The author of the Gospel according to Mark had short, stumpy fingers. At least that’s what a second-century introduction to the text said. Mark’s fingers were out of scale with the rest of his body. (He probably wasn’t much a guitar player.) These days, in the part of the world at least, we consider it bad manners to publicly describe someone by their physical appearance. The fact that the writer of the gospel according to Mark was called Stumpfingers is interesting for another reason though. It is interesting because it builds the case for the story’s authenticity. If an ancient author was going to make something up they would probably attribute it to someone more ‘perfect’—someone more ideal, someone more obviously authoritative.
The gospels accounts, the one written by Stumpfingers and the others, are biographies of Jesus. But they aren’t necessarily biographies in the modern sense. Modern biographies tend to present events in the precise order that they happened and they usually focus on things that affect the greatest number of people. I recently read John Sharp’s biography of Orie Miller. It is mostly chronological and predictably it focuses on Miller’s involvement in the creation of big church agencies. But the gospels are not modern biographies. They are more similar to Greco-Roman biographies, and they were put together to describe the character and identity of Jesus.
Plutarch, who wrote fifty such biographies around the same time the gospel accounts were written, described his method as being similar to the way one paints a portrait. Portrait painters give most of their attention to the face and eyes, where the character of their subject shows. They virtually ignore the rest of the body. Modern biographers often use a lot of ink to describe a person’s childhood. We feel a certain scientific confidence if we can describe how someone came to be just so. Ancient Greco-Roman biographies, by contrast, were more interested in the stories that displayed their subject’s mature character. So they often ignored a person’s youth. They were more interested in their death; they assumed that how one died displayed their character. This is one of the reasons the order of events in the various gospels don’t necessarily line up and one of the reasons way the telling of individual stories shifts a bit from book to book. It’s also the reason why Stumpfingers’ account is sometimes described as an account of Jesus death, his passion, with a long introduction. I prefer to think of this gospel as the way Aaron Sorkin would write it: its mostly quick dialogue, with lots of walking and talking. Think of Mark’s gospel as the biblical equivalent of The West Wing, Moneyball or The Newsroom.
Here’s an example: Our reading came from Mark chapter 9 (vv. 33-37). It mentions the region of the Galilee and the town of Capernaum. In chapter 8 we read about Caesarea-Phillippi. In chapter 10 we read about Judea and the region beyond the Jordan. If you’re looking at a map you notice that Jesus seems to be always on the move, heading south. He’ll go on to Jericho and Bethany and then to what was still the center of Judaism—Jerusalem. So the Jesus Stumpfingers shows us is someone on the go, talking, talking, talking. Walking and talking, that is, until the narrative decelerates and gives us slow panning shots of the events surrounding Jesus death.
We jump into Stumpfingers’ story in chapter 9 verse 33. Jesus has been on the road. Now, most of us have been on the road too but most likely in a car or a bus. Last week I rode the train. Whatever we rode in probably had AC, a radio, and this convenient thing called an ‘engine’. In the first century there were no such thing. Being on the road meant walking or riding an animal. It meant physical work and exposure to bandits and sometimes even carnivores. It meant sweat and dust. Obviously there was no portable entertainment system. These were the ancient days—sorta like the 1970s but with less color. Or maybe more like hiking, then traveling as we usually think of it. What all this means is that when you were on the road in the first century you had time to talk.
Last week we noticed in the reading from James that what we say displays our inner life. And that’s where the problem started for Jesus’ disciples. For some reason Stumpfingers goes out of his way to show how little Jesus’ band of apprentices understood what was going on. In the beginning of chapter 9 we find the story of the transfiguration: Jesus and his three closest companions went to spend some quiet time on top of a mountain. Quite surprisingly Jesus’ appearance changed—his clothes became dazzling white and Elijah and Moses appeared beside him. Jesus talked with these ancient Hebrew celebrities until Peter said (more or less) “This is awesome, let’s build huts and stay for a while.” He didn’t understand—the transfiguration was not some hippie retreat. It was a preview of Jesus’ ascension.
So here in chapter 9 verse 33 Jesus asks them about their conversation, the one they had on the way to Capernaum. It’s one of those, “Aw shucks, you heard that?” moments. They had been arguing about who was the leading student of this rabbi from Nazareth. It might have been because Jesus had started talking about his upcoming death. He had started saying cryptic things like, “The Son of man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him . . . .” (9:31). That might have been what got them thinking about succession. “When he dies, who’s next in line?” That’s how things worked in those traditional circles. When the teacher died the leading student took over: Socrates (if he existed) died, and Plato took over, Plato died and Speusippus took over.
“Who’s the greatest?” That was the question. Now, for us on this end of the Jesus story we know that’s not the sort of thing to be talking about around the rabbi from Nazareth. There are certain things you just don’t do, like ask your parents about their sex life, or have a debate in front of Jesus about who is the greatest. At the moment, though, it wasn’t as clear. So Jesus sat down and shifted more properly into rabbi mode: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he draws their attention to a child.
Now you have to understand something here, in our culture we think of children in idealistic terms. We think of them as cute and innocent and carefree. We hold them up as model free spirits. But this wasn’t how children were understood in the ancient near east. Here’s what the commentator Robert Stein says, “unable to keep the law, children were seen in Judaism at best as ‘weak’ and not yet ‘people of the covenant (444).’” So when Jesus continues and says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” and in doing that welcomes God, he wasn’t saying that it’s important to welcome the innocent and carefree. It’s more like this: he was saying that in the kingdom of God those who would logically be served should serve. The role of children and adults, lords and servants is flipped. It is the “upside down kingdom,” as Don Kraybill has so memorably put it. Something begins to smell revolutionary.
Most of us have lived through revolutions of one sort or another: maybe a soft revolution of one technology replacing another, the mobile phone replacing the land line or e-mail replacing snail mail. We might have also lived through a cultural revolution, like the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. Some of us have even lived through more serious political revolutions, like the ones that took place in Russia or Syria or the Congo or Cuba. These are very disruptive events, there’s no doubt about it. There are things that are gained and things that are lost—sometimes painfully so.
We sometimes describe the work of Jesus as a revolution.
Describing the story Stumpfingers tells as a ‘revolution’ is alright I suppose, but I think it’s actually a bit too tame a word. I say that because Jesus isn’t suggesting that one form of government be replaced with another, or that we swap out one leader for another and then carry on. He isn’t saying, “make me Caesar and I’ll really make your lives better.” He isn’t telling us to grab the handles of power and tweak the system. No, the kingdom of God, which Jesus announces (he references it twice in Mark 9), is more subversive than that. It can’t be hammered into a political platform.
Greg Boyd expands on this point by reminding us that in the group of Jesus’ disciples there was both a zealot and a tax collector. Zealots were the revolutionaries who sought to bring change through the thrust of a dagger. Tax collectors were the ones who sought to make the most of the situation by working for the occupying Roman powers. Zealots sometimes killed collaborators, people exactly like those who collected taxes for the enemy. Jesus’ message was so profoundly different from the political options of the day that these two people from opposite sides of the political spectrum could survive together. More than that, they could find common cause.
We sometimes refer to the kingdom of God or the reign of Jesus as something ‘spiritual’. That’s true, if by ‘spiritual’ we mean that it is a community of a different sort. Usually when we describe things as ‘spiritual’ we mean they are in the territory of private opinion or private experience and have no social impact. If we say the kingdom of God is spiritual in that sense we’re missing it. The kingdom of God is ‘spiritual’ in that it turns things upside down: equating leadership with service, and saying that in serving the least we serve the highest. This isn’t a revolution. It’s an apocalypse. It’s a total obliteration of the options we think we have and the revealing of something new.
And that is what Christians are about when they engage in worship. That is why, when we great each other here, if we’re thinking about it, we great each other in the “peace of Christ.” Because the peace of Christ isn’t just a substitute for “Hello”; it is a totally different way of encountering each other. It says, “I see in you the image of God, and in the Spirit’s power we can be more than selfish, more than consumers of each other.” This is what we are about when celebrate communion together. We celebrate the fact that God lovingly feeds us and that in Christ we share a bond deeper than political allies.
When I think of the importance of our life together I’m reminded of the story of the French village of Le Chambon. During the darkest moments of the Second World War this town of about 3,000 people took, hid, and provided for more than 1,000 Jews. The town was poor, but under the leadership of a Reformed pastor named Andre Trocme they set up a network of resistance. They believed that being a follower of Jesus meant they were to be a particular kind of community, one that sheltered and protected the week and the vulnerable. They believed this and did this even at the risk of their own comfort and there very lives.
It’s important not to compare our situation to that of the Second World War. Our lives are very different. We are not under the thumb of a totalitarian regime. Here’s my point, Pastor Trocme was once asked if everyone could do what his village did. You might expect him to say, “Yes, everyone could and should.” But that isn’t what he said. He said, no, not everyone is prepared and trained. My point is that moral courage doesn’t just happen. Christian character doesn’t just show up. It’s refined through God’s grace over time.
Corporate worship on a Sunday morning alone isn’t enough to retrain our eyes to see things as they really are. When we spend a whole week in the liturgy of redemptive violence, of consumerism and nationalism and ‘who’s-the-greatest-ism’ a two hour counter liturgy isn’t sufficient to make us capable to responding like Jesus when the pressure is on. And this is why church isn’t a service or a building but a community, a network of relationship and set of rhythms and practices that shape us. And this is why the way we relate to each other is important.
Our second reading came from James 3:13-4.3. Where do conflicts and disagreements come from, James asks: “Do they not come from your cravings that are a war within you?” “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It’s in the church with fellow travelers that we receive the grace to sort these things out. It’s here that we hope to hear Jesus ask us, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And it’s here that we expect Jesus to give us another way of being, a way of being that matches the wisdom from above. That wisdom James writes, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” It doesn’t have a “trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Another way to put it would be borrow an idea from the sixth-century Italian monk St. Benedict. His influence extends even to some of the early Anabaptists. In the sixth century Benedict described the monastic community as a school of love. What could be more central than learning to love God and our neighbors?
The point of participating in Christian community is not that we will otherwise go to hell; it’s that we will otherwise go to the mall. What I mean is that we trade one school for another. We will trade a community, a liturgy in which we are formed by God’s love for one in which we are formed by the love for all kinds of secondary things, things like being the ‘greatest’—whatever that may mean for each of us.
In closing, let’s remember that we are celebrating International Peace Sunday. What our readings from Stumpfingers’ biography of Jesus and from James’ collection of wisdom show is that peace is something we cultivate and learn here first—in our hearts and in our church community. We can learn this in Christian community because here the Spirit graciously teaches us through our siblings in the faith, those who are dead and those who are alive. By the grace of God and the power of the Spirit we learn it here and then are able to live it out there. Our life together, our dealing with conflicts and disputes, isn’t just the static we have to cut through to get stuff done or have our worship experience—it is the stuff of learning peace, the sowing of the seeds of righteousness.