Just a Face in the Crowd?

Mark 5:24b-34, “And a great crowd followed [Jesus] and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.

“She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.’ And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, “Who touched me?”’ And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.

“And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”

 

Have you ever looked at the starry sky on a clear night and felt very small? When you were a child, and you complained about having to eat lima beans or some other unappetizing thing, did your parents ever give you the argument that “We ought to appreciate our food, since there are lots of children all over the world who are going without it”? In contemplating such a huge world, full of suffering and hunger, our daily struggles may begin to seem insignificant.

God seems to have a lot on his plate these days. This can be discouraging for our prayer life. Amidst the multitudes of the persecuted and starving, why or how would God take the time to listen or respond to our questions or requests?

Mark gives us a wonderful story to answer this very question. To set the stage, a man had just come to Jesus and urgently told him that his daughter was dying, asking him to come and heal her before It was too late. So they immediately set off for the man’s house. Our story occurs while Jesus is on this urgent mission to save her.

Jesus and the disciples had to weave their way through a massive crowd to get where they were going. There were people everywhere, squeezing past and bumping into each other. The disciples were probably struggling to keep up with Jesus as he quickly moved towards his destination.

In the midst of this crowd, there was a diseased woman. She had heard about Jesus, and the miracles of healing he had performed, and was hoping for him to heal her, too. Jesus was an important man, though, and he seemed to be going somewhere urgently. But, since she had so much faith in Jesus, she reasoned that by just touching his clothes she would be healed.

So, essentially, she brushed passed him, just like any other person in the crowd. But on brushing his clothes, she was immediately healed of her disease. There was no fanfare or hooplah. This healing was only known by the woman and Christ. Then Jesus did something unexpected. He didn’t just continue on in his urgent task, and let the healed woman continue her life, but he stopped, and turned around.

He demanded to know who had touched his clothes. The disciples thought this a ridiculous question. Jesus had been bumped and jostled by dozens of people! Why was this person significant? Why was Jesus stopping when he needed to be going to help that dying girl? Jesus continued looking for the woman until she came forward and explained her story. Then he commended her for her faith, and sent her on her way.

Why did Jesus draw the woman out of the crowd? Was not her miraculous healing justification enough for her faith? Didn’t Jesus have an urgent need to heal the dying girl?

In spite of Jesus being on an urgent mission to save the young girl, in spite of a huge, pressing crowd, he stopped and gave personal attention to a woman whose name we don’t even know, encouraging her in her faith. What a demonstration of God’s love and compassion! If this woman’s story is any indication, God will treat our prayers in the same way as this woman’s.

Despite the millions of prayers lifted up daily, from the simple to the desperate, God takes the time to stop and give each of us personal attention whenever we call on his name. What an honor for us to receive the personal attention of the almighty God!

Dirty Hands, Clean Heart

Recently I’ve been studying Mark’s gospel, and I was struck by one of the stories by how it shows just how powerful is Christ’s holiness. Look at the story from Mark 1:40-42, “And a leper came to [Jesus], ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

At first glance, I thought, “This is nice. I understand this. Jesus is showing his authority as the Son of God and using it to heal others. I ought to go help people, too.” But, upon some more reflection, I noticed that Jesus is actually doing more than that here. He is really making a profound statement about the nature of the human heart.

The Jewish Levitical law gave many instructions concerning purity that governed life. Certain foods and actions were to be avoided if one wished to remain clean, and be a full participant in the community. If you caught a certain disease like leprosy, like the man in Mark’s story, you could become incurably unclean and impure. Lepers were required to announce themselves as “unclean!” wherever they went, and they had to live alone, away from people.

In Jesus’ day, these laws had been wildly exaggerated and distorted, so following them took a massive amount of dedication and caution. So for someone who cared about following God’s commands to be pure and holy, a leper was, seemingly, a person to be avoided. But Jesus, the only man who truly lived a pure and holy life, didn’t do this. When the leprous man asked Jesus to heal him, Jesus didn’t wave his hands at him from a safe distance, but “stretched out his hand and touched him.”

Jesus didn’t become unclean by associating so closely with this man. Rather, his utter holiness reached out and cleansed the impurity of the other. This was an essential element of Jesus’ ministry: he had dirty hands, but a clean heart.

Jesus’ encounter with the leper is him putting into action a truth that he later makes explicit in Mark 7:20-23, “And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”

By this act, Jesus was revealing the true purpose of the Law that had been distorted through centuries of abuse and misunderstanding. Following God’s commands was supposed to be about showing love for Him through obedience. Eating unclean food did not make someone unclean because the food was inherently unclean, but because God had commanded not to eat it.

What truly makes a person unclean is the darkness in his heart that is inherent in fallen human nature. Just because someone looks pure compared to another, doesn’t mean he truly is. God looks on the heart, and its inner darkness.

The beautiful part of this story in Mark is that Jesus, taking on human flesh and associating with the outcasts of society, was not corrupted. Instead, the purity of his heart transformed the world, and purified the hearts of his disciples. Whenever my heart is heavy under the burden of my failures to live up to God’s standards, I can remember that he reached out and touched me in all my filthiness, just like the leprous man, and made me clean.

Seeing Jesus’ example of living a godly life, I pray that I, too, with the church, will have dirty hands, but a clean heart.

Some New Volunteer Experiences

As we YAVs live and work in Daejeon, our site coordinators are always looking for new volunteering opportunities for us and future YAVs. Because of those efforts we recently began volunteering at a children’s library in the city.

In addition to providing many books for children and teenagers, the library hosts events and activities, educational and recreational, for the children as well as their parents. It also provides the kids the opportunity to cultivate a small vegetable garden.

Because the library’s relationship to YAV is quite new, our role there is still being defined. The current arrangement is that every other week, we will come to interact with the kids and coordinate a craft or activity. Several weeks ago was our first event, making some clay handprint ornaments, which was hectic (there were a lot of excited children), but fun and successful. This past Friday, all the kids got to paint them and take them home. We are also doing our part there by helping work on the garden. Our volunteering there gives us the great opportunity to learn how this library works and the way it benefits families in Daejeon.

We hope to form strong bonds of fellowship with those at the library, just like we have done at our main work sites, and watch it begin to blossom into a full and edifying part of the Korea YAV experience.

Some Reflections on the Church

One of the questions we may ask as Christians is “What is the purpose of the church?” From the beginning of Christian history believers have gathered together to worship, share meals, and celebrate the Lord’s supper. But what exactly is the purpose of this community aspect of faith, and why is it so integral to Christianity? I would like to explore one aspect of this question, beginning through the lens of baptism.

It seems to me to be common within Protestantism today to think about baptism primarily as a sign or symbol of inclusion into a church community. With our baptism certificates in hand, we have entitlement to be accepted unconditionally by a community of loving church members who affirm us exactly the way we are. In return, we ought to unconditionally welcome all others who have been baptized into the family of the church. Isn’t that merely loving people the way that God loves them?

Being a part of a community of baptized believers is a wonderful thing, and certainly is a result of baptism, but does this idea of being simply baptized into an accepting community do complete justice to the Biblical conception of baptism and the purpose of the church community? Paul tells us that our baptism is actually much more profound than we usually consider. See how he describes it in Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life.

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

For Paul, baptism is not primarily about community at all, but is about participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, being set free from the power of sin and death. What, then, does this have to do with the church?

Far from being a sign to show that a church community accepts a person just as they are, being baptized requires a person to admit that he is not worthy to be a part of the body of Christ because he is sinful. Similar to Paul’s teachings, the baptism given by John the Baptist to prepare people for the coming of Christ was one of repentance. Believing that Christ died for him, a person is baptized to show that he is included in the church because he has died and risen with Christ through faith (being otherwise unworthy), and renounced his former sinful ways. Led by the Spirit, the baptized believer then starts the process of driving out his remnants of sin and becoming more holy.

According to Paul, unconditional acceptance of anyone into the church, no matter how they live, is really a compromise of the gospel. If a person is baptized, a public profession of his death to sin, but then goes on living in the same sinful way he always has, what message does that send about the gospel and its call for us to repent? It makes it seem as if God, and those who are committed to obeying Him, turn around and say that obedience doesn’t actually matter in the long run.

This, in part, is where the role of the church comes in. For a person who has died to sin through his baptism, the church community is a group of believers that will both encourage him in his faith and hold him accountable to living in a way that honors God. The members of the church provide mutual support in living a godly life.

But isn’t it wrong to judge other people, especially if they are our fellow believers? After all, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But if it’s truly wrong to judge anyone, then the Biblical letters of Paul, Peter, and John are fraught with sins, especially with John calling some people Antichrist and Paul even going so far as to publicly criticize Peter himself of compromising the gospel! So either the earliest Christian leaders were harshly judgmental, misunderstood Jesus, and were untrustworthy teachers of the faith, or we have misunderstood the role of accountability and judgment in the Bible.

Let’s get some context and look at what Paul has to say about the topic. In rebuking a Corinthian church member’s sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, he says, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

But in Romans 14:10, 13 he says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God . . . Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

These two teachings of Paul seem radically different. Did he have a change of heart about judgment somewhere along the line? Not likely. On closer examination, we discover that these two passages are dealing with two very different kinds of problems in the church, and Paul is perfectly consistent in both of his teachings.

In the case of the Corinthians, it seems that some believers there were doing some pretty serious sins (thereby rejecting the new life they committed to through their baptisms), and no one was doing anything about it! Paul writes to the church in 1 Corinthians 5:1, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.” It seems that the church in Corinth was tolerating things that not even unbelievers still in their sins would allow. How was that supposed to be a witness to the life-transforming power of the Spirit? So, Paul tells the church that its duty, far from tolerating the sins, is to remove the sinners from the fellowship of the church.

Paul’s next point clarifies this instruction. In 5:9-13 he says,

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”

Paul teaches us to make a distinction between believers and unbelievers when we think about morality. It is only in the context of the church that passing judgment is appropriate. He tells us not to associate with someone who claims to be a Christian, yet persists unrepentantly in his sins. For all of those outside the church, Christians are called to witness to, but are for God to judge.

This indicates that the church community is one that upholds the moral teachings of God in His Word, and that continued unity in the community requires the members to hold each other accountable to those teachings, and for saints who fall to admit their sins and continue striving to be better.

So how, then, is this to be reconciled with Paul’s teachings in Romans? As opposed to the church in Corinth, which was struggling with actual sin, the church in Rome was dealing with doubts about whether certain things were sinful or not. Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church were learning how to live together in unity under the lordship of Christ. This posed many challenges, one of them being the Jewish food laws. It was accepted by all Christians that salvation came by Christ alone, and not by following the Jewish laws and achieving some sort of merit, but some people apparently felt that abstaining from eating certain foods gave God the greater glory. This belief, seemingly a small thing, had led to division and unedifying judgment in that church.

This happened because those who felt comfortable eating pork barbeque perhaps thought that those who abstained were in some way compromising the gospel and the freedom found in Christ, and therefore criticized them. Those who abstained began judging those who ate the pork, perhaps out of a false sense of moral superiority. Therefore, each group made the other feel like it was sinning, even though that was not actually the case. But people began to doubt themselves, and no longer did what they did out of a confident faith, but sinned through their doubt. Those who ate everything could have begun thinking, “Maybe it really isn’t alright after all to eat all this stuff.” As Paul says in Romans 14:23, “For whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” And there was division in the Roman church.

Paul is not arguing here against judgment per se, but of a kind of judgment that does not build up the church, a judgment based on self-righteousness and pride, instead of on humility and care for others. Both groups in the church felt that by eating, or not eating, certain foods, they were glorifying God. It was an inessential issue. The real problem was that the church had made it into an essential one. It was a loss of focus on the truth of the gospel that led to harmful judgments. Paul’s solution, in Romans 14:13 is, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

So we see, these two teachings by Paul are not true contradictions. Paul expects believers to hold each other accountable for their actions, but in a way that is edifying. Judgment within the church, for Paul, is intended to protect its unity and commitment to Christ, not to divide it.

But all of this now begs the question, do Paul’s teachings accurately reflect the teachings of Jesus? In a fuller context of Jesus’s teaching on the topic in Matthew, he actually seems to be giving more of a warning about judging than laying down a strict law never to do it. Matthew 7:1-5 reads, “’Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’”

He says that the standard we use for making judgments is the standard that will be used against ourselves. If we are going to pass judgment on another, we had better be ready to undergo the same standard of judgment ourselves. Within a Christian community, that standard is the Bible. So a Christian who wants to hold his brother in Christ accountable needs to be ready to accept when others call him out as well.

Jesus also expects us to be critical of ourselves. How can we recognize the log in our eye unless we judge that it doesn’t belong there? So a healthy Christian life requires to us use our ability to judge right from wrong, to hold ourselves and others accountable.

Now of course we are not expected to run around all the time accusing our brothers and sisters in Christ of sin. All believers fall from time to time, and repent. But, sometimes, we become partially blind, and need some gentle guidance from another.

Remember also that Jesus’ death and resurrection holds everything together. As Christians, we have no need to fear God’s judgment, because Jesus already suffered it for us on the cross. So, holding fellow believers accountable is not about condemning people and cutting them off from the grace of God, but about lovingly helping believers keep their integrity as holy adopted children of God, expressed through their baptism.

Of course, this is merely scratching the surface of what the Bible has to say about this, but hopefully it provides some food for thought. So, what can we at last conclude about the church and its functions as explored here?

1. It is a community of Christian believers providing mutual support and accountability in the faith.

2. Holding others accountable for their lives in Christ is an act of love, intended to maintain unity and faithfulness to Christ.

And finally, allow me to pose a question: Is the church today taking these teachings of God’s Word seriously?

More Travels

Last week we took another retreat to Seoul. It was very informative and enjoyable. We saw the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Korea (PROK), had a day to simply enjoy the city, went to the protest of the comfort women in front of the Japanese embassy (more information on this can be found in a previous post here), attended the largest church in the world, and visited the demilitarized zone.

To point out some details of the trip, let me highlight the DMZ. The DMZ is one of the most unique and bizarre places I have ever been. The visit was a guided tour, but it was quite different from any other tour I have experienced. Not just anyone can visit the DMZ. For example, as far as I know, Korean civilians are not allowed to see it, but Americans are. There is also a rather strict dress code for visitors. As our tour group moved out of Seoul and closer to the border, the scenery around us slowly transformed from tall buildings to mountains and farms, and then to barbed-wire fences and military watchtowers. Getting close, we passed through two military checkpoints, having soldiers check us for passports and appropriate attire.

Eventually, we arrived at a military base, where we were given a brief presentation on the history of the zone. Then, we were transferred from our tour bus to a United Nations bus to take us to the border. I felt very somber as we passed through the massive electric fence that runs from coast to coast just south of the border. It was definitely a weird feeling to look out of the bus shortly thereafter and see a massive North Korean flag flying in the distance.

The climax of our tour was when the tour guide led our group out of the bus to the very edge of South Korea’s border. Around us were special Korean soldiers, with black belts in martial arts, who stand guard at the border every day. Across from us, we could see the northern country, along with a couple of North Korean guards looking right back at us. We were then led into a conference room, where we could actually cross the border into North Korea.

As unusual as this experience was, I am grateful for this it because it definitely gave me a much closer look at the conflict between the Koreas.