Family Snapshots: A Neighbourly Community (Isaiah 58:6-9a; Colossians 3:1-4; Mark 2:18-22)
Although we are in the season of Easter, I have chosen a Gospel text that is set in the pre-Easter ministry of Jesus. In my doing so, I want to remind us, once again, that, although most of the Gospel stories are set in the time before Jesus’ death and resurrection, all of them were written and published after these events. The entirety of the written Gospels were read or heard by communities of faith that lived, as you and I do, after Easter. So the Gospels tell the story of Jesus to those who know how the story came out, and are trying, as you and I are, to live out what it means that Christ is risen.
All three of our texts for this morning concern practices within communities of faith. The Epistle lesson gives us some general principles, but the Old Testament and the Gospel lessons deal with a specific matter: fasting. Now fasting doesn’t interest lots of people now, at least people I know. It’s my view that, although the Gospel and Old Testament do deal with fasting, that they do only as a “presenting issue,” and in such a way that, as we reflect on them, these texts can lead us to some general principles for living life in community in the light of the fact that Jesus is alive.
Colossians 3 doesn’t deal with fasting. It begins, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Many passages in the New Testament carry this same message using different words. Being a Christian means living in certain ways and not in others. The first word, “if” is, probably, better translated as “since,” because we can tell from the Greek sentence that the author assumed that his readers or hearers had, indeed, been “raised with Christ,” i.e., they were living the resurrection life of Christians. Since, they are “raised people,” they will want to do, , literally, “raised things.” Although that makes them sound a little like glazed doughnuts, “raised people do raised things.” If we read through the rest of chapter 3, we would find general examples of “raised living” that model the risen Jesus. Before we get there we come to negative examples that do not. All of them point to self-centred living that assert our own power and importance at the expense of others.
Next come examples of the kind of higher qualities that raised people will practice: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” These are other-centred rather than self-centred behaviours. The whole passage reminds me of Paul’s discussion of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians chapter 5. Both of these passages (and many others, as well) reduce to something like, “the proof of following Jesus is found, not so much in what we claim as in how we live.” These also remind me of so much in the Old Testament that speaks of God’s people as living neighbourly life with others. On this Third Sunday of Easter, the point is that, if the Easter message carries any conviction for us, we will work away at allowing the love of God in Christ to transform us, so that things like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience emerge in us, each one, and in our community. We will attempt to live in loving and neighbourly ways towards others and ourselves.
Next, today’s Gospel lesson addresses a very specific practice, the relevance of which might be difficult to grasp. It’s the practice of fasting. Now, fasting has been practiced by some people and groups and not by others throughout church history. I have no doubt that some people find it a helpful spiritual practice. It is also true that some people do not, and many have no interest in it either way. Fasting was also practiced by some in the Judaism of Jesus’ day and back into the Old Testament period. Fasting is also a widespread practice in other religious traditions as well. It’s interesting to read in Mark 2:18 that Jesus’ disciples did not fast, while the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees did. It’s important to understand that those of Jesus’ time did not fast to show how sombre one could be in God’s presence or how spiritually superior one was, or even how inwardly focused one could be in one’s faith. Rather fasting in the Old Testament and later was a way of showing that one was contrite and open before God in order to hasten the day when God would break into history and establish the divine reign on earth (or as it was known in both Judaism and the Christian Gospels, the Kingdom of God). Can’t you imagine that people in Mark’s community of faith, would be curious to know why some spiritual people did practice fasting, when Jesus’ own disciples didn’t? The “people” in Mark 2 who ask Jesus this question on fasting probably represent such people in Mark’s community who were curious whether it was OK to do so, since, although fasting was common, Jesus’ disciples didn’t.
Jesus’ response is that there are times when fasting is appropriate and times when it isn’t. He says it’s inappropriate to fast when you’re at a wedding feast dancing with the bridegroom and the other guests. Nobody likes someone hanging around fasting then. When the cause for celebration is gone, then it makes sense to fast. If we read this text as Mark’s community would have (and as we ought to), it’s pretty clear that the bridegroom is Jesus, and that his being taken away refers to his death, resurrection, and ascension. When he’s physically gone it’s appropriate to fast. So, it was OK in the Old Testament and Judaism (before Jesus came) to fast, and also in Mark’s church, after he was gone. But, although appropriate then, it was not required to do it even then. Perhaps we can draw a general principle from this saying of Jesus. Different practices are appropriate (rather than required) at different times. Of course, it takes discernment to know the right time.
But there’s more here than that. In two little comparisons, one about a new patch on an old garment, and one about new wine in old wineskins, Jesus went on to warn that it isn’t necessary or even desirable to mix “old” and “new” things. Both the valuable old and the valuable new will be damaged. It’s probable that in the time of Jesus, in which this story is set, Jesus was talking about assuming that following him would be possible within existent Jewish practice. Frankly, however, most of us here today don’t worry much about fasting or other Jewish practices that many Christian churches lost centuries ago.
However, doesn’t this wisdom from Jesus give us some wonderful principles upon which to answer questions about contemporary practices in, say, our congregation as over against others? If that first principle is true, we will have to ask ourselves what is appropriate for us here today, here on this corner, with this mission? How can we be faithful to Jesus and the scriptures now? How can we live the resurrection in 2018? How can live as a neighbourly community?
As we look for further help in the little comparisons about the new patch on the old coat and the new wine in old wineskins, we will need to read both our world and the scriptures with careful, critical, thoughtful reflection. For example, we ought not to conclude that Jesus always preferred the new to the old. Indeed, here in Mark, he seemed to value both. You and I, of course have heard these passages used to indicate that it is Jesus’ way to replace the “old” (whatever practice we’ve been doing that someone thinks we shouldn’t anymore) with the “new” (whatever that person proposes). We may even have thought this way ourselves. That’s not what they’re about.
These little wisdom sayings tell us that, as we search for appropriate resurrection life, we cannot simply imitate what others have done in other times and places and assume it’s appropriate for us in our community, just because somebody calls it “new” (Spirit-filled) or “old’ (God-given). Mixing old and new is not helpful to either, and can destroy both. They are two different things. Do what is new or do what is old, whichever is more appropriate. Ask the question of what’s appropriate, and ask it often. The exact content of what is “new” and what is “old” has, I daresay, changed dozens or hundreds of times through Christian history, and will again.
And this leads to one last thing we learn from these little comparisons: it is not appropriate to try to lump all religious systems or practices into one lowest common denominator. It is perfectly OK for different communities of faith to have different practices. All can respect one another. Of course, this kind of approach will not satisfy legalists, who live and die by the list, today any more than it did in Jesus’ day. Legalists are out to impose rules, and Jesus mostly gives broad principles by which to come to an appropriate understanding of God’s will in our time and place.
Now, we proceed to the text from Isaiah 58, which also addresses fasting. This passage was written late in Israel’s history, when practices such as fasting were being made into hard and fast rules, if you wanted to “do it right.” Unfortunately the fasting that’s thought of here had simply turned into a way to manipulate God and neighbour. Such practices (and they could go beyond fasting) become an excuse for thinking ourselves more spiritual than others, and can cause us to want to impose standard practices on every disciple so they can be as spiritual as we are. This is a disaster.
Earlier in this passage God unmasked the attitude that saw piety and discipline such as fasting as ways to gain and keep control of God and others, even if we call it fervency, spirituality, zeal, patriotism, or whatever. In our reading, God changes fasting into a principle that isn’t about not eating, but about not beating. The principle for fasting is widened considerably. Once again, listen, for God is speaking:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.
Remember that, in the Bible, the purpose of fasting was humility before God, and openness to God’s leading. The kind of fast that God chooses leads away from self-centredness to action in and on behalf of the world. It has to do with resisting all forms of oppression and bondage. It leads toward action in shared food, shared homes, shared clothing – in short all those basics necessary to life. It is simple concern for the neighbour. How we share with these things is up to our own creativity and imagination, it certainly isn’t limited to methods people would have used in the Bible. As I said last week, spiritual practice should lead to treatment of all those in need as our family. This is the “fast,” the practice of faith, that God approves. It is not navel-gazing, but neighbour-caring. Beginning at verse 8, we find the word, “then…” If God finds us practicing neighbourly concern and love, then the light will break forth upon us and God’s blessing will be ours. Now, we can read this like the legalists in Jesus’ day (and since) and understand this as “what it takes to get blessed.” Or, we can read this text in the light of Colossians and, especially, of Jesus’ counsel to ask what is appropriate, and not to worry about patching up the old things, but starting new ones. We can see this “if…then,” this condition that God sets here as simply the way that real life works Well-being, in either a human or a divine sense, really only comes in a community of neighbours who care for and tend one another. It’s that way because God made the world, and it is God’s world, and God’s like that! These practices will look different in one community of faith than another, but each will be in the direction of finding appropriate ways of practicing faith with others in mind…inside and outside the community.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.