Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!
I have been thinking this week about that old question, “What do you want to hear first… the GOOD news or the BAD news?” We’ve probably all heard this question in one context or another. Do you have a personal preference? Good news first; then bad news? Or is it bad news first and then good news? This is definitely one of those things that doesn’t feel like there is a ‘right’ answer. I personally always seem to choose to hear the bad news first. I feel like I can just brace myself and get ready to hear whatever it is. And then with the worst-case scenario out of the way, I look forward the hearing the good news! All’s well that ends well, right? But I get why folks might prefer to hear the good news first. It is like Mary Poppins says, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and all that. According to Mark, it seems that was what God was thinking.
In the first chapters of his gospel, Mark presents the Good News of Jesus’s identity as the Son of God. Jesus’ divinity is decisively declared in God’s endorsement of his son at his baptism (1:11) and Jesus’ subsequent public ministry in Galilee, where he repeatedly shows his power and authority over evil spirits, in the forgiveness of sins, and the sabbath. Jesus continues to display his power in healing the sick, calming the storm, and even over death itself – in bringing Jairus’ daughter back to life. In these first eight chapters, Mark not only gives us many examples that witness to Jesus’ divinity, he also introduces us to Jesus’ closest disciples, followers, and critics right at the beginning of his ministry. For the gospel writer, the folks in this section were defined primarily by their faith in Jesus, or lack thereof. Simon, Andrew, James, and John display early and promising signs of faith. Once they receive an invitation to follow Jesus, they immediately leave their work as fishermen and, in the case of John and James, make their decision to follow Jesus without even consulting or letting their father Zebedee know.
The rural Galileans who made up the crowds of Jesus’ the first followers, are shown to be open to Jesus’ ministry of power and authority. They see Jesus’ integrity in his willingness to not only help them but also those most in need: the sick, the widows and orphans, the outcasts, and those possessed by evil spirits. Because of this, these hardscrabble folk believe in Jesus and readily recognize his authority. In fact, it is through their belief in Jesus and their witness to his ministry and works— that Jesus’ Good News message and fame spreads. The faith and belief of these everyday people, however, sharply contrasts with the cynicism and disbelief of those who question and reject Jesus. Powerful folks, like the scribes and Pharisees, devote themselves to finding anything they can to undermine Jesus’ works, power, and renown. They question his decision to eat with tax collectors and sinners and voice anger over his hungry disciples nibbling on the grain instead of strictly observing the sabbath regulations. They even go so far as to accuse Jesus of being an agent of Beelzebul.
Why is God’s Good News in Jesus received so differently by these two groups of people? For Mark, the truth and universal application of Jesus’ Good News is never in question. So why do some receive this news as BAD? In Chapter 4, Mark gives us the parable of the sower to help us make sense of these two responses. The reaction to and flowering of God’s Good News in Jesus can be attributed to the nature of the “soil” in which it is planted. That is to say, the hearts of those who hear it. For nonbelievers and those whose hearts are hardened by love of status or reputation or power or wealth, the growth of God’s Good News is stunted, and it might even appear to wither and die. The gospel record of Jesus’ healing ministry and miracles culminate in Peter’s verbal profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah in chapter 8 and Jesus’ identity affirmed writ large in his mountaintop transfiguration and heavenly pronouncement of Jesus as the Son of God in Chapter 9.
From Chapter 8 on, Jesus begins to explain the “bad news” facing the Son of God and those who follow him. As Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem, Jesus will reiterate again and again that he must die before rising again. If the most important response to Jesus in the first part of Mark is seen to be one’s faith, in the second part of Mark the importance of following Jesus takes center stage.
Jesus has never seen his ministry as a solo task but rather as a cooperative and united work to bring about God’s Kingdom. That Jesus always saw his work as shared is witnessed by the fact that his very first act of his public ministry is the calling of his first disciples. Jesus came into the world to work with us – the Messiah – the ‘God with us’ always saw his ministry as something he would do in communion with us. For Jesus, discipleship entails not just the recognition that Jesus is the Son of God but also the willingness to follow him as the Christ. Peter’s profession of Jesus as Messiah, the first profession that Jesus acknowledges, serves as a moment where we learn that faith ought to move us to discipleship and the taking up of one’s own cross. Immediately after Peter’s profession, Jesus spells out very clearly that he is destined to suffer, die, and rise again, and that his followers will share in both his suffering and his glory. The disciples, of course, find this difficult to accept. They seem unable to hear what Jesus is telling them. Which brings us, of course, to today’s gospel where we find James and John asking Jesus out loud for something that they and all the disciples have argued about and secretly aspired to – greatness and honor in Jesus’ kingdom. Their early faith which led them to leave their father and their livelihood to follow Jesus is diminished now in their preoccupation with sitting on the left and right sides of Jesus in “his glory.” Although Jesus has already explained various times that his glory came at a great cost, the disciples, and in this case two of his closest friends, James and John, could not seem to grasp this.
I sometimes think of what a heavy burden Jesus carried for those he loved, not just after his death and resurrection, but before as well. How difficult it must have been for Jesus to love his friends, family, and disciples as much as he did (and remember that even though Jesus understood the kenotic nature of his life and ministry better than anyone else he still wept for his friend Lazarus) and to know that the end of his earthly journey would end in his painful death. It must have been so difficult to hear his two close friends ask him for something which is essentially proof of Jesus’ love and care for them which he knows cannot possibly come true. And, more difficult still, to know that theirs would not be an easy future—even after the earthly Jesus left them. Discipleship would bring a baptism in the Spirit and a new kind of blessed sharing of a common cup, but it would also bring much suffering and pain whether their lives be cut short like James as the first disciple martyred or much longer like his brother John who would be the last disciple to die of old age.
Our lives as Christians have, since the very beginning, been indelibly marked by Jesus willing giving away of aspects of his divinity in order to become human (also referred to by the theological word kenosis). To put it in another way, Jesus’ Good News can never be separated from the ‘bad news,’ if you will, through which we must travel to get to this Good News.
It is sometimes easy to forget in our rather blessed and comfortable lives as Christians today that discipleship can, indeed, ask us to do hard things. There is always the need to take the bad which comes with the good news. This is certainly something that I am feeling right now. I have been given this great honor to serve God in God’s church and have been blessed to have been given a place here at the community table at Epiphany. I don’t really think it is ever possible to tell folks just how much they mean to us – no matter how we might try. For me, leaving behind a place that I love often feels like I am leaving a part of me behind as well. Doyt was kind enough to offer to give me the pulpit my last Sunday here – which will be All Saints’ Day, November 7. I declined because the tears have already been falling, and I actually scratched the lens of my eye when I left Grace Church prior to coming here while I was trying to discreetly wipe away my tears. I can’t guarantee that I won’t cry today or in the days to come before I leave Epiphany, but I can tell you that my tears and the sense of loss I feel is one that I would not change even if I could. Because as hard as this seems, it is because I love this church and her wonderful people so much. I have learned so much from you, and I have felt held up by your prayers and your witness to God’s work in the world. While I am certain God is calling me to a new place in my life and ministry, the bad news of being a follower of Christ, is something I feel now. Even though I know that love calls us to walk through these goodbyes, my heart still aches and my stomach still hurts. If there is one thing that I know, though, it is that in going through these ‘bad news’ moments I am walking towards God’s transforming Good News. And in saying these goodbyes and feeling as if I am leaving a part of myself behind, I am walking forward with a part of you – this community—Epiphany in my heart too. So I am bracing myself for the bad now – the sadness and the pain of no longer being a part of this community and looking forward to seeing how this community will travel on with me… No matter if we might call it bad or good, in the end God’s News is truly Good… Thank you Epiphany Parish.