Today we begin a new the new year for real, as it were, and with it a new series of readings and sermons. I’ve been at St. John’s for six years now, which means we’ve gone through the three year lectionary twice, and I thought it might be time for something a bit different.
So over the coming months we’re going to be following a more recently developed set of readings known as the Narrative Lectionary. The Narrative Lectionary is characterised by a longer main reading that more deliberately covers, over the weeks of a season, a complete narrative arc. So you may have noticed that today we had a decent chunk of Mark’s gospel; over the coming weeks we’ll be reading more or less the whole of Mark in order (with a few variations around Easter, or when I’m away!).
I think this approach captures something about the scriptures that we tend to know but neglect in our more bite-sized, disconnected readings; that each of the books in the Bible actually exists as its own work. For the most part, at least in the New Testament, each has a single author, who, guided by the inspiration of God, had something that they wanted to say. These books are not disconnected collections of little stories about Jesus and fragments of teaching and doctrine; they are works of literature written out of and into their particular context.
Which is not to try to play down the sense of the scriptures as inspired; but to acknowledge their dual status – as the canon of our faith, received by the Church through the generations as the place in which we most reliably encounter the living word of God – and at the same time, as human works written by real people at a particular time and place.
Which coming out of Christmas perhaps ought not surprise us: that the God who was prepared to enter into human frailty would also allow the faith to be recorded by those same frail and fallible humans.
So today we begin at the beginning of the gospel of Mark. Generally reckoned to be the first of the gospels to be written, and most New Testament scholars would agree that Mark was written entirely from the oral tradition of the early Church – a recording of the stories of Jesus that had been told by those who had been there. It’s generally thought to have been written in the 60’s AD, about 30 years after the events of Jesus’ life, and at a time when two important changes were happening within the early Church. The first was that the first generation of believers, the apostles who had seen Jesus with their own eyes and carried the story to the ancient world, were starting to die out. Young men of Jesus’ day were now in their fifties, and it was becoming clear that that first generation would not be there forever.
And exacerbating that problem was the persecution of the Church, especially under the rule of Emperor Nero from 54AD onwards. Not only were the apostles, and other eye witnesses, dying of old age, they were being systematically executed, and gathering to hear them tell the stories of Jesus was dangerous to say the least.
And so Mark – or whoever the author was – the gospel itself makes no claim of authorship, and the naming arises from a rather unlikely tradition – but let’s use the name Mark to keep things simple – decided that the stories needed to be written down, copied, kept safe, handed on to the generations to come.
So in these opening verses we get a taste of what cared about, what aspects of the story of Jesus he considered important enough to record. And there are four themes established here that will occur over and again as we read through Mark.
First of all, in the very opening verses, Mark places Jesus in the Jewish tradition. By the time Mark was writing the Church was no longer exclusively – perhaps not even majority – Jewish. The success of Paul’s missionary endeavours had brought many gentiles into the faith (and we know Mark was writing for, at least in part, a gentile audience – when he uses a word in Aramaic, he translates it, which you would never do for a Jewish audience), and some of the more philosophical, Hellenistic traditions that had converted were wont to deemphasise the Jewishness of Jesus, to play down his role as Messiah of – and from – the Jews. But Mark will have none of this. In his opening words he declares that he is writing of Jesus the Christ, who was spoken of by the great prophet Isaiah.
Now Mark has no problem with Gentile believers, he doesn’t share Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus as the restorer of Judaism to it’s true meaning: but at the same time he is resisting the loss of the Jewish heritage from which Jesus arose.
And the reason for that emerges quickly as the second theme that Mark is going to emphasise: and that is to place Jesus not just into his Jewish context, but very firmly into the prophetic tradition of Judaism. I’ve spoken about this before – the two intertwining strands of the Law and the Prophets, the powerful call to holiness and the preservation of all that is good in the tradition that is represented in the Law, and the challenging voice from the margins calling the people to be more: more than equitable, to be just; to be more than community, to be welcoming of the stranger; to be more than upstanding, to be compassionate.
And of these two poles of the Jewish tradition, Mark identifies Jesus very strongly with the prophetic, with the voices that would challenge the status quo and demand more. John the Baptism had been widely recognised and affirmed by the people of Israel as the latest and greatest voice of this tradition, and Isaiah was the great forefather of the prophets; so Mark doesn’t hesitate to link Jesus with both of them.
And perhaps a certain logical flow to Mark’s writing is starting to emerge, because having identified Jesus as of the prophets, calling the people to something new, something more, he then gives us the one sentence summary of Jesus’ call:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Which is Mark’s third theme – the Kingdom of God. Right from the outset Mark wants his readers to know that they have been called, not into some sort of personal renewal, not into a life of living well, and doing good, and worshipping God in a respectable way that certainly never upsets the authorities, but into something that is radical and counter cultural. Something we – a middle class Church in a wealthy suburb of a wealthy nation – often find hard to hear, hard to recognise – that the Gospel Jesus proclaimed was not supportive of the establishment. It was not – and I use this word in its broad, non-political sense – conservative. It was not about maintaining the status quo. We see Jesus often enough challenging the religious status-quo of his day; to speak of a Kingdom of God was to speak against the political status-quo as well.
And this unapologetically radical nature of the mission leads into the final vignette, and the fourth theme introduced in this passage, the calling of the first disciples. For here Mark gives us some sense of just how life changing, just how un-business as usual, Jesus’ call into the Kingdom of God is. Jesus calls them, and they leave their nets, they leave their family business, and they follow. Knowing nothing but that when they heard the voice of Jesus calling them, they could do no other.
As we read Mark’s gospel together we will be see again and again these themes emerge. But it is this final theme that stands most starkly for us as a challenge. Is the Christian faith just part of everyday life, just part of the culture or subculture that we have received with the air we breath, just the faith aspect of a respectable life?
Or does the call of Jesus turn life upside down?
I believe that if we truly hear Jesus’ voice in the gospel of Mark it will not allow any of us to remain as we were.
Jesus called to them “follow me”. And you can’t follow and remain where you are.