I want to start today talking about the Gospel of Mark, the book of the Bible that we’ve been reading from for the last several weeks – with one exception – and that we’ll continue to hear from next week.
Here’s the premise that I want to start with: the Bible is a tool that can help us have an understanding, an experience of God. It’s a tool that can help challenge the ways we live, the ways we relate to each other, the ways we relate to the Holy. But like any tool, it’s more useful the more you know about it. I’ve heard the Bible compared to a telescope. The telescope can help you see the universe beyond it, but if you don’t know much about how a telescope works, then you’re not going to be very good at getting useful images from it. The Bible works the same way: the more we know about it, the better we’re able to use it get a glimpse of the Holy. So, today, I want to talk a little about the Gospel of Mark and how we might view the verses that we heard today, and how we might use these verses and really all of Mark’s Gospel to get a glimpse of the Holy for us.
There are four Gospels – accounts of Jesus’ life – in the New Testament, and they were all written after Jesus’ death. Mark is the first of the Gospels written down. Likely written in about 70 CE – Jesus died in approximately 30 CE, so this is a good 40 years – a generation or two – after Jesus died that Mark’s Gospel is written.
So, how did this Gospel get to us?
• First there was some event in history. Something happened.
• Stories of what happened circulated as oral traditions – these cultures are better at oral tradition than we are because it was a way of preserving stories and memories in places were few folks were literate. And in the case of Mark’s gospel, these circulated orally for perhaps 40 years before they were written down.
• Then they’re written in Greek.
• Someone made copies of these manuscrips – no Xerox machines, no scanners; it was a bunch of monks hand copying manuscrips and sometimes there are errors, and sometimes they would change the text to bend it a little more to an agenda that they had; there are thousands of manuscripts of New Testament texts, and many of them are different. Translators of the Bible before they can translate have to decide what the original is.
• Then, of course, any Gospel has to be translated out of the Greek in which it was written to English. And that involves all of the translation choices that shade meaning for us one way or another.
What’s the point I’m making in all of this? The Gospel of Mark is a book written, edited, translated by people. People who had an experience somehow of the Holy and they wanted to record it. But I also want you to see that Mark wasn’t written for people in Texas in 2018.
And that means that there’s a lot that we don’t get. Historical references and customs that we don’t understand; sometimes these make a difference in the meaning of the text and sometimes they don’t. This can make Biblical texts seem a million miles removed from us, but sometimes they are closer than they first appear.
And there are lots of things we could say about the community to which the author of Mark is writing. The author of Mark is writing about 40 years after Jesus’ life to early followers of Jesus who have survived persecution. There were times and places in the Roman Empire when followers of Jesus were persecuted to greater or lesser degrees during the first 300 years after Jesus. Rome in 64 CE is one of those times – Emperor Nero needed a scapegoat after a fire burned much of Rome down – and he needed someone to blame other than his government’s poor disaster response – so he blamed the Christians and it led to a period of persecution. And there were similar persecutions in other places in the empire.
And Mark’s gospel was written for a community of folks who had survived this persecution. How might they have survived persecution? Maybe they hid; or maybe they renounced their faith, at least publicly; or maybe they betrayed others in their community so that they’d be let off the hook. The folks that Mark is writing for are the survivors, and many of the folks reading this would have a kind of survivor’s guilt. They are the folks who either got really lucky or they betrayed their faith in order to survive the persecutions.
Mark’s gospel is a message of second-chances for people who have fallen short. You know throughout Mark’s gospel the disciples don’t understand Jesus or their actions contradict his teachings – they don’t get it. This is a gospel of second chances for people who don’t get it.
And it starts right up in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel that we read from today. There’s no birth story in Mark, nothing about Jesus’ childhood, this passage is the first we see of Jesus in Mark’s account. And the first thing Jesus says is “repent.” It would have been a message particularly appropriate for those survivors to whom it was written.
And, of course, all of this is coming to us through translation, and the word “repent” would have meant something a little different to the listeners back then. If I hear “repent of your sins” then I think that I should feel really sorry. The sorrier I am, the more closely I’m following the command. But listeners back then would have heard something more like “return.” All of those survivors who hid or betrayed others, the first thing Jesus said to them was “return.” It’s okay for you to come back to the Christian community.
And “repent” had other shades of meaning too – one author says it means “go beyond the mind that you have.” Mark doesn’t speak about ideas – this is not a gospel about getting your ideas of God correct – this is a gospel of stories. The fancy phrase is narrative theology – the author tells stories and the listener has to derive a meaning and purpose from the story. That’s what so much of Mark’s gospel is. And they’re stories that turn conventional wisdom on its head: those ideas about who is in and who is out – turn them upside down; those ideas about who is good and who is bad, they’re wrong; those ideas about how to please God, about how it involves following certain rules – toss that out. Or to put it another way: the cultural conditioning you’ve inherited isn’t God; God is much, much bigger.
Maybe you’re seeing some connections to us. Some ways we can use this tool to learn something about God’s desire for us.
We started the church season of Lent last Wednesday – Lent is a penitential season of introspection and preparation for Holy Week and then Easter. And it’s so appropriate that the lectionary puts this reading on the first Sunday in Lent. We have not always lived up to our Christian calling either – sometimes we also hide from our Christian responsibilities to others; sometimes we’re the ones who betray our faith. And we need a second chance.
So much of that second chance involves repentance, going beyond the mind that I have. For us, the culture in which we exist blinds us to some of the ways that God calls us to follow Jesus.
The freedom that we enjoy, personally and economically, is so good; it has created many of the conditions for the prosperity that we enjoy. But it can blind us to inequality and lack of opportunity for many people. And our call is to love all of our neighbors as ourselves, and for me, that means going beyond the mind that I have.
The relatively homogenous culture in which I live can make me forget that I enjoy so many privileges because of the color of my skin, and if our call is to see God in every person – Jew and Samaritan, black and white – we must go beyond the minds that we have so that we can see the ways that racism and sexism continue to operate even still.
And this isn’t all about others: our kids grow up in a culture that tells them that their value is determined by how much money they make, or how they look, or how perfect they can be. There is no greater gift that I want for my kids than for them to know that they are the beloved of God. And that this doesn’t depend on anything they do. I know that you want this for your kids too, but it requires that we go beyond the minds that we have and the culture in which we live so that we can follow Jesus.
All of this is hard work, it requires discernment, and judgement and sometimes we fall far short, but it’s our call. And that’s not at all unlike the message of Mark’s gospel.
Here’s the point I want to make today: if you think that maybe you haven’t been as committed to living out Jesus’ values in your life; if you’ve thought that you aren’t always patterning your life after the one shown to us by Jesus – the self-giving, boundary breaking pattern, the kind of pattern that sees God in everyone, even those people in whom God is really well hidden – if you’ve fallen short of this, then you have something in common with the people to whom Mark’s Gospel was written. The people who had fallen short and needed a second chance. And it’s good today to hear that God gave them just that. And that the second chance started with a call to return to the path, to see beyond the limits of their culture. That’s our call this Lent too.