“Clean and Unclean”

In the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, we learn about the “cheese touch”. It is his version of elementary school’s atomic cooties – nothing could be worse, and from the perspective of the social caste system of middle school, the cheese touch makes one unclean and therefore untouchable. In a true display of mercy and grace, Greg rescues his friend Rowley from social excommunication by taking the blame for eating the cheese.

The religious culture of Jesus’ day had taken the law, which was meant to protect people and help them connect with God in covenant relationship, and transformed it into a tool to separate, reject, and oppress people, to claim power over them. They were like the kids in middle school who decide who is in and who is out, who is cool and who is a nerd, who is acceptable, and who is untouchable.

Jesus comes remove those divisions – 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2)

Remember the 12 that Jesus called included a radical right Matthew, the tax collector, friend of big business, who had aligned himself with the Romans, and radical leftists, including Simon the Zealot, who wanted to reclaim their land by force. It would have been like putting the KKK and the Black Panthers together, or Fred Phelps and the folks from Westboro Baptist Church together with openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson. Do you remember after hurricane Sandy how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was spending so much time with President Obama, and applauding his responsiveness to the crisis – the same Chris Christie who had lambasted the president during the Republican Convention in the summer of 2012?

Breaking down the dividing wall between clean and unclean. From God’s point of view, we are all either unclean, or all clean. Paul says “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” (RM3:23). Then later we read “As in Adam all have died, so in Christ all are made alive,” (1COR15:22) and “Christ died for all, therefore all have died.” (1PETER3:18) Both seem to be true – clean and unclean, all of us.

Those who are in Christ are new creations because we have a new awareness of God’s redeeming grace. That doesn’t mean that we are the only ones who will receive it. God’s grace is free for all. The issue is just one of awareness. Jesus comes to offer this awareness and experience of grace to all, not only those whom we deem acceptable or worthy of receiving it.

Whether it is our genetic disposition, sin dwelling in us, or the influence of generations of human culture, we want to draw lines and build walls where God wants to draw circles and build bridges. In Revelation 21:5 we hear “The one sitting on the throne says, ‘Behold, I make all things new.'” (REV21:5) As Christians we are meant to demonstrate this newness, to manifest the presence of God and the coming kingdom, to be salt and light (MT5), and wells of living water (JN4), and the first fruits (James1:8). We are blessed to be a blessing, so that in and through us all the world will come to understand that they are blessed by God (GAL3:8).

In Christ, and through him in the church, Clean and Unclean are made one – we are redeemed by the Mercy of God demonstrated in the Crucifixion of Jesus May we as church go forward into the world as a people who do not put barriers where God has put bridges.

Outline of Mark 3:

Mark gives us four stories that are about crossing barriers between clean and unclean.

Vs 1-6 – Jesus is in the synagogue and heals a man on the Sabbath. The man was considered unclean, and healing on the Sabbath was viewed as unclean (a violation of the law) by the Pharisees.

Vs 7-12 – Jesus engages people who have “unclean spirits” – they are tormented and troubled by something, but it is the judgment and perception of the community that declares them unclean. Again, Jesus removes these barriers and offers restoration.

Vs 13-19 – Jesus calls and appoints the 12 apostles, who had numerous divisions and barriers between them, and made them brothers.

Vs 20-30 – People began saying that Jesus had become unclean – that he was crazy, and even that he was the lord of the unclean. Jesus’ argument is an interesting one – he does not refute them, but using logic states that if they are correct, then that would still be a good thing because he is tearing down the house of uncleanness.

Vs 31-34 – Jesus redefines the ultimate social division – FAMILY. Your social standing, your career, your place in religious life, whom you could marry and where you would live, all were determined by family relationships. People were trapped, in bondage to those constraints, whatever they were. Jesus removes that final barrier by redefining his own family as those who do the will of their common Father. The implication is that the work Jesus is doing, and has commissioned his disciples to do, is that which makes one family.

Dealing with the pace of change

Change is a fact of life. Everything changes, from the moment it comes into existence it is in a state of flux, growing, transforming, decaying. Sometimes we view this process as beneficial and healthy, while at others we deny, restrain and even fight change. Fighting change is like trying to restrain the wind or water of a storm – ultimately, nature wins.

We have the opportunity to choose our attitude toward change – fear or hope, resistance or embrace, conflict or adaption. Some people seem to have a greater capacity for peace in the midst of change, and for adaptability as the situation dictates.

Family systems theory gives us considerable insight into how we experience anxiety in ourselves and the system in the midst of change. Often one person will take on the anxiety for the system, particularly if others are remarkably, and seemingly irrationally, calm. The anxious person (identified patient) will think, if not outright say, “What is wrong with you people? Don’t you see what’s going on? Don’t you recognize the grave dangers?!” This individual may absorb and express enough anxiety for everyone.

Each individual’s capacity remaining non-anxious through change is a result of their personality disposition, family of origin influences, and experience and training. Some people have a natural head start when it comes to dealing with change and anxiety. Others develop this capacity over time, perhaps through hard fought personal battles and hard won emotional maturity.

When we interact in pastoral care settings, we frequently are working with people who are facing significant changes and experiencing the ramifications of that situation. We need to recognize that each of these persons is part of their own system (family, friends, community) as well as being part of a system with us (care-giver and care-receiver, organization, institution, etc). And finally, each of us is a system within ourselves – body, mind, soul and spirit, intellect and emotions, thoughts and feelings, memory and future anticipations. Our ability to reflect on the pace of change, and remain non-anxious in the face of other’s anxiety, will go a long way toward helping them find their way toward wholeness.

Think about a situation in your life where you have faced significant change. What anxiety did you feel? How did you handle it? What would you do differently now? What did you learn that you can share with others?

This article is a followup to George Bullard’s article: At what speed should congregations move?

Sin and Forgiveness

Mark 2 Outline

  • Forgiveness precedes Repentance
  • Call before repentance
  • Celebration over Fasting
  • Provision over Prohibition


Forgiveness precedes repentance. Do you notice that? What a strange story. Jesus is “at home” which may be Peter’s home. There is some indication that he was living there during his ministry years. Either way, he is in a home and it is so packed with people seeking healing and hope that no one can get in. Four friends are carrying a fifth on a mat. He’s sick with something that apparently prevents him from standing or walking. Did he want to be there, or had he entirely given up any hope of getting better? We don’t know. Either would be understandable. What Mark does emphasize is the actions of the friends, not the paralytic. And Jesus, in response to the faith of the friends, pronounces forgiveness.

This is an interesting moment. Some in the crowd are very threatened by what Jesus says because they know all about how forgiveness is meted out, and it certainly does not include some rabbi simply saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” Blood must be shed. There must be sacrifice. The law is clear. (Hebrews 9:22) Well, actually, Hebrews references the law, but we don’t have that stated in the Old Testament. Sacrifices were not made to pay God for our sins. As we read in Psalm 50: 13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Blood was a symbol of sealing a covenant. That’s what Jesus says at the last supper, “28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. They rightly say, “Who but God alone can forgive sins?”

Jesus does not at that point claim to be God, or to be equal to God, but he does identify himself as the Son of Man, a reference to the messianic leader foretold in Daniel 7:13
“I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him.” This image would not have been taken in a Trinitarian sense, as God or a part of God, but as a representative of and ambassador for God. The next verse from Daniel makes clearer the import of this title: “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away ; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed. Clearly political power, after the example of David, but even then not what Jesus’ contemporaries would consider the authority to forgive sins.

So what’s he doing? How does he proclaim forgiveness of sins if no blood has been shed? How does Jesus offer this man forgiveness prior to the crucifixion if the crucifixion of Jesus is the means of our forgiveness? We don’t get any more satisfactory answers to these questions than the Pharisees got to theirs. Instead, we also hear Jesus say, “So that you will know the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins…” and he tells the paralyzed man to get up. Jesus manifests his authority over spiritual things by bringing about change in material things.

Mark assumes, I think, that some of us are slow learners, so we need the same message repeated in several different ways. Jesus travels on from Capernaum and encounters Levi sitting at his tax collecting booth by the sea. He is there at the center of commerce so that he can see how much people are earning and have a better chance of knowing whom to successfully oppress. He has betrayed his people, to say nothing of violating multiple laws of Moses meant to protect the poor (DEUT15:4; 24 & 27:19). We have no indication from the story that he has been reconsidering his life values or his career. He has not repented or confessed. He is a bold, audacious, public sinner.

And Jesus… Here he goes again. What Jesus does not seem to understand is that there is a proper order for people to receive forgiveness.

  1. They recognize God’s holiness
  2. They recognize that they are sinners
  3. They hear the good news of God’s love.
  4. They repent of their sin and commit to a new life following Jesus.
  5. They are forgiven and welcomed into the Body of Christ.

That’s how we have been told the system works. But apparently nobody told Jesus.

Jesus walks right up to Levi and says, “Follow me.” Jesus’ first encounter with Levi is to welcome him into the fellowship of followers, disciples. Jesus then enables him to serve the kingdom by providing hospitality. Then Levi repents, and commits to a new life which includes making amends to those he has violated. So how does it work?

  1. Jesus calls
  2. Jesus invites into ministry
  3. Levi experienced forgiveness and love.
  4. Repentance comes as a response.

Levi knew the law, and he knew that his life was inconsistent with it. He didn’t need someone correcting him, demanding he change his ways. He needed an experience of unconditional love, and that is exactly what Jesus offered him.

The Jews of Jesus’ day did not only have the Law of Moses. They had a whole tradition of interpretation for how they should live out those laws. It was not enough to be told “Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” They had very religious people who had figured out systems of just how to do that.

Again, Jesus presses beyond what people thought they knew and understood to reveal new truth and new life in the ancient faith. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” Jesus says, “Don’t you understand that the Law exists to bless humanity and the earth. Any interpretation or application of the law, or its derivative, that brings about suffering or prevents blessing and healing and life, is a violation of God’s love for creation.”

Jesus also recognized that this is difficult to understand, and that some folks will never get it. Some will stay behind in the old way. Jesus says that new wine will need to be put into new wineskins. That is just the way of nature, there is no other option. “Things are going to be different now,” Jesus says. “We’re not going to be playing by those old rules any more. There is a new kid in town.”

What about us? Are there places we get hung up on old rules, laws or traditions? Jesus does not reject Law or Tradition. He honors them by bringing us back to their original intent, which is to lift us up from our brokenness and restore us to relationship with God. How often have we seen law and tradition used to beat people into submission, to handcuff the church and imprison it behind bars in the name of God? That is what the Pharisees were doing – trying to protect God’s reputation. Do we really think God needs to be defended by us? The One who made billions of galaxies and scattered them across a vast universe? Who designed life itself? Does that God need you or I to fend off the bullies? No, but God’s children do. God’s creation does. While we are paralyzed and while we are still sinners, God enlists us for service in the kingdom. It is through being blessed, called and commissioned that we come to experience and believe that we are forgiven. Salvation is a preexisting fact that we have only to come to experience, understand, and accept.

We were taught that faith worked this way:

  1. Believe the right things
  2. Behave the right way
  3. Belong to the “in group” of Jesus’ followers

Jesus actually practiced it in exactly the reverse order:

  1. Belong to Jesus – you already do, even before you realize it
  2. Behave as he blesses and leads you – live into the kingdom as you discover it
  3. Believe that you can be different – because God believes it

What would change if we began to live this way?

  • How would we think about categories like church membership?
  • How would we treat those we consider unrepentant sinners?
  • How would we serve people in need even if they show no hope of changing?

What if Jesus related to us the way we treat the people who have offended us? That would not be very good for us, would it? Thanks be to God that we are all loved so much that God came to be among us and make us whole, not waiting for us to get our act together first, and not counting our sins against us. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Call to Worship Psalm 85

Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.

You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger. Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.

Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

Psalm 85, NRSV