Centering ourselves

October 28, 2009

A characteristic of the gospel of Mark is the way the author sandwiches a story within a story. Mark begins telling one story, which gets interrupted by another, before returning to the first. A classic example is Mark 5:21-42: While on his way to heal Jairus’s daughter, Jesus confronts the hemorrhaging woman who touches his cloak. This delay adds suspense to the narrative: will Jairus’s daughter die before Jesus makes it to his house? It also forces us to ask what the two stories have in common.

Mark applies the same technique to last Sunday’s text, Mark 3:19b-30. Our sermon focused on the scribes from Jerusalem, but this story actually interrupted a story related to the skepticism of Jesus’ own family, including Mary (which concludes in vv. 31-35). We’re told that gossip has gotten back to them that Jesus “has gone out of his mind” (v. 21). Jesus’ family has come to “restrain him”—out of genuine concern for Jesus’ mental health, of course, but also to protect the family honor. As I’ve said in sermons before, there’s really no way to overestimate the importance of knowing one’s “place” in the Mediterranean world of the first century. We might imagine that Mary and Jesus’ siblings (no mention of Joseph, who had likely died by this point) would feel great pride toward Jesus. But Jesus’ behavior (and what it implied about Jesus’ identity) went so far beyond the bounds of what someone of Jesus’ stature ought to be doing, it was scandalous. This is why, when Jesus returns to his hometown, his own people reject him. “Prophets are not without honor,” Jesus said, “except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4). (It’s easy to imagine how painful this rejection was to our Lord.)

But let’s think some more about this rumor that Jesus had gone crazy in v. 21. The word in Greek means that Jesus was “beside himself,” literally off-center. Of course, by worldly standards, this charge was surely true. In a recent Sunday school class I was teaching, someone said that the reason we human beings harm one another and fall far short of Christ-like love is because “we’re only human.” “No, that’s not right at all,” I said playfully. “That’s exactly opposite our problem. The problem with humanity is not that we’re only human, it’s that we’re not human enough! There’s only been one truly human person in history, and that was Jesus.”

Is it strange to think of Jesus—who is both fully God and fully human—as the most human of all? Jesus is, after all, the only human being who understood who he was in relationship with God his Father. Only Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father. Only Jesus lived out the kind of self-sacrificial love toward God and others for which we are created. Jesus models for us what it means to be human. As my systematics professor said, “We can know Jesus was God because he was the only human being who ever lived that didn’t act like God.”

This way of living, however, is so contrary to the normal way we live. It was understandable why Jesus would be called “off-center.” His life was centered not on himself but God. And I would argue that being centered on God is the key to true happiness, peace, and fulfillment—even if it’s incredibly difficult to live out. (Inasmuch as I have centered my life on God—fleetingly at best, in fits and starts—I know it’s true.) Of course, we can’t find our true center apart from the Holy Spirit, which is why we avail ourselves of what the Church calls the “means of grace”: prayer, Communion, preaching, Bible study, etc. In other words, through these channels and many others, we make ourselves available to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. It’s not what we do, but what God does through us.

Are you centered?

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