I had just completed preparing this sermon for the coming Sunday, and had no intention of publishing it when I looked at the current edition of The Living Church. Its very first piece is a sermon using the Markan reading as a text. I felt that an alternative (I was going to say 'antidote') might be a useful contribution; so here it is.
The Gospel before the "Gospels"
In his letter to Corinth, a fragment of which we just heard, St Paul speaks twice of the ‘gospel’; the Greek word is euangelion, “good news”. He begins by insisting that he has no choice: he is compelled to spread the good news. His words have all the urgency of the cry of the Second Isaiah from which our first lesson came: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Then Paul ends today’s passage: “I do [everything] for the sake of the gospel”.
After the reading of the epistle we come to a rubric in the PB: Then, all standing, the Deacon or Priest reads the Gospel, and in today’s context this means the passage from St. Mark that we just heard. This suggests an ambiguity in the word ‘gospel’, for when St. Paul speaks of the gospel as he writes to Corinth, he is not referring to an older copy of Mark’s book, hand-written on a papyrus roll. He is not doing this because Mark’s book did not exist when he wrote to Corinth. Paul’s letter to Corinth was written at least fifteen years before Mark put pen to paper (or more accurately to papyrus). So, Paul is referring to the passing on of a message that was in existence and being spread by the early followers of Jesus long before any of our four gospels was in existence: not to mention some dozens more that appeared from the early second century onwards.
There may have been written collections of Jesus’ sayings and versions of his parables, but Mark was the pioneer of a new format, the first of the Gospel writers. He gives us the first book that tries to encapsulate the salient feature of Jesus’ life and teaching, but far more importantly, a book that aims to interpret the things that happened to Jesus and things that he said. He reveals for us, that is, the fundamental faith of first and second generation Christians, the faith, as St Paul puts it, that, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation”. (II Cor. 5.18f.)
Mark’s book is the shortest of the four canonical gospels (that is, the ones the church designated as “official” by the end of the second century). His account has very few parables, Jesus’ favorite method of teaching, has no stories like Matthew and Luke that tell of Jesus’ birth, and perhaps, most strikingly has no accounts of Jesus’ time with the Disciples after his execution, what we call the ‘resurrection narratives’.
The Importance of Mark's Gospel
Why, then, is Mark’s book so important? This question needs much more time than one sermon, but at least I can try to give the headings of what would need to be a whole lecture course.
1) Mark is our earliest gospel and provided the framework for the work of both Matthew and Luke.
2) Mark’s brevity suggests that the Gospel message that Paul refers to was well known among the churches by the year 50 C.E. so that Mark can take quite a lot for granted. It is worth noting that Mark is clearly not a shortened version of Mt. or Lk. as was often held in antiquity.
Mt & Lk are much longer because they add to Mark the stories and teachings just mentioned. When a passage from Mk used by Mt is compared it is found that it is Mt who has shortened Mk., removing details or redundancies.
3) His book reflects the unwritten gospel of the first few decades of which Paul speaks.
Interestingly, the speeches given by Peter and others in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles also give us insight to the framework of the Gospel before the written Gospels.
4) The framework is something like this:
- Jesus is doing the work of God; he is known in the early community as God’s anointed, Messiah in Hebrew, Christos in Greek.
- The work is no less than to rescue humanity from its self-made chaos, a chaos exemplified by the evil powers that cause madness, and all kinds of human sickness. And I want to return to this point later.
- The healing stories and nature miracles, that are so prominent in Mark, indicate that the power of God is working through Jesus to overcome the power of evil, or to calm the turbulence of nature, giving back life and health to humanity.
- Jesus’ activities, and particularly his welcoming of those regarded by the Law as unclean, bring him into conflict with the authorities, who in alliance with the demonic forces, conspire to destroy him.
- The apparent victory of these powers as Jesus dies on the cross, is reversed by the mighty action of God who declares the ultimate victory of good over evil, love over hate in the Resurrection of Jesus. It is important to note that most references to the resurrection do not say Jesus rose from the dead, but that God raised Jesus from the dead. The emphasis throughout Mark is that Jesus is God’s servant.
The Basileia Theou - Kingdom (Rule) of God
I want to spend the rest of our time considering what it is that Mark sees as central to the good news resulting from Jesus’ ministry. Mark records Jesus baptism and retreat to the dessert, and continues, “Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news, and he said, ‘the appointed time has arrived and the Kingdom of God has drawn near’”. The phrase kingdom of God is better translated the ‘rule’ or the ‘power’ of God and Mark uses it another 20 or so times in his book. Much of what follows in Mark is designed to show just how the power of God is now working and what it will mean for Jesus.
The Rule of God Operating: Jesus' Fight with the Demonic
& His Rejection of Exclusion
Mark does this by concentrating on the theme of the struggle between Jesus and the powers of darkness, the demonic forces.
The theme emerged last week when a mentally ill man is cured, though the diagnosis in not schizophrenia or any other psychiatric term we use: the man has “an unclean spirit” which is conquered by Jesus, though Mark clearly understands that it is God’s power that is at work. Today’s reading tells us of Peter’s mother-in-law cured of a fever, and then goes on to a summary section telling of cures of physical and mental illness. Next week the gospel will tell of a leper who is healed; this not only continues the theme of the divine conquest of sin and sickness, but also introduces, in a way we do not recognize unless it is pointed out to us another central theme: it is the way Jesus welcomes those who are beyond the pale: lepers were excluded from the community of Israel, and Jesus not only welcomes them, but makes bodily contact. Incidents like this are important because Mark suggests that the fight against the powers of evil also becomes a fight with the establishment of Jerusalem.
We need, however, to grasp the nettle of demonic activity. As I just noted, where we would diagnose mental illness in psychiatric terms, Mark speaks of an unclean spirit. This reminds us that it is essential to read a first century C.E. book in its historical context, and we know from multiple sources that the belief in demons and evil spirits as the source of human ills was virtually unanimous. That Jesus shared this view is quite clear and the attempt to get round this by shuffles like “he only accepted the popular view to accommodate to human limitations”, merely undermines the real humanity of Jesus. It is sobering to remember that not a single doctor knew about the bacterial basis of endless killer diseases until into the second half of the 19th century. It would be odd indeed if Jesus had said, “This man is suffering from a serotonin deficiency”, and even fundamentalists, so far as I know, do not go to an exorcist when they have an appendicitis.
The fact that most people in the Western world do not explain sickness, mental ills and natural disasters by the action of demonic forces does not in itself negate Mark’s central act of faith that God was working (and we believe, continues to work) through Jesus to overcome evil with good and hate with love.
Later on in Mark, we shall come to the story where the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being in league with the demons. Luke’s version entirely grasps Mark’s central theme. Jesus says, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then has the Kingdom, the Rule, of God come upon you”. (Lk. 11.20). This is a summary of Mark’s central message: God’s power is operating in a new way through the obedient work of his servant, Jesus, fighting the powers of evil. It is a work that involves conflict and suffering and Mark makes it clear that those who follow Jesus must be ready to share that suffering with the Messiah. Moreover, this is addressed not just to his first century readers in Rome, but to all Christians down the ages, and to us today.