Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
The Gospels proclaim not only Jesus as the Son of God and the Good News he proclaimed to us, they also reveal the many ways Jesus manifested God’s reign though his ministry. Yet the Gospels have another, sometimes subtle, theme as well, namely the theme of discipleship. As we heard last week, Mark’s account of the call of the first four disciples articulated the character of discipleship. To be followers of Jesus is not simply to study his words and teachings, but to embody his teaching in our own life and ministry. Our following of Jesus, and living as is disciples, will necessitate an embrace of the cross and a life of sacrifice and self-giving, just as Jesus had to embrace the cross in his ministry.
Once again this week, discipleship is alluded to in our lesson from Mark’s Gospel. Like last week’s story, the allusion is ever so subtle in this week’s narrative. While last week’s meditation was on the cross and discipleship, this week we consider the disciple as prophet. We who follow Jesus are called to share in his prophetic ministry of confronting evil and injustice and to share in his healing ministry. The compilers of the lectionary further this theme by their coupling of the first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy and Moses’ speech on prophecy with the gospel lesson. Furthermore, the collect and post-communion prayers for today emphasize these themes with the clauses “make known your glory” in the collect and “we may show your glory in the world” in the post-communion prayer. In other words, we are invited not to simply observe what Jesus does in today’s gospel story, we are to walk in his way and follow his example.
Today I like to reflect upon our prophetic vocation and consider what living that call may look like in our world today. But first, let me talk a little about prophecy.
Jews and Christians have always had a prophetic charism. The ancient Israelites were called to be a light unto the nations and of the glory of God in the world. The same is true for those of us who call ourselves Christian. All the New Testament books make clear that the life of a Christian isn’t simply a private affair or a belief that is shared among friends. Nor is it about living our best life now as some evangelical preachers like to say these days. Rather than simply another self-help or self-improvement movement, the Christian scriptures make clear that Christian discipleship is about going out into the world and living our faith. Our encounter with the living Lord compels us to race from the empty tomb to tell the world the good news, as Mary Magdalene did so long ago. Simply put, Christian life is about an encounter with Christ that changes and transforms us and compels us to go out and tell the good news. It’s not about staying in the safe confines of our beloved churches.
One could say it’s risky business. Not only might it cost us our lives, or at least the simple pleasures we seek to enjoy, our discipleship of Jesus demands that we proclaim the gospel and confront anything opposed to the life of the gospel. As the famous Prayer of St. Francis says,
Where there is hatred let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness joy.
To proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and the life he gives to us is what is known as prophecy. All of us our called to be prophets. In fact, you might not remember this, but you and I all have repeated our baptismal promises countless times and one of those promises is to be faithful prophets. Just before we are immersed into the waters of Baptism, the minister asks us several important questions which are all related to prophecy. To each, we responded — and continue to reaffirm — “I will, with God’s help.”
Will you preservere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Finally, the Church receives us after our baptism and says to us “Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”
In other words, you and I are entrusted with a significant vocation. And, as I’ve so often said before, the world desperately needs us to live our baptismal call, and to respond to Jesus’ invitation to be his disciples in the world today.
So what is a prophet and how do you live a prophetic life?
When you and I think of prophets, we often imagine persons who foretell the future. While that is one aspect of prophecy, the primary role of a prophet is to proclaim God’s Word, as Moses tells the people in today’s first reading: “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” (Deut. 18:17) In the Old Testament, prophets served as countercultural figures who called the people to fidelity to God’s law. As with so many other societies, the ancient Israelites often struggled in their fidelity to God and God’s people. Prophets like Samuel, Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, to name but a few, called the people to not only renew their relationship with God, but to also ensure justice and righteousness for all people. It seems, when one reads the Old Testament prophets, that there is a correlation between the people’s infidelity to God and the prevalence of injustice in their communities. War, violence, poverty, hunger, and divided relationships were direct results of the people’s poor relationship with God. The prophet would not only challenge ordinary citizens, but also Kings and rulers of the day, as well as the priests of the temple. No one was spared the prophet’s message.
From what we gather from the prophets of old, prophecy entailed proclamation of God’s Word and confrontation of injustice. Although we may think prophetic ministry is for others, it really is not. As we just saw, our baptismal promises challenge us to both proclaim God’s Word and work for justice.
Yet there is a third aspect of the prophetic life and we see that expressed in today’s selection from the Gospel of Mark: action. Like last week’s selection, Mark tells us more than what the words on the page indicate. Last week it was his subtle play on words; this week it is by way of his structure of the story. Before I say more, I want to clarify something about the nature and person of Jesus.
While Jesus’ ministry continues the prophetic line of the prophets below him, there is something unique about him. His presence alone causes people to respond to him. And it’s not just people who respond to his presence, but demons as well. The gospels repeatedly tell us the demons respond when Jesus comes into their presence, such as in today’s story. As an interesting side-note, Mark frequently says the demons recognize Jesus’ identity well before anyone else does, as does the spirit today who cries out “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:23) That is significant for Mark. Clearly, Jesus is not an ordinary man; in fact, he is the divine presence of God.
Mark further emphasizes this by noting how the people were amazed by Jesus’ authority. This is another indication of Jesus’ divinity. In ancient Jewish culture, a teacher never spoke on his own authority. And if I remember right, the same is true for modern Jewish rabbis. It’s even true for bishops and priests in the Church today. When we teach, we teach not by our own authority, but upon the authority of those who come before us, all the way to the apostles who received authority from Jesus. This is symbolized during ordinations and inductions. When one is ordained, the bishop and the priests impose hands on the candidate and the newly ordained promises to hand-on the teaching she or he has received from the bishop. This latter point was made particularly clear to me when I was appointed to serve as pastor here. Before I could begin my ministry, I had to meet with Archbishop Colin Johnson who inducted me in a rite at the cathedral. As he placed the scriptures in my hands, he authorized me with teaching authority and I promised to faithfully uphold the teaching and worship of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Mark makes clear that Jesus teaches by his own authority and not that of others. He spoke as God spoke to Moses. This would’ve been particularly scandalous to scribes of Jesus’s day. Mark further emphasizes the particular scandal of this by having Jesus teach and heal with authority within the walls of a synagogue. As one scholar notes, it’s striking Mark frames this story with Jesus entering and leaving the synagogue. The synagogue was the place where the Torah and the prophets would’ve been read and instruction given. Not only does Jesus speak with authority, he teaches and heals with authority in the synagogue, the very place where God’s Word would’ve been shared and meditated upon. He teaches and heals with the same authority of the Torah, which was understood to be the presence of God among God’s people.
Amazement, the word that the English translations of this story often use to describe the people’s reaction to Jesus’ teaching and healing with authority, doesn’t fully describe the people’s emotions. This is not an amazement of delight; for some, it was an amazement of shock and horror.
Jesus’ actions were also a unspoken commentary on the scribe’s ministry. Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath. The Sabbath, as those of you taking part in our winter study series know, was meant to be life-giving and healing. Despite that, no one seems to pay attention to the man possessed by the Spirit. While we don’t know how long the man was there, writhing in his emotional and physical pain, it’s clear no one took heed of the man’s suffering. The scribes might have taught and proclaimed by word, but they did not act.
We ought to pay close attention to this latter point; while we can teach and proclaim all we want, all of that is meaningless if we don’t do something about the suffering and injustice around us. As the old idiom goes, “talk the talk … walk the walk.” Don’t just say something, do something.
To be sure not all of us may have the gift of healing in the way Jesus had it, but all of us can do things to help help ease the pains and burdens of those in need. We most certainly can pray, and should do so daily. But we shouldn’t just stop there. Depending on our abilities, we can proclaim the Gospel through word and deed. Our parish has numerous opportunities for us to do so as well. We can help out with our community garden and provide fresh produce to those who are can’t access a whole and nutritious diet. We can plant, weed, and harvest and deliver the reward of our labour. We can also offer pastoral care, either by joining our lay pastoral ministry team or by helping out with our phone tree. A simple call to someone isolated and alone can do wonders to lift the spirit and bring healing, particularly in a time of pandemic. Or you can join us in walking two or five kilometres and raise funds in support of our friends at Caledon Community Services. You can even advocate for those in need, by writing and calling members of government and those in civil service. The possibilities are endless.
Each of us is called to share in the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ and to proclaim God’s Word, name injustice when we see it, and to do acts that heal the suffering, uplift the weak and the marginalized, and free those bound by oppression.