Monday, March 23, 2009

Mark 15:39-43 -- The Followers of Jesus

Audio available here.

Today we hear a lot of talk about diversity from various corners of society. And typically it is discussed as if it is something new and different, a break from the paradigm that has been established for centuries. Often times, people say that diversity is something that the Christian church has been slow to embrace and quick to discourage. Indeed, many Christians have found themselves on the wrong side of the diversity issue through the years. For instance, though today Southern Baptists are one of the most diverse denominations in America, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in part on the issue of the rights of slave holders to serve as missionaries. While we have issued numerous statements of repentance through the years and resolutions on racial reconciliation, that incident was a regrettable moment where our forefathers did not embrace diversity. During the middle of the twentieth century, when segregation was common, churches were typically “white” or “black,” with very little diversity in any congregation. Then, as this church well knows, during the middle sixties and later, it became increasingly common for churches to move toward intentional integration. Segregation was ending in schoolrooms and public spaces, and churches were moving to catch up with the rest of society. And this church was among the first in this area to open its doors to all people. It wasn’t popular. Your pastor Dr. Paul Early addressed the association in an annual meeting on the biblical issue of racial equality, and he told me that the very next speaker after him said, “Well, brother, you know that Jesus never said anything against segregation or slavery.” Being a church for all people was a difficult position for this church and others like it to take. During the seventies, eighties, and early nineties, it seemed that the days of a segregated society were behind us. But today, it can still be said that 11:00 on Sunday Morning is the most segregated hour in America. Only today, instead of segregation being imposed, it is chosen. People are welcome to attend any church they want, and by and large they want to be those who are just like them. So, church planters are taught to “target” a particular audience. Forty years ago, that would have been considered discrimination. Today it is considered marketing. And it is not just true of church. Notice that in society, people tend to stick close to those who are most like themselves. I teach 20 students in biblical interpretation every Tuesday night. Those students are black, white, and Asian, younger and older. There are no assigned seats; students can sit anywhere they wish. But without fail every week, the Asian students sit together, the black students sit together, and the white students sit together. Young students sit together, older students sit together. You can notice it in restaurants, theaters, public spaces, and generally everywhere in society. So, it seems that for all of our talk today about diversity, human nature in general is reluctant to fully embrace it. But from its earliest days, Christianity was built upon the conviction that all human beings are equal, and that Christ is Lord of all: all ethnicities, all generations, all genders, all socio-economic classes. The Christian church has been, throughout the centuries, the most diverse body of people in human history and culture with a message that transcends all societal boundaries. The innate desire to be with those who are just like us more closely resembles the builders of the ancient Tower of Babel than the members of the New Testament church. As we look at this passage, we see the diversity of the early followers of Jesus, as well as their commonality that transcended their differences.

I. The Followers of Jesus Come From Diverse Backgrounds

In the verses that we are studying today, we find five specific individuals who are singled out by name or title, and a larger group of unnamed women. Though Jesus had many more followers than this both before and after His death, these five suffice to demonstrate the diversity that existed among the earliest followers of Jesus.

The first person we meet is a centurion. He is Roman, a Gentile. Prior to this point in his life, he was likely a pagan who believed in a number of deities including the late emperor Caesar Augustus. In addition, it is likely that he would have venerated and prayed to his ancestors. He may have even carried small idol-like figurines which would represent those family members. He would have likely been a career military man, middle-income, and middle-aged at this point in his life.

Next we meet several women. The first one mentioned is Mary Magdalene. Due in part to an unfortunate error by Pope Gregory in a sermon near the end of the sixth century, when many people think of Mary Magdalene, they think of her as a prostitute. Actually, the Bible never says this about her. So, if that’s what you think of when you think of Mary Magdalene, just erase it out of your minds. Pop-culture has tried to present her as the wife of Jesus and the mother of His children, but that is a ridiculous suggestion that has no historical basis whatsoever. So who is she? She was a native of Magdala, an important center of agriculture, fishing, and commerce near the Sea of Galilee. Though she didn’t have a past as a prostitute, she did have a past! The Bible tells us in Luke 8:2 that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her. She had been completely under the powerful control of Satan until she met Jesus. As such, she would have been a social outcast during that season of her life. It is unlikely that she was married, for typically married women were referred in relation to their husbands, not their hometowns.

We find mentioned next another woman named Mary, this one being described as the mother of James the Less and Joses. Some have suggested that this woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus, because in Mark 6:3, Jesus’ brothers are identified as James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. However, these names were all very common among first century Jews. This James was probably not the half-brother of Jesus, but rather one of the two apostles named James. He is called James, the son of Aphaeus, or James the Less, to distinguish him from James the brother of the apostle John. His mother, then, would likely be the same woman who is described in the Gospels as the wife of Cleopas. Alphaeus, then, would either be another name for Cleopas, or else this woman had been married twice. It would be impossible for us to determine which is the case. Suffice to say that unlike Mary Magdalene, this woman was married and had children. She was a family person.

Then we find Salome mentioned. She was the mother of James and John, the wife of Zebedee. He was a fisherman, but more than that, he ran a lucrative fishing enterprise which employed not only his sons, but also several hired hands, including perhaps Peter and Andrew. Luke 5:10 says they were partners. Because of this, it is likely that this family was financially prosperous, or at least moreso than most others around them in that day. We do not know if old man Zebedee ever came to faith in Christ, but we know that James and John became apostles and Salome was apparently a faithful follower of Jesus as well.

The next person we meet by name is Joseph of Arimathea. He is a member of the Sanhedrin, that ruling council of Jerusalem which had been plotting against Jesus for some time. However, Luke informs us that he had not consented to their plan and action. Mark tells us that he was a prominent member, indicating that he was likely a man of respect and social standing. It may also suggest that he was an older man. Matthew tells us that he was a rich man. But we are also told something about his spiritual condition as well. Luke tells us that he was a good and righteous man. Mark tells us here that he was waiting for the kingdom of God. This was a way of speaking of a faithful believer in the Old Testament promises who was looking for God’s Messiah to come. When Joseph began to see the things that Jesus was doing and hear the things he was saying, he came to believe that this Jesus was God’s Messiah who had come to save humanity. Matthew tells us that he had become a disciple of Jesus, but John says that he kept this a secret because of fear of the Jews. If his fellow Sanhedrin members found out that he was a follower of Jesus, they might have crucified him too!

Now, from the descriptions of these five individuals standing near the cross of Jesus, we see how diverse a crowd of followers Jesus had. They were men and women. They were Jews and Gentiles. They were young, middle-aged, and older. They were rich and poor and in-between. They came from among the socially respectable and socially rejected. They had been faithful adherents to the religion of the Old Testament, idolatrous pagans, and demon-possessed. They came to Jesus from all walks of life. There was probably no other cause or occasion that would have rallied this diverse handful of people together. And so it is with the church today. As we look at the church of Jesus Christ today we should see such diversity exhibited. We should see male and female, young and old and in between, all socio-economic levels, from all sorts of spiritual backgrounds, and all ethnicities. Where else in the world could one go and find such diversity? When all the rest of society self-segregates itself into homogeneous huddles, the church should be a reflection of the diversity of God’s creation, and through this diversity, God brings glory to Himself as we unite together around a common faith in Jesus Christ and a common bond as brothers and sisters in God’s family. We should seek out opportunities to fellowship with those whose skin is a different color than ours, who is not of our own age, who is not from the same background as we are, because only as we do that can we fully enjoy the diversity that exists among Christ’s followers.

Even though we come from diverse backgrounds, …
II. The Followers of Jesus Stand Together on Common Ground

There is a unity in the diversity of Christ’s followers. Though we come from all walks of life, we walk together in the Christian life. We are united together by common bonds. First and foremost is a common faith in Jesus Christ. We see the expression made by the centurion standing before the Cross, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” One can only become a follower of Christ by recognizing by faith who He is. Many times during this study of the Gospel of Mark, we have sought to clarify that the phrase “Son of God” does not mean what many people think it means. It does not mean that Jesus is a child of God in the way that some refer to all humanity being God’s children, or even in the same sense that we speak of all Christians being God’s sons and daughters. Our relationship to God the Father is by virtue of adoption, whereas Jesus is the unique only begotten Son of God. That means that He is of one and the same nature as God the Father, meaning He is fully divine. In other words, He is God. The phrase “Son of God” expresses the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Trinity. There are not more than one God, but this one God is Father, Son, and Spirit. Now it is not necessary to understand the intricacies of the doctrine of the Trinity to become a follower of Jesus. But it is necessary to understand who Jesus is and what He came to do. He is God-incarnate, that is, in the person of Jesus, God has become a human being. He is fully God and fully man. God came to us in this way in order to redeem us from sin. He lived a sinless life that we all have failed to live, and He died as our substitute on the cross, so that in His death our sins could be punished. He bore the wrath we deserve so that we can be forgiven and receive the righteousness of God and eternal life. When we see the centurion proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God, we are reminded that, from whatever diverse backgrounds we may come, we come together at the foot of the cross on the common recognition of who Jesus is and what He has done to save us.

We see in the women around the cross another common bond that unites the followers of Christ together. We see that they are described as having ministered to Him. The Greek word here is the same word from which we get our term “deacon.” This does not mean that they were “deacons” in the sense that we think of deacons in our church, but it means that they served Jesus in practical ways as they followed Him. They did what they could to meet the needs that arose with Him and His followers. They had served Him from the time He was in Galilee until these last days in Jerusalem – in other words, throughout His entire public ministry. Their service to Him was not sporadic or occasional, but consistent and faithful. If they had served Jesus all this time, then they have known what it means to serve Him in good days and bad days, to serve Him when it is popular to do so and when it is unpopular, to serve Him when you are recognized for it and for when you are serving in obscurity. Jesus’ ministry went through all of these seasons, and those who ministered to Him knew what it was like to serve Him through all the ups and downs. Luke tells us that some of these women were contributing to support Jesus and His disciples “out of their private means.” This surely includes financial support, but there were probably other means of support as well. They probably helped in providing meals, making arrangements, caring for personal needs that would arise among the disciples, and so on. But the three women named in verse 40 were not the only ones who served Jesus in this way. Verse 41 indicates that there were many who had done so. And so we find among the followers of Christ today many who serve Him and His people with their time, their energies, their financial resources and their abilities. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. And when we do what we can to serve Christ in practical ways, the church works the way God intended it to. Paul likens the church to a human body whose parts all work together in cooperative ways. We come from very diverse backgrounds, but we stand on common ground as we serve Jesus in practical ways, meeting the needs that arise within and outside and around the fellowship of the church. We are united together in this service.

Then finally we stand together on the common ground of being Christ’s witness. Notice how Joseph of Arimathea is said to “gather up his courage” as he goes in to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now this is a significant statement in light of what we said earlier about Joseph. Remember that we referred to John 19:38, which says that though Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, he was “a secret one, for fear of the Jews.” As a prominent member of the Jewish ruling council, there was much to fear about being too closely identified with Jesus. I was thumbing through this book in the bookstore the other day that is a collection of postcards that people have sent to a guy in Germantown, MD containing their anonymous secrets. One of them said, “I am an editor for a large online atheist newsletter—and I believe in God.” Not to say that person is a Christian, but obviously fear has caused them to be a secret believer in a similar way that Joseph of Arimathea was.

For many of us, becoming a follower of Christ brings certain fears. What will our family members think, especially those who aren’t believers? What will our friends think, especially those who have been our partners in immorality and sin? What will our boss and coworkers think? Having a Christian worldview may clash with certain understood values in the workplace, creating fear. There is also a fear among those who have been in church for a long time, but who come to realize that they are not really saved. They fear what others will think of them if they make it known that they need to be saved. We could go on and on – there are many such fears that the “secret followers” of Jesus harbor in their hearts. But there comes a point for each of us when we must gather up the courage and go public. For Joseph, that moment was here as he could no longer sit in silence and watch the ongoing disgrace of Jesus. He gathered courage and went to Pilate, the one who had sentenced Jesus to death, and asked for the body of Jesus so he could bury Him with some dignity. Jesus Christ has called all of His followers to publicly identify with Him through the ordinance of baptism and through the task of being His witness as we share His Gospel message with others. For some of us, the very thought of it scares us to death! But there is no magic secret to overcoming that fear – only the gathering up of courage. And we are blessed that the Holy Spirit has come into our lives to give us that courage. The power to be Christ’s witness, Jesus says, comes upon us in the person of His Spirit whom we receive at the moment we are saved. Therefore, we can die to our fears, die to our self-conscious anxiety, and allow His power to work through us as we courageously take a stand for Jesus. We can say with Paul in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Five individuals are singled out in these few verses. Yet in just this small number of Christ’s earliest followers, we are able to see a snapshot of His church as it has endured through the centuries and across the continents with the spread of the Gospel. We see the diversity of the church as we see it encompassing men and women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds and social and economic status. The diversity that the world talks a lot about but seldom demonstrates has always been a hallmark of the Christian church. And in this day, the church should be leading the way in bringing people together, not furthering the divide by “targeting” particular audiences. We should be bringing young and old, male and female, rich and poor, and all ethnicities together into one spiritual family.

We enter that family through one door. No matter what spiritual background a person comes from, we must come to the place of recognizing ourselves as sinners and Christ as Savior. As we turn from sin and receive Him as Lord and Savior, we become members of God’s family. And as brothers and sisters in this family, we are united together in faith, in service, and in witness. We help one another as we are able, serving Christ by serving each other. And we encourage one another in service and witness. Though we may find ourselves in fear of the thought of speaking openly of our faith in Christ, we can depend on the Holy Spirit’s power to give us the courage to speak out, and to act out, with one another inside of the church and with the lost world around us. Every person here has a role to play in the family of God. It doesn’t matter who you are or what kind of background you come from, God has a part for you. Have you been saved? Have you asked Christ to be Lord and Savior of your life? Are you serving Him? Are you witnessing for Him? Are you intentionally seeking to embrace the diversity of God’s people rather than huddling together with those who are just like you? May God grant that we would be that diverse body of Christ’s followers, united on the common ground of faith and service and witness.

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