Friday, September 4, 2015

The Audience's Experience of God in Hearing Mark's Gospel

In what sense does the hearing of Mark’s narrative convey the divine presence of God? And, if the narrative does convey the divine presence, what might this mean for the audience of Mark’s story? These questions push us to consider the force of Mark’s Gospel, and particularly the presentation of God in the narrative, on the audience of the first century. 
Much scholarly ink has been spilt on the discussion concerning the audience of Mark’s narrative. Mostly arguments have revolved around finding either the geographical location and situation of an historical audience or the implied audience a modern interpreter gleans from the story itself. While both are legitimate pursuits, both begin at opposite ends of the question, yet are primarily dependent on the same story. Thus any hope of identifying the Markan audience must be dependent on Mark. We have no one to tell us what it was like to hear Mark’s story.
However, what we can say is that the Gospel of Mark was a story that was to be read aloud in order to cause a response from its audience. The shear fact that the author tells this story in such dramatic fashion, using vivid language and imagery, and quick movement, leads us to consider how the audience is drawn into the narrative. Moreover, the vilification of certain characters, the exaltation of others, and the ambiguous presentation of still others, forces an audience of the narrative to judge these characters, and to emulate those worthy of emulation. 
The upshot of enticing an audience into this story is that they see it as not just past recollections, but also as their own story. The stories of the past events in the life of Jesus are told not for nostalgic purposes, but to cause the audience to understand their own lives in relation to the story they are hearing. The very fact that this story is told in their hearing lends credence to the idea that in some way their own story fits into the story Mark narrates, and at the same time, the story of Mark’s narrative fits into their own lives. As they engage with the complexities of the narrative, they engage with their own stories, processing how these stories fit together.
The privileged position of the audience gives them a distinct advantage over the characters in the story for they are able to know and see things that others cannot. They know the scheming trickery of the enemies of Jesus. They are able to comprehend the fullness of Jesus’ divine mission to go to Jerusalem and be handed over for death. They are also able to process this mission as God’s will and even God’s action. But most importantly, they know of the divine presence of God in and beyond the narrative. 
The audience also understands this story in the larger framework of Israel’s story. They hear the opening of the narrative as a fulfilment of what was spoken by the prophet. They hear the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as the Divine Son in the baptism. While others question, “Who is this?” or “By what authority does he do these things?” the audience of Mark knows. They are present with Jesus in the garden as he, burdened by the coming suffering and death, prays to his God for relief, but receives none. And although the women are present at the tomb to hear the message of Jesus’ resurrection, the audience is the only other character to experience this scene. 
Their experience of this narrative is their experience of the God of this narrative. The narrative subtly draws the audience into the story, and into an experience of God through the telling of the story. The audience is forced to decide on whether they will be outsiders or insiders. Outsiders join with the evil of the world, and those who set themselves in opposition to God, while insiders are those who do the will of God, primarily in their following of Jesus. 
If Mark was written for a community under persecution, then the strength and hope they must gather to face these persecutions without failing is found in the God of Mark’s narrative. But even if one cannot satisfactorily argue that Mark’s historical community was under persecution, the narrative certainly does not hide the fact that those who choose to follow Jesus are faced with the great potential of being persecuted.
In all times and places, then, the Markan narrative serves the community who needs corrective teachings and further encouragement to remain faithful to the gospel of God lived and proclaimed in the coming of Jesus. 
As the disciples were confounded by their own incomprehension of who Jesus was, and confounded by their own human failures, so the Markan audience lives in the reality of human things and not divine things. But through hearing the narrative of Mark, the audience in all times and places experiences the continual divine presence communicated through the story and are able to fit this story into their own human existence, and equally their own human existence into this story. 
The theology of Mark’s Gospel is that the God who is the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus, is the God the Markan audience has experienced in the hearing of Mark’s story. This is the God who is present with them as they seek to do the will of God. And, despite their failures and the persecutions that persist in deterring the movement of God’s rule and the proclamation of God’s gospel, God will remain forever faithful. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sacred Time and Space Invite Us into the Worship of God

One of the beliefs shared by the great religions of the world is the importance of sacred time and space. Throughout the Hebrew tradition, sacred days and seasons recalled and celebrated what God had done in Israel’s life. Of prime importance was the celebration of the Passover and the Day of Atonement. For the earliest Christians, the first day of the week was a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. 
Likewise, there are certain places that are considered sacred.  Isaiah’s vision of God took place in the temple, the sacred space for the Jews. But geographical locations were also important. Mountains and deserts often served as places where God appeared to people in the biblical narratives. Thus, both sacred time and space are vital to authentic worship and can function to draw us into the experience of God.
One aspect of sacred time is the holy seasons that have always been significant to the worship of the church. While our daily calendars structure our time of work and leisure, the Christian calendar structures the year of worship. The seasons of the church such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost create a sense of sacred order and serve to move us to the center of our faith; the work of God in the incarnation of Christ. 
Furthermore, celebrating sacred seasons in worship connects us to the eternal church throughout the world. When we celebrate the sacred seasons we are participating in the eternal and universal language of the gospel that crosses the boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality, and culture. Yet, these sacred times are not merely celebratory reflections on the past; more importantly, they shape our symbolic world in the present, revealing to us the reality of God for our own lives and the hope we and the creation have in God’s good future.
We can even speak of the specific day of worship as sacred. Christians have designated Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the day set aside for the church’s worship of God. While there is no prescription as to the specific time on Sunday that corporate worship should take place, it is important to understand that whatever hour is set for community worship there ought to be clear demarcations that separate sacred time from secular time. Periods of communal worship should open by calling the people to the sacred time of worship, thereby designating the reason the church gathers. 
The value of sacred time also necessitates a sacred order to the worship service. Worship that incorporates singing songs of praise, praying prayers of confession, celebration, and intercession, reading Scripture, confessing our faith as a community, passing the peace of Christ to others, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and hearing the proclamation of the word creates a sacred rhythm to the communal worship experience. This kind of worship values the importance of the theological drama of the gospel and functions to move the people of God to leave the sacred time of communal worship and to go and live out their faith in the secular time of the world. 
Sacred space is also essential for worship. While the experience of God can occur anyplace, the sacred space of a church sanctuary can create an atmosphere that invites us to worship God. Sacred space would include the design of the structure itself; however, the use of specific objects in worship is also important to authentic worship. 
Symbols such as the cross, and fixtures such as the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, and the baptismal fount or pool function to remind us of the foundations of our faith: the word of God, the sacrifice of Christ, and the renewal of the Spirit. While these objects should never be the recipients of our worship, they can and do serve as focal images that point to what God has done for us in Christ.
In efforts to be relevant, however, some churches have lost a sense of sacred time and space. These movements argue that the use of sacred time and space is outdated and does not create an atmosphere of spontaneity in worship. In some of these churches, traditional sacred seasons have been pushed aside for more topical themes and the sacred rhythm of worship has been replaced by appeals to emotionalism. Moreover, church sanctuaries have taken on a more contemporary decor in which the front of the church looks more like a concert stage than a sacred place. 
But in an attempt to be relevant to our culture, these approaches to worship have dismissed the historical and theological importance of sacred time and space for worship.   Much more than relevant to worship, sacred space and time can create worship experiences that draw us out of our egocentrism and invite us into the authentic worship of God.
Among the 6th century Celtic Christians of Ireland and Scotland the importance of sacred space and time were given the designation “thin places”. Thin places are places or times in which the barrier between the material world and the world of God become so thin that we can experience the presence of the divine. While the thin places in our personal worship can appear anytime and anywhere, the reverent use of time and space in shared worship can create thin places that invite us into the worship of God.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Experiencing God Through Worship

The scene in Isaiah 6 is known by biblical scholars as a theophany—an appearance of God. Isaiah is taken directly into the throne room and presence of God, where he is confronted with not only who God is, but with who he is in relation to God. The scene is one that defines for us what being in God’s presence might entail and it may be an example to us of what worship should be in our own lives.

Our biggest problem in realizing the kind of life-changing worship that Isaiah experienced is that we are essentially self-centered and self-absorbed. Some of us may be more self-centered than others, and most of us may be less self-centered than the celebrity driven world in which we live, but the reality is that all of us are to some degree self-centered. This may present the strongest obstacle to the life-changing experience of God in worship.
But in order for worship to be life-changing, we must first understand what Christian worship is. 
In the scene from Isaiah 6 we find themes that demonstrate what worship is. 
First we find that worship is wonderment. As Isaiah enters the presence of God, he is awe struck by God’s majesty and holiness. He cannot look upon God, for in God he finds wonder beyond his comprehension. 
Second, we also see from Isaiah 6 that worship is transformative. In his experience of God’s presence Isaiah sees who is really is, a sinner. Yet, in his confession of his sinfulness, Isaiah is transformed into the person God desires him to be, a person who experiences the forgiveness of God.
Third, worship is also renewing. Through God’s forgiveness, Isaiah is a renewed person, who lives for the purpose and will of God. He calls out to God, “Here I am, send me” declaring to God the newness that he has found in the presence of God.
Finally, worship is decentering. In his experience of God, Isaiah’s life finds a new center. Through worship, he is decentered from his self and centered on God’s will and purpose for his life.
But, how do we experience this kind of worship? If worship is the primary practice to which we are called, if worship is what can change and transform our lives, and if worship is what puts us in the presence of God, then how are we to experience this kind of worship? I will answer this question through four key words.
Preparation. Athletes prepare for games. Entertainers prepare for the big show. Hosts prepare for their guests. Why don’t Christians spend time more time preparing for worship on Sunday?  Is it because we rely on others, the pastor, the worship leader, the musicians, to do the preparing for us? Worship, if it is to be transformative, renewing, and decentering, requires our preparation.
This involves personal times of worship during the week—prayer, bible reading, reflection, etc.  It involves asking God to prepare us for cooperate worship and to prepare us to receive and respond to God’s word. If we are not experiencing life changing worship, then perhaps we are not preparing for cooperate worship through our personal worship.
Participation. We live in a culture bathed in the “entertain me” mentality. We pay good money to go to movies, concerts, and other forms of entertainment. We have hundreds of cable channels to choose from and Netflix! We are perhaps the most entertained culture in history.
Yet, this often spills over into our worship as we come to be entertained. If worship is boring to us, we complain. If we are not being entertained by worship, we complain.
But worship is not about entertainment. Worship is not about meeting my entertainment needs. Worship is about participation with the saints in the eternal praise and experience of God.
Expectation. Do we come expecting God to change us? Or do we come expecting not to hear from God? Do we come with prepared hearts and minds, wanting, desiring, and longing to hear from God, to experience God’s presence, and to be changed? 
Or do we come with our own agendas, distracted by our own lives, and set on maintaining our status quo existence. We need to come prepared to participate and expect God to speak to us.
Imagination. It took great imagination on Isaiah’s part to experience what he experienced. By imagination, I do not mean a Disney Land sort of imagination. By imagination, I mean can we imagine that God can change our lives? Can we see God working in our lives by shaping us into the image of Christ? This is faith, and faith involves imagination.
We live in a world of skepticism. I do believe that a level of skepticism and asking questions is healthy to faith. But perhaps we have become so entrenched into this way of modern thinking, that we cannot image an experience that is other-worldly, an experience of the real presence of God. Imagination can bring us to this experience.
Worship should be an experience of God that transforms us. When we come together to worship as the body of Christ, we participate in one of the most miraculous events ever to occur here on this earth. We get to experience the presence of the living God among us.
And when this practice becomes consistent in our lives, God is able to move us from simply doing worship as a part of our lives, to worship becoming our way of life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Word of God and Words of Humans: Rethinking Divine Inspiration

Christians have long believed that the Bible was inspired by God, basing this doctrine on Second Timothy 3:16, which states, “All scripture is inspired by God.”  The word translated as “inspired” literally means “God-breathed,” and although the author of these words would have been speaking specifically about the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians would most certainly include the books of the New Testament as those inspired by God.  But what do we mean by “inspiration”?
Most seminary students can list the various theories that have been proposed to describe the action of divine inspiration.  From those theories that view the scriptures as produced by gifted human authors, to the idea that God gave a message to the author, who then used his own words in writing the text, to the theory that God dictated every particular word of the text, each hypothesis has been debated by theologians across the range of Christian thought.  Indeed, schisms in denominations and local churches have happened over disagreements over how one defines inspiration.  Moreover, professors of theology have been fired from their institutions and excommunicated from academic societies based their definition and explanation of divine inspiration.
While 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly states that “All scripture is God-breathed,” this does not mean that we must accept the idea that every word was dictated by God to the human author, who then recorded those words.  Again, if we take the author of 2 Timothy seriously, we can only admit that this verse is in reference to the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.  Yet, even if we recognize the New Testament as inspired by God, it is not compulsory to believe that every single word of the text was inspired by God.  One’s critical approach to scripture or to any theory of divine inspiration does not in and of itself negate one’s faith in God or the Bible as a source of faith.  To view the text of scripture as having a human origin as much as a divine one does not make one less faithful in one’s belief in God, and is really more intellectually honest with the evidence.
In fact, the texts of scripture actually give more evidence to human involvement in their production than they do of divine inspiration.  This does not mean that we need to throw out divine inspiration altogether.  But we must ask two very important and interrelated questions if we are to define, at least at some level, the idea of inspiration.  Why did the writers of the books of the Bible write and why did they write what they wrote?
Those holding to verbal or literal inspiration would answer that God led these biblical authors to write what they wrote.  This may be true at some level, but there is no way for us to know this.  In fact, a critical and historical investigation of the Bible, as I have suggested above, leads us more in the direction of concluding that these authors chose of their own free will to write and to write what they wrote.  Thus, it might be helpful for us to answer the questions about why these texts were written, and why the authors wrote what they wrote, by considering why the two communities that produced the two portions of the Bible would have done so.  In approaching the question from this angle, we are being more intellectually honest with the text.
Obviously, we must speak here in generalities when we talk about ancient Israel, from whom we received the Hebrew Bible, and early Christianity, from whence comes the New Testament.  Across the time and space of both of these communities, but particularly ancient Israel, there was much diversity that has become a part of the text of scripture.
The people of Israel viewed themselves as different from the other nations that surrounded them.  They believed their God was supreme over other gods, and that their God had created the physical world from nothing and had chosen them as a covenant people.  This belief certainly influenced their understanding of the world and other peoples, but it also influenced the telling of their stories, both orally and then through written texts.
To put it succinctly, Israel’s texts of scripture came forth from the people of Israel in response to what they believed about God and what God was doing.  In other words, they were theologically interpreting history and they were telling their history from a theological point of view.  Their understanding of God and the world influenced the way they told their stories, from the creation story, to the flood story, to the Exodus story, to the stories of conquering the land of Canaan through violence, and the stories of their Exile and their return.
In approaching an understanding of the writing of the New Testament books, we must remember two things.  First, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, and hence any faith that would develop from their experiences must have some connection to ancient Israel and its texts.  Second, because these earliest followers of Jesus believed him to be the promised Messiah of Israel, they must be able to explain this in relation to God’s working in the life of ancient Israel as expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures.  To state it differently, early followers of Jesus needed to make their texts point to Jesus as the promised Messiah and they needed to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that harmonized him to their texts.
In holding onto these two important ideas, the authors of the books that would become the New Testament searched the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to understand and explain Jesus.  While we like to think that the Old Testament foretold the coming of Jesus, it is probably better to say that those earliest believers in Jesus saw in him what they believed was described about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.  In other words, in their experience of Jesus, they re-read their ancients sacred texts, looking for texts that made sense to their understanding of Jesus, and then applied those to Jesus.  They then formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises.  Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced both their reading of the Old Testament as well as their writing of the New Testament.
Yet, what also influenced the writers of the New Testament was the current situation of the churches to which they wrote.  As stated above, the documents of the New Testament for the most part were shaped as much by the needs of the communities of faith as they were by the stories that were passed down about Jesus.  Certainly we are aware that Paul’s letters, as well as the other epistles, were written to churches that were dealing with issues.  But we must also be aware that embedded in the Gospels and other New Testament books are the situations of the followers of Jesus during the time of the writing.
What all of this means is that the text of scripture, what we call the Bible, is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the stories of how God’s ancient peoples believed God to be working in the world.  For these two communities of faith, the writing of these texts was the formation of a theological explanation for the existence of the world and humanity, a theological diagnosis of the human predicament, and a theological explanation for overcoming this predicament.  The Bible contains the explanations of the mysteries of God envisioned by these historically situated humans, but no more.   Their understanding of God, humanity, and the world is much different than our own.  Though we can learn from them and are influenced by their stories and texts, we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how the Spirit speaks through scripture today.