Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday 1 February 2015 - 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

(An alternative is to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or Candlemas, otherwise set down for 2 February 2015).

Theme(s): Authority / Power / Authoritative teaching / Preaching with power / Exorcism / Spiritual warfare.

Sentence: They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)


Teach us, Jesus
how to live and worship
without being worldly or greedy.
Drive from our lives what spoils them
and make us temples of the Spirit.


Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28


Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The words of this passage are background to the gospel reading today. While we may properly explore the ways in which Jesus was 'more than' a prophet, he was never less than a prophet of God, one, that is, distinctively called of God to proclaim the message of God often in contrast or even opposition to prevailing understanding of God and God's will according to the religious establishment of Israel. Thus here, where there is both prediction that God 'will raise up for you a prophet like me' (15) and prospectus (so to speak) of what the prophet will be like and how Israel will know that this prediction has been fulfilled, we are invited to read the passage and measure Jesus against it.

Psalm 111

The words of this psalm are background to the gospel reading today. When Jesus acts in power and teaches with authority he does so as the representative, indeed as the embodiment of the God of Israel, the God who, according to this psalm, performs great works which are 'studied by all who delight in him' (2), who (like Jesus in the gospel reading) 'has gained renown by his wonderful deeds' (4). A recurring theme here is God's covenant with Israel (5, 9): when Jesus comes to Israel, he comes in fulfilment of the great covenant of God, revealed in different ways and on different occasions, through Abraham, Moses and David, yet essentially the one covenant, that God will be ISrael's God and Israel will be God's people.

When Jesus performs miraculous deeds, he demonstrates that God remains Israel's loving God.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In just 13 verses Paul traverses significant ground - ecclesiology, theology, christology - while talking about what Christians eat!

1 Corinthians is a series of responses to a series of issues in or questions raised by the Corinthian church. In chapter 8 we switch away from sexuality and marriage (chapters 5-7) to the question of 'food sacrificed to idols' (1). This question must have been deeply troubling to the early churches. Not only does it feature here but Paul comes back to it in 1 Corinthians 10. Across in Rome it was an issue because the matter is tackled in Romans 14-15. It is also a feature of the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2-3).

The gist of what Paul is saying is that in a community of Christians, some of whom come from Gentile backgrounds and thus used to worship idols, some of whom come from Jewish backgrounds and thus are used to thinking idols are nothing (the gods they represent do not exist), some of whom are rich (and thus may afford meat not offered to idols and/or regularly receive invites to dinner with their Gentile-idol worshipping business and social colleagues) and some of whom are poor (and thus may rarely eat meat, and then it may be meat distributed after public festivals dedicated to idols), care needs to be taken not to destroy faith in other believers.

In verses 1- 3 Paul is challenging those Christians who use their 'knowledge' or assurance that idols do not really exist (4) and who thus cheerfully eat meat dedicated previously to idols to work out their life choices on the basis of love and not knowledge: 'Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up' (1), a theme which is touched on again in chapter 13.

In verse 7 Paul makes the observation that 'It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge.' These are the folk whom love needs to build up! In the remainder of verse 7 he spells out who these members of the Corinthian church are: Gentiles whose minds are so imbued with their previous worship of idols that they cannot freely partake of meat offered to those idols. They are the 'weak' whom the 'strong'- those who have 'liberty' (9) on the matter - may yet destroy (11).

Paul has a particular concern in verse 10 that those who are strong, in this case strong enough to actually go into a temple of an idol and partake in a meal there, may lead astray the weak because the weak (on this matter) might not just have a sensitive conscience re eating meat offered to idols, but be led to actually eat such meat with a damaging effect on their consciences.

Paul goes on to underline the severity of the sin of the strong on this matter: 'you sin against Christ' (12). Then he spells out the radical action he recommends, that is the action he himself would do if he were in Corinth: 'I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall' (13).

This is strong stuff! It works from the demands of life in the church (ecclesiology) to establish a general principle of church life (love builds up) to a specific recommendation: when meat is the cause of stumbling, stick to vegetables.

Observant readers here will have noted that I have passed over verses 4-6. Here Paul takes a kind of sidetrack. Having reminded his readers in verse 4 that when we know that 'there is no God but one' then (consequently) 'no idol in the world really exists', he goes on to make several statements about gods, God and Jesus Christ. In doing this he sets out what has proved over time to be a significant Pauline statement about theology and christology, providing grist for the mill of many doctoral theses and erudite scholarly monographs and articles!

Here, understandably, we have neither time nor space to reproduce these works. But we can make these observations:
- Verse 5 reads (e.g.) in the NRSV as a contradiction because Paul seems to admit that (despite his contrary statement in 4) that there 'may be so-called gods'. We should read this as a statement bookended by v. 4 and v. 6, that is, Paul is not saying there are many gods but that many gods are worshipped by many people, as though they do exist, and thus the reality of this worship of false gods is a strong factor in human experience.
- Verse 6 is likely an early Christian confession already in existence when Paul cited it here. (See Romans 11:36 and Colossians 1:15-16 for (relatively) comparable creedal statements).
- the two parts of verse 6 are parallel statements re 'oneness' which are significant as we search the New Testament for signs of early belief that Jesus Christ was believed to be identified with God as included in the one God of Israel; yet there are subtle differences which distinguish 'God, the Father' from 'one Lord, Jesus Christ.' In the former case creation is 'from whom are all things and for whom we exist' and in the latter case creation is 'through whom are all things and through whom we exist.'

Mark 1:21-28

The disciples are following Jesus (see last week's gospel reading). Within a few days they are in the thick of Jesus' ministry: thick with teaching, miraculous action and publicity.

Jesus the teacher presumably has some kind of relationship with the synagogue of Capernaum before his appearance on this occasion (21). Perhaps beforehand his teaching had caused no particular excitement. Now, baptised, tested in the wilderness and with a company of disciples, Jesus teaches and his congregation is 'astounded' (22) because 'he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes' (22).

We rightly ask, as readers, what does 'taught as one having authority' mean. One insight comes from realising the Greek word translated as 'authority' can also mean 'power.' In part the astonishment may concern the fact that Jesus was an ordinary Galilean, not one of the scribes (i.e. members of the Jewish establishment). Nevertheless something seems out of the ordinary because of the note re astonishment.

Whatever the power of Jesus' teaching means in respect of his words, we are soon told by Mark that his powerful/authoritative teaching was backed up by powerful deeds. On this occasion the power is the ability to rebuke an evil or 'unclean' spirit inhabiting a man present in the synagogue and to command that spirit to leave the man (23-26). Here Jesus performs the role of exorcist.

Note that Mark also tells us that the unclean spirit recognises who Jesus is and makes a confession about his status, 'I know who you are, the Holy One of God' (24). Thus Mark the narrator and theologian is cleverly communicating a lot of stuff to his readers. This is what Jesus said and did, this is how people responded to Jesus (27), this is who Jesus is. Mark is convincing his readers that Jesus is no ordinary man or teacher. Jesus is a powerful, dynamic person: actually, by the end of the gospel, Jesus is the Son of God.

Conversely, note what Mark does not tell us about this sabbath incident: at this stage there is no controversy over acting on the sabbath (that will come later, 2:23-3:6). Mark in this first chapter is intent on introducing Jesus to his audience, setting out the basic claim about who he is. Beginning with chapter 2 we see Jesus meeting human opposition and thus Mark begins to explain how the wonderful, astounding, authoritative, popular Son of God ends up dying on a cross.

A final note is that while Jesus does not yet meet human opposition, this encounter is an instance of spiritual opposition. In the encounter with the unclean spirit Jesus engages in 'spiritual warfare': Satan has already tempted him (1:12), now one of Satan' minions challenges him. The challenge is met, the opposition is silenced, the disturbed man is released from captivity to the spirit.

Do we receive the teaching of Jesus as authoritative?

Do we trust in Jesus as the victor in all aspects of spiritual warfare?

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