Theme(s): Inward heart / Love of Christ / Kingdom growth / Careful listening
Sentence: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
your Son Jesus Christ,
now exalted as Lord of all,
pours out his gifts on the Church;
grant us that unity which your Spirit gives,
keep us in the bond of peace,
and bring all your creation to worship
before your throne;
for you live and reign
one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: (continuous option)
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
One point of this story today is that David being selected by the Lord, ahead of his brothers, because the Lord does not settle for the outward appearance of a man, but looks on the inward attitude of a man (i.e. looks into the heart of the man) connects with the concern for the inner meaning (so to speak) of parablesin the gospel reading.
Just as the story of David's selection to be appointed the next King of Israel is the prelude to the growing kingdom of Israel under King David, so the parables taught by Jesus are the prelude to the growing kingdom of its King, the Son of David.
Another point of this story is that its concern with the inward state of the heart versus outward appearances ties in with the reading from 2 Corinthians, note particular 5:12.
This psalm petitions the Lord for victory for David (4-5). Thus will the kingdom of David grow.
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Paul has confidence (6, 8) in God's ability to see him through to the end and beyond it to glory. The reasons are in the preceding verses (chapter 4 as well as 5:1-5) and turn on the fact that God's power has raised Jesus from the dead (4:10-14).
Verses 6-10 are Paul looking wistfully at leaving his body and being with the Lord (shades of Philippians 1) but recognises that faithfulness to Jesus means 'whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him' (9). The edge here is that Paul knows the day of judgment is coming when each will 'receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.' (See also Romans 14:10. This is not the judgment which Christians need fear about eternal destiny: Paul is confident of heading into eternal fellowship with God, because of his faith in Christ. Rather this is the judgment which 'tests' what sort of work we have done in this life (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).)
With judgment in mind, Paul moves on in his argument, 'Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others;' (11) But the persuasion has no pretensions: God knows Paul and his colleagues; and the Corinthians - Paul hopes - also know them well. 'Conscience' here is the inner judgment of the mind which assesses whether action is in accord or not with moral standards.
In verse 12 Paul embarks on special Pauline turn of flattering phrase: we aren't commending ourselves but giving you the opportunity to enjoy being able to boast about us! But there is more than flattery going on here, Paul hopes his readers will acknowledge the reality of Paul's apostleship and apostolic message and stand with it against 'those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart' (i.e. the false apostles troubling the Corinthian church and opposing Paul). Possibly 'outward appearances' here refers to circumcision, so the false apostles are those urging that the gospel requires circumcision.
Verse 13 may seem strange with the reference to 'if we are beside ourselves' but here too it is likely that Paul has in minds his opponents, this time those who denigrated him for not having (or not having sufficient) ecstatic experiences (cf. 12:1-12). If so, then Paul is saying, 'Ecstatic experiences are for God, not for impressing other Christians; what other Christians need is me and my mates thinking straight, being wise and sensible.'
Perhaps Paul is also thinking of the power games which his opponents are engaged in when they continue to assert their superiority over Paul and his team. He will have none of it. What motivates Paul is 'the love of Christ' (14). In particular Paul understands the love of Christ as that which led Christ to die 'for all' (x2 in 14-15).
'therefore all have died' (14) then means that the fate of all is now exposed: people die but now this does not have to be the end: 'And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves' (15).
In turn, this means that Paul can no longer 'regard [anyone] from a human point of view' (16). That point of view means that we understand human beings as finite beings. Even Christ was once regarded in that way. But the resurrection blows that boundedness of life away. Christ can no longer be viewed as only a finite human and no one else can be either.
Boom! Verse 17 is the climax of this part of the argument: infinite possibilities now exist for humans who are 'in Christ': 'So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed aay; see, everything has become new!'
One gospel reading, (possibly) three sermons? There is parable 1 about the kingdom, 26-29, effectively on 'the way the kingdom grows', then parable 2 about the kingdom, 30-32, also about the growth of the kingdom, and we must ask, are the two parables saying the same thing with different illustrations, or do the differences speak of differences in the way the kingdom grows? Then there is a passage, 33-34, which speaks about parables themselves. Let's see what we can make of these three parts to this gospel passage ...
Both parables, 26-29 and 30-32 tell us that the kingdom of God is something that grows, bigger and bigger (particularly emphasised in 30-32) and in a manner which, like a seed growing to a stalk with a head which may be harvested, is unknown to the ordinary person going about their ordinary routines of life.
Choosing to retell these parables several or even many decades after Jesus first told them, Mark is telling his readers (likely a long way from Galilee and Judea) that when they see many Christians around them, they are seeing something which Jesus foretold. They are the sign that these parables are true, just as we in NZ, many years later and even further away from Galilee and Judea, are also a sign of the growth of the stalk towards harvest and of the mustard seed into a large shrub.
We might usefully ask ourselves, however, if we live in a place, such as NZ, where the church is declining in numbers, what is going on. One answer could be that the kingdom of God is not the same as the church (so God's kingdom work may be growing even when numbers gathering as the church are declining). Another answer could be that the church needs to do even more and better soul searching than it currently is about the reasons for decline and the possibilities for growth.
The first part of v.33 makes a very interesting observation: Jesus spoke many parables but Mark only tells us a few. If Mark generally saying that there is a whole lot of other material he knows exists but does not have access to, or is he saying that he is deliberately not giving us all the parable of Jesus he does have access to? If the latter, then some scholars go further and propose that Mark was written after Matthew and Luke's gospels and chooses not to reproduce all their parables in his gospel (known as the Griesbach Hypothesis).
Verses 34 then tell us that Jesus spoke only parables to the crowds ('as they were able to hear it', 33) but offers interpretation of the parables to the disciples 'in private' (34). This is consistent with a point made earlier in the chapter (10-13).
It is, I suggest, something of a mystery that Jesus would not interpret the parables to the crowds. It cannot be, for instance, that there was an ultimate secret hidden in them, for anyone now reading Mark's Gospel can share the secret meaning of the parables with the disciples to whom Jesus revealed it. Indeed, it is not as though the parables without interpretation are completely opaque. Today's parables, for instance, are reasonably straightforward to understand.
The point (it seems, as many scholars agree) is that Jesus is asking for intention and application in hearing. Already in 4:9, 23 'Let anyone with ears to hear listen' and 4:24 'Pay attention to what you hear', Jesus has urged perseverance in listening. The word of God (20, 33) is worth pursuing for it yields a rich reward. Effectively Mark presents Jesus' teaching here as demanding. The attentive ears of believers will understand. The inattentive ears of unbelievers will not understand.
Even though the disciples are given an 'extra grace' of Jesus' own interpretation, they too need to press on to grasp and preserve the truth (25).