I visited, several years after having left, the first congregation I served. They asked me to preach, and so I did, a sermon from the gospel of Mark. The congregation was generous in their praise afterward. The young preacher had gone off and gotten better! One woman, though, was a little less sure. She offered, “That was a beautiful sermon. What in the world did it mean?” The stress of her comment in my hearing seemed to be on the second sentence, and not the first. I felt rebuked.
But having spent a few days again with Mark for the writing of these blogs, I think Mark might have encouraged me to consider it a compliment and respond to her, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mk 4:23). In the search engine age we live in, the allure of instant understanding has eclipsed our capacity to ponder a mystery. Preachers in this age are tempted to spoon feed easily digestible portions of immediately practical advice to hopelessly hurried consumers, and in so doing guarantee that they do not develop ears to hear the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.
The rhetoric of Mark, the rhetoric of ministry. As I noted in the previous blog, Mark is long on narrative and short on explanation. Only rarely does he look up from the details of the story to give the reader a wink or a nod or a scriptural citation. This is in keeping with the story being told. The life of Jesus is an apocalyptic parable, turning the world as we know it upside down and changing all of our definitions of “Christ,” “Son of David,” “Son of Man,” and “Son of God” along the way. The risk for Mark would be turning the story over to our preexisting categories and expectations. This is a story intended to tear open the heavens and call us into something totally new for the sake of our salvation.
I love Rowan Williams characterization of Mark’s treatment of Jesus: “Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others” (Christ on Trial, 127). Richard Hays builds on this insight by insisting that Mark speaks through the stories and symbols of Israel’s scripture intermingled with the stories of Jesus. “If it is misleading, or careless of the mystery to say ‘Jesus is the God of Israel’–just as it is not permitted to speak the ineffable name of God figured in the Tetragrammaton–there is still a way of narrating who Jesus is by telling stories in which he has the authority to forgive sins, to still storms, to walk on the sea…” (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 102).
I am following the lead of Williams and Hays simply to say that we should be more careful with the reputation of Jesus. What we say about him and the titles we attribute to him, will be measured against how we act in the world. Even our own understandings of words like “lord,” or “king,” or “Son of God” are waterlogged with wrongheaded understandings of authority and power, both God’s and ours. Mark’s gospel is a collective “get behind me Satan” to those who misunderstand Jesus’ mission and ours in the world. I think Mark would tell us to take great care with our speech about God, and instead let the fact that we live as if the last are first, and the least are the greatest, to represent the identity of Jesus into the world.
God, church, world in Mark. The condition of the world (irredeemable) and the agency of God (the coming One), dominate Mark’s perspective related to mission. Again, Mark’s view of the world is apocalyptic. There is no hope for the world within history (things will get worse before they get better), but will only come through God’s direction intervention, bringing both judgment on the old age and the possibility of a new future–the kingdom of God. Whatever role the people of God play in all of this is worked out in relation to this apocalyptic framework.
As with all things in Mark, the “church” is not an explicit theme. The word ecclesia never appears in Mark. Still, this is a story of renewal for God’s people, Israel. The selection of twelve disciples reveals Jesus’ own belief that God’s work of renewal includes a restored Israel–a community embracing the way of life indicated by the kingdom of God.
This is God’s work, and doesn’t come through human initiative. There’s nothing the people of God can do to establish the kingdom of God. There is no path of progress or restoration that can bring the kingdom or restore Israel’g glory. It is the apocalyptic work of God. The people of God, therefore, live in anticipation of what is coming, discerning the presence of and joining in the coming of the kingdom. For those with eyes to see, the evidence of God’s work in the world is discernible. There are signs to be read and directions to follow. The skills, then, necessary for following Jesus are interpretative, being attentive to the world through the lens of the self-giving life of Jesus.
Mark’s world is full of powers hostile to those who would follow Jesus. There are demons and scheming ruling authorities and menacing crowds. In keeping with this, the parable of the soils seems to emphasize the rocky soil, indicating those who at first receive the word with joy, but when “trouble and persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (4:16-17). This mirrors the story of the twelve in Mark, who follow enthusiastically early in the gospel only to scatter during the trouble surrounding the crucifixion. By placing the cross at the heart of the gospel, Mark reminds his readers of the very nature of the story. The kingdom of God does not arrive with flowers and rainbows, but with suffering and a death that leads to resurrection.
This is hard stuff to hear. It’s hard to preach. But Mark sets the condition of the world so deeply against the grain of God’s kingdom that the only path to something different, to something newsworthy, is death and resurrection. We should be clear eyed about what story we’re joining. Jesus invites his followers to “repent and believe the good news” (1:15), and the shape of that repentance is to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.
The good news is that if we scatter and lose sight of our Lord, we can always find him again in Galilee. The story begins and ends there. Jesus comes out of Galilee with the good news of God. In Peter’s denial of Jesus in Mark 14, the slave girl near the fire identifies him as a Galilean, which Peter vigorously denies. Before his death, Jesus tells his disciples to meet him in Galilee, unlike Luke where they are told to wait in Jerusalem. And the women at the tomb are told to fell his followers that Jesus has gone before them to Galilee.
Galilee indicates an unlikely place for the home base of the kingdom of God, away from traditional centers of power and associated with ill-conceived insurrection. This, in Mark, is the natural habitat for the kingdom of God. An unlikely Messiah, with an unlikely mission (death and resurrection), from an unlikely location. Mark’s story with Jesus always begins here and in other places like Galilee.
The word “missional” refers principally to the church’s location in society. The end of Christendom in the West has been met with much hand wringing in churches more accustomed to Jerusalem, or even Rome, than Galilee. In my neighborhood, multi-campus churches are more likely to franchise in affluent communities than they are in places like Detroit, Pontiac, or Flint. Churches attuned to new missional era, in contrast, would find the move away from cultural centers of power to the margins an invitation to meet Jesus again in Galilee. Let those with ears to hear…