Nov 18, 2018

“Endurance” 11-18-18

Mark 13:1-13
26th Sunday after Pentecost
November 18th, 2018

Today is the last Sunday in what many in the church mark as “Ordinary Time” or, as I prefer, the Sundays after Pentecost.  The church calendar officially ends next Sunday with Christ the King Sunday and then starts over again with the season of Advent.  Today’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary anticipates the triumphal note on which the church year ends by calling us endurance.  As we read in the closing words of the lesson, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Mark 13:1-13 is the first half of what is known as the Olivet Discourse, an extended teaching that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels.  As Jesus and his disciples are in the temple area, the disciples admire the impressive construction of Herod’s temple.  Herod was famous for his building projects.  The port of Caesarea was one of the engineering and architectural marvels of his reign.  The Jerusalem temple project, likewise, was on a grand and impressive scale.  It had been under construction for decades during the days of Jesus’ ministry and was not yet complete.  When Jesus told his disciples that the massive hewn stones of the temple would someday be razed to the ground, they were understandably troubled.  When they retired later to the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, some of the disciples asked him, “When will this happen and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished.” 

Jesus’ reply, which we did not read in full, provides the disciples with a sign to know when to flee Jerusalem.  Those who would take the warning to heart would escape the horrific devastation of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.  Beyond that, there are enigmatic dimensions of the discourse that the church understands to anticipate the final crisis before the second coming of Christ.  Thus, the circumstances of the disciples in Judea in the years prior to the destruction of the temple become a paradigm for the church as it awaits the appearing of the Lord.   This paradigm includes several notable features.  There is opposition to the Gospel that will bring the church into conflict with civil authorities.  Persecution will be so intense at times that people will betray their own family members to save themselves.  Yet the opposition will not prevail.  The Gospel will be preached to the ends of the earth.  The Holy Spirit will be with those who are persecuted and give them words to testify, putting their minds at ease. 

In the portion which we read, we can observe that the notable word, “the end,” is used with two referents.  On the one hand, it refers to an end in time.  “This must take place, but the end is still to come.” (13:7) This end is the end of Jerusalem and of the form of the Jewish faith that the disciples had known.  But it also anticipates, more remotely to the end of the age, when Jesus will return.  But, the second use of “the end” appears vs. 13, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”  Here, the end is neither the end of history nor even the end of Second Temple Judaism.   Here, it means “completely” or to the full extent of what faithfulness requires in the face of persecution.   This is the extent of the call to endurance—complete endurance without backing down or turning away from the faith.   We understood this to apply not just to Christians in 1st century Palestine, but to the church throughout its history.  Jesus’ word to us is clear: “Behold, I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:12)

Endurance, of course, is not just a Christian value.  It is widely prized in our cultural.  The Guinness Book of Records is replete will all sorts of records for human endurance.  Many sports, in particular, have as their point, so to speak, testing the limits of endurance.  There is the 24 Hours of LeMans that tests the endurance of both drivers and race cars.  And, there are more affordable and democratic endurance events in which the ambitious and disciplined from all walks of life can compete.  Ironman Triathlons have become increasingly popular since the 1980s.  Participants 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run 26.2 miles (a marathon)—all back to back.   The record holders do this in under half the 16 hours allotted to finish.  Or, if that seems a little too easy, you could try the Badwater Ultramarathon.  This a 135 mile race that starts below sea level in Death Valley, California and ends at 8360 feet above sea level at the portal to Mount Whitney.  The event is held in mid-July when conditions are most grueling.  The fastest time, by the way, is about 22 hours. 

Thus, from the realm of sport we can appreciate much about the quality of endurance.  Endurance is not giving up, not giving in.   If we were to ask, “Not giving in to what?”  The answer would have to be, “To weariness, to discouragement, and—yes—even to pain.”  The Greek verb for “endure” has the basic meaning of “stay put.”  This literal use is found in Luke 2:48 when Jesus, as an adolescent, stays behind in the Jerusalem temple after the family had left for home.  Thus, it is not difficult to appreciate the more abstract idea of “staying put” in hard circumstances, hence “endurance.”  People can endure a lot for a long time.  But there are times when people do not endure to the end.   20-40% of those who start the Badwater Ultramarathon fail to finish year by year.  But in the life of discipleship, in the life of following Jesus in a lost and broken and often hostile world, it is those who endure to the end who will be saved.

Jesus’ call to endurance clearly reverberates in the teaching of St. Paul.  Here we have a clear indication that it was not just Palestinian Christians who needed endurance.  The early churches throughout the Roman Empire needed to cultivate the same discipline.  So, in response to the mercies of God, the Christians in Rome were to “rejoice in hope, be patient in (literally “endure”) suffering, persevere in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)  In the same way, St. Paul commended the virtue of love the Corinthian church with these famous words:  “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7)  Moreover, he characterizes his own ministry as one of endurance.  Writing to Timothy, he refers to his preaching of the Gospel, “for which [he says] I suffer hardship even to the point of being chained like a criminal… But I endure all things for the sake of the elect.” (2 Timothy 2:9-10)  St. Paul’s biography as a missionary church planter is a biography of endurance, an endurance which is marked by suffering.  He calls Timothy to join him in this suffering.  The same commitment can be illustrated in the epistles of James and Peter and John.

The call to endurance, then, goes to the heart of the story or the narrative we live by.  The call to endurance compels us to examine how we see ourselves placed in the world as Christians.  Or, to put it differently, the call to endurance brings our basic expectations about what life as Christians in the world should be like.   If endurance is to be an essential dimension of our existence, then our expectations need to correspond to that in some meaningful way. 

There are, of course, other narratives of the Christian life which do not prioritize “endurance to the end.”  The expectation of adversity or opposition for the sake of the gospel is not so strong in these.  The most prominent of these narratives may be called the “prosperity gospel.”  God—it is said—wants you healthy and wealthy.  There are, of course, plenty of Bible verses, particularly in the Old Testament, about wealth and success.  Prosperity gospel preachers do not pull their message out of thin air.  But they fail to do justice to the biblical warnings concerning the snares of wealth.  Instead, they present a false message accommodated to the spirit of materialism. Failure to attain wealth points to a lack of personal faith, rather than the wise providence of a sovereign, loving Father.  Prosperity preachers do not deny the reality of opposition to the Christian faith.   However, adversity in their scheme is not seriously intimidating; the power of God will overcome it such that it will pose no serious threat to the vision of personal well-being.  After all, God wants to you prosper!

Another narrative that mitigates the normative call to “endure to the end” could be called the “people of the land” narrative.  This, of course, contrasts with any “aliens and sojourners” paradigm.  Aliens and sojourners are at the mercy of the dominant culture.  They have to endure a set of hardships that the people of the land don’t experience.   The “people of the land” narrative is deep in the culture of American Christianity.  It derives from the Puritan vision of a place where the law of God is the norm that governs all of life.  It is a vision that intentionally carves out space where Christians can live in this world without persecution or opposition. 

The impact of the “people of the land” narrative in American Christianity can be seen even in such incidental things as place names.  One has only to look at an atlas of Midwest states and count all the villages, towns and cities that are named after biblical locations.  Not far south of us, for example, are Indiana towns named Lebanon and Zionsville.   The Americans who moved westward did so with a sense of establishing a new promised land. 

Now “the people of the land” narrative is not the same as the prosperity Gospel.  This narrative does not promise a life free from hardship or illness or grief or other things that test our faith and call forth endurance.   It promotes no simplistic connection between piety and prosperity.  But it is a narrative in tension with the possibility of suffering for one’s faith.   The narrative excludes that possibility that as a matter of principle.   When those nurtured in this narrative begin to contemplate the existential possibility of suffering as a Christian, they start to feel displaced, like “aliens and sojourners.”  We are witnessing in our own time some of the responses to this growing sense of displacement. 

Though not all Christians experience hostility in the same measure or in the same way in the course of history, Christians are not to be surprised when it arises.  The apostle Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) This, in itself, is sufficient to call us to a basic outlook on life that is informed by the Cross.  Theologians sometimes speak of the “cruciform” pattern of the Christian life.  It is incompatible with the prosperity Gospel.  It can only be accommodated superficially with the “people of the land” narrative.  The cross symbolizes suffering for the name of Christ.  It is a symbol of shame.  If the narrative of the cross is the narrative we live by, it necessarily puts us more immediately in the camp of the “aliens and strangers.”  (1 Peter 2:1) However, that is not the whole story.  Through faith and baptism, we are united to Christ not only in his death and suffering, but also in his resurrection and new life.  We are people with feet in two worlds.  We live in a world that is hostile to Christ and need to be people of endurance.  But we also have a sure foot in the new creation and live in the hope that the meek will inherit the earth.   The hope and glory of what lies ahead, which we taste here and now by the work of the Spirit, inspires endurance.

I will close by making an observation about the “practical” side of endurance.  The Scripture is often a bit disappointing to our pragmatic, problem-solving approach to life.  Scripture calls us to endurance but it offers no “steps” or clear program to take us from weak-willed, throw-in-the-towel people to people of endurance.  Most of the time the Bible just calls us to endure.

I recall waking once as a child well ahead of my normal rising time.  I wandered downstairs and came upon my dad kneeling, saying his morning prayers.  I asked him later in the day how he managed to get up so early.  What was his secret?   He replied, “There’s no secret, you just get up.”   Now, perhaps he could have taken a little more time to probe this mystery of early rising for me, but as I look back, I’m convinced that’s the heart of the matter.  Some actions require putting forth effort.  Some actions arise first from the will and the emotions catch up sooner or later.  That’s how endurance works.   We can “count it joy” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will feel easy or joyful at the moment.

Endurance need not be reduced to sheer will-power, though.  One foundational but often overlooked factor in endurance is the communion of the saints.  If we return to the example of athletic endurance, we can begin appreciate the principle.  For example, if you commit to training with others, it’s easier to keep to a disciplined schedule and not skip it.  Likewise, training with others can keep you going longer than you could on our own.  Others help set the pace for you; they motivate you; they distract you from the pain.  And vice versa.

No one articulated the connection between Christian community and spiritual endurance better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, Life Together.  He began by insisting that Christian fellowship is a gift of grace and not an entitlement. "It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.  Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies.  At the end all his disciples deserted him.  On the cross he was utterly alone...” (17) “So between the death of Christ and the last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.  It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and Sacrament.” (18)  Clearly, Bonhoeffer did not see the Christian life through the lens of the prosperity Gospel or the “people of the land” narrative.  Face to face against Nazi evil, he saw the preciousness of Christian community.  Precious because it could so easily be taken away.  Precious also, though, because together Christians find grace to endure.

“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” (19)  He then adds, “If there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of Christian with Christian, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!” (20)  Central to these riches is mutual strengthening.  “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth... The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” (23)


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906