their bludgeoned number grows larger and larger each day.  Room is getting tighter and tighter “under the altar” as more and more departed souls crowd around the horns seeking sanctuary.  “How long, O Lord, will you allow this to continue?  Have we not sacrificed enough for you?  Have I not sacrificed enough for you?”  If we were honest with ourselves for a moment, these words are our words; we have just been too afraid to say them.  We stand before glazed-over congregations that are full of lifeless souls that are more worried about flower funds and hymn selections than about the poor and hungry living in the grotesque ghettos across the street. We prepare the devotional for the ladies’ luncheon with tears in our eyes because we see in the news that a group of missionaries has been executed for proclaiming God’s “glory among the nations.”  We scratch out a prophetic call to action, only to wad it up and toss it into the trashcan at the last minute because our annual review is the following evening.  We scribble “Office” on a box with a black marker as the sixty-days notice sits on our desk.  “How long, O Lord?  How long?”

Yet, there is something about this cry that should bother us.  While these are words of desperation, they are not words of vindication.  They are a call to action, for God to act in the world.[4]  And their call to action is given a response.  As I mentioned at the beginning, our text is Revelation 6:9-11.  We now conclude our reading:

They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed (NRSV). 

The martyrs know that persecution and injustice is not the end.  Yet they do not understand why God is waiting.  Thus they cry out to seek justice and honor the sacrifices that have been made.[5]  God’s response to the martyrs is to rest and wait for the completion of the plan.  God has a plan, and God is firmly in control of that plan.  Martyrdom is how God’s plan comes to fruition.  In order to reveal this to the suffering saints, God gives each of them a “white robe.”  Being given a white robe prior to the Resurrection reveals that God considers them to be faithful and true.[6]  He has heard their cry and has honored their sacrifice.

            The message is to hold out a little longer.  The original audience was encouraged that their sacrifice was used to further the Gospel and that it would be avenged someday.[7]  The hope we have is not that we will escape sacrifice.  It is that through enduring sacrifice, we will “declare his glory among the nations” (Psalm 96:3).

[1]Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge/Edinburgh: Eerdmans/Handsel Press, 1998), 318.
[2]Dave L. Bland, “Lord of All Nations,” The Bridge 53 (Summer 2012): 1, 7.
[3]Wilfrid J. Harrington, Revelation, Sacra Pagina 16 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Books/Liturgical Press, 2008), 94.
[4]G. R. Beasley-Murray, Revelation, rev. ed., New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI/London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan and Scott Publishers, 1978), 136.
[5]M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 125.  
[6]Robert W. Wall, Revelation, New International Biblical Commentary, New Testament Series 18 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson/Paternoster Press, 1991), 112.
[7]Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez and Justo Gonzalez, Revelation, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 50. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Proclaim the Word (Romans 10:14-17)

N. T. Wright tells a story about some friends of his who bought an older home and decided to renovate it.  They hired a contractor and discussed what color they wanted to walls painted, what kind of wallpaper they wanted hung, and what interior modifications they wanted made.  In short, they discussed a plan.  The couple went on vacation in order to let the contractor work.  However, when they returned, they found that the contractor had not followed their plan.  When they questioned him, the contractor simply said that he wanted to renovate the house his way because he knew better than the couple did about how the house should look.[1]  Although it may seem to be common sense, when we do not follow the plan, the outcome will not be as expected.

Israel, according to Paul in Romans 10, had not followed God’s plan for proclaiming good news to the nations.  The good news had been proclaimed to Israel by the prophets, hence the heavy reliance on quotations from Isaiah in Romans 10.  “[T]he message concerning the messiah” had been delivered to Israel.[2]  Therefore, they should have recognized Christ when He came and been ready to accept Him and His message.  As a result, there should have been a massive influx of non-believers into God’s house.  That was the plan!  However, just like the contractor in the story, the plan was not fulfilled.

Fortunately, God is not limited by human stubbornness.  He was able to keep His plan moving forward.  Some did see Jesus as exactly who He said HE was—the messiah.  Some embraced the good news and accepted the missionary call to proclaim the good news to the nations.  As Wright writes, “the news is so good, so welcome, that those who receive it are like those who want to kiss the person delivering the mail for bringing them such a wonderful message.”[3]  Not everyone who heard believed.  However, those who did would “Tell of His glory among the nations” (Psalm 96:3).

The same is true today.  God has provided us with a plan.  However, not everyone who hears will believe and accept Christ for who He is—the messiah, the savior of humanity.  Yet that does not dismiss the validity and importance of the plan.  We have embraced the good news and have accepted the missionary call to proclaim this good news to the nations.  Therefore, let us heed the call to “Tell of His glory among the nations” (Psalm 96:3)!

[1]N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part Two (Chapters 9-16), For Everyone Series (Louisville/London: Westminster/John Knox Press/SPCK, 2004), 34-35).
[2]Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, rev. ed., Reading the New Testament Series (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001), 173.  
[3]Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part Two (Chapters 9-16), 36.