Sermon, August 25: Introducing Mark’s Gospel

St MarkFor those of you who don’t know, I should tell you that the work of the Episcopal Chaplaincy is dedicated to the idea that during their college career students—you—can grow in your faith as much as you are going to grow in your knowledge of so much else. The Bible is very clear that Christians should be growing in their faith; in I Corinthians 3 Paul says to his readers, I have to speak to you as babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it, and you’re still not ready. He had a lot to teach them about Jesus, and about being a follower of Jesus, but they could only learn a little bit at a time. If they wanted to get all that Christ had to give in His teaching, they had to keep learning. I know that’s been true in my spiritual life, and I believe that it is true about all Christians, as much as the people to whom Paul was writing. At the heart of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ, so growing in faith means growing in love and knowledge of Him. This semester I hope we will all grow in our knowledge of Him and our faith in Him by reading closely and thinking about carefully the gospel of Mark: sixteen weeks, sixteen chapters—it could almost have been written for the purpose, couldn’t it? And if our thinking about it helps us know Jesus better, we will indeed be using it for exactly the purpose for which it was written.

Speaking of growing in knowledge of Christ, let me also commend the courses on Christianity taught in the Religious Studies department; don’t miss the opportunity to do at least one academic course in some aspect of Christianity while you’re here.

So, on to a bit of introduction to the study of Mark. Scholars generally agree that Mark was the first gospel to be written. There are some, like me, who think a case can be made for Matthew’s gospel, at least for its first edition, but I bow to those who have studied and thought about Mark’s work more than I have, and I’ll be treating it as the earliest gospel we have. It is certainly much earlier, I should add, than any of the gospels that are not considered part of the New Testament, which tend to get a lot of publicity but are not actually very good sources for knowledge about Jesus Himself, however interesting they may be in other respects.

Mark is generally thought to have been written around 70 AD, about the time that the most knowledgeable eye-witnesses were dying off; Peter and Paul, for instance, were martyred in the persecution in Rome under Nero in 64 AD. Mark himself was not an eye-witness, but according to an account written about a generation later, Mark actually wrote down the most important things Peter would say when passing on Jesus’s teaching. Papias, a Christian leader wrote this in about 130 AD: ‘Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately but not in order all that he [Peter] remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings; for he [Mark] had neither heard the Lord nor been one of His followers… Peter taught according to the needs [of the situation], not so as to make an orderly account of the Lord’s sayings; so that Mark did not err at all when he wrote certain things just as he had recalled [them]. For he had but one intention, not to leave out anything he had heard, nor to falsify anything in them’ (Eusebius III.39.15). In other words Peter would quote a teaching of Jesus or tell about something that Jesus did or that happened to Him when it was appropriate to the situation in which he was speaking; he didn’t tell the whole story in chronological order when he preached or taught. And when Mark put these teachings in writing, he didn’t try to put them in chronological order, although he did put the account of Jesus’s suffering and death at the end of his account. But when you read Mark they don’t appear to be in random order, they don’t come across as Mark writing them down ‘as he recalled them’; Mark connected them the way he did for a particular purpose. The order he chose is Mark’s way of emphasising the significance of what Jesus taught and did, as we’ll see when we look more closely at what he wrote.

We should also think about the implications of the fact that roughly half Mark’s gospel is a record of the teachings of Jesus and descriptions of what is usually called Jesus’s ministry; the other half is a record of Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution. These two things appear to be carefully balanced in Mark’s gospel. That balance is part of Mark’s message. This is important, because there is a tendency in Christian preaching today to give less importance to Jesus’s death than was given by the first Christians. Over the centuries we have come to confine preaching on Jesus’s death and passion into the few weeks of Lent, and some preachers even in Lent major on themes other than Jesus’s death, and really only deal with that during Holy Week. Even the Sunday of Holy Week, when we read the crucifixion account, has become more and more treated as Palm Sunday, and the triumphal procession gets more attention than very non-triumphal story of Jesus’s death on the cross. That’s why some churches have rejected the whole idea of a Christian calendar that determines what we read and teach in church—a development that came centuries after Mark wrote. Mark wrote his gospel in such a way as to show that Jesus’s death was at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus’s death is even more important for Mark than His resurrection, actually, in terms of the time Mark spends talking about it. Mark spends less time on the resurrection appearances, for instance, than any of the four gospels—perhaps even no time at all, if you take seriously the possibility that Mark’s gospel ends at v 8 of his last chapter, and that the material that follows is a sort of epilogue added later. But this doesn’t mean that the resurrection is not important for Mark, only that Jesus’s resurrection appearances are not the most important thing about His resurrection. That’s something we will want to think about carefully. The resurrection is present throughout Mark’s work, and this suggests that we come to know the power of the risen Christ as we respond to His teaching, and as we understand the meaning of His death and its rôle in our salvation.

The way the book as a whole is arranged suggests that Christ’s death is what makes sense of Christ’s teaching. In Mark’s account, before Christ’s death everyone misunderstands His teaching—the Jewish leaders, the crowds, even the disciples. Especially the disciples; they seem to misunderstand more than anyone, until Jesus’s death makes sense of it all, and makes new life, the resurrection life, possible for them and for all mankind.

Another thing you notice when you look at the whole gospel is an approach to writing that emphasises some things more than others. Mark’s repetitions, for instance. He repeats some of his points three or four times in different ways. We don’t notice the repetition when we read Mark in little chunks, one this week and another next week. When you put them together, you get a picture you don’t get otherwise. You can see this if you imagine it in the announcements we will be making later in this service, for instance. If someone were to get up and make an announcement about a meeting of the Student Organisation, let’s say, and then make another announcement about it next week and one more the week after that, you’d think he or she is just making sure that everybody hears it at least once. When you hear it next week, you probably won’t listen very carefully, because you’ve already heard it. But if the speaker were to repeat that announcement three times at this one service, you’d get a different picture; as you listened to the point being made again and again even though you’d understood it the first time, you’d realise that the speaker really thought this was important, and you might even come to the meeting.

When you think of Mark’s gospel, or any of the gospels, as a single story, instead of something you just hear a few verses from every week, you begin to get a more accurate picture of what is most important about the Christian faith. You notice things you hadn’t noticed before, things that seemed incidental begin to seem important. This is certainly the way its first readers approached it. The evidence suggests that Mark’s gospel was read out loud at Christian gatherings in much larger chunks that we ever hear today; some scholars think that the whole gospel would have been read at the Easter gathering—it would have taken about two hours, just about the length of a movie, and people in those days would have followed it as closely and as easily as we do a movie. I don’t know how many people would attend if I announced that I was going to read the whole thing out loud one evening, but you might try reading it the whole way through, even if it’s not at a single sitting, and see how different it seems from what you’re used to.

All this is introduction to the subject; we haven’t actually looked at the text yet, and the time allotted on the first of our sixteen Sundays is almost over. But I do want to draw your attention to one word from the first fifteen verses of Mark: the word gospel. Look at pp 7 and 8 of the leaflet, and you’ll see it highlighted there. It comes first in verse 1, where Mark says it’s what his book is all about: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark tells us right at the beginning what sort of book he has written, what sort of story he is telling. It’s not a poem, or a history, or a manual, it’s gospel, or in Greek evangel. The word means ‘good news’, as we’ve all been told many times, I’m sure, but this particular word is not used for just any good news. It’s the word that was used in Jesus’s time for a major announcement of importance to the whole community. When news was brought of a victory in battle, the word ‘gospel’ was used. When a new Emperor was declared, the word ‘gospel’ was used. We don’t really have a word like it in English; we’d have to use two or three words to get the idea across. ‘Special announcement’, perhaps, but that doesn’t have the idea that gospel has of being something good, something great, something that will get people cheering and clapping. Mark has a gospel, and it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the announcement that the long awaited Messiah is here—the word Christ means ‘messiah’—and that His name is Jesus, which means ‘God saves’, and that the Messiah is not just another earthly leader, but the Son of God. And if you turn over the page to the end of the passage, you see that this Messiah, Jesus, also has a gospel: He proclaimed the gospel of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ The word ‘repent’ is translating the Greek word metanoeo which actually means ‘change your mind’. When we talk about repenting of our sins, we’re talking about changing our mind about how we live; here it’s more like ‘take your mind off whatever you were thinking about and pay attention to this’. Pay attention and believe that it is true, God is finally doing the new thing in the world that He promised long ago in the prophets, the time has come at last, and the first thing to do if you want to be part of what He is doing is to believe that it’s happening!

From beginning to end, Mark tells the story of Jesus in such a way as to demand a response from the listener. Believing that God is acting in Jesus, that Jesus is His Son and the promised Messiah, is the beginning of the response, but Mark’s book is designed to elicit a much more important response than that. It’s gospel, good news of major importance, because it will change the lives of everyone to whom it is addressed.

Most people arrive at college knowing that a great change is ahead of them, but not knowing exactly what that change will look like. For most people it’s their first time making their own decisions about what to do, what time to get up and what time to go to bed, whether to eat healthily or not, whether to get drunk or not. Most people who have grown up in a Christian family have taken a certain element of Christianity in their lives for granted; maybe for the last year of high school you had a bit more freedom about matters of faith than before, but for the most part you still ran on the momentum built up in the past. Now Mark wants you to think about your response to this special announcement: not what it means for your family, or your community, but what it means for you. And more importantly, Jesus, God’s own Son, wants a response from you. His announcement about the kingdom of God is for you, personally. He wants it to govern your life, to determine who you will be and how you will live. Give Him your full attention as He shows you what living in God’s kingdom means. It turned out to be a lot more than I ever expected when I first took it seriously; it may mean a lot more for you than you ever expected, too.

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