How do you become a better Christian? There’s a quick and easy answer: “You just have to know more; that is, get more information. More information, more power. More information, is salvation. The more you ‘know’ about something or someone, the better you’ll be able to navigate life’s journey.”
Sound familiar? This is, at least, the mantra of our culture which has been heavily influenced by western advances through the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and yes, even the Reformation from the last few centuries.
And then, Paul writes this, which serves to throw a mystic wrench into our rationalist preoccupations with ‘information’, which we so readily equate with knowledge: “… all of us possess knowledge …” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2) Hey, stop right there! — how can everyone have this knowledge? I thought knowledge was something we had to acquire by reading another book or spending more time on ‘Google’!
Paul continues: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him”. To begin with, in the biblical tradition, knowledge is NOT information and information is NOT knowledge. After all, even the man with the evil spirit ‘knew’ and recognized Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:21-28). Having the right information alone is not the answer.
How do you become a better Christian? Last week I told you about my three-week hiatus in Vancouver, which in the Jonah story was like the three days in the belly. Remember, Jonah was running away — escaping — from God’s call. It was a time of reflection, discerning and struggle as I slowly accepted my call to the pastoral vocation. I spoke about my long walks alone on the beaches as the place where I solidified my decision to return to my seminary studies.
But there was one prior event that may have broken my heart open to accept this change in direction. One Sunday in Vancouver I attended a church service. It was in a large Baptist congregation, housed in an old, cathedral-like building on a prominent downtown intersection. I went there because my friend told me the preacher was particularly good.
I don’t remember anything the preacher talked about, specifically. I only recall how I was moved to tears during the sermon. It was just like the preacher spoke to my heart about God’s love and support during a hard time in my life. Again, I remember he preached from the Gospel, so my Lutheran spidey-sense was satisfied.
But, really, it was my heart not my mind that was spoken to directly. Somehow, after that sermon, I was assured that no matter what I did, God would not forsake me. That assurance, coming from the ‘outside’ — from someone else — was what I needed to hear in order to make my decision to change directions in my life, for the better.
How do you become a better Christian? You become a better Christian by opening up your heart. You become a better Christian by being vulnerable and honest before God and others, by taking a risk exposing your inner self as you truly are. You become a better Christian by being affected by God’s love so much so that you can’t help but be changed. The cliche is true: Changed people change people. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
Jesus heals the man with the evil spirit by ordering the evil spirit to “Be silent!” Be silent with all the talk. Be silent with all the verbal expressions of truth and righteousness. Be silent with all the mental, cerebral formulations. Stop talking the talk. And start walking the walk.
In this Gospel story the emphasis is on Jesus’ action. The drama takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is like the guest preacher of the day. But the Gospel writer does not specify the content of his words. We only know that he is teaching.
This is not new. We presume he is saying all the right words, words everyone has heard before likely from the Hebrew scriptures. But this “new teaching, with authority” is tied to Jesus’ action which results in a changed, transformed person.
As post-resurrection Christians we have the benefit of hindsight. We can look back to a verse earlier in Mark’s first chapter to a description of Jesus’ first preached message. In verse 15, we get at the heart of Jesus’ teaching; Jesus proclaims the good news of God, saying: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news!”. Repent literally means, “change your mind” — I would add in the Hebrew sense; that is, a changed heart results in a changed mind (Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, Jossey-Bass Wiley, San Francisco, 2011, p.11)
If anything, the Gospel of Jesus drives at the heart. And the heart leads to loving, compassionate action. This action can be described as nothing more or less than a healing, transformative, life-changing energy. This is the power, the authority, of God in Christ Jesus — that God is changing us, transforming our hearts, our minds and our bodies for the better.
We all bear this capability. Being Christian is not about becoming cerebral experts on a particular subject matter that only some are able to comprehend. No. We all, each and everyone of us, have the capacity in our hearts to be changed and transformed by God’s love.
We live in a world that doesn’t believe in that kind of change. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if people (including myself!) can ever move beyond the distractions, addictions and hang-ups that impede our growth and well-being.
Maybe we don’t change for the better because we don’t want to pay the price of admission. Experiencing this positive transformation, or healing, does require the willingness to be disrupted, for a time being. That’s the catch, the price of admission: We have to understand that positive change won’t happen without a little bit of costly pain — and particularly the pain of losing something cherished.
Can you imagine sitting in the synagogue in Capernaum listening to this new Rabbi teach from the scriptures? And then, unexpectedly some guy you’ve seen from time to time at worship stands up and starts heckling the Rabbi they call Jesus from Nazareth. Jesus silences his aggression with firm yet loving words — “Be silent!” — and the man calms down and leaves the synagogue a different person! That’s a disruptive event for the congregation. But it’s also an invitation to begin a journey of healing and transformation in Christ, the Lord.
This change does not come about without enduring some disruption. Would this disruption mean risking some embarrassment? Would it mean risking your reputation? Would it mean doing something you have little previous experience or knowledge in doing? Would it be confessing you may not be ready — but will try anyway? Would it mean trusting someone, forgiving them, for once? Would it be confessing you need help, and asking someone for it?
Many musical images have been used to describe the activity of the church. One such image is the orchestra, where Jesus — or sometimes, tragically, the pastor — is considered to be the director. And all of us play our parts to make beautiful, harmonious music together. I’ve liked this illustration, for it’s collaborative, working-together imagery. But recently another illustration has captivated my imagination as even a better one:
Last year, at the Carlington Community Chaplaincy choral festival the Bellevue Beat Drumming Group performed. Members of the group sit in a circle with their unique drums and percussion instruments on their laps or at their feet. A leader starts. But then after some time another drummer takes the lead while the others support with their quieter rhythms and beats. The presentation does not end without all members taking a turn to lead a riff or section of the music.
“Being the church is akin to playing in a jazz band in which every player in turn, including the ‘leader’, offers their own improvisation on the shared theme according to their particular ability, instrument and insight” (Dick Lewis, ed. “A different way of being church”, p.10).
“Be silent!” Jesus speaks to each of us — and to the ways which hinder us from being ourselves and using our unique gifts, from taking responsibility and doing it ourselves.
“Be silent!” to mere ideas that keep us trapped in the rat’s cage of information-getting and head-centred religion.
“Be silent!” to saying the right words without corresponding action.
“Be silent!” to negative self-talk that keeps the heart trapped with a burning self-hatred.
“Be silent!” to the negative self-talk that convinces you that you’re not good enough to do the right kinds of things and do your part for the building up of God’s kingdom.
Because, the Lord Jesus, the Holy One of God, has come into your life. And he will bring to completion the good work that he has begun in you! (Philippians 1:6). God’s love will change your heart, and you will know God, and be transformed in the light of God.