Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Snakes: To Handle or Not?
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I often overlook the end of Mark's gospel account. In some sense, I was taught to. Manuscript studies have indicated with overwhelming confidence that the best, oldest, and most authentic manuscripts of Mark only go through Mark 16:8: "And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Because of its linguistically and theologically abrupt ending, however, textual scholars disagree whether that's the original ending or whether the original final bits were torn off and lost at some point, but almost everyone agrees that what we currently have in Mark 16:9-20 isn't original.
But that doesn't make it real. It's doesn't mean it's not God's word. Inconsistent human origins do not prevent us from reading, making, learning, and inwardly digesting what God is speaking to us through this text. And today we are asked to consider it again.
Today, we remember the lives and witness of Cyril and Methodius, brothers who invented the precursor to the Cyrillic alphabet, bridging the gap between the Slavs of eastern Europe and the Latin and Greek speaking church of the West. During their lives, they were not universally popular. A lot of that had to do with church politics--the Pope disagreeing with local princes and kings (where have we heard that before?)--but a lot of it had to do with human nature. The Slavs were thought of as uncivilized. They spoke a language and used an alphabet that wasn't like anything the Greeks or Romans knew. When Cyril and Methodius worked to translate the language of the worship of the Church into the language of the uncouth Slavs, people were unhappy. One ruler insisted that such barbaric speech be limited only to the sermons and not to the rest of the rite. Another felt that the whole service should be conducted in a language understood by the people. (Where have we heard that before?) Historically, when a culture was Christianized, that culture was forced to conform to the language and traditions of the Church, but this time the Church was being asked to conform to the language of the heathen. Cyril and Methodius did their part to make it possible for a continent and a church divided by language to share common worship, but it wasn't (and still isn't) universally accepted as the "right" way to do things.
In the gospel lesson appointed for today (Mark 16:15-20), I encounter another reason I shy away from the longer ending of Mark: snakes. Well, not just snakes, but also speaking in tongues and drinking poison. The laying on of hands and healing I can get behind, but it's hard for me to take the bit about snake-handling seriously. Sand Mountain isn't that far away from here, and, as much as we joke about churches where people handle snakes as a sign of their faith, it's real. It happens. For some, it is the sign of true faith. And there it is, plain as day, authentically Markan or not, in the Bible for us to read and wonder, "Did he really mean that?"
I don't want to handle snakes or drink poison, and I do not recognize that as the test of my faith or even a manifestation of faith that I am called to demonstrate. I trust, however, that others feel so called, and, even though I'd strongly disagree, if they want to look down on me and my non-snake-handling faith, that's ok, too. I'm fairly confident that all of us will go to heaven whether there's a different section for them and us or not.
Regardless of them and their practice and attitude, what it's not right for me to do is to dismiss their faith out of hand because it is manifest in a way I find primitive. Whether or not Mark said it, the same Spirit that breathes life into me certainly has the power to protect them from venomous serpents. Even the most reserved among us would not deny the Spirit that ability. I may be sure that the Spirit isn't giving me that ability, and I may even question whether the handling of snakes is really empowered by the Spirit or is mere psychological absurdity, but I cannot deny God the power to protect his servants from things like snakes and poison. And, if I'm so put off by the strangeness and primitive nature of that practice that I refuse to acknowledge the awesome power of God, I've missed the point.
We're not all the same, but the same Spirit unites us. We don't have to worship the same way, but we still believe in the same God. Jesus died to reconcile all peoples to God--Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Slav and Greek, Appalachian snake-handler and uptight Anglican. All of us. If I won't allow the power of Christ's death to be translated into the language and culture and experience of others, I'm the one who doesn't understand it.