Every summer when I was in seminary, they assigned a book for all of the faculty and the students to read in anticipation for a retreat that we would all take, students and faculty, in the mountains of North Carolina just west of Winston-Salem, where the seminary was located. We would gather in the evening for worship. We would hear from different faculty members throughout the week. We would discuss the theme of the book. And
In the summer before the fall of my second year, we were also welcoming a new faculty member, a new preaching professor. One night, he stood up in worship to offer the sermon, standing behind this plain lectern, and he paused. Before his sermon, he expressed his excitement about joining the faculty and how much he enjoyed getting to know all the students that week, but then he paused for another second.
He said, “I do have one thing I need to confess.” We all held our breath because even in seminary confession is rare. We leaned in a little bit closer, wondering what he was going to reveal, and he said, “I have to confess the temptation to be impressive.” I do not remember anything about his sermon that night, but I have never forgotten his confession.
It is a temptation which is not new. We overhear it in the story about Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Mark. He stands up on the Sabbath in the synagogue—a sacred day, a sacred place—there in Capernaum in the region of Galilee. Those sitting listening to him that day said that he spoke with authority, unlike the scribes.
The scribes were the biblical scholars. They were the experts. They were the best Sunday school teachers in town. Jesus, though, taught differently, and we are not quite sure what that means. But we do know it draws us further into the details of this story.
Perhaps Jesus is conveying more than just knowledge, for in the middle of his Sunday school lesson, a man starts convulsing, and he notices him. He reaches out, and he heals him. That is the point of the story that so oftentimes we get caught up in, as we are drawn to the unexplainable.
But if we read the story closely, it is about the teaching of Jesus. Even after the healing, it is repeated–this is a new teaching. The healing reinforces the teaching. It is something that ends up defining the life and ministry of Jesus. Love is less about what we know and more about what we do.
After the day in the synagogue, we overhear that old temptation, because it says, “The fame of Jesus started to spread.” People were talking. People were seeking him out, which we might assume is a good thing! Except, we overhear Jesus repeatedly and constantly throughout the Gospel of Mark say, “Don’t mention everything that I am up to.” Jesus did not want to be famous; he wanted to be faithful.
It is, as Henri Nouwen writes, “Jesus did not come to prove himself. He did not come to walk on coals, swallow fire, or put his hand in the lion’s mouth to demonstrate that he had something worthwhile to say.” Jesus did not want to get his name in the Guinness Book of World Records. He wanted to prayerfully and faithfully care for others.
We find fame all around us. Not just the fame of internationally known stars and celebrities—people that we do not want to admit that we know who they are dating. But then there’s the country song that says, “I’ve got some famous friends you’ve probably never heard of, but back in Rutherford County, our crowd is second to none. You might not know them here in this big city we’re in, but when I get back home, I’ve got some famous friends.”
There is also local fame. The high school quarterback that has the most passing yards in school history. The wealthiest family in a three-county area. The local band that draws the largest crowd. Then in this ever-changing world of ours, there is also the fame of social media defined by likes, clicks, and comments—both on the global level and the local.
We should treat fame, and all of its derivatives, with healthy apprehension because it skews how we see others, and how we see ourselves.
The temptation to be impressive has even found its way into the church. As far back as 1 Corinthians, when they were divided and arguing over whether it was permitted to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols or not. Back then, after there was a sacrifice to an idol, the meat would find its way into the public market. There were those who believed that if you ate meat sacrificed to idols, it would taint your life.
Then there were those, like Paul, who believed in one God, so that if meat was sacrificed to an idol, it would not affect your life. On the one hand, there are those with this knowledge, like Paul, and Paul wanted to affirm them. But on the other hand, there were those who were looked down upon because they thought differently. Paul did not want to leave them out.
We cannot put God first by putting somebody else last, “For knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It can take a lifetime to figure out the difference between those two, for knowledge is essential. It is important, especially if it helps us love others well; but then, there is a knowledge, where in subtle ways, it can make us feel impressive, masquerading as helpful.
Apparently, the light of Christ is not a spotlight. It does not single out fame. Instead, it illuminates everything that is good.
It invites us to join the supporting cast of people’s lives. Now, I know nobody remembers who won best supporting actor last year at the Oscars. I had to look it up. It was Ke Huy Quan. But we are invited to take on a supporting role in people’s lives—not called to impress, just called to love.
The church is a community with countless, supporting roles: committee members, Sunday school teachers, Bible openers, candle lighters, choir members, deacons, ushers, coffee makers, dishwashers. Those who change light bulbs, send out reminders, and sweep floors. It is not flashy. There is no fame, but there is this love that builds others up.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells this beautiful story about a monk who did not understand a particular passage of scripture, and all he wanted to do was to draw close to the presence of God, to stand in the presence of Almighty God, and to understand this passage. He decided to make a commitment to go into a room by himself, where all he would do was fast days on end and meditate on this passage of scripture until God revealed to him what it meant.
Days turned into weeks, and he held fast to his commitment; but after a while, exhaustion and frustration started to set in, and he finally gave up. He decided, instead, that he was going to go ask his fellow monk what he thought the meaning of the passage was.
As soon as he stood up and walked out of his room to go and ask for help, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Your seventy-week fast did not bring you one step closer to God, but now that you have humbled yourself enough to go to your friend, God sent me to reveal the meaning of the passage.”
At the end of the day, we need each other, for knowledge puffs up, and love—only love—builds up!