According to Mark

Epiphany 3 – 2015

Mark 1:14-20

Marian Free

In the name of God who will never, ever abandon us. Amen.

It is generally accepted that Mark’s gospel was the first of the four gospels to be written and that Matthew and Luke used Mark account as the model of their own records of the life of Jesus. The author of Mark is writing at the time of the Jewish War – that is some time in the late sixties or the early seventies, around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Up until this time the central message of the faith (as is attested by the letters of Paul) had been the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, those who knew the earthly Jesus have died. There was a need to flesh out the Passion story, to provide the context surrounding Jesus’ execution and to explain to a new generation why the Christ, the Son of God had to die. Jesus’ death and resurrection, though powerful events were no longer enough on their own. They needed to be balanced with stories that illustrated the extraordinary nature of the earthly Jesus. Jesus’ beginning, his teaching and his miracles were important elements in bringing the story to life for future generations.

At the same time it was becoming clear that those who believed in Jesus could expect to suffer. Even if those for whom the gospel was written were not themselves experiencing suffering or persecution themselves, they would have been aware of the plight of believers in Jerusalem and of the persecution of Christians in Rome by Emperor Nero. Members of Mark’s community not only had to come to an understanding of Jesus’ suffering, but they also had to learn that as disciples, they would share in that suffering.

The first gospel is the most honest of the gospels. By that I mean that in Mark’s gospel we see the characters as they really are – nothing is hidden from our gaze. The author doesn’t gloss over either the humanity of Jesus or the foolishness of the disciples.

In Mark’s gospel we meet a Jesus who, among other things, doesn’t know everything (13:32), who can’t do miracles for those who don’t believe (6:5), who at times does not seem to know the will of God and who allows a gentile who is a woman to change his mind (7:24-30). This Jesus expresses every human emotion – pity anger, sadness, wonder, compassion, indignation, love and anguish. His humanity is as evident as the divinity that is stressed from the very first sentence and repeated throughout.

If Jesus’ humanity is evident, the ignorance and fear of those who follow him, is equally clear. Mark’s picture of the disciples is far from flattering. They let Jesus down, they fail to understand, they try to persuade Jesus from his course and at the end they betray and desert him. The disciple’s frailty is particularly obvious when Jesus predicts his suffering and resurrection. In each of the three instances, the disciples’ reaction shows their complete lack of comprehension. On the first occasion, Peter rebukes Jesus, the second is followed by a discussion between the disciples as to who is the greatest and after the third prediction James and John ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and at his left in his kingdom. Unable to accept that the Christ must suffer, they demonstrate their complete lack of understanding by correcting Jesus, by changing the topic and by trying to regain control of things. Their response shows that they can only understand the kingdom in human terms.

According to Mark, Jesus is fallible and the disciples are anything but models for those who come after. (Matthew and Luke rehabilitate both Jesus and the disciples. In Matthew, then Luke and finally John, Jesus becomes more and more like God and the disciples become both wiser and braver.) Of course, there is method in Mark’s apparent madness. Mark is not interested in presenting either Jesus or the disciples as perfect. His purpose is to emphasise what God has done for us in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ humanity provides the vehicle through which Mark can reveal God’s grace and dependability. The frailty and fearfulness of the disciples reminds readers that it is what God does and not what they do that matters in the end.

This gospel is not a tale of triumph but an account of frailty and suffering. The gospel takes a circuitous and difficult route from the announcement of Jesus as God’s Son in verse 1 to Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” It is only at the end that everything comes together. After the crucifixion – the apparent failure of Jesus’ mission – it becomes clear that God has been there all along. God’s presence in the rolling away of the stone and God’s messenger in the tomb announcing the resurrection are evidence that despite appearances to the contrary, God did not abandon Jesus. Jesus’ trust and confidence in God has been vindicated by his resurrection. The report that Jesus has gone before the disciples to Galilee is proof that though the disciples had denied and abandoned Jesus, Jesus has not abandoned them.

This year we will be travelling together through the Gospel of Mark, which was written not only for disciples at the end of the first century, but also for those of us in the twenty first century. We will hear how Mark moves the story along, we will see how from the moment he begins his ministry Jesus is always accompanied by those whom he chose to be his disciples, we will understand that the conflict that is evident from the beginning will characterize Jesus’ ministry and lead to his death, and we will be reminded that despite his cry of agony from the cross, God did not abandon him and God will never abandon us.

Faith in Jesus does not guarantee a life of ease. Following Jesus does not lead to perfection. Belief does not always equal understanding. There will be times of pain and suffering in our lives, there will be times when we are only too aware of our imperfections and there will be times when we simply do not understand what God is doing or where God has gone. At such times we can turn once again to Mark’s gospel and remember that whatever life has to throw at us, God will never, ever abandon us and however often we let him down Jesus will never, ever give up on us.

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