What Makes One A Christian?"We are experts at missing Jesus."
Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four. His brevity demands that we must look for the insights that are dropped like theological grenades. A breathless pronouncement tells us this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1). But what should be clearly obvious and undeniable is not. At every point Jesus must dynamite our narrow perceptions of reality. We cannot conceive truth without His revelation.
Last month, we considered how Mark introduced us to Jesus to demolish our presumptions and our misperceptions about His life and ministry. Very few understand who Jesus is or what He has come to do. It is always hard to admit that the demons know Jesus better than His own people. Perhaps no area of human existence is more of a battlefield than that of our nature and its relation to grace. We have an ancient defensiveness in us that rejects the help we need and which only Jesus can provide. When you hear someone say, “The Good Lord helps those who help themselves,” kindly but firmly let them know that that is absolute heresy. We tend to be drawn to a teacher who speaks in challenging parables that pique our interest (4:1-12), but it is in real crises that our religious emptiness is revealed for what it is: abject helplessness.
Why is this Story Here?
Mark’s rigorous assessment of the lack of spiritual perception clarifies our central problem. Without help coming from outside of us, we are doomed. Our Help, Jesus, has come. Shockingly, those trained to recognize Him and who should have turned to Him did not. That may be why the story of Jesus calming the storm comes immediately after the parable of the soils.
“As evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they took Jesus in the boat and started out, leaving the crowds behind (although other boats followed). But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water. Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” The disciples were absolutely terrified. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “Even the wind and waves obey him!” (4:35-41)
The Gospel does not come by external fireworks. It does explode our inadequate perceptions, but there is no flashy manipulation in Jesus. By this point in Mark’s incisive storyline, Jesus had already produced five miraculous activities. Still, people are missing Him. Why? We are experts at missing Jesus. It seems we will grasp at anything but Him. There are a variety of ways that we “miss” the salvation Jesus offers. Each of them has a place in Christian experience, but none of them makes us Christian. Each needs to be combusted in order to see who Jesus truly is.
The Gospel is not contained in orthodoxy, that is, in right-thinking. Everything Jesus taught was truth. Those who comprehended something of His words recognized them as distinctive and authoritative (1:22, 27). But the Gospel is more than correct thinking. Sadly, all of us know people who believe correct doctrines but whose hearts are totally lacking in love. You can think the right things about the doctrine of scriptural holiness, but our lives can amount to nothing of what it means. John Wesley often referred to the devils who knew everything about Jesus but who did not believe in Him. Knowledge alone isn’t what Jesus is after. I teach theology, so knowing is very important to me. Orthodoxy is my life’s work, but it does not save. Early Salvationism saw how creedalism had replaced Christ. We must not repeat that lie.
You and I love good works. The history of the Church has included intense debates about the place of works. One thing is sure, they must arise out of any claim of Christianity. You may say “My life is full of giving alms, giving all I can.” But you and I know that other religions require giving, and it might be at a level that outstrips our own. It may be most difficult for The Salvation Army to allow Jesus to remind us that serving and giving does not save. “Doing the most good” without a clear basis in saving grace can destroy true life in Christ. I sense in our forebears the deep concern that service to the least and the lost can become a sort of merit badge that carries nothing saving in itself. Jesus met this lie every day of his ministry. It alarmed Him then, as it does now.
I have heard many say that to be a Christian is to love. I remember often in my years in Taiwan how farmers would enter banks in their grass raincoats still dripping from the drenching downpour to bring bags of coins to deposit for their children’s education in the West. Buddhists love their children just as much as Christians. As important as love is, we must realize that acts of love do not save us. The Gospel is more than love as we define it.
The Key: His Risen Presence
It could be ethics, it could be any number of things, but you and I know the foundational point on which the holiness movement has been built for over 100 years: that the only saving point of the Gospel, the only reality which can bring the life of God into a human heart, is the presence of the risen Christ. If the presence of the resurrected Jesus is not in your life this moment, you are not saved. From his very first verse, Mark claims that the only saving reality in the world is the presence of Jesus Christ—not your idea about Him, not your work for Him, not the miracle you think you need, not the theology of your denomination. Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the God/Man, is risen from the dead and desires to live in the center of your life and mine. His transforming “risenness” is always volatile to human religious construction.
Apparently, the people closest to Him, even in a storm, did not get it. I don’t believe for a moment Jesus set this up. He is not a manipulative teacher. He did use every circumstance to point to His holy nature. What I think happened was this: He had already provided all the bombshell evidence needed for commitment to Him. People had been healed. He had taught authoritatively and what they heard sat close to reality. He had done all of that, but they still did not understand how central He was, He is, to everything that is Christian.
I think that is why we have this story of Jesus and the storm right here in Mark’s Gospel. He will be with us for a while teaching, preaching, healing, exorcising, but then He requires a response. If all the “attractive” things of spiritual life are removed, what are we left with? The test comes when we have nothing, when we have lost total control, when our works and doctrines make not one whit of difference. It is there that Jesus becomes absolutely important.
I am intrigued by how we conceive of and discuss grace. We use the nice phrase “unmerited favor.” But what does that mean? We use “grace” as if it were something that God gives out of Himself and dispenses upon us. But “favor” does not save. Jesus does. It is He alone that is our Salvation. It is His grace-filled Life that delivers us. The Salvation Army must never allow good things to cloud the reality of our Gospel–Jesus. Mark’s Gospel constricts all forms of religious activity and makes them come under the scrutiny of the Living Christ. He never leaves us confused here. What is saving? Christ alone.