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Affirming Ministries And The Curious Case From Mark

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Hi all. I wrote this essay for a friend and thought there might be a couple of people here who'd be interested. Best wishes to all, Jen







Here in Canada, many church congregations are asking themselves whether they want to become an Affirming Ministry, which, in the words of the United Church of Canada, means "ministries [that] declare, in words and actions, that God loves and accepts people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender." This is an important step on the journey of transforming the church from its roots in righteousness to its blossoming in God's love. But, as with any long journey where a lot of people are asked to walk together in the same direction, more or less, there are major disagreements and a whole host of new questions. Are we sure Affirmation is the right path? If God wants us to do this, why hasn't God left us a map? Why can't it be simple? Why can't it be clear cut? What about Jesus? Did he say anything about Affirmation? Would he say anything about Affirmation?


For many congregations, the question of Affirming Ministries is a difficult and confusing issue. Individuals must wrestle with complex questions about who we are as unique human beings, who we are as members of families,communities, churches, and who we are as children of God. Sometimes, in these discussions, our deepest beliefs emerge, and we can find ourselves alternately pleased and dismayed at our own inner reactions. All on the same day!


At a time such as this, I think it can be helpful to consider what Jesus said to us about a different but equally important matter. It's sort of a "peripheral vision" technique. When we stare and stare right at the middle of the Affirming Ministry question, sometimes all we can see is the main black and white issue. But if we let ourselves see with our peripheral vision, too, where things are kind of blurry, but also much wider in scope, then sometimes we can see the bigger picture a bit more clearly. I think this is something Jesus did, something he tried to teach others to do. He tried to help others see God not only in the central issues but also in everything around us.


Nowhere is this clearer than in Mark's portrayal of Jesus as a physician scholar who was way ahead of his time in his understanding of what causes illness.


We forget, sitting in our comfortable, modern homes with access to a full range of modern diagnostic tools and medical interventions, that once upon a time -- during the time when Jesus lived, in fact -- the prevailing model for understanding neurological and psychiatric conditions was demonology. Demons were thought to cause medical disorders such as epilepsy.


Not everyone believed this, of course. Certain schools of philosophy and science had long been working on the idea of healing as a form of science. But, for the most part, diseases were blamed on divine causes. People went to priests, magicians, oracles, and holy men to find out which god or demi-god had been offended and what steps had to be taken to settle the debt and make things right again with the divine. This was big business, and a lot of money was made by those who claimed to be gatekeepers for healing and exorcism.


The Gospel of Mark includes several fascinating stories that mention demons and spirits. Even today, people tend to interpret these passages in Mark as proof that Jesus followed the lead of others in believing that demons were the cause of neurological disorders.


I won't go into all the background reasons for why I think this interpretation of Mark cuts out some of the very best and most helpful insights into Jesus' teachings, but I'd like to draw your attention to the curious passage in Mark 9:14-29 about the healing of the epileptic child.


It's quite a strange story to include in the middle of a religious narrative. It's also a bit of muddle to us today. If you read it carefully, it seems as if the author isn't sure how to describe what happens when a distraught parent brings his epileptic son to Jesus for healing. The descriptions seem part medical science -- "whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid", which is medically accurate -- and part religious invocation -- "he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, 'you spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.'"


To our ears, it sounds as if Jesus believes there's a demon inside the boy that can be exorcised. But when you read the passage in its original Greek, you see some shades of meaning that aren't obvious to our English-speaking ears. For starters, the usual Greek words for "demon" aren't used in the story of the epileptic boy. Each time the spirit is described, the Greek word is a cognate of pneuma. And pneuma is one of those tricky words in Greek that can mean a lot of different things, including breath, wind, spirit, disposition (as in personal characteristics) -- and sometimes a spirit with evil tendencies, though not always. I think it's quite possible that Mark was using the word pneuma to describe a "force" that's real and tangible inside the head, even if we can't see it with our physical eyes -- the way breath and wind are strong forces that can't be seen directly with our eyes but are very real and measurable nonetheless.


It's Jesus' understanding of this real but unseen force inside the head (what we know today are abnormal cortical events causing seizures) that leads him to treat the boy and his family in ways that would have been unthinkable for most religious scholars of the time, whether Jewish or Hellenistic or Mithraic. It's Jesus' understanding of the boy's condition as a scientific matter that leads him to ask the same kinds of questions a doctor would ask today: "What are his symptoms? When did they first start? How can we treat this right here and right now?"


We tend not to notice what Jesus doesn't say to the boy and his family. Jesus never judges them. He never says to them, "What did you do to deserve this? How did you offend God? How did your parents and your parents' parents offend God? What sacrifices have you offered at the Temple to remedy your offenses? What have you done to restore your purity?"


Jesus asks none of these questions. He says only that it's a matter of faith and prayer. And after he treats the boy as a person, and asks the right medical questions, and performs some sort of healing treatment (though we're not sure what), and stays with the boy as he convulses to the point of appearing dead to everyone in the crowd, Jesus does the most remarkable thing of all.


Jesus, a Jew, doesn't step away from the body, the body from whom the spirit or pneuma appears to have departed. Jesus doesn't step away from the corpse to protect his own ritual purity (which would have been considered religiously appropriate at that time and in that place). Instead, he moves even closer to the boy, taking him by the hand, lifting him up till he's able to stand, and (we infer) returning him to his father's care.


For Jesus, no one was unworthy of God's love and healing, despite what those around him said. In first century Palestine, with its blend of Hellenistic and Jewish cultural norms, an epileptic child would have been considered a blemish, a punishment, a valid reason to revoke some or all of the family's "honour and status" and treat them as unworthy, little better than the dogs who eat the crumbs from under the table. Today, we'd never dream of doing this. But in Jesus' time, it was the norm to marginalize whole families simply because one member was sick and needed proper treatment.


It's interesting to note that although Jesus goes around the Galilee and the Decapolis to assess and treat many kinds of illnesses and neurological disorders, he's never once shown by Mark as trying to heal or "fix" somebody's sexual orientation. It's pretty clear Jesus is keen on monogamy. It's also pretty clear Jesus is keen on people not committing adultery. But monogamy and adultery are altogether different issues from sexual orientation, and if we rejected everyone from the church who's ever broken faith with Jesus' teachings on adultery, I dare say the church would have snuffed itself out like a dying candle long, long ago.


Jesus does give us a hint about how the epileptic child is healed. He says to his apostles in Mark 9:23 that "all things can be done for the one who believes" and then, in Mark 10:27, he adds some more information, saying, "'For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Jesus was a man of science, but he also believed in miracles.


It isn't up to us, as Christians, to reject the very children whom God loves. Jesus' healing of the epileptic child tells us that even when we don't understand, as human beings, the unique challenges and talents given to each child and adult around us, God understands. God loves what we don't see. God accepts what we try not to see, what we try not to speak of or hear. When we're ready, though, God shows us how to speak of and hear Divine Love, as the epileptic child began to speak and hear once he and his family accepted they were worthy of God's love and healing. God stands by, ever ready to help, when we find the courage to take the same steps on the path of understanding and inclusion that Jesus once had to take.


God loves us all, each and every one.


God bless.



Edited for clarity: added the word "cortical"

Edited by Realspiritik
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Realspiritk, Thank you. You gave us history, science, philosophy and religion spun in a great narrative that speaks volumes. You should get a volume of your writings like this and get them published. Thanks again.

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