My trust is not that I am holy, but that, being unholy, Christ died for me. My rest is here, not in what I am or shall be or feel or know, but in what Christ is...in what he did and is still doing."
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 19th-century Baptist pastor in London, nicknamed "the Prince of Preacher"
(Painting: "Charles Haddon Spurgeon," by Alexander Melville, 1885)
Note to My Readers: Due to the busyness of my summer schedule, in which I'm serving as a camp pastor on top of my normal duties, I'll be putting my ongoing Thursday and Friday series on hold until mid-August. All other days will continue to feature new content as usual, and the Thursday and Friday slots will offer devotional and theological reflections (heretofore unpublished) from my seminary years.
Sunday, October 30, 2016
12:28 – “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” This is the question posed to Jesus. And it’s an interesting question. Many Christians, if this question was posed to them, would probably be inclined to reply, “They’re all important!” A question like this might imply that the questioner is wanting to know what areas of his religious practice were open to a little fudging, a little less exactitude of circumspection. Many of us would want to emphasize that since all the commands of Scripture come from God (and particularly here we would be thinking of the commands of the New Testament, since these are specifically directed toward us as Christians), all are therefore reflections of his divine will and ought all to be followed in their entirety. In that sense, there aren’t any commands that are more or less important than any others. But Jesus doesn’t address the question like that. Rather, he accepts the questioner’s premise, that there is a “most important” command. This is useful for Christians to remember. Sometimes, in our zeal to uphold the truth and power of our faith, we so emphasize the importance of keeping all the rules of Christian conduct that we slip into legalism. It’s worth remembering that we must leave room for grace, and that all the rules about Christian conduct are merely offshoots of our one great command, to love God and love others. If we are truly keeping that great command, keeping the other rules will almost always grow naturally from that foundation. This is true not only of conduct, but of doctrine too—remember that the great core of the faith, the truths that we share with all Christian churches, are more important and more foundational than the minutiae of varying interpretations regarding sacraments, polity, or eschatology. When it comes to a tree, the roots and the trunk are more important than the branches. Make sure you have a healthy tree before you start spending all your time trimming the leaves into the exact shapes you want them.
12:29 – Jesus’ recitation of the greatest commandment here in Mark doesn’t simply leave it at, “Love the Lord your God.” Rather, he begins where all good Jewish theology does: with the Shema—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” In that one little phrase is hidden a great mystery of the Godhead. When Christians declare the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4, we mean that God is the only God, the God who created all things and fills all things and holds them all together. He is united in his persons and his attributes, in so high a unity that his attributes each become expressions of the totality of his being, rather than separate aspects. Because God is one, he is the “all in all,” always existing both throughout and beyond our material universe. Not only is he the foundation of all reality, he is also its telos, its end, the reason and goal for which it was made. When Jesus reminds us that the Lord is one, he is laying the theological foundation for the greatest commandment. We must love God because he is the one and only reality, the one and only thing that truly exists in and of itself (on which all other existence is contingent), the one goal to which all creation must direct itself. With such a truth in mind, our response to this God cannot be anything other than the most all-consuming, all-encompassing act of which we are capable: to love him with every aspect of our being, every movement of our heart, every intention of our will.
12:30 – “With all your heart.” The heart is the seat of the emotional life (as in English, largely so in Greek), and so this speaks to loving God with all the genuine fervor of true affection, not as a rote duty (if such a thing could even be called love), but as an outflowing of our deepest longings. “With all your soul.” The soul is that incorporeal aspect of human existence, usually (but not always) undistinguished from “spirit.” Since this verse speaks about loving God with the totality of our being, but does not include a mention of “spirit,” we ought to conclude that here “soul” is referring to the entirety of the incorporeal, spiritual aspect of humanity. Thus we must love God not just with the whole of our earthly life, with all its physicality, emotions, and attributes; we must also love God with our souls, that spiritual part of ourselves that is designed to respond to God and to be mystically united to him in the person of Christ. “With all your mind.” Here Jesus adds a word not found in the Hebrew version of the Shema. One may suppose it is added because Jesus is speaking in a Hellenophile world, where Greek intellectual life has so emphasized the mind, over against the body, soul, and emotions, that Jesus felt it worthy of special note. We are to love God with all our intellectual capacities. The call to follow Christ is not a call to give up the life of the mind, but rather to engage it in the highest pursuit of all, and by the light of eternal Truth to understand all things more clearly. “With all your strength.” The Hebrew word for “strength” is literally the word “muchness” or “veryness,” and so this part of the verse doesn’t relate merely to human physicality (though that is included); it speaks to loving God with all the overflowing totality of our being—“love the Lord your God with all your everything.”
12:31 – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here Jesus brings together two independent commands of the Torah, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus, connects them, and gives them prominence that their original sources never did. These are the greatest commandments, and Jesus speaks out both of them together, when he could have conceivably given just one commandment as his answer to the teacher of the Law. Why does he give two? Because we must always remember that loving God and loving our neighbor are connected. The second is a necessary outflowing of the first. This is important to know, because we are too often willing to proclaim our love for God while not giving a second thought to our neighbors. But, in light of this verse, such behavior cannot be considered a genuine love for God. If we truly loved God, we would be coming to know him and to share his affections for the world. The truth is, God loves your neighbor—loves him enough to die for him. How then can we claim to love God, and not love our neighbor? The second great commandment is, in effect, a litmus test for our keeping of the first. But how can we love someone for whom we might not actually feel any affection? The problem here is that we often think of love in purely emotional terms. But this is an unbiblical way of thinking. When Scripture speaks of love, it is not saying that you have to muster up warm and fuzzy feelings for your neighbors. It’s saying that you must act in love towards them, regardless of your emotional state. That’s real love. Feelings come and go, but love is the action of sharing and participating in God’s outreaching acts of love for others. This, perhaps, is part of the reason why Jesus says you are to love your neighbor "as yourself"--when I think of how I love myself, the plain fact of the matter is that I don't always feel warm and fuzzy; more often I find myself frustrated with myself, and yet despite that lack of glowing feelings, I don't give up on myself--rather, I continue to try to do those things that I think will tend toward my good. That strikes me as the same kind of love we must give to our neighbors. And who is my neighbor? At this point, the other Gospels answer that question by relating the story of the Good Samaritan. And the main point derived from that story is simply this: everyone is your neighbor, and especially the person you can’t stand. So that is the one you must love.
12:32-34 – Here we find one of the few instances in the Gospels where one of Jesus’ interlocutors actually gets something right. The teacher notes that the keeping of those two commands is more important than the whole of the Jewish Temple’s system of worship, with all its offerings and sacrifices. This was an astonishing claim to make, especially when standing in Jerusalem itself (as they were), in the shadow of the Temple. But the teacher is right—all other acts of devotion, while they have their place, are an outflow of these foundational principles, of the call to love, and to enter into and become participants in the love of God. All other acts of devotion—whether sacrifices in the Old Testament, or prayers, praises, and acts of charity in the New—all such acts are founded on, and grow out of, the great commandments. Without love, all such acts would become meaningless. Only when done with love do they become powerful, beautiful, and good. For this answer, Jesus commends the teacher. Those Christians who tend towards being legalists, sticklers, or contrarians by nature should here take note: where Jesus finds something to affirm, he affirms it. His teachings are far more than just a criticism, a negation of all that is wrong with the world. Rather, he commends the good he hears from this man, and uses it as an encouragement to drive him ever nearer the Kingdom of God.
Often, in my sermon prep work during the week, I write out devotional reflections on the text before I compose the sermon itself. I thought I might start including those reflections here on this blog, as a resource to anyone who might find them useful. It's not a scholarly or exegetical commentary, but rather more in the tradition of the devotional commentaries of the Puritans (Matthew Henry being an outstanding example). Here you'll find a list of links to commentary articles on all the passages I've covered since I began posting these reflections to this blog.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
O Prince of Life, teach us to stand more boldly on your side, to face the world and all our adversaries more courageously, and not to let ourselves be dismayed by any storm of temptation; may our eyes be steadfastly fixed on you in fearless faith; may we trust you with perfect confidence that you will keep us, save us, and bring us through by the power of your grace and the riches of your mercy.
- Gerhard Tersteegen
Friday, October 28, 2016
* Please note: This work is the intellectual property of Matthew Burden, protected under US copyright law, and is not to be removed, altered, or reproduced in any way.
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Lucius watched the remainder of the atheists’ service in a daze of wordless longing. He hadn’t come here expecting anything like this. He had wanted to get away from Ariston, to get away from his own past, but nothing would have suggested to him that the atheists or their solitary God had the answers he was seeking. But there he stood, watching them pray together, watching them sing of mercy and love and the triumph of God over evil and suffering and sin, and it felt like he had just walked to the edge of a chasm in his heart that he hadn’t even known was there. But now it stretched out before him, gaping and immense, a deep, raw, endlessly echoing cry, shouting out from the recesses of his heart. Pain and anger and loneliness crashed through his mind in great breathless waves, like the rush of breakers against a rocky coast. And he was overwhelmed.
He listened to the service, but could only half-hear it now, so dumbstruck was he by his own longings. The prayers and the songs continued, and then Polycarp stepped forward to give a reading from the scroll. It had to do with the man they had been singing about, the one they called God’s Son—Iesous Christos—and a dispute that he had had with a contrarian group of religious teachers. Lucius didn’t really understand it. Then the first elder instructed the assembly for awhile, expanding on the mysterious story that Polycarp had read. But Lucius still didn’t really understand the story, except that Iesous Christos apparently had the matter right, and the contrarian teachers had it wrong.
The service returned to songs and prayers for a time, and then both of the elders, together with Polycarp, administered an odd ritual with the bread and the cup. It had something to do with Iesous Christos yet again, something about blood and flesh, but Lucius wasn’t quite sure what. Each member of the assembly went up and ate a portion of the bread and drank a sip from the cup.
Lucius watched, not daring to participate. It reminded him of some whispered rumors that he had heard about the atheists—how they were actually cannibals who feasted on human flesh and drank human blood—but that was clearly not what was going on here. The reverence and joy with which these people treated the bread and the cup startled him. Even in temples where he had seen his fellow Romans eating sacred foods and participating in sacrifices in order to become mystically united to their gods, there was usually either a sense of rote boredom, of frantic, manufactured joy, or of stoic reverence—but never more than one such reaction in any person’s response. Here, though, there was a sincere joy and reverence, united in a way that Lucius had never seen before.
And once again the chasm of longing in his heart burst out in resounding peals of wounded desire. He had to know this peaceable joy. If he knew nothing else for the rest of his life, he had to know this.
A few more minutes of prayers and songs ensued, and then the service was over. Some of the atheists came up to Lucius and tried, in their oddly friendly way, to engage him in conversation, but he didn’t really have any words for them. He answered their questions politely, but added nothing of his own.
The crowd began to file out, under the archway of the courtyard and down the little track that would lead them back out to the main avenue of Smyrna. A few of the atheists remained, talking with one another quietly, smiles on their faces. Lucius found the smiles annoying. It wasn’t that he found them insincere; no, he knew that they were truly sincere. They really were happy in their bizarre faith to the solitary God. But for Lucius, who felt nothing but a wordless ache, a broken hunger to find some meaning, some rest, some mercy—the smiles felt like mockery.
He was about to shrug it off and go back out to the street when he saw the ancient elder hobbling straight toward him with reckless speed. Lucius’ first instinct was to rush toward the man, because he was moving so fast that it seemed a certainty that he would keel over headfirst and die right there if Lucius didn’t catch him. But the ancient man proved spryer than he looked, and he sidled right up in front of Lucius without the slightest stumble.
“Do you know the Way?” he asked, in a voice thick with age and foreign accents.
Lucius raised a questioning brow. “The way to what?”
“The Way, good man, the Way!” the ancient elder smiled. “There is only one way. Do you know Yeshua—my old friend, my Lord? Iesous Christos, of whom we just spoke: do you know him?”
There were so many strange names strung together in this old man’s thick accent that it took Lucius a moment to make sense of the question.
“No,” he answered. “I don’t. Not really. I’ve met Polycarp up there before. So I know a little bit about you atheists. Only one God, and so on.”
“Atheists!” the old man chuckled. “We are only atheists of make-believe gods, my friend. We are the people of the Way. Some of you Greeks call us Christians, because we follow Christos—the Christ of God.”
“I see. I’m not actually Greek, though. I’m a Roman.”
“Ah!” said the old man. “Aren’t we all! Romans, all of us, and most of us wish we weren’t!”
Lucius smiled at the old man’s joke, and shook his head. “I actually am a real Roman—born and raised in the great city itself.”
“Oh, I see! So it’s you we’ve to blame for the way the world is, eh? Ha! No, my friend, in truth I have great love for the Romans, if not always for their empire. I didn’t always love them, no. There was a time when I would have given anything to grab a sword, have Yeshua ride out as king, and eviscerate your armies.”
He smiled and shook his head, as if it were a fond memory of peaceful times at the old family hearth. Lucius listened to all this and couldn’t help but grin. There was a selfless delight in the way this old man talked, and despite the wavering focus of his remarks, Lucius could tell that there was a keen intelligence behind them all.
“Oh, but I’m rambling all over, aren’t I?” the old man continued. “That’s me, old Yohanan, always going too fast, saying things I shouldn’t, too angry and then too happy and then too sad. Can you believe that the Lord actually chose me to do even just a small portion of his work for him?” He shook his head again. “It baffles me still. I was supposed to be a fisherman… And look, there I go again, talking around in circles, while you don’t know what on earth to make of me. Did I tell you my name yet?”
“I think you said it was Yohanan,” Lucius ventured.
“Quite right. But you’re Roman, right? What would it be in Latin? ‘Yohananus Imperius’? A bit of a mouthful, no? Joannes! I think perhaps that’s what they call me in your wild and wretched city. You can call me Joannes, or John for short, if you like. And you, Roman stranger, what’s your name, and how do you come to Smyrna?”
“I’m Lucius Horatius Tiro,” he replied. “I’m the son of a freedman. I’m here to start a new life, apart from my family.”
“A new life,” mused John the elder. “Beloved son, you don’t know how right you are.”
“What do you mean?” asked Lucius.
“I saw you. During the liturgy. I saw the longing in your bowels—no, wait, wait, that’s not the word you Gentiles use… Heart! That’s it.” John grinned and shook his head. “Allow me to begin that sentence again,” he said. “Speaking in Greek—ah, it still catches me sometimes. No, I saw the longing in your heart. I could see it on your face, in your eyes.”
Lucius tried to wrestle down his emotions, tried to fill in the chasm of his heart before this strange old man saw just how deep it really was. But his eyes welled up with tears despite his best efforts.
“Yes, Tiro. Yes, beloved son,” said John, with such heartfelt compassion in his voice that it seemed to amplify the echoing cry from Lucius’ heart. All the great stonework of honor and decorum and Stoic control that he had built into a dam over the swelling tide of his soul—it was all about to burst.
Lucius closed his eyes for a moment and drew a deep breath. “I…I heard the prayers for mercy. And that’s what I need. Mercy from the gods. Please, tell me how to get it. I can make any required sacrifice, or do any act of penitence that your God might want. Just tell me how to get it.”
John’s hoary old face beamed with the light of gentleness. “You don’t need to make any sacrifices or do any act of penitence. Lucius Tiro, there is one God alone, and whether you know it or not, he made you, just as surely as he made the world, and he loves you, just as surely as he loves the world. It’s because of that great love that he is calling to you. It’s not your heart crying out to him right now; rather, your heart is hearing the great call of your everlasting Maker, the Lover of your soul. It is straining to answer that call, to rise up and follow the voice that calls it.”
“So what do I do?” asked Lucius. “How do I do that?”
John smiled and held out his hand. “Come and see.”