The End & Back Again: to the beginning
Journeying with Jesus in Mark’s Gospel
Sometimes you have to go back to the beginning to understand the ending, Dr. Teddy Alman, from the hit TV series: Grey’s Anatomy.
The road of life offers plenty of surprises along the way of this adventure. We find ourselves living in what some describe as a hinge time in history: a time between the era that preceded it and the era that will follow. This hinge time in the Western world is a movement from a predominantly Christian West to a post-Christian, mostly secular and emerging multi-religious Western world. The increasing secularization of our society in the United States has minimized the influence and interest in the Christian faith. The mobility of immigrants and refugees from Asia has added religious diversity as well. I am not putting any value statement on the change, I am just identifying it as a fact.
There are people who hold the belief that if we reversed the 1962 Engel vs. Vitale and the 1963 court decision of Abington School District vs. Schempp that made state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools unlawful, that our communities, daily life and the influence of Christian faith would be better. State-sponsored prayer is not the answer to the challenges we face in the United States. As Americans, we rightly hold to the separation of church and state. Prayer is only limited by the choice of the individual to pray or not to pray. The responsibility to exercise the gift and power of prayer is ours as people of faith.
Phyllis Tickle identified in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008) an interesting pattern within the church. Tickle said that the Christian church holds a rummage sale (a metaphor for wholesale change within the religion) every five hundred years out of which something new emerges. For example: the Great Reformation occurred five hundred years ago which gave birth to the Protestant church and served to revitalize the Roman Catholic Church as well. The Christian faith and the church were the focus of renewed energy: books were written, movements spawned which resulted in new missionary activities.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, we find ourselves as part of the Christian Church in another wholesale time of change which impacts the church: the rapid rise of secularization. Factors that contribute to a rise of secularization and a hastening of the decline of the church include: social mobility – distancing of the family and the families influence on faith-based traditions; financial advancements for many since the end of World War II which gives rise to increased materialism; and moral issues that caused mistrust of institutions including the church.
The end of the Christian era in the Western world…not the end of the Christian faith nor the church, began with social unrest in the United States in the 1960’s. In the same way that the Great Reformation began with Dr. Martin Luther in 1517, we find ourselves living in an exciting time to be the church. The old adage: baptize and confirm the faith of children and when they get old enough, they will return to the church to get married and start the cycle all over again – is almost dead. Rural communities, small towns, urban and suburban cities are seeing a growth in second, third and fourth generations of people more influenced by secularism than the church. The church that saw itself at the center of most communities in the 1950’s, now finds itself on the outside looking in.
We could bemoan the present situation as a church yet that accomplishes nothing. In fact, trying to do what worked in past decades will prove fruitless. We cannot go back in time. We are living and serving in the name of Jesus in a new day which demands us to listen for the whisper of the Holy Spirit to guide us as we work alongside the Lord in our wider communities. Tickle calls this time The Great Emergence. Many authors have written books on what they think God may be doing in this time. There are churches in most communities that are experimenting in discernment and new avenues of engaging the local neighborhoods.
While basic human needs are common to all of us and issues like addiction, crime and poverty are a reality in many neighborhoods, each small town, city and church are unique in their own way. What God is doing in one community in and through a particular congregation is not often transferrable to another church in the same community. One size does not fit all. What God wants to do in and through your church emerges over time in prayer, meditation on Scripture and mutual conversation. Several congregations in the same community may receive a God-given vision of a partnership ministry. There is a powerful witness in a community when churches come together to bless and serve for good and for God.
Finally, as much as we come to claim our gifts and passions, we must also be aware of our weaknesses or blind spots. In vertebrate eyes, the optic cord enters from the back of the eye in front of the retina causing scotoma, a gap in the vision field. Our brain draws on memory and perception to fill in the missing visual information. In other words, what the brain perceives is created in the imagination but may not necessarily be reality. Churches have perception “blind spots” as well. We have often trained ourselves to see and hear what we expect God is calling us to do. Oftentimes, we see what we expect to see. Boldly pray for open hearts and minds to see clearly God’s way forward (unlike Mark 4:12).
It takes awareness and attention to see what new way God is working in your part of the world. If you hear the voice of a member, new worshipper or even a person at the local bar that says something different than all the other voices, at least listen. Seek clarification if what is said is not clear. While I typically ask myself if this is in alignment with how I understand God at work in Scripture, I may miss out because of the phrase “how I understand God at work.” It may be necessary for you to ask, “Is there anything in Scripture that comes to mind to say this is not how God may work?”
As a church, keep your eyes and ears open to be surprised. Listen widely to all the conversations that surround you each day during the discernment process. Ephphatha: be open. John the baptizer came to prepare the way for Jesus (1:2-3). Jesus met, taught and extended the reign or kingdom of God along the way (Mark 7:31ff tells that Jesus went by way of Sidon to the ten Gentile cities called the Decapolis where he spoke the word “to be open” to a man who was deaf and had impaired speech). The people zealously told others about Jesus (v 36). The last person Jesus healed before his entry into Jerusalem joined Jesus for this fateful and life-giving journey (10:46-52). Let us openly listen for the way Jesus is calling you and me.
Overview of Mark
What is a gospel? A Gospel is a narrative, fashioned out of selected traditions, that focuses on the activity and speech of Jesus as a way to reveal his character and develops a dramatic plot that culminates in the stories of his passion and resurrection (James Bailey and Lyle Vander Broek, Literary Forms in the New Testament, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, p. 91). The word in Greek for Gospel is translated by the phrase “good news” as the stories of Jesus reveal the new life and reign of God that Jesus unleashed. It was to this message and purpose of God that the disciple of Jesus were called to learn from Jesus and sent by him into the world to proclaim the message of God.
Who wrote the gospel of Mark? The fact is that we do not know who wrote Mark’s gospel. By the beginning of the second century, Christians were writing “according to Mark” on manuscripts of the book; however, “Mark” was a very common name. Around the middle of the second century, Papias (ca. 70-163), a Christian leader, identified Mark as “Peter’s interpreter,” writing his Gospel based on Peter’s own remembrances; the strong implication is that the Mark who wrote this Gospel is the Mark mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13 as having been with the apostle Peter in Rome…is the same person as John Mark, who is mentioned in the book of Acts (12:12, 25; 13:5,13; 15:37-39) and in some of Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:10; cf. Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11) (Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009, pp. 128-129).
When was Mark written? The best thought is that Mark was written around 70 C.E. This is based on the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation in 66-70 C.E. The war ended with the recapture of the Imperial fortress at Masada located near the Dead Sea and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Mark 13:14 describes this sacrilege.
Mark is thought to be the first Gospel written with 97% of Mark used by Matthew and 88% by Luke. So why does Matthew appear first in the New Testament? Augustine (354-430 CE), a theologian and church leader wrote that Mark was an abbreviated version of the first Gospel of Matthew. It is only in the last 150 years that scholars have proposed Mark as the first recorded Gospel.
Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic (a Semitic language, replacing Hebrew as the primary language spoken in the Middle East from about 300 B.C. for over 750 years). While the original stories of Jesus would have been retold orally in Aramaic, over time and due to the spread of the Gospel geographically, the good news was translated into Greek, making the Gospel message more accessible to a wider audience, the Gentile and Jewish-Gentile church.
The era of the disciples and other eye-witnesses to Jesus is called the Apostolic Period. By the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel, Peter and Paul had most likely been executed (64-65 CE) in Rome during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero. It may in fact be the deaths of the apostles that brought about the urgency to capture the stories about Jesus that had been orally told and retold in the preaching and teaching of the early church.
Werner H. Kelber, in his book, The Kingdom in Mark, writes: The destruction of the center of life (Jerusalem and the temple) spelled the end of all hope…The Christian traditions (the oral accounting of the stories of and about Jesus) which had reached Mark from earlier times had been rendered obsolete. Because they did not answer to the challenge of the hour, let alone account for the loss of meaning and life, they appeared to be irrelevant. Mark responds to the unparalleled crisis by reshaping and transforming his traditions into the (for Christians) radically new form of gospel which allows him to make a new beginning. The beginning is the answer to the end of Jerusalem and the implied end of history. In the face of the end Mark posits a new beginning, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974, p. 2). Like winter that gives way to spring, what appears to be an end, Mark proclaims the good news of a new beginning. Jesus offers us a message of hope in the Gospel of Mark.
Overview of the study
The Gospels had all the qualities of great human storytelling. But they portrayed a true event—God the storyteller entered his own story, in the flesh, and brought a joyous conclusion from a tragic situation, (Chris Armstrong, R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship, Christianity Today, August 2008).
The idea for the title of this study on Mark was influenced by two things: first, the quote above from Kelber about the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 looking like the “end” so Mark wrote about the good news of Jesus as a sign of a new “beginning.” Secondly, Tolkien’s subtitle for his book “The Hobbit” is “There and Back.” I love adventure stories and this story is a classic adventure in the realm of the imagination. Honestly, it takes imagination to see and dare to believe something different than what our eyes and the trends tell us. It takes bold, daring faith to believe in a world of hate and violence that in the end Christ and his love win the day.
Mark’s Gospel captured the truth of Jesus which had been orally communicated in the preaching and teaching of the “underground” church (Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire until the fourth century) for a generation until such time that Mark felt it necessary to put pen to paper and write this new literary form we call a Gospel. A Gospel is not a biography of Jesus with all the details of Jesus life and teaching. A biographic collection, as writer of John’s Gospel says, But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (21:25).
What we will be studying are the collection of the actions, healings, parables, conflict stories and the all-important passion story (chapters 11-16) Mark chose to include to encourage and inspire faith and action in the church for which his Gospel was written. Each week the Show Time section will include some information and engagement with the selected story for the day. First, read the biblical passage from Mark several times to get acquainted with it and to formulate your own thoughts, observations and questions. Then read the Show Time section. The comments on the stories from Mark are to help open up the text not limit how God may in fact be speaking to you.
The second section is called Soul Sower which includes stories of people who have sown the Christian faith into my life. The hope is you may use these examples to reflect on your journey of faith. Who and how has anyone imparted faith and its practice into your life? Who is God using you to impart faith into another? Our faith is personal but not private. We are to give it away. It is in sharing our faith that our faith actually grows stronger and we learn even more.
Finally, we learn best when we can discuss our faith with others. Some of us like to listen and others learn by talking. I encourage you to find at least one other person to work through this study together. There are groups who are meeting both at church and in homes to study. Call the church to find times and locations for groups. Better yet, consider forming your own group and invite others to join you in this adventure. Please let the church know of the time and location of your study.
Every story has an end and a beginning. It is the characters in between who impact its outcome. Some are self-focused and driven; others, guided by evil intentions; and still others, by a protagonist greater than themselves. Jesus, the Son of God, exemplifies all the good, loving and sacrificial life-giving nature of God which he embodied. In the end, love will defeat hate, racism and violence. As we pray: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, we are asking, envisioning, God’s will being accomplished on earth in this present moment. As characters in the story of life, we can choose to be part of the coming of God’s will, the way of Jesus as we share the love, hope and new life which in ours in Christ Jesus. How is God calling you to be part of God’s unfolding story on earth?