Heb 7:23-28, Mk 10:46-52
by Isaac S. Villegas
Oct 28, 2012
They said he was a strange man. “Chris was something else; the weirdest one of all of us, Don shared at the microphone yesterday at the memorial service. Christopher Ross Henne, born in 1952, died last month, in his sleep. He just couldn’t breath anymore.
“Chris was special,” Don said, “even if you didn’t know him long, he’d be your friend. If you didn’t know him, you missed out because he was something else.” Don and the others talked about how Chris stuck out at the shelter in Durham, at Urban Ministries, how he always had a smile on his face and a book in his hand. “Chris struggled,” Don said, “but he always smiled, if he had enough breath to.”
Another man, Doug, got up and talked about how Chris was a person of peace, how at church we sometimes pass the peace as we shake hands and say, “the peace of Christ be with you,” but, Doug said, “Chris would communicate the same thing with his face: with his face, with his presence, Chris spoke the words of Christ’s peace.”
In her homily, Carol described Chris as someone of very few possessions. And while he had many needs, whenever she met with him, he would always make sure to ask about the wellbeing of others.
As I sat there and listened to Chris’ friends talk about how strange he was, about his gentle presence, about his loyal friendship, about his poverty of possessions and his wealth of friendships, riches of people who found peace while sitting with him — as I listened to these eulogies, I thought about what it means to have a good life, to live a good life, to be a good life for the people around us. What does a good life look like, what does it feel like?
This is what the Gospel stories are all about: they testify to Jesus, the one we confess to be truly human, humanity restored, redeemed, healed, the one who shows us the way of life, a life that is true life, good life, life for the world. The Gospels tell the story of what happens when people encounter this life, a life full of God’s love — love that calls for repentance, for change, for revolution; love that challenges the way sin has captured human life, pounding us into submission, to do the things we do not want to do, to live a life we do not want to live, to hurt people we do not want to hurt, in our families, among our friends, even strangers in foreign places. In Jesus we see another way, in the Gospels we see the movements of a life that challenges the way sin has disfigured our humanity, the power of a life that challenges the way sin has defaced our identity as images of God, our lives as revelations of God.
The story of Bartimaeus is such a story: where Jesus heals a man, and where the man chooses the life of Jesus as his own. “[Bartimaeus] regained his sight,” it says, “and followed [Jesus] on the way” (Mk 10:52). Bartimaeus chooses the way, the way of Jesus, which is how the early Christians talked about their lives, their gatherings, their worship and work — they were people of the way. Very quickly in the history of the church, the story of Bartimaeus became the story of every Christian, a story of conversion, of baptism: baptism as healing our humanity, a healing of our blindness, opening our eyes to a way of life in a world of death, baptism as stripping off the old life and walking into new life. In the early church, like Bartimaeus who threw off his tunic, new Christians would strip off all their clothes as a sign of letting go of the old self, and they would enter naked into the baptismal waters — naked, like a newborn, vulnerable, fragile, needy, and suddenly awake with newness of life, a life without the adornments of the world, signs of wealth and security, of status and control, things and attitudes that blind us from the life that Jesus offers us.
In Mark’s Gospel, the story of Bartimaeus who chooses the way of life is the opposite of the story of the rich man who declines to follow Jesus. Both stories are told in the same chapter, the rich man at the beginning of chapter 10, and Bartimaeus at the end.
It was too hard for the rich man to let go of his wealth, to take off his fine clothes and follow Jesus. The rich man is blinded by his possessions, he can’t see the good life that Jesus offers; but Bartimaeus, the blind man, can see, his eyes are open to the kingdom of God, he’s ready to see it, from the roadside, on his dusty mat. It’s the blind beggar in the story who can see Jesus for who he is, who can say, like a beggar knows how to say, “Have mercy on me, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
So, back to the questions I asked at the beginning of my sermon: What does it means to have a good life, to live a good life, to be a good life for the people around us. What does a good life look like, what does it feel like?
If we look only at the rich man, earlier in chapter 10, we begin to wonder if the good life, for Christians, is defined by sacrifice; we become the greatest masochists of all, . We aren’t living the Christian life unless we feel the pain of sacrifice, of self-denial, of radical asceticism. We’re not really living, unless we are dying. No pain, no gain. The pain of sacrifice becomes the compass for our lives of faithfulness—the more suffering we experience, the more Godly we are. We know our lives are pleasing to God because it hurts so much to keep on the narrow path.
I learned this form of Christian faithfulness in Junior High from the backs of the T-shirts my friends’ wore — pictures of the cross, or Jesus’ scared hands, with the words “no pain, no gain” written in blood red, or pictures of bloody knees, with the words “pray hard.” Faithfulness begins to look like body-building, muscular Christianity, life as a spiritual workout, being a Christian until it hurts, pushing ourselves to our limits — one more push up, one more rep on the bench press, one more curl — then doing it some more. Why? Because no pain, no gain.
But the author of Hebrews describes a gospel beyond sacrifice. After a long description of sacrifices in the temple, it says that there is no need to offer sacrifices day after day because Jesus put an end to the sacrificial system. He offered his life, “once and for all” (Heb 7:27). This phrase, “once and for all,” is repeated in chapter 9 and 10 (9:26-28, 10:10), becoming a refrain for what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means for our lives. Once and for all — so don’t think that the world depends on your life of sacrifice, on the suffering of our self-denial. Once and for all — which means we can’t point to our sacrifices as proof of our faithfulness, as signs that we are living the good life, a life that is pleasing to God. Because God isn’t like that.
Instead, we turn to the blind Bartimaeus, the one who experiences Jesus as a power of healing, of restoration, of new life. This doesn’t mean that, once we follow in the way of Jesus, that we will be free from suffering; after all, the crucifixion of Jesus shows us what the powers of the world do to people who live according to God’s love. To follow Jesus doesn’t mean we get to bypass the leading of God’s suffering love, God’s compassionate love, God’s solidarity with the people who are crushed by the weight of the world’s sin. Instead, to follow Jesus means we commit ourselves to God’s healing of the world. We give our lives to the God who heals us, who cures us of our blindness, and invites us to see, to see a new world, to live in the movement of God’s power of restoration, of healing, finding our wellbeing as we are united to others, friends and strangers, people in pain and people with joy. We become part of a people who live by God’s grace, by God’s healing, by God’s peace.
When we follow Christ, like Bartimaeus does, we make our way out of the old and into the new, a new life where we give ourselves to learning what it means to be human, from one another, as we grow into the completeness of our humanity. As Christians, “what we are dedicated to, what life means for us, is the exploration of what it is to be human” (H. McCabe, God Matters, 241).
Church is simply the name we have for quite an adventure of exploring what it means to be human, like Jesus, a humanity renewed, restored, a humanity revealed in our love, a humanity that is, by it’s very nature, worship (H. McCabe, God Matters, 233). Because worship is what we do when we get together and ask God to heal us, to heal our broken hearts and our wounded lives, to reform us into a new creation, making us one with Christ, which is another way of saying making us one with each other, to make your struggles my own, to make my pain yours, to share in a common life with God.
What does it means to have a good life, to live a good life, to be a good life for the people around us. What does a good life look like?
At the memorial service yesterday, Matt walked up to the mic to talk about Chris. They met at the homeless shelter in Durham some years ago, he said, and they’ve been friends ever since. “When Chris found out that I never learned how to read,” Matt said, “he always make time to come over and read to me. He’d bring a book and just read to me,” Matt said with tears in his eyes. “I had no idea how good it felt to be read to, to hear Chris, to hear him read me a book.” Matt’s voice cracked. After a long pause, Matt closed with these words: about Chris: “His soul was pure gold. I think I understand now what it means to be close to God.”
Note: All the names, except Chris Henne, have been changed.