A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

True and False Teaching

Rev. Dr. Les Martin

Epiphany 4 2024
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
Mark 1:21-28

The town of Capernaum, Matthew 4:13 tells us, becomes Jesus base of operations. He moves there from Nazareth. Being an observant Jew, he frequents the synagogue there. In today’s Gospel, he is teaching there. That’s the crux of the whole story that he teaches and acts with authority. Mark being Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught. I don’t know if you’ve noticed the joke about Mark is he wrote in a hurry, it’s the shortest gospel. His favorite word is immediately.

You get this image of Jesus on the run. His focus is on what happens next, the casting out of the unclean spirit from the unfortunate man. However, even before the casting out, the people are amazed for he teaches with authority. If we go to Luke 4:16, at another synagogue, this one in his hometown of Nazareth, we get an idea of the teaching style, the sermon style of Jesus. In chapter 4:16 to 21, it’s just a few short verses, I’ll read it, it says, “Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up and he went in the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the Good News to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed upon Him, and He began to teach them: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled, even as you heard it being read. Now, let’s unpack that a little. First of all, you need to know that it is the custom for a rabbi to pick his reading. He picks from Isaiah the reading he wants for his preaching, unless you’re a little confused, just like we stand up to preach. They sat down. He gets the scroll of Isaiah, he goes specifically to this point, reads, sits down and has the shortest sermon in history.

What you heard today, was fulfilled, even as I read it, good news to the poor. “Me.” Release, for those held captive me, fight for the blind me, freedom for the oppressed me, the acceptable year of the favor of God. Me. That’s the kind of sermon Jesus preached when he was at church. Amazed by his teaching in Mark, the hearers, say to one another, “He teaches like one who has authority, not like the experts in the law.” There’s no quoting of precedent, no dry and dusty exegesis. Jesus says what Isaiah was talking about me. His words suggest one of two things to us. Either Jesus has the authority to say what he’s saying. What Isaiah spoke about, I’m the fulfillment. He either has that authority or he’s just plain insane.

It’s worth asking, which is it? And Mark answers that by verses 23 to 26, with the exorcism, Jesus teaches as one with authority, they’re amazed, but maybe he’s just not. Yet he gets up and casts out of spirit with a word. His authority, the authority we hear in the sermon in Nazareth, we see in the deliverance in Capernaum. Jesus today manifests his identity as the word of God, the word whose words are what we call performative, speech, proof performative speech. Just as in the creation story of Genesis chapter one, we see here in the, the synagogue of Capernaum, a God who speaks words that work, words that actually perform, actually create what they indicate. God in Genesis did not say it would sure be nice to have some light around here. He said, “Let there be light, and there was light.”

Jesus proclaims sight to the blind, by saying, “See.” Today he delivers a man by saying, “Come out of him.” Performative speech, words that work. That then there are words are words about ultimate things, things like God, life, salvation and suffering. Our words are much more limited, cautious, they have to be because God is the actor. If we’re being faithful, we are not the actor, we are observers, classifiers, reporters concerning the mighty work of God. Our words are not performative.

To make my point, let’s go back to Genesis again and look at Adam’s role in creation. Genesis 2:18, to 20, reads this way. “ Lord God said, it is not good for man to be alone, I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him. And the LORD God formed out of the ground, every living animal of the field and every bird of the air, he brought them to the man to see what he would name them. And whatever the man called each living creature that was its name.”

Words and words, but do you see the key difference? God’s words create something. Faithful Adam’s words pre-fall Adam’s words, at best, can only give a name to, can only classify can only describe the mighty acts of God. Adam does not create the birds of the air, he merely recognizes them for what they are, and names them. Here we see the proper relationship between God and man between the actor and the observer.

We see the proper task of theology, God creates with his word, Adam observes the work of God. And then Adam rightly identifies and classifies what God is doing. In that sense, proper theology isn’t all that different from the work of the scribes. The scribes got some things right. Remember the complaint about the scribes that the people had in the Gospel, the scribes have no authority of their own. Nor should they.

To the extent that our theology refers to the authority of the Bible and the church tradition, we don’t have authority of our own. Our theology only describes only classifies, only explains the mighty works of God, our speech is not performative. And that’s the problem. The basic problem for humanity is we don’t like our position and not liking our position. We wouldn’t like our words either. The proper use of our speech, ever since Satan tempted us with the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. We have wanted two things. What was the temptation to know.

And to be like God, to know, and knowing to have power in control. We want our own performative words. And that’s what transforms every time. It’s what transforms good theology into false teaching. False teaching has been a part of the church’s life, since its beginning. It’s no real surprise that it’s still with us today. It’s the story of my whole Christian life. I became a believer, young and stupid, I walked to the nearest church and walked right into the Episcopal Church.

No one told me it was falling apart. No one told me it was full of the modernist theology of the age, what we’ve kind of already discussed a theology that does not understand the nature of biblical authority, the nature of human anthropology viewed from God’s perspective, or what a faithful theological task is. I walked right into the kind of discussion we’ve already been having. Are we faithful reporters of what God has done? Or do we want to say and do our own thing?

Well, I escaped that and went to Nigeria, Nigeria, where there are good people, but the majority of the Christians there are either moralists or Gnostics. Don’t worry, I’ll explain that. Good people. But either moralists like the scribes, or Gnostics, like the false prophet that that God is warning about through the mouth of Moses. Now, we’ve already kind of dealt, like I say, with my experience in the Episcopal Church, where we don’t understand our role in relation to God and God’s word. But let’s take a little detour and look at these other kinds of false teaching for a second. Because the fundamental issue and understanding God’s word is understanding proper response to it. Like Adam, before the fall, do we recognize and name what is or like Adam and Eve after the fall? Do we try and speak our own thing? moralism. This is power through control, it’s the prop, the Bailiwick of the scribes. It goes basically like this if we understand the rules. If we really understand the rules, we can keep them and we can get what we want. If we understand the rules, we can keep them and we can get what we want. Gerhard Forde, the American Lutheran theologian, describes the problem this way, “Theology tries to describe accurately what the situation is. But in the Fallen word descriptions always turn into pre-script options. And they become deadly, especially in sermons.”

Instead of talking about humility, or faith or grace, we begin to invariably slip over into prescriptions about what we are do to make ourselves as humble as possible, or to get some faith or to side for grace or so on. You get this is the old moralists trick. We do it for ourselves. Rather than being recipients of the performative work and word of God, we try and struggle ourselves to do it ourselves, so that we have something to offer God. The moralist move goes like this, the scribe says, “This is what you need to do, do it. And you try, or you rebel, but either way you say I can’t.” And then the preacher puffs himself up even further and says, “Try again. This time harder.”

Now I’m for moral behavior. Paul says the law is good. But he also says that we can’t do it that the fundamental purpose of it is to show our weakness. The other things the scribes liked were human traditions. I’m an Anglican. I affirm the value of true tradition. I like vestments. I like the church here. I like liturgy, but as a guide, not a straight jacket. Jarislav Pelican once said, “That the difference that we need to think of is this tradition is the living faith of the dead.” Tradition handed on to us is the living faith of the dead given to us as a gift. But traditionalism? Well, that’s the dead faith of the living. And see the problem with morality or tradition, either one is when it’s push on you when it’s pushed on you. Well, it’s not life giving. And even if it was, we just can’t do it.

Think around to the teachings you hear either in the secular world or in the church. Think how often you’re told, just know this and try harder, work hard. You’ll make it? Well, those are human words. They’re not God’s words. In some sense, they’re not words that work. They’re false teaching. But I said there was another theme out there. And there is it’s what we hear the warning about, in Moses words today, and that’s false prophets, or the heresy known as Gnosticism.

The basic ways to try and follow the situation is I will work harder moralism. Or I will figure out some kind of secret knowledge known only to a few. And by making use of this secret knowledge, I’ll get God to do what I want. That’s called Magic, I think. But it works this way. Their move is this if we can understand the hidden truths. And if we the elect can act them out, then God will have to do what we want. God will have to do what we want. Now, I used to teach a semester class in this in the heart of prosperity, Nigeria, so I’ll try and keep this short.

All this goes back to something called the New Thought movement that was popular in the 19th century in the USA. It works its way out in things like Norman Vincent Peale, the power of positive thinking, the current secular idea, do you have secular friends who tell you that they’re manifesting thing? Yeah, that’s new thought. In the church, the place that appears the most and in the developing world is rife with this is the modern prosperity, heresy, so called prosperity theology. Now, I don’t know your all’s backgrounds, but I suspect there not a lot of people here who know who Kenneth Copeland is. He’s very popular in Africa. His wife, Gloria Copeland, also a minister in his movement literally says these words, “Prosperity is yours. It’s not something you have to work toward. You have the title deed to prosperity, Jesus bought and paid for your prosperity, just like he bought and paid for your salvation.”

This is the health and wealth gospel, the belief that faith guarantees the kind of life we want. And the scary thing is, it’s the fastest form of Christianity growing in the world right now. I should say Christianity, because I’m not so sure. As Dr. Yusuf Tarka, the former ECWA head used to say, “Where there is darkness, Prophets abound.” Nigeria is suffering. We’re suffering here. We understand the temptation. Life is hard, and maybe I can’t work it out through moralism. I’ll just believe right? I’ll have a faith. I’ll name it and claim it and bam, I’ll get what I want.

As I used to say to my students, though, the problem with that is if that theology were true, I suppose Nigeria would be the richest nation in the world. And it’s not. And that’s what Moses warns us about today, isn’t it? He says how to tell a true prophet from a false prophet. He says, “Well, does it come true?” Does it come true? You see for all Their bluster and showmanship. The prosperity teachers have powerless words that lead many away from Christ, and into some form of confusion and yes, witchcraft.

For all their moralistic driving their virtue in their zeal for holiness, the moralists words are ultimately powerless. They cannot accomplish what they say. And they crushed tender souls in the process. Human speech, theological speech is limited. My words are limited. My Words cannot convey much less create what I want. Kate and I will celebrate our anniversary next month. And whenever I’ve messed up, and I’ve messed up, many, many times, I can say, “Honey, I’m sorry.” Yet, no matter what zeal or eloquence, I say it, I’m aware that there is a barrier between my words and the depth of regret in my soul, my words are powerless.

When my boy smiles at me in the morning, and I feel a feeling that I’ve never felt in my life before the very joy just in his existence, I can pick him up and say “Hi, love you.” But it doesn’t convey how I would live or die for him. And if that’s true of the two important human relationships in my life, that my words are powerless, how much more? Is it true? When we speak of God? How much less can I really effectively speak of Christ’s sin, grace and salvation. It’s pretty depressing because I gave most of my life to being a theological educator. But as I’ve come to realize, my task is not a new theology. I’m just to describe.

Orthodox Christian teaching is a humble endeavor describing what God has done for us. Letting him set the limits for the way the world is and what’s acceptable. It’s a living tradition, designed to show a more excellent way not to confuse people or binding them to the rules of an earlier generation. Its limited language, this theology, never pointing to itself, but thankfully to that better word, that is spoken, Jesus, Jesus blood and Jesus words. No matter how hard I work on these sermons, nothing I say, can or should compare to this. Your sins are forgiven. This is my body given for you. I call you, my friends. In this world, you will have trouble but never fear for I have overcome the world. I go to prepare a place for you. And when I have prepared it, I myself shall come that where I am, there, you may also be. These are the words are teaching that must always give priority to God’s words with authority. Words that work. Words that create what they say.

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