Lent Reflections – Love in the midst of risk

Mark 5:1-20

When I read this passage from Mark’s gospel, there are so many things that strike me as peculiar about the shape of the narrative. What is Jesus doing in a place where a demon-possessed cemetery dweller can be among the welcoming party? For a Jewish rabbi, he was really too close to a herd of swine, as well. The location is not that easy to identify, either.

About 50 years ago, a theologian at United Seminary in New York named Richard Niebuhr (Wikipedia him) tried to advocate for the position that Christ should transform culture. This was preferred to the alternatives for the church. Should the church become a separatist group and preserve its own space and ignore the surrounding culture? Should the church (the body of the living Christ) succumb to the culture and condone the messages, even when those messages seem to be at odds with the mission? Should the risen Christ simply conquer the cultural milieu and institute its own values from the top down? Niehbur suggests that the risen Christ should transform culture from the inside out. Like Jesus in Mark 5, though, there are some rather significant risks.

Churches, parachurch organizations, really big Christian bookstores, and even some pretty flashy websites can run the risk of either avoiding the culture altogether (don’t get mixed up in all of it) or they can attempt to do everything that the surrounding culture is doing, with a slightly different, baptized message. (I recently saw an ad for a dvd exercise program that looks a whole lot like P90X with a gospel twist. I will let the reader decide…)

As we have seen from Egypt, Libya (trying, anyway), and the surrounding nations, genuine transformation only comes from within. Transformation that is forced is already moving toward its own undoing.

In Mark 5, Jesus demonstrates a risky redemption. Jesus doesn’t avoid the graveyard. He does not try to avoid the scandal that graveyards and nearby swine herds might bring up. Jesus doesn’t insulate himself from the potential mess. Instead, he sees a person that was sacred to God and decides to work right in the midst of the risky context, not along its periphery.

The scandal of the cemetery scene is a precursor to the scandal of the cross. Jesus enacts a radically different kind of program than say the Pharisees or the Zealots of his day. He doesn’t withdraw from the scene. He doesn’t heap guilt on everyone who isn’t with him already. He walks through the cemetery and provides something quite different from what cemeteries usually offer: life.

There is a tension in the Bible that remains unresolved, it seems to me. In the Old Testament and in some places in Paul and in the gospels there is a distinct “come out from among them” motif that motivates Christians to separate from anything that seems irredeemable or at odds with a Christian ethos. Shun the cultural messages and messengers who seem to be taking you in the wrong direction. On the other hand, in some places in the New Testament, certainly in Jesus’ teaching, and in Paul, believers are encouraged to move past the boundary lines and make a difference. “Go and plunder Egypt,” God instructs Moses. Jesus, meanwhile, is at a dinner party with unmentionables. Paul looks to include Gentiles.

This Lenten season, I wonder if we can make a difference in the world through our love in the midst of risk? Are we able to preserve our witness while also being open to different expressions of culture and messages that seem out of step with our own? Genuine engagement with the culture will make a genuine transformation possible. Holiness, like transformation, comes from the inside out.

Take courage. Right where you are; the Jesus in you can make a difference. It will not come from judgmentalism or avoidance. It will come as we are open to where the Lord deploys us as we love like He loves us.

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