Gospel Text, Mark 10:46-52 — The healing of blind Bartimaeus
Jesus cured blindness repeatedly. What happened to Bartimaeus, therefore, is not unique — except perhaps in one detail. I say “perhaps” because I can find no other reference in the Gospels to blind people who, earlier in their lives, had been able to see. One man we know about from John’s record was born blind, but only in the case of Bartimaeus is it explicit that at an earlier time he had been among the “sighted”.”My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him. “Go; your faith has made you well.”
Another detail is implicit in the story. We know that it was not the faith of the Nicene Creed that made him well. That 4th century formulation actually makes some people ill these latter days. At least, “squirm”—probably in response to its male-dominant language, its staccato theological argument about the identity of Jesus, and maybe the history of its adoption in a win/lose contention that anathematized those who did not agree.
This is not to despise the Nicene Creed — though there ought to be better ways to frame it without any compromise of orthodoxy. The creeds are the historic faith of a people. The action of Bartimaeus is the instant faith of a person. Here we are in touch with the difference between belief and trust — between assent to propositions and commitment of one’s life to the Healer.
Progressive Christianity need not reject the historic creeds. They have defined and nourished a world-embracing faith for centuries. What we need to do is to identify with the largest identifiable group in the religious population of America — those whom George Gallup calls the “de-coupled” — those who continue to hold religious belief in God, but for whom organized religion has ceased to be life-giving, and who have dropped out of the churches. The de-coupled.
Wistfully. I am one of them — and with my wife and a few friends we have formed a “House Church”— all with the consent and oversight of the Bishop of Western North Carolina. We search the scriptures, celebrate the Eucharist, and study the works of theologians like Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg. I myself in private searching am fed by writers of the new physics and the ardent ecologists who love the “lilies of the field” — all as ways to come to Jesus as a believer who used to see so easily the merits of the old church and the worth of its unaltered creeds. “Rabbi, let me see again.”
Jesus said to him, “Go: Your faith has made you well.” Notice. Not the faith of the synagogue, though that may have helped — assuming that a beggarly am-a-haritz could have gotten in.
A question haunts this text for me: how did Jesus know this man’s faith? How did Jesus measure the man so deeply and so quickly? There are at least two clues in the passage — behavioral clues on the part of Bartimaeus to which Jesus might have been keenly alert.
First, the man was unintimidated by the rebukes of people who presumed to know the mind of the Master.
“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more.” I like that. Of course he was a nuisance, but he showed grit.
When Jim Adams wrote me about doing the sermon at this opening service he said, “We intend to focus on our discontent: to take back our symbols; to redefine what it means to be a follower of Jesus… We are looking for troublemakers.” Notice in the text that it is the troublemaker who gets the nod, not the ones who presumed to keep the rabbi untroubled. “…but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David. have mercy on me.’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here…’”
There is something quite wonderful about a forum like this. It took grit on Jim’s part, daring the suspicion and resistance of the conventionally inclined, to call us together. A fellow bishop sidled up to me at Kanuga a few weeks ago, frowning suspiciously about this gathering, wanting to know “what’s going on in Columbia?” Because the courage to dare resistance and suspicion underlies this coming together, there is the promise of healing in it, not just for us, but for the many whom our ministries may touch.
Jim has written about the meaning of progressive Christianity. “It means a greater concern for the way people treat each other than the way people express their beliefs.” Instantly this implies healing from the blindness of scriptural and creedal idolatry. This is to take back our symbols in “the freedom wherewith Christ hath set us free”. This is to see again that there is no commandment to be “right” — only the superordinate law of love in obedience to which all commands are fulfilled. This is brother Paul’s explicit witness in Romans 13. And in another place he warned against making an idol of his writings. To the Corinthians at the 10th chapter of his first letter to them, in the 14th and 15th verses he appeals to sound reason and good sense.
“So then my dear friends, have nothing to do with idolatry. I appeal to you as sensible people: form your own judgement on what I say.” (Revised English Bible)
Richard Hooker took Paul up on this. In his third book Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, published in 1593, he contended for Anglican liberality against the scriptural exclusivism of the Puritans — defending the place of reason as a progressive guide in discerning truth.
“We have endeavored to make it appear in the nature of reason itselfe there is no impediment. but the selfe same spirit which revealed the things that God hath set down in his law, may also be thought to aid and direct [us] in finding out by the light of reason what lawes are expedient for the guiding of his Church, over and besides them that are in scripture.”
Precisely in the spirit of Paul and Richard do we go beyond the Apostle’s letters in granting women voice and vote and high appointments to leadership in the Church. Precisely in the spirit of Paul and Richard do we now go beyond the Apostle’s letters in the mounting tide of honoring the full humanity of those who by their bestowed identity are homosexual. Precisely in accord with Paul’s certainty that “love is the fulfilling of the law”, does progressive Christianity move beyond selective scriptural liberalism to reach out in respect for those spiritual brothers and sisters of other religious allegiances in a world become too small for fundamentalist anxiety and polemic.
“Rabbouni, let me see again.” That is why I am here —to see again a Church able unto the urgencies of a world struggling at a vast point of turning — from the old reductionist paradigm of isolated and competitive parts to a new world-view of all things connected and interdependent.
There is a second clue in the text as to how Jesus knew the faith of the man. First he bucked a conservative rebuke. Second he threw off his cloak— his badge of identity. He tossed away his union card as a beggar. When Jesus stopped in his tracks and told the pilgrims to call the man, they urged the beggar: “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.
A beggar’s cloak was his occupational uniform, as well as his sleeping bag. As a first-century Palestinian peon a beggar’s mantle was his security blanket, his medicare card, as it were — his entitlement to charity. “Away with this baggage,” he may have murmured, “I want to be a whole man again.”
In some of the literature of this forum I am impressed that we are not titled with the customary cloaks of ordained identity. On the schedule of our events I counted 58 names of panelists and facilitators — and not a single Rt. Rev. or Rev. or even a Very Rev. There are no Ph.D.’s, D.D.’s, or J.D.’s noted — or even a C.P.A.
At a deep level this suggests the biblical meaning of authority — wherein Jesus, without status, credentials or a single published paragraph astounded crowds with the power of his innerness — and galvanized a fierce official resistance to his revolutionary authority.
One of the Greek New Testament names for authority is exousia. It means “out of being” — that which emerges from within one’s self. This is the rootstock of Progressive Christianity: the unpretentious authenticity of the followers of Jesus.
Wherever our seminaries teach students, by precept and example, to value exousia above all else — above grades and degrees and advancement in the Church — even above doctrinal nicety — we will see in the wake of such teaching a flourishing of progressive Christianity. It will flourish in the liberating and bracing atmosphere of a leadership that cherishes its own humanity and evokes the authenticity of others.
Let it be admitted that in a status-addicted culture and church establishment it is difficult to give up the mantles of our titled importance. My own spirit dances to be addressed as “Bishop”, especially in Baptist country. But dependence on that titular eminence is symptomatic or bondage to a left-over from the paradigm of male-dominant hierarchy — out of which the leading edges of the whole world now advances.
All the great movements that mark our time call us from power as dominance to power as participation — from competition to collaboration as the enduring engine of achievement — from the Cartesian model of earth manipulation and extraction to the relational model of earth-care and restoration.
No field of inquiry knows this new/old world-view better than post-modern science. At its frontiers it has become gospel that all things are alive and will flourish only in their connectivity — and that humanity will flourish only as we reconnect, exercising power as participants in life with all that lives.
I think it all comes down to how the human mind and heart conceive the meaning of “almightiness” — the power of almightiness that fashioned the cosmos and sustains the odyssey of life. Is that almightiness cloaked in regal isolation as rule-giver and score-keeper? Or could it be an almightiness uncloaked and vulnerable as a servant of the life it created for love at every level?
For those who can see again the face and feel the force of Jesus the question answers itself — and Christianity becomes progressive of its own inner integrity and courage.
We who gather here have much to do — and probably much to endure. Popular Christianity, for the most part, resists what we declare. But we have one another for support and course corrections. And as we are able to reach out in patient love to our anxious and polemical sisters and brothers in Christ we are armed to disarm them.
And we have new liturgies to energize our praying — and new songs that sing the truth of the vulnerable God —one song in particular. It is number 585 in the new hymnal of the Episcopal Church, the final verse of which can keep us well-aimed and in high good heart.
Here is God, no monarch he, clothed in easy
state to reign;
Here is God whose arms of love, aching, spent,
the world sustain.