Proper 5B Sermon (2012)

Proper 5 (June 5-11)
Texts: Mark 3:20-35;
Gen. 3:8-15; 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1


We had two very special baptisms planned for today, for [names withheld for privacy], and needed to postpone them. There are extra details to consider when crossing boundaries of culture, language, and religion. There are also legalities to think through involving their home country of Iran, where it is currently against the law to convert from Islam.

It challenges us to think more deeply about what baptism means. Two weeks ago on Pentecost I raised the question about whether one even needed to convert religions to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. Central to the Pentecost story is the way in which Jesus’ Holy Spirit transcends language and culture, calling all people to live as though we are one family. We asked whether Pentecost implies transcending not only language and culture but religion, too. The primary example of whom to raise this question is Mahatma Gandhi, who was a faithful follower of Jesus as a practicing Hindu and lived very much as a brother to all people, even those who counted him an enemy.

What I want to suggest this morning is that baptism and discipleship transcend language and culture and even religion because Jesus came to invite us into a new way of being human. I sometimes name this with the word “anthropology,” and this is precisely the reason why. When we study anthropology, we study those things which transcend language and culture and religion to find all those things which make us human. Jesus came to offer us a new way of being human that also transcends those things. Now let’s be clear. It doesn’t take us out of those things. As human beings, we still need language and culture and religion. But Jesus’ new way of being human can bring its newness into any and all of those things, and, at the same time, redeem the way in which all languages and cultures and religions are flawed.

This is why baptismal language is so radical. St. Paul talks about dying and rising with Christ; he talks about being drowned. This is because we have to do nothing less than die to the old way of being human and rise to the new way, which means a radical reorientation within our languages, cultures, and religions. Paul also uses language involving a First Adam and a Second Adam, or an Old Adam and a New Adam. This is anthropological talk! We are trapped in the Old Adam, the old way of being human, and the New Adam, Jesus, gives us a new way of being human!

This is hugely important stuff we are talking about! If we can’t learn as followers of Jesus to raise our level of discourse to the anthropological level, then we remain trapped within the viewpoints of our own cultures and languages and religions. And these things divide us as a human family. Even our theologies, which usually find themselves inside a certain religious context, divide us. None of these things will ever unite us into God’s one new humanity (Eph 2:15) without the Bible’s anthropology that transcends culture and language and religion. As we said on Pentecost, our human way of uniting is based on dividing us into us-and-them. Our way of seeking peace, of trying to stop violence, uses violence. That’s why the chief thing that Jesus came to save and redeem is our anthropology, our way of being human.

This is also abstract. So let’s get a bit more concrete by looking at our Gospel story more closely. Jesus is getting flack from his own family. He’s doing far-out things that give us glimpses of this new way of being human, and so it looks strange. He goes around forgiving everyone, and there’s lots of healing because of it. He treats perfect strangers — unclean lepers, no less! — as if they are brothers and sisters. It appears crazy! This new way of being human! And so Jesus’ family seems to almost team-up with the authorities from Jerusalem who accuse him of being in league with Beelzebul, the chief of demons.

Jesus, as usual, has a clever response. He almost never argues head-on with opponents but instead uses questions. Mark signals us that his question is even like a riddle. It is the first use of the word “parable” by Mark to describe Jesus’ teaching, and parable in Mark has the character of a riddle, something that transcends common logic and reasoning.

“How can Satan cast out Satan?” asks Jesus. It seems like a rhetorical question, doesn’t it? And Jesus follows with, ‘If a kingdom or house is divided against itself, that kingdom or house cannot stand.’ Common logic says that Satan would not try to cast out Satan and divide his kingdom. But remember that Mark has given us the clue that this is a parable, a riddle, a question defying standard logic. And, sure enough, consider the context: the authorities from Jerusalem have just tried to accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan, or with one of Satan’s cohorts, Beelzebul. It is a prelude to casting him out, which they will later succeed in doing by having him sentenced to death on the cross. So the second part of the equation, the casting out Satan part, has just happened. But what about Satan casting out Satan, the first part of the equation? Here’s the thing: the Jerusalem authorities will never see themselves as Satan. No, as well-meaning people always do, they see themselves as doing God’s work! God wants us to cast out the evil doers, right?

But this riddle from Jesus means for us to look deeper. The oldest tradition of who Satan is, in fact, is that Satan is the Accuser. He is the Prosecuting Attorney, the one who makes the accusation of the majority against a minority that they think guilty of evil doing, guilty of being in league with the demons. We know, in this instance, that the Jerusalem authorities are wrong. Jesus, God’s Son, is not guilty of anything. They are the guilty ones by virtue of making a false accusation. So what this riddle is trying to get us to see is that the Jerusalem authorities have just provided a splendid example of Satan casting out Satan. They think they are doing God’s work of casting out the evil one, while Jesus is inviting us to see that they are actually doing satanic work, the work of accusation.

But I believe, if we are to rise to the level of anthropological discourse, that this riddle means more than simply the fact that they got it wrong in Jesus’ case. Our entire human way of staying together in community is being judged here. “Satan casting out Satan” names how human beings have cohered in groups since the beginning of our species. It is what, up to now, defines our species. Our group formation into languages, cultures and religions is based on being over against someone else. We are always able to have a group identity for ourselves based on someone else being different or wrong. There is underlying our group’s identity an accusation against the others. (Notice that the First Reading tells the same story in a different way: it is all about blaming and accusation from the very beginning. The man blames the woman whom God gave him; the woman blames the snake whom God made; so they are both also blaming God.) What Jesus is trying to get us to see is that our anthropology, our whole way of being human, can be named as “Satan casting out Satan.”(1)

How do we know that? Again, the context. This riddle about Satan casting out Satan is surrounded by an episode involving Jesus and his family. His flesh and blood family is accusing him of being crazy. He names his real family, then, as those who do the will of God. What is that will? Forgiveness. The only unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing forgiveness itself. One can’t be forgiven if you refuse it. The Holy Spirit has come into this world in order to do nothing less than offer us a new way of being human based on forgiveness rather than on accusation and casting out. It’s the only way that we can live in peace as God’s one human family. Yet we continue to choose the way based on casting out. The human family remains a house divided, a family divided.

Think about your own families for a moment. Can you stay together if you are always making accusations that imply a casting out? Can you avoid being a house divided if you don’t live by forgiveness rather than by what we’ve named this morning as satan casting out satan? I also want to be clear that I’m not saying by naming forgiveness that we can never in our families name the hurtful actions which threaten to divide us. The way to forgiveness is not by ignoring the hurtful actions and their consequences (which is my personal tendency). It also doesn’t mean that in a sinful world there aren’t still families which don’t end up living apart, because sometimes the consequences of hurtful actions mean not living together any longer. (I’m not sure Jesus’ family stayed together very well, based on this morning’s Gospel story!) But even in those cases of living apart, don’t you still find meaningful ways of trying to be family? In divorces involving children, for example? Do the bonds of family ever completely split apart if the bottom line is forgiveness rather than casting out? So “forgiveness” in this sense is not some mushy sentiment that glosses over all the hurts. It is itself the bottom line of trying to see all human beings as family and thus finding meaningful ways to live as if that’s true. When we are family, don’t we try to avoid the splittling apart? The old way of being human is based on many human families defined against each other. The new way of being human is based on trying to stay together as one human family, treating all others as brothers and sisters — needing, above all, forgiveness.

What we’re saying, in short, is that our way of being human up until now has been a way of dividing into groups based on languages, cultures, and religions that have a casting out behind them instead of a forgiveness that compels us to see the whole human race as a family. Jesus came to redeem that old way of being human that will always mean a house divided which cannot stand. And he is offering us a new way of being human which sees every single person as a brother or sister in God’s family with whom we live in a relationship of forgiveness, the only power which can keep families together.

Notice, once again, that we are not talking about salvation as an escape to another place called heaven where we are then forever divided from a portion of the human family who are in another place, hell. That way of understanding salvation comes from the old way of being human based on casting out. It is Christians falling right back into a religious way of being human that no longer transcends culture and religion. The way of salvation which Jesus came to offer us is the only way to being human able to finally live together as one human family. As scholars like N. T. Wright have been trying to teach us, the language of salvation in the New Testament involves God’s way in Jesus Christ of saving the whole creation, of bringing God’s heavenly intentions for the creation to earth.(2) God’s bottom line is a power of forgiveness aimed at uniting us, not a power of accusation aimed at dividing us.

What’s at stake here? Brothers and sisters, I believe that since we’ve reached the era of Weapons of Mass Destruction, it grows more urgent that you and I are part of a movement which lives out a whole new way of being human based on forgiveness. Yes, the age-old way of being human based on Satan casting out Satan has been the way, up until now, of our species surviving as a species, by at least giving us a relative peace within our own groups. But here’s Jesus conclusion to his riddle: “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Jesus is saying that we have, in fact, been a house divided. Human beings have always found ways to divide ourselves based on the satanic way of accusation. That way of being human has come to end in the cross, and Jesus’ new way of forgiveness is the only true way forward. And you and I are called to be part of it. The alternative is that older way of seeing salvation as an escape from a world that will forever remain divided. Which way of salvation do you want to be part of? In order to see the choice more clearly, I think we have to raise our level of discourse to that of anthropology: that Jesus comes to invite us into a whole new way of being human.

What does that mean? I think it means doing more of what we’ve been doing: calling our community to treat each other as family, especially when it comes to the least of us, such with our recent efforts to help the homeless in Kalamazoo County. I think it means doing more as citizens coming up on this fall’s elections, more to begin bridging the gap of this partisan polarity. I’ve distributed some suggestions for summer reading(3) that we might be part of the solution this fall to a politics so thoroughly based on accusing the other and casting out. Our nation needs us!

And I also think we’ve already been doing a pretty good job, judging by [names withheld for privacy] wanting to be part of our family here at Prince of Peace through baptism. They sense something good is happening here that calls us to live as one human family. They sense that it is based on Jesus’ whole new way of being human, the way of forgiveness. Let us celebrate that meal of God’s one human family now, for all are welcome. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 10, 2012

1. In John’s Gospel, Jesus explicitly says that the satanic goes back to our beginnings as a species: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (John 8:44). This verse has fallen into disrepute in recent years as being anti-Semitic. But if we raise our level of discourse to the anthropological, it transcends the culture and religion of Jesus’ Jewish audience. Jesus is speaking about our species, our way of being human from the beginning. He is not making an anti-Semitic remark; he’s making an anthropological statement of fact. The event that defines us and creates us as a species is collective murder based on the lies of the satanic accusations. In the Pentecost sermon two weeks ago, we also interpreted Jesus in the Farewell Discourse as characterizing the satanic process underlying human anthropology as being wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment. In Mark’s Gospel, we are seeing this same anthropological process named as “Satan casting out Satan.”

2. This has been a main emphasis for Wright since The Resurrection of the Son of God in 2003 (Vol. 3 in the series Christian Origins and the Question of God). The popularized version of the latter book is Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008). All of his New Testament commentaries, the For Everyone series, also provide tremendous help in reading the New Testament with new glasses so that we might continue in our progress to rethink heaven, the Resurrection, and the mission of the church. His latest two efforts bring his readings of Jesus into this overall context: Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (2011) and How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012). His scholarly book on Paul is due in 2013 (Vol. 4 in the series Christian Origins and the Question of God), tentatively titled Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

3. The primary book is Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. But others are: Mahatma Gandhi: Essential Writings, ed. by John Dear; The Word of the Lord to Democrats and The Word of the Lord to Republicans (e-books) by Brian McLaren.

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