Pastor] asked me to fill in for him last Sunday, using Mark 3:1-6 to illustrate one of the 6 “great purposes of the church.” This is what happened : )
We continue our reading through Mark’s gospel at chapter 3, verses 1-6, page 37 in the New Testament section of your Pew Bible.
Mark’s gospel has gotten right to the point, immediately describing Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and awesome healing and teaching ministry.
But in just 2 chapters, he has raised eyebrows and come under scrutiny of the powers that be four times!
Last week we read the accusation that he and the disciples broke the First Commandment: that You shall keep the Sabbath Day holy by not doing any work
They had plucked some grain heads because they were hungry, and Jesus told the accusers that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.
And so the scene is set for Chapter 3:
Don’t you love it when someone sticks up for you?!
Cuts through the red tape?
Calls a spade a spade, a bully a bully
or, as happened with us the past two weeks, whole TEAMS of people go to bat for you against an illness or health challenge or maybe a financial one?
All of you have done that for other people who need a hand!
And, listening to this story, how wonderful to think how, in all the challenges of life, there is someOne at work for us greater than any team.
Going to bat for us, we have friends and family and church and teams of helpers – but here we see there is the whole power of the Universe behind us –
As Paul wrote to the Romans, “In all things, God is at work for good”
And – God is at work, not just routinely, but passionately!
Jesus looked around him “with anger,” Mark says, grieved at their hardness of heart — they don’t mind letting this man suffer longer than he has to, and they think – or claim to think – that’s what God wants.
As we read through Mark’s gospel this year, it’s interesting how Mark tells us more about the human feelings of Jesus than the other gospels do. When Luke tells this particular story, he uses almost the same exact wording, but he doesn’t mention that Jesus was angry, and grieved.
Later on, when the disciples try to stop the children from bothering Jesus, Mark tells us Jesus was indignant – but Matthew and Luke just say that Jesus said “Let the children come.”
It’s interesting how Mark is interested in what Jesus felt.
What makes God “angry”?
When we talked about this story in Wednesday Bible Study, [pastor] went back to the prophet Amos. Amos accused Israel of “trampling the poor,” “denying justice to the oppressed,” and then having the nerve to come to worship.
In Amos 5, the Lord says:
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Let righteousness roll down!
A lack of righteousness can be said to make God angry – and righteousness is the fifth of the “great ends (or purposes) of the church” that we have been looking at during Lent this year.
There are six identified in our Book of Order, and so far we have reflected on:
The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
The maintenance of divine worship
The promotion of the truth
and now today, we think about The promotion of social righteousness
Righteousness is such a rich word in the scriptures. You really can’t pin it down – basically it has to do with the character of God – who God is – both merciful and fair.
Righteousness is the word that Martin Luther said opened a whole new world to him.
Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings, LW 34, Career of the Reformer IV, 336-7
“I had been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans…. but a single word in chapter 1 [:17] ‘In it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed,’ … had stood in my way. For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of the teachers, I had been taught to understand …[as] active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.
“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if…it is not enough, that miserable sinners…are crushed by …the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain …also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
“And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to Paradise.”
So “righteousness of God” is not about a perfect God punishing miserable sinners, but is God sharing God’s love and fairness with us and in us. Growing up, I never quite understood the story of Mary and Joseph, when Matthew’s gospel says that Mary was discovered to be with child and that Joseph was a righteous man so did not want to disgrace her but would divorce her quietly. I thought that if Joseph were “righteous,” that would mean he was strictly law-abiding and would think she should be stoned for adultery. But actually, in the Greek, “righteous” is the word sometimes used to translate the Old Testament word for “steadfast love” or loyalty, lovingkindness…. meaning that “righteousness” has overtones of love and mercy as well as fairness and justice.
So when we say that one of the chief ends of the church is the promotion of “social” righteousness, we are talking about promoting love and fairness not only in personal relationships, but in our life together as a society.
Some branches of the Christian family think it’s best for the church to focus on our individual relationships, and not get involved in society or politics. But the Presbyterian branch traces back to John Calvin, who was sort of shanghaied into helping reform the city of Geneva. He had wanted to be a scholar in an ivory tower, but a fiery evangelist named Farel convinced him God would hold him responsible if he did not help the Reformation in Geneva. Church and state were not separated then exactly as they are now, but Calvin wrote this about civil magistrates in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”:
“No one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men [humanity].” [IV.xx.4] Calvin wrote that among other things, civil government promotes peace and tranquility and helps reconcile us to one another. And I was surprised to read that one of Calvin’s achievements in Geneva was the development of a closed sewer system! (that had to be a blessing!)
Looking back at our reading for today, and thinking about social righteousness, you can appreciate the social and political dynamics in this encounter.
Just by being who he is, making healing and human need a priority, Jesus is challenging the powers that be – and they recognize the challenge – the Pharisees go out and conspire with the Herodians how to destroy Jesus. One scholar has observed that if Jesus had only advocated being kind to others, with no social or political overtones, he would have died a peaceful death in old age, as the Buddha did.
Next Sunday will be Palm Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the symbol of a peaceful king, proclaiming the peaceful and compassionate Kingdom of God. Some have wondered whether that would have been the same day that Pilate entered Jerusalem from the opposite gate, in a military procession of cavalry, foot soldiers, leather armor, golden eagles on poles, coming to keep the peace during the celebration of Passover. Jesus’ procession proclaims that the true God is not Caesar, but the God of love and fairness, the God of righteousness, where no one is left out, and where God even cares for those on the wrong path.
In the story we read today, we hear that Jesus looked around in anger, “grieved” at the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. One commentator pointed out that Jesus is feeling sorry for these rule-bound Pharisees, sorry that they are missing the Kingdom of God, the Realm of God, where all share in God’s love and creative power — God’s righteousness. They are cared about too.
I am so thankful to be part of this Kingdom of God – as it happens right here in this congregation. You all express the love and joy of God in so many ways – Thank you for expressing all these Great Ends of the Church!