Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 30 • 25 Oct 2015

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Rev. Chris Udy

We’re nearly at the end
of our readings from Mark’s Gospel,
and before we move on
to our new Church year in Advent,
and start reading from Luke’s gospel,
I’d like to look back
at the way Mark tells his story,
and see something that we miss
when divide his gospel up
into little passages suitable for Sunday morning worship.

Mark wrote the first Gospel we have -
and for a long time people thought
his gospel was also the most naive,
the most primitive of the Gospels -
because he uses simple language,
he prefers to tell stories rather than repeat sermons,
and he shows the disciples in a pretty unflattering light.
But over the last 20 years or so
we’ve started reading each of the gospels
as integrated texts,
looking at the way each writer knits the story together,
and seeing something of the meaning
of the story as a whole,
not just the little bits we read Sunday by Sunday.
In that process
we’ve discovered Mark’s real genius.
Mark is a skilled and profound storyteller.
He weaves the stories of Jesus together
into something richer and deeper
than we first imagined,
and there are themes and insights we can only see
by looking at his Gospel as a whole.

The passage we read this morning
reveals one of those themes.
The story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus,
doesn’t stand on its own -
it’s linked another story,
earlier in Mark's account of the life of Jesus
I want to read that earlier passage to you now,
from Mark Chapter 8 verses 22-26.

They came to Bethsaida.
Some people brought a blind man to Jesus
and begged him to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand
and led him out of the village
and when he had put saliva on his eyes,
and laid his hands on him,
he asked him, "Can you see anything?"
The man looked up and said
"I can see people, but they look like trees walking."
Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again,
and he looked intently
and his sight was restored
and he saw everything clearly.
Then he sent him away to his home saying,
"Don't even go back to your village."

These two passages -
the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida,
and the healing of Bartimaeus -
make a kind of frame
around the heart of Mark's Gospel,
and when we hold them together,
we discover Mark’s definition
of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Mark doesn't tell a Christmas story
to get his gospel started.
He begins with Jesus calling disciples:
people who’d caught a glimpse
of who Jesus might be
and wanted to learn more about him.
The disciples came
from all kinds of different occupations
and family backgrounds -
labouring people, professionals,
social justice types -
and a few of those people
who never seem to fit anywhere -
misfits and problem people.
He taught and trained those 12 first disciples
using parables and by example -
and then he sent them off, in pairs,
for some work experience.

The work experience was heady and successful.
They all came back convinced
that they were ready to take on the work -
and with them came 5,000 new disciples.
This was their proof of power.
Those 5,000 new recruits were their pride.
But when the day grew late,
and Jesus told them to do something
to feed their 5,000 followers -
provide them with nourishment -
the disciples discovered
they weren't quite as mature and clever
as they thought they were -
and it was Jesus, not the disciples,
who fed the 5,000.

By now this big crowd -
and the activity of the disciples -
had caught the attention
of people who didn't like what they saw -
and where the disciples
had been able to work positively and freely -
now things began to slow down.
There was argument, and confrontation,
and opposition -
and the disciples,
who'd been so confident, so sure,
so certain of their competence -
couldn't understand what was going on.

That's the point
where Mark tells the story
of the man who was half-healed.
He is a symbol for these half-formed disciples.
His healing represents their understanding.
They've got half the picture -
like the blind man who can see people -
but they look like trees walking,
they're just shapes and objects -
they still can't see
beyond the things to the persons.
Between that story and the story of Bartimaeus,
Jesus does what he can
to show them who he is and what he's doing.
He wants his disciples
to see beyond the objects and roles
he might be fulfilling,
and understand who he is -
and what following him means.

What Jesus most wanted his disciples to see
was that following him
meant following the way of the cross,
so three times between those two healing stories,
Jesus explains that he was going to face opposition,
and suffer pain - and be killed -
and only then, after dying, would he rise again.

But every time Jesus told them what he was doing,
the disciples misunderstood -
they could only see half the picture -
and that half didn't include the personal -
the human cost -
that Jesus was taking on.
All they could focus on was the role, the idea,
and all they were worried about
was how they could capitalise
on what they could see in Jesus.
When Jesus asked them
who people said he was,
Peter blurted out,
"You're the Messiah" -
but when Jesus then talked
about the messiah facing opposition,
and suffering pain, and dying,
Peter took him aside and said,
"No, Jesus - you've got it wrong!"

Next Jesus took Peter and James and John
up the mountain,
and they saw Jesus transfigured:
revealed in the glory of the Son of God.
Again Peter blurted out -
"Jesus this is wonderful,
you're just as good as Moses -
you're just as good as Elijah -
the good old days are here again" -
and Jesus had to explain that he'd missed the point -
he hadn't seen clearly -
and Jesus continued on again
to talk about opposition, and suffering, and death.

But even after having heard twice,
the disciples still didn't understand -
and Mark tells a whole series of stories
about failure and loss,
about God’s protection for people who have no power,
and God’s call to move beyond security and status
in the journey to God’s kingdom.
And just as we think
that surely the disciples
have finally understood what's going on,
we realise that all this time,
while the disciples have been listening
to Jesus talk about leaving everything,
losing everything,
giving everything,
they've been squabbling amongst themselves
about which one is the greatest -
which one has the highest status -
which disciple is most important, most loved,
most highly valued and honoured -
and for a third time Jesus has to explain
that following him means serving:
it means opposition, and suffering, and dying.

And it's then -
after that third explanation -
after the disciples have been told
about the way of the cross three times,
that Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus
who persists in yelling out, asking for help -
even when the disciples try to shut him down,
and whose healing isn't partial,
but immediate, and complete.
Then Mark finishes his story by saying -
"Immediately (Bartimaeus) regained his sight -
and followed him on the way."

That’s the point where Mark begins
his account of the crucifixion.
All that Jesus has told his disciples
now unfolds for him -
and it's only then,
after they've seen his death and resurrection,
that they finally see and understand the way of the cross.

That's a very long introduction -
and we don't usually attempt
to look at such a sweep of the story in one sermon -
but sometimes we need to see the bigger pattern -
and widen our focus from a single passage.

When Mark wrote his gospel
this idea of the way of the cross
was fundamental to him -
that section between the two healing stories
is the heart of his Gospel,
and he wants his readers to understand
that even the disciples,
the people who were with Jesus every day -
kept on missing the point -
so there's something here,
at the heart of the gospel,
that’s difficult to see -
so we need to keep coming back to it
letting it confront us again and again and again.
We might think we've understood,
we might think we've worked it all out,
but then we find
that we've missed something crucial;
we find ourselves lost
and facing the wrong direction -
and it’s then we become disciples again:
that’s when we understand that the life of faith
is not an idea we can master,
or a set of activities we can complete –
it’s a relationship:
we are disciples of Jesus,
and Jesus leads his disciples on the way of the cross.

The way of the cross
is the paradox at the heart of Christian faith.
It’s the way to life –
and it’s also a way of sacrifice and dying.

At its simplest level, the way of the cross
says being Christian – being authentically human –
isn't meant to be easy,
and having to struggle
doesn't mean we're getting it wrong.
If the first disciples
needed such constant reminders and reassurances,
and they had face-to-face access to Jesus,
it's not surprising
that we keep needing guidance and direction -
and keep finding ourselves
being challenged and corrected.
But that’s a hard lesson to learn!
We're taught by life to associate struggle with failure -
to think that those who succeed at life
get it right the first time,
and never feel the pain of being different,
or being rejected, or facing ridicule.
So the way of the cross
reminds us that the only people
who never feel strange, or ridiculous, or rejected
are those who never attempt anything new,
who never become unique persons,
who never live their own life,
and never find their own faith.

As Jesus describes and reveals the way of the cross,
he leads the disciples
away from looking at objects,
to seeing persons.
The disciples begin
by seeing life in terms of things:
they define Jesus by roles and expectations,
they see healing as a magic trick;
they see women and children as objects and belongings;
they see the relationships within their group
as positions of influence and status.
We do the same thing.
We define people by their work,
by their marital or family status,
by their politics, or their address, or their clothing -
because it's safer to do that -
there's less chance of embarrassment -
and less chance of intimacy too.
But when we look beyond roles and expectations,
and discover persons,
it's not as easy to ignore their needs or their hurts -
and we get drawn into
something potentially painful to ourselves.

It's interesting to see that in the first healing story -
of the man who was only partially healed -
who saw people like things - trees walking -
there's no mention of his name.
But in the second story,
where the healing is complete,
there’s an echo of what happened
at the end of the book of Job
when we learn the names of Job’s daughters:
in this story we also come know
the name of the blind man healed -
he's Bartimaeus -
he's a person in his own right.

The way of the cross
leads us from things to persons,
from social obligations and rules
to relationships of intimacy and grace and service.
And it's in those relationships
of intimacy and grace and service
that we discover a third level of the way of the cross.
So level one is - it's OK to struggle.
Level two is - we grow from seeing things
to seeing persons.

And then comes level three.
Ultimately the way of the cross leads us,
through struggle,
to discover
the most intimate and gracious relationship of all.
By following Jesus on the way of the cross
we come to know, and to love and serve ... God -
that's the third level -
the way of the cross leads us to God.

For many people,
the idea of a God who suffers and dies,
and especially the idea of a God
who asks us to suffer and die,
makes no sense at all.

They say - the whole point of having a God
is to avoid that stuff.
You have a god to stop you from suffering -
a god to send you prosperity,
a god to heal your aches and pains,
a god to make the rain come
and keep the floods away -
surely that's what gods are for!
What other use could they possibly have! - they say.

So a God who's so weak
that he can't blow away the opposition,
a God so vulnerable that he has to face suffering
a God so powerless as to die -
that's about the most useless God they could imagine.

But that’s the only God we have –
and it’s only on the way of the cross
that we meet the God
who knows by personal experience
that living is a struggle;
who knows what rejection and ridicule and suffering
can do to someone’s spirit.
It's only on the way of the cross
that we discover how important it is
to listen to and love even those who oppose us,
because our healing won't be complete
until theirs is too.
It's only on the way of the cross
that we discover the power for healing
that's released into the world
when we accept and absorb the evil of suffering,
and remove its power to distort human life.

Every time we forgive -
every time we refuse to pass on
the suffering and harm passed on to us,
we continue God’s saving work in the world.
Every act of forgiveness
continues God’s healing work -
and the only way to learn that
is to take the way of the cross.

It's only on the way of the cross
that we discover that there is a source of life
whose love and power is greater and deeper
even than death itself -
a source of life that restores us to life
when evil in the world
has done the worst it can do.

The way of the cross shows us the God
who joins us in human life
and in the struggle to be fully and warmly human.
This is the God who knows and loves us
as persons of dignity and value,
and asks us to work with him
in dying and rising,
to make community,
to heal and save people,
and to make the creation new.

That kind of God
runs rings around cosmic accidents
and lady luck, and astrology,
and all the other explanations for life
and invitations to meaning and purpose
that I've ever seen.

Seeing that God – as Bartimeus did –
doesn't mean we no longer need to be disciples;
it doesn’t mean we stop thinking
and listening and working -
the way of the cross doesn't let us do that,
but it does give us hope
that when this life,
with all its painful struggles
and wonderful new discoveries is complete,
and we're gathered with the saints
in whatever the celebration of the kingdom might entail,
we, like Mark, will have our own story to tell
about the way Jesus called us to follow him
and led us home.