It was a transformational experience for me to have to wrestle my way through the Gospel of Mark this last year. It is fun for me to look through my bible now and see all the marked up places in the second book of the New Testament. I hope your bible got a little “marked up” also (pun intended).
I have been spending some time these last few days reflecting on what parts of Mark have stuck deep inside me.
Without question the first thing I think about is the kingdom of God. There are many stories and sermons in the Gospel, but there is one primary message: “…the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15). Whatever else the early church thought about Jesus, they knew this one truth; Christ had come to announce the reign of God in creation. That reign establishes a new reality, a new people, and a new way of living in the world. The call of the Gospel, first and foremost is to repent of all of the former ways of life and to enter into God’s new kingdom through Jesus.
The second thing I think about, however, is how hard it is for us to imagine that a new kingdom is present. I am convinced that this is a major part of the reason Mark gives the reader the parables of Jesus. The parables help disciples discover the unusual reality of God’s kingdom. Parables help to subvert our imaginations. The parable that resonates with me most from Mark is the Parable of the Sower (4:1-9). When we hear the word “kingdom” we usually think about power, might, wealth, pomp, and circumstance. But the kingdom of God is not like a warrior who went out to conquer. It is not like an emperor who goes out to expand his empire. The kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow seed. What a contrast! Every kingdom that has come in human history has come through conquest and revolution. God’s kingdom will come like a farmer faithfully distributing seed and waiting for the good soil to respond. Amazing! I have a hard time even imagining that. (Which is exactly the point).
The importance of the signs of the kingdom breaking into the world is the third thing that sticks with me from Mark. The miracles of Jesus are clearly not just present in the Gospel to let the reader know the power present in the life of Jesus. Rather, the signs reveal something about the nature of the kingdom as it breaks in. Those paralyzed by sin are able to walk. Those who cannot hear or speak about the kingdom are healed. Lepers who are considered unclean and thus excluded from community are not only restored to health but to relationship with others. People oppressed and possessed by the principalities and powers that bring destruction are set free to be what God created them to be. But most importantly for Mark, those who are blind – those who simply cannot see what the kingdom of God is about – are touched so that they can clearly see the truth of the kingdom clearly.
The most marked up places in my bible are chapters 8 through 11 where three times Jesus talks about how the Messiah must suffer, but the disciples simply cannot see what he means. He keeps talking about the self-giving love that is the essence of the kingdom, while they keep fighting over who is the greatest and arguing about who will get to sit at the right and the left in the kingdom. They, like us, need a complete do-over. Unless we become like little children, we will never see, let alone enter, the kingdom of God.
The fourth and perhaps most important idea that sticks with me from Mark is the call to take up the cross (8:34-35). When the good news about Jesus is proclaimed today it is often preached as something Jesus did for us so that we now don’t have to do anything except cognitively ascent to a few propositions. Certainly Jesus did something for us that we could not do for ourselves. He alone brought the kingdom and he invites us by grace alone to share in it. But the call is for disciples not just to cognitively ascent (to “believe”) in what he has done, but we are called to share in the kingdom. The invitation to discipleship in Mark is for the disciple to take up their cross also and follow Jesus.
Discipleship is a call to kingdom work, but it is not a call to “works righteousness.” This is the fifth thing that I take away from Mark. The call of Jesus is to kingdom faithfulness but it is not a call to religiosity. I have been deeply shaken by Mark chapters 11-13 that deal primarily with the fall of Jerusalem and the religious establishment that gave structure to the life of Jesus and the disciples. Readers of Mark should always be keenly aware that the Pharisees, scribes, and other Jerusalem leaders, who so badly missed seeing the kingdom, were not secular people but very religious. I do not believe that the religious leaders were evil people. In fact, I think they probably look a lot like me. I believe their intentions were to protect the faith that they loved and the temple establishment that gave meaning to their existence. Before we get too critical of the pagans in our world today we should never forget that well-intentioned religious leaders crucified Jesus. Lord, have mercy.
Finally, I take away the young naked man who fled from the Gethsemane (14:51). I don’t know if the scholars who see this young man as a literary devise used by Mark to symbolize the church are right. But that interpretation does make a lot of sense to me. I love that like the rest of the disciples who run away when persecution comes, this young man’s flaws, fears, and sin are exposed. Before the cost of discipleship we are all exposed as naked and broken. But I am convinced that it is this same young man who reappears in chapter 16 at the empty tomb as the witness to the resurrected Lord. He is no longer naked but wrapped in the white robe of the saints. He is the Church. He is every one of us. He is the sinful person redeemed by God’s grace to be a witness to the most important truth in the world: the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and forever.
I love that Mark begins his account of the life of Jesus this way, “The beginning of the good news (the Gospel) of Jesus, the Son of God” (1:1). What Mark has given us is the beginning of the coming of the kingdom. The continuation of the Gospel takes place in and through you and me. May it be so.