Marcionism, Heresy, and Whac-a-mole


Sermon for February 14th, 2021


Have any of you ever played the arcade game whac-a-mole?

Whac-a-mole is a game with a big rubber mallet and a box full of little holes, and when the game starts a mole will pop up out of a hole and your job is to whack it with the mallet. Then the mole goes back down into his hole. Then the mole pops up from another hole and you have to whack it again. And then another and another and the game gets faster and faster and more moles keep popping up and you have to hit them as fast as you can, because if you miss one, well that’s game over. 

This, my friends, is the perfect illustration for what it is like trying to fight heresy in the church. It is like a 2,000 year-long game of whac-a-mole. You clobber a wrong-headed or misguided or misinformed idea over here, and it pops right back up over there. Old heresies never really die, not for long, they always pop back up. Not always in the same place; they don’t always look exactly the same, but it is really the same mole in a different hole. 

A heresy is a denial of an important doctrine of the faith. A heretic is an individual who denies an important doctrine of the faith. Now if you think that faith and church is all just about nurturing good feelings, then you probably don’t want to hear about heresies and doctrines. But if you believe that there is real actual truth behind what the church proclaims, then doctrine and heresy are very important because they are a part of the church’s road map to truth. 

The problem with heresies is that they can be very compelling or convincing; they seem like a great explanation or a good idea, but the church over time has discovered that they are dead end roads, or headed in the wrong direction. But they are nonetheless, very compelling or enticing ideas and what often happens is that you will get a charismatic church leader that latches onto one of these ideas, refuses to listen to others in the church saying “hold up, you’ve got something wrong there!” and then leads a whole bunch of Christians with them down this dead-end road. Usually we end up naming the heresy after one of these leaders. So you have Arianism, Marcionism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, all named after their leaders. Heresies are very attractive on the surface, which is why they are so dangerous. And they never really go away.

One of the first heresies that the church had to grapple with was that of Marcionism. Marcion, who lived in the middle 100s, so a very, very long time ago, was the son of a bishop, and like many preacher’s kids he must have felt the need to be a bit of a rebel. Marcion was someone who believed wholeheartedly in the love of Jesus. Jesus was the supreme revelation of the God of love. God didn’t care about rules and laws. God was a God of love. Sounds good doesn’t it? Sounds compelling right? 

I like the idea of Jesus as the revelation of the God of love. But here’s the problem, Marcion couldn’t reconcile the Jesus he wanted to believe in with the God of the Old Testament or the God of the Hebrews. Marcion decided that that had to be a completely different God. Judaism had to be a completely different faith, a different religion that worshiped a different God. The Hebrew God was a primitive backwards God of laws, and Jesus was the revelation of this new more enlightened God of love. A lot of people bought into Marcion’s argument, but there is a big problem with it, and this is what was pointed out to Marcion: it doesn’t agree with scripture. The records that we have of Jesus Christ, the authoritative guides that we have to all that he said and did, shows us a devout first century Jew who told his followers that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. How could Marcion argue that this Jesus had nothing to do with the God of the Old Testament? Easy, he just cut that scripture out. Actually Marcion, went through the scriptures and cut out anything that made Jesus look remotely Jewish. The Jesus of scripture was not who Marcion wanted him to be, so the Jesus of scripture got tossed aside. Marcion created his own personal Jesus. And the rest of the church, most of it at least, stood up and said no. 

That is not what God has revealed to the church. The love and the grace that we find in Jesus Christ was always present in the law and the prophets. Jesus is the radical fulfillment of God’s plan. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law that was given to Moses and the word that was given to Elijah. Jesus is not a departure from the Hebrew God, he is the embodiment of that God. And there is scripture to back this up. This is what was revealed to Peter and James and John on the mountaintop in today’s gospel. They have a vision, and this vision reveals to them that Jesus, their rabbi, their teacher and leader, is the son of the God of Moses, the son of the God of Elijah. He is in conversation with them, he is not separate from them. 

Marcion would have cut this passage right out, but the rest of the church said, No! This is important.  If you want to understand Jesus, the true Jesus, then you need to understand him as the Jew that he is. Yes, we believe him to be the Son of God, as it was revealed on the mountain, but the God he is the son of is the God of the Hebrews that we find in Moses and in the prophets. When Jesus quotes scripture, he quotes the Old Testament. When Paul says that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness” he is talking about the Old Testament, not his own letters. So we can’t just cut out scriptures that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t understand. We have to wrestle with them.

Incidentally, we owe Marcion one debt of gratitude: it was because he started cutting up and tossing out scriptures that the church leaders decided that it was time to start listing the New Testament texts that were considered authoritative. The fact that we have the books in the New Testament that we do, we owe in part to Marcion, who wanted to get rid of them.

Now even though Marcion was officially rejected, still as I mentioned earlier, heresies never completely go away. They still keep popping up. All the time I hear Christians talking about the Old Testament as if it is wholly distinct from and separate from the New Testament. Sometimes very well-meaning Christians will try and draw a bold line of distinction between Christianity and Judaism as if they were two completely unrelated religions that had nothing to do with each other. Misguided preachers will often only portray Jesus in opposition to the God of Moses and the God of Elijah, and not show him as the embodiment of that God. They want Jesus to be a departure from the God of the Old Testament and not the fulfillment of that God’s mission. Be aware of this kind of talk. Be suspicious. It may seem like an academic theological argument, but there are real, and dire consequences to this heresy. Misunderstanding Jesus is certainly one of them; but violence and anti-semitism follow closely behind. Trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Judaism is not an enlightened or progressive argument, nor is it a conservative viewpoint. It is just an old heresy that is popping up again in a different place like that pesky mole. Only the best way to whack this mole on the head isn’t by picking up a rubber mallet; it is by picking up the scriptures. All of them.