Oct 28, 2018

“Saving Faith” 10-28-18

Mark 10:46-52
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
October 28th, 2018

Of the lessons the disciples struggled to learn, the one about a servant-spirit appears to have been the most difficult.  Time and again Jesus has to challenge their aspirations to worldly greatness; so often pointed instruction seems to be immediately forgotten, if grasped at all. 

The healing of Bartimaeus is another case in point.  In the episode that precedes this even, Jesus had again underscored the priority of service in the life of the Kingdom.  He had connected it in no uncertain terms with his own ministry, making it clear that true discipleship, true Christ following, could only be a life committed to the flourishing of others—especially the poor and deeply broken.  In one of the clearest expressions of his own mission from the heavenly Father, he had declared, “Whoever would be great will be your servant, and whoever would be first, must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This had been his most recent charge to the disciples.  Yet the passage through Jericho shows how little it had sunk in.  As the crowd of disciples made their way through Jericho, a blind beggar, Bartimaeus, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out for mercy.  The response of the band of Jesus followers?  They rebuked him!   They told him to be quiet.  They had important business.  They were on their way to Jerusalem and were anticipating great things from Jesus when they got there. 

Jesus, however, stopped the procession and called Bartimaeus to his side.  “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve…”  He came to serve those whom the world regarded as the least of humanity—those whom the world regarded as abandoned and forgotten by God.  This, of course, was precisely what prophets like Jeremiah envisioned when the Lord restored the fortunes of his people.  The Lord would gather his people, a great company, “among them the blind and the lame…”  “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd his flock.”  So Jesus embodies the prophetic vision of divine redemption by stopping the whole company of travelers to minister to a blind beggar—one who would ultimately join the band of followers.

In this redemptive, saving encounter that Bartimaeus has with Jesus there are two questions that arrest our attention.  One is the question that Jesus puts to Bartimaeus—a question which almost surely surprises us and yet is tremendously important for our understanding of ministry.  The other question is one that arises in our own thoughts as we ponder the connection between faith and salvation.

With the procession stopped in the road, and every eye on Jesus, Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do want me to do for you?”  Our first reaction as readers is probably to scratch our heads and think, “Well isn’t that obvious?  After all, the man is blind.  That is his problem.  This is what needs attention.”  But, it is surely our confident grasp of the obvious that Jesus wants to call into question.  We may recall the time four friends lowered a paralyzed man through a rooftop into the presence of Jesus.  Jesus looked at the friends and then to the paralytic and, seeing their faith, said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Forgiveness did not appear to be his most pressing need, but Jesus knew the man’s situation more perfectly than the rest.  In a similar way, his approach to Bartimaeus challenges our assumption that we, from our perspective of wellness and wholeness understand what broken people need most of all.  Jesus’ straightforward, “What do you want me to do for you?” carries a genuine acknowledgment of Bartimaeus’ human dignity.  Jesus will let Bartimaeus express the deepest longing of his own heart.  In the short moment of putting the question, Jesus reminds everyone that there may be more than one response—that Bartimaeus, for all his blind misery, may long for something we would not anticipate.  In the short moment of putting the question, the reader is invited to stop—much like the crowd had stopped in its pilgrimage—and think more carefully about what Bartimaeus, and all of us, really need most.

I will pause at this point and add my own personal conviction that the most effective way to minister to the poor—to hear what they long for—is to live among them, learn from them, and receive help from them.  It is easy to observe their plight from a distance and assume we know what they need and what will improve their lives.   (This distance, by the way, is often not unrelated to a commitment to our own convenience.)  But, I learned, in a very formative period of my life during which I lived for several years among the urban poor, that the poor see the world differently than we do.  Once we are willing to live among them and learn from them, then we are in the position to seek the flourishing of their communities, not as outsiders but as neighbors.

The wise have always used carefully framed questions to get us to think deeply about life.  In his The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright argues that there are four essential questions that help us express a Christian world-view.  1. Who am I?  (A human being created in God’s image)  2. Where am I? (In God’s good creation, made to be the arena of fellowship between God and people)  3. What’s wrong? (Human sinfulness that has ruined everything)  4. What is the solution? (God has come into the creation as one of us to put things right—suffering death to destroy the power sin, death and the devil.)  Immanuel Kant proposed a more rationalist set of questions for philosophy: What can I know? What should I do?  What can I hope for?   The Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft, in Heaven: the Heart’s Deepest Longing, proposes that the enduring Christian virtues provide the ultimate answers to Kant’s questions: faith (What can I know?), love (What should I do?), and hope (What can I hope for?)  The questions of philosophers help us to sort our convictions in a coherent way.  But this question of Jesus to Bartimaeus—for which Bartimaeus, of course, has a ready answer—compels us to probe our own hearts about what we truly long for.  If Jesus were to walk into our sanctuary and put the question to each one of us—What do you want me to do for you?—how would we answer?

Of course, we don’t hear the question the way Bartimaeus would.  We are no longer blind beggars by the roadside.  We may have been able to identify with him at some point in our lives, but we have found mercy.  Our basic stance now is one of gratitude.  We sing of Amazing Grace.  “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”  Still, there are areas in each and every one of our lives where deep brokenness remains, where our struggles with the body of death persist, where all sorts of fears and doubts enter in.  Do we face them enough to begin to formulate a question for the One who asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Finally, do we even see the question as one that Jesus might typically ask?  Do we see him disposed this way toward us?  Long ago Isaiah told God’s people, “The Lord waits to be gracious to you.” (Isaiah 30:18)  Micah declared of the Lord, “He delights to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)    Do we imagine that when we approach the throne of grace in prayer that the Lord meets us with this very question?

This leads us into the second question that arises from the encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus.   In response to Bartimaeus’ request, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus replies, literally, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  Now, our NRSV translation, as you may note, reads, “Your faith has made you well.”  In fact, this is way the NRSV typically translates the Greek “Your faith has saved you” when the deliverance in question is some sort of healing.  The notable exception is Luke 18:42, in the passage parallel to our text from Mark.  Perhaps the translator who worked on Luke insisted on the more literal rendering!

In any case, the NRSV translation points to a question that probably arises for most of us.  When we hear Jesus say to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” does that mean what we think of as being “saved.”  Does it mean that Bartimaeus is now right with God and an heir of eternal life?  Or does it mean something less—namely, that he has only been delivered—saved—from this physical affliction.  If the latter is the case, then we might talk about Bartimaeus as an instance of “faith healing” but not necessarily an instance of “salvation.”  We might be tempted to contrast Bartimaeus with the woman who approaches Jesus at the home of a Pharisee in Luke 7:36 ff, bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints his feet with perfume.  Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (7:48) And then, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (7:50) This sounds a lot more like “salvation” to us than Bartimaeus just being able to see.

There are several things that we may consider in relationship to the distinction we are tempted to make.  The first is that it points to a kind of body-soul dualism which may not be helpful.  Bartimaeus’ blindness and poverty were a visible manifestation of the brokenness of his life.  The healing is a demonstration that, through Christ, Bartimaeus is being made whole, just as much as the sinful woman who ventures into the home of the Pharisee.  We can also note that, in response to Jesus’ word, “Depart,” Bartimaeus, in fact, does not depart (though the Lord clearly gave him permission) but follows Jesus.  This is another indication that Bartimaeus has been “saved.”  We should also observe here that Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus as the “Son of David.”  Somehow, Bartimaeus has heard about Jesus and has become persuaded that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  It is striking that the only other person in the gospels who has addressed him as Son of David, up to this point, is the Syrophoenician woman with a demon possessed daughter. (Matthew 15:22)  After the crowd passes through Jericho and approaches Jerusalem, they all sing Hosanna to Jesus, Son of David.  But before that, only these two individuals on the margins of society addressed Jesus with this Messianic title.  This is just another reminder that it is not always those in the “mainstream” who have everything figured out and that people who, from our perspective, may have little to contribute may actually see many important things that we don’t.  Though Jesus does not say to the Syrophoenician woman, “Your faith has saved your daughter.” he does say, “Woman, great is your faith! May it be to you as you desire.” which comes close to the same thing.

John Calvin’s words here are instructive.   He writes, “Now Christ attributes it to faith that the blind man received sight; for, though the power and grace of God sometimes extend even to unbelievers, yet no man enjoys His benefits in a right and profitable manner, unless he receive them by faith; nay, the use of the gifts of God is so far from being advantageous to unbelievers, that it is even hurtful. And therefore, when Christ says, thy faith hath saved thee, the word saved is not limited to an outward cure, but includes also the health and safety of the soul; as if Christ had said, that by faith the blind man obtained that God was gracious to him, and granted his wish.”

In drawing this Reformation Sunday message to a close, it is fitting that we recall how the Reformers presented the nature of saving faith.  They found freedom of conscience and assurance of eternal life in the insight that salvation is by faith alone and made an effort to communicate this to hope to the churches.   The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), for example, developed its teaching on faith in this way:
True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true
all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust,
which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted,
not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness,
and salvation.  These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.  (Q&A21)

The much later Westminster Shorter Catechism (1646) takes a slightly different approach:
Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone
for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.
We may note that both documents insist that faith looks to gospel and rest in Christ alone for salvation.  The Heidelberg Catechism nuances faith in the direction of God’s promises, and what is true about us through faith.  A hymn that expresses this perspective would be “Standing on the Promises.”  Faith believes God’s promises and through this we are saved.  The Westminster Catechism nuances faith in the direction of “receiving and resting upon” Christ.  The Psalms of the Old Testament come to mind to express this direct, personal “cleaving” to Christ.  In Psalm 143:9, David “flees to God for refuge.”  Psalm 91:1 speaks of those who “live in the shelter of the most High, and “abide in the shadow of the Almighty” and find safety “under his wings.”  Psalm 46, on which our hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” is based, opens and closes with a declaration that “God is our refuge.”  

These nuances are not deep differences.  They are just emphases that rise to the surface in different times and settings.  We sing “Standing on the Promises” and “A Mighty Fortress” with equal joy and faith.  But it is important to grasp that, for the Reformers, salvation is always been a matter of trusting, resting and hoping in the Savior made know to us in the Gospel.   The promises on which we stand always take us back to the Promiser!   We are saved by means of a message. But the message always takes us back to the messenger—to the Word who became flesh, to Jesus, the Apostle of the faith we profess.  Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906