Thursday, January 29, 2015

Reclaiming Jesus

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter Reclaiming Jesus. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at

The book is written for group discussion.

As the subtitle of a book puts it, many Christians view themselves as God-blessed, but never consider the fact that we are Christ-haunted.[1] We gather in worship of God, offering praise for God’s love for us and God’s blessings on us, but we often fail to heed Jesus’ command to discipleship and radical living.  From our places of blessing, we like to point our pious fingers at those outside, and even some inside the church and condemn them for their sins, while at the same time holding onto an understanding of God that is so far away from Jesus’ life and teachings.  In this way we create a God in our own image, in our own likeness, one that we can manage and one that is worshiped at churches where, as one of my kids puts it, “you can get an easy “A”.
But this is not what it means to be a follower of the Jesus of the Gospels.  Yes, following Jesus is liberating, but it is demanding, it is costly.  Yet, the demands are too much for most of us, and we prefer a different Jesus who marches to the beat of our drum.  But this is not the real Jesus, the biblical Jesus.  For the real Jesus offends us.
When I was working on my Ph.D. in Edinburgh, Scotland, I would often take breaks from my writing and roam Auld Reekie, as Edinburgh is affectionately known.  One of my favorite places of respite from the grind of writing a dissertation was the National Gallery of Scotland.  There I could view in peace the creative works from the great artists of history.  It was there that I discovered one of my favorite paintings; one which I had only known from books.  That painting is El Greco’s Savior of the World.
For me El Greco’s painting captures the essence of Jesus.  Although El Greco painted a Jesus who looks more like one of El Greco’s contemporary Europeans than a Jew living in first century Palestine, once you get past this historical flaw, you begin to appreciate what the artist has done.  As I would sit there viewing this work, the face of the subject always drew me to himself.  El Greco’s Jesus is inviting, compassionate, and loving. 
Yet, as I would sit for periods of time staring into the warm and compassionate face of the painted Savior, I would begin to see something else.  Those same inviting and loving eyes became piercing and condemning.  That once warm face now became offensive to me as if he was looking deep into my soul and witnessing the worst of human sin.
In Mark 6, Jesus, Nazareth’s own hometown boy, returns home to preach to those who knew him as a child.  You can imagine the anticipation they felt for what he might say as he preached his first sermon in his home synagogue.  Yet, although Mark does not tell us the words that Jesus spoke, he does tell us that those who heard him “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3).  Taken literally, they were scandalized by what he said.  Why?
Perhaps they assumed that their hometown boy would make them proud by affirming their righteousness, their place as God’s elect people, and their pious religious observances.  Perhaps they assumed that Jesus would side with them against their enemies, preach stirring sermons convicting others of their sins and pointing to his own people as examples of what it means to live holy lives.  Perhaps Jesus would tell them how God-blessed they really were.  Whatever Jesus said in the synagogue on that day convinced the Nazarenes that the returning hometown boy was not the Jesus they wanted.  Instead he was the Jesus they got; and they were offended.

We can look at this story and scornfully judge these people and others who reject Jesus, shaming them for not embracing the person and words of Jesus.  But are we not just looking into the mirror at our own faces?  Was not their problem with Jesus the same as our problem with Jesus?  We embrace the Jesus we want, but we quickly reject the Jesus we get; the real Jesus who offends us.
The Jesus we want is our friend.  He is our ally in the face of our enemies.  This Jesus is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us.  This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness.   This Jesus is the one who applauds our hate speech and intolerance of others, who approves of our use of violence and war against our enemies, and who promises us that our capitalistic pursuits will bring us prosperity.
The Jesus we want is created in our own minds and answers to our demands.  He permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security.  He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security.  He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, religions and sexual orientations in the name of cultural security.  Yes, this is the Jesus we prefer.  He is the Jesus we can accept and worship.
But this is not the real Jesus.  The real Jesus is the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him.  This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, gender, and sexual orientation.  This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing.  This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world.  This is the Jesus who calls us to rethink our theological assertions and to open ourselves to being moved by his Spirit.  And this is the Jesus, who being so offensive and so scandalous to his contemporaries, that he was crucified on the most offensive and scandalous instruments of Roman power-the cross.  Yes, this is the radical Jesus, the scandalous Jesus, and the offensive Jesus; but he is the real Jesus, the biblical Jesus, and the Jesus who calls us out of sin into the salvation of radical discipleship. This is the Jesus we must reclaim.

          David Dark, The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea, Westminster / John Knox / 2005

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jesus’ Miracles in Mark and God’s Compassion and Comfort

In a previous post, I discussed how Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of Mark function to demonstrate God’s numinous presence, as people who witnessed his miracles act in awe, wonder, and fear. These reactions demonstrate Mark’s presentation of Jesus as the one sent by God to act for God. If we look further at Jesus’ miracles in Mark, we also see that they function to bring God’s compassion and comfort to those Jesus heals. In this way, Mark presents Jesus as taking on the role of God.

At various points in the narrative the Markan Jesus is said to have compassion on the plight of people in need, or is asked by those in need to have compassion (1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22). This compassion compels him to act to alleviate their situations. Yet we need not limit our recognition of this fact only to the use of the Greek word splagchnizomai translated as compassion. This is particularly true if we understand Mark’s narrative in light of Isaiah. 

Mark 1:2-3 comprises a mixture of quotations from the Old Testament, which are attributed by the author to Isaiah, but come from Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. Why does Mark attribute all of these to Isaiah? Some Markan scholars have argued that Mark’s attribution of the conflation of Old Testament texts in 1:2-3 to Isaiah the prophet might show the author’s intention of narrating his story in light of the New Exodus motif of Isaiah. 

By doing this, Mark sets his story within the framework of the New Exodus theme of Yahweh’s hope and victory found in Isaiah 40-55. Part of this hope and victory comes in the comforting of God’s people. 

Indeed the first verse of Isaiah 40 reads, “Comfort (parakaleite), O comfort my people, says your God.” This is a command that God’s people be comforted. Moreover, Isaiah 40:1-11 seems to serve as somewhat of an opening for Isaiah 40-66, in which the theme of God’s consolation and comfort are found throughout. Isaiah 40:1-11 is an expression of the hope of God’s comfort and salvation.

Given this understanding of Isaiah 40, and its use in Mark to set the tone of his Gospel as narrating the eschatological victory of God in bringing salvation, I would propose that the miracles performed by Jesus in Mark’s narrative may be viewed within the framework of God’s promised comfort for God’s people. Jesus acts for God in answering God’s call to bring comfort. This point is strengthened when we consider two other significant factors. 

First, since Jesus is presented in 1:14-15 as the one who proclaims the gospel of God, we might interpret his miracles as actions which visibly proclaim that gospel; the miracles function as acted parables. Again, we can hear the echo of Isaiah 40:9. There the herald of good tidings, the one who brings good news, is commanded to proclaim, “See your God.” 

In the prologue to the Gospel, Mark portrays the in-breaking of God into the narrative through the tearing of the heavens and the coming of the Spirit (1:10), and through the way Jesus is presented as the one who proclaims that the dynamic rule of God is at hand, and he calls on all to believe in the gospel of God (1:14-15). Against the background of Isaiah 40, then, Jesus is the one who not only proclaims the coming of God, but also acts for God in the bringing of comfort to God’s people.

Further substantiating this idea is the recognition that in Isaiah 40:11 God speaks of coming to God’s people as a shepherd to feed them. This may shed light on Jesus’ feeding miracles in 6:34-44 and 8:1-10. In both scenes Jesus is said to have compassion (6:34; 8:2) on the crowd, and in 6:34 his compassion is because they are as sheep without a shepherd to feed them. Thus in the miracle of feeding the people, Jesus takes on the role of God as shepherd of the people, bringing comfort to God’s people. 

Jesus’ miracles serve to demonstrate that God was fulfilling God’s promise of comfort for hurting people. Thus, Jesus’ acts of compassion are within the context of God’s promises to bring compassion. 

How are we following Jesus by bringing God’s comfort and compassion to the hurting in our world?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Reclaiming the Churh's Mission (2)

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter on the church. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at

Following the Crucified Jesus

One of the dominant themes in the Gospel of Mark is the journey that Jesus and his disciples travel. Often, this wandering band is pictured on the road moving toward, as we discover through reading the story, Jerusalem, the holy city of David. As the narrative of Mark moves forward, however, Jerusalem begins to come into clear view, and Jesus begins to point this out to them.

Most likely those who followed Jesus knew they were headed to Jerusalem; what faithful Jew would not know the direction to Jerusalem? So Jesus’ acknowledgement that they are headed to Jerusalem seems out of place, unless the mention of the direction in which they are headed is intended to mean something. Why does Jesus state specifically that they are headed for Jerusalem? For what purpose did the disciples think they were headed for Jerusalem? Did their understanding of trip to Jerusalem match that of Jesus?

Perhaps they thought that when they reached Jerusalem, Jesus would take his rightful place as King of Israel and overthrow the Romans. Perhaps they followed Jesus, hoping that they would be participants in this rule of Jesus in David’s city. Most likely they believed that Jesus’ purpose in continuing on the road to Jerusalem was so that he would be made king and, consequently, they would share in that kingly power.

This expectation is seen most clearly in the request two of Jesus’ disciples make as their band moves even closer to Jerusalem. The brothers, James and John, come to Jesus with the bold request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). These disciples seem to understand that following Jesus leads to glory, but they fail to understand that there is no glory apart from the cross that looms in Jerusalem. In Mark’s story, Jesus had spoken to them two other times before this exchange about what would happen in Jerusalem; he would be arrested, beaten and killed. But somehow they failed to hear, or perhaps, refused to hear his words. Instead they continued to see the movement toward Jerusalem as a move toward power and glory and not one that would lead to suffering and death.

The specifics of the request made by the brothers should not be missed. James and John were seeking seats of authority by requesting places on the right and left of Jesus. Jesus affirms that there are such seats, but that they are reserved for whom they have been prepared by God. But the only other place in Mark where people are said to be on the right and left of Jesus is in the crucifixion scene of 15:32-52, where someone is crucified on his right and someone else is crucified on his left. Moreover, just before we read of these two other crucified victims on either side of Jesus, we are told of the inscription that read, “King of the Jews.”

What all of this says to us is that the kingly glory of Jesus in Mark’s narrative is found in his death on the cross, and those who are at the right and left of Jesus in glory are those who take their places on the right and left of Jesus in crucifixion. For Jesus, glory comes not in the heavens, but in the cross.

This overturns our own ideas of greatness and power. Greatness does not come in worldly thrones, but in the throne of a cross. Power does not come by ruling over people, but by serving others. In opposition to the disciples, Jesus was living out true greatness and power by going down the road to Jerusalem that led to the cross.

When I was getting ready to preach one Sunday morning, I sat on one of the front pews in the church. At the end of the pew there was a stack of music books. As we stood to sing, I happened to glance at the title of the books, which read, “Easy Gospel Arrangements.” We often are like James and John in that we want easy gospel arrangements. Certainly the gospel is freely offered to all, but it is not cheap in its demands. The real gospel of the real Jesus calls us to give up ourselves in self-sacrificial service to God and others by taking up the cross and following Jesus. Only in doing this can we reclaim the church’s place and mission.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reclaiming the Church's Mission

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter on the church. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at

I live in that region of the United States that has been dubbed the Bible belt; that southern part of the country where religion is as American as apple pie or as southern as fried chicken.  Indeed, I live in a very religious community where there are a plethora of churches, prayers before meals even at non-religious settings, and where you can even go into a local fast food restaurant where they have Bible verses on their receipts, and every to-go bag gets a pamphlet on how to avoid hell and get into heaven. 

In the county in which I live, there are over 100 churches of various denominations and various sizes.  Although all of them are part of the wider Christian tradition, which is unfortunate for it makes us somewhat monolithic in our religious understanding, this variety of places of Christian worship offers the seeker a selection of Christian theological beliefs, church polity, types of worship, and choices of dress.  You really can’t go wrong in finding a house of worship that fits what you want, unless of course you are not Christian. I know there are towns like this all over America.
Yet, despite the plethora of houses of worship in towns across this country, it seems to be that the church is becoming less relevant to the lives of people both within and outside the church.  While many stay away from church for various reasons, many do cite the fact that the church is out of touch with their needs, that the church is too dogmatic and strict in its beliefs, and that for the most part it has sided with a particular political agenda.  It is probably accurate to say that many folks stay away from church because they just don’t find it worthwhile, and thus they do find excuses to stay away.  But the fact of the matter is that these accusations against the church, as well as plenty of others, are often valid.

Moreover, among the folks who faithfully attend church Sunday after Sunday hoping to hear a word from God, are those who leave the place of worship with a great measure of dissatisfaction.  Part of this dissatisfaction has to do with the person who comes to worship, whose life is filled with distractions that draw their attention and energy from focusing on God in worship.  But much of this disappointment happens because the church has waned in its relevancy to touch people’s lives and to translate the gospel for the needs of today’s world.  It is these people that find the church very ineffectual in its proclamation, hiding behind a spiritualism that is based on worship as entertainment and preaching as superficial.  At church we are encouraged to allow our emotions to soak in the shallow songs that appear on the screen and the sermons that reinforce our beliefs, but we become uncomfortable when these challenge our status quo existence as people who choose comfort over vulnerability and prosperity over sacrifice. 

But more tragically, we are discouraged from asking serious questions about faith and about the issues we face in our world, or we are given pat answers to these questions.  In fact, we are encouraged to shut down our minds in church, which leads me to believe that church can often be one of the most intellectually dishonest institutions we can find.  As I noted in the previous chapter, church is, as one of my kids said, “The place where you can get an easy “A”.

We cannot equate relevancy with emotional manipulation and easy “A” theology.  Folks don’t want to come to church to have their emotions manipulated or to hear rehearsed answers to their questions.  People who come to church come there to find meaning for their lives and relationships that are welcoming and embracing, not condescending.  And while many churches may claim to be welcoming, the reality is that they are not welcoming those they judge as sinful. 

Furthermore, people who come to church don’t seek sermons that are mundane repetitions of outdated theology or unsophisticated platitudes.  They want to be challenged by the gospel and how to follow Jesus in faithful discipleship.  They want to deal honestly with deep questions about God, humanity, and the issues we face in our world.  They want to hear that the gospel can change the world, but not simply through getting people saved, which is far removed from the central message of Jesus.  People want to hear, indeed they need to hear, that Jesus’ message is not about heaven or hell, but about living justly and faithfully here in this life.

That being said, there is no doubt that there are faithful and relevant churches all across this nation and this world.  Faithfulness and relevance, however, cannot be equated with size.  How many members a church has or how many baptisms a church performs is not the measure of faithfulness.  In fact, there are many small churches that are probably more faithful to the call of Jesus than those mega-churches who have gone into tremendous debt to build elaborate places of worship and family life centers, but only present a false sense of relevancy.

Is it possible to reframe our understanding of Christian community that is more faithful to the Jesus of the Gospels? I am hopeful that it is. But any move in this direction must call for deep soul searching that deals seriously with the mission to which Jesus called his followers.