Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Doctrine versus practice?

Mark 3:20-35 NIV
20Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
23So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
30He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
31Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark chapter 3 gives us a first watershed moment in the tensions that surrounded Jesus early on in his ministry. Teaching and miracle-working are not neutral activities; people will want to own you or disown you, and both reactions are dangerous. In this passage – a typical "Marcan sandwich" – we see the family of Jesus coming to "take ownership" of him, followed by a section on the official teachers' opinion of him, and closing with the actual arrival of Jesus' relatives. The final words, "Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother" are seen by some as a strong call to correct practice as over against the sterile theologising of the intellectual authorities in Jerusalem. Is that right? 
The passage is, of course, a notorious one for its central difficulty: the teaching on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But it is that difficulty that gives the lie to the idea that "it's not what you think or say, but how you live, that matters."  
Jesus' family think he's mad. That may have its roots in genuine concern for his wellbeing, as his life seems overwhelmed by so many demands that he and his inner circle can't even eat. However, the language of "madness" and of "taking charge" shows a mix of lack of understanding and a paternalistic sense of ownership. Perhaps there is also a desire for the kudos that comes from that ownership being seen and admired. Whatever their motives, they are not 'reading' Jesus right. They have not understood, and are acting/reacting in ways that reveal their non-understanding. 
As for the teachers of the law from Jerusalem, their opinion is just perverse, as Jesus shows in his sequence of 'kingdom' and 'house' sayings. When they say that Jesus is possessed by the devil, they are deliberately, obtusely, wilfully, wickedly refusing any openness to the most obvious explanation of Jesus’ ministry: he is the Strong Man from God who has come to destroy the Evil One and all his works. Such a deliberately obtuse refusal to countenance the truth about Jesus is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; it is a locking of the door against the gospel and against any hope of salvation. 
When Jesus is told that his family has arrived outside the building, his reaction seems cool, even harsh. This is not the only time that he reacts with apparent coldness or rebuke when people close to him get things badly wrong about who he is or about his purposes. "Who really is my family?" he asks. 

And he looks at those sat round him and says, "Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” And out of context, that might seem to say that right living is all there is to it. But how do we do God's will? How do we understand it? How do we hear it? 

The key is to see who he is speaking to. The Greek construction is so emphatic and repetitive it is almost funny – he looked around him at those seated in a circle around him. Here are the people who are recognising him for who he is, and having recognised him, are soaking up his words. They are physically close to Jesus, gathered round him, because they have seen something in him, love him and want to hear him. And of course, when we take that emphasis on the “gathered circle” seriously, Jesus’ words at this point are a breath-taking statement of who he is. “Who is my family? Those who do God’s will – which starts with listening to me!” He is either appallingly insane, arrogant, or the revelation of God.

Here is a world where those who should know better through the closeness of family life or the depth of theological training and privilege are dismissing Jesus as mad or demonic. But in that world some people recognise him for who he is and are listening to his every word. Recognition of Jesus as the Strong One who comes from God, and therefore careful attention to his words as being the revelation of the will of God – these are the prerequisites for doing the will of God. Doing God’s will is essential – it is the mark of the Family – and it starts with truth about Jesus. Obedience to the will of God starts with right thinking about his Son. Right thinking makes us listen to Jesus in humility as he describes himself and his work, and thus how we should live. Being in Jesus’ family IS good theology being worked out in practice. And as the gospel of Mark goes on, right living is spelled out in ever stronger and clearer terms – and always in relation to the person of Christ and the nature of his death as a ransom.

There is a tide of hatred towards orthodox thinking that loves to pit doctrine and praxis against each other. Such talk has the aim of preserving Christianity and carrying it forward in the post-modern and post-post-modern generation. But it is as wrong-headed and destructive as “He is mad!” or “He is of Satan!” No one can truly love and live for God and despise the Son he has sent or the work that he achieved through him. Doctrine and life are twins – Siamese twins – inseparable and interwoven. Despise either and you will kill both.

Recognise Jesus, love his person, his words and his work, walk in his ways, and you can be assured: You are part of his family, now and forever!

No comments:

Post a Comment