Where Begins the Gospel?

An ambiguous word comes loaded with meaning.

An image of the evangelist Mark in the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels, 7th-8th centuries.

Sometimes, when reading the Bible, we encounter a word, a phrase, or a sentence that seems so ridiculously simple. We read it and move on, giving it no further thought. But if we stop to pinpoint its meaning, what had seemed so simple becomes ambiguous. It possesses layers of meaning.

One classic example is the sentence fragment that opens the Gospel of Mark: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). It sounds simple and straightforward. That is, until we try to understand what the author means by the word beginning. Just what does constitute the beginning of his gospel?

I contend that there are at least four possible ways of understanding that simple word.

1) The sentence fragment may serve as a book title. Ancient books did not have titles like published books today. When people made reference to a particular book, instead of naming its title they would quote its opening word or words.

For example, in English Bibles, we give each of the five books of Moses a title: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Hebrew Bible, however, their titles are the opening words of each book. Genesis is not called Genesis but Bereshit (In the beginning), which is the opening word of Genesis in Hebrew.

Mark may intend the opening fragment of his gospel to serve this purpose. He is telling his reader that he is herewith beginning to  tell  the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2.  When we notice, however, what immediately follows this opening fragment (Mark 1:2-8), we find Mark quoting a passage out of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Maybe Mark wants us to see this quotation as the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This may be a way Mark signals to us that the gospel of Jesus Christ really begins in the Old Testament. The Old Testament story of Israel is the necessary preparation for the coming of the gospel.

This interpretation does not sound so far-fetched when we notice how it is impossible to understand the fullness of the New Testament message unless we soak ourselves deeply in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are constantly quoting the Old Testament. They use theological terms and images that have their origins in the Old Testament. And the Old Testament provides the fundamental theological premises on which the New Testament writers build their own theologies.

The New Testament becomes wobbly in its proclamations without the background of the Old Testament. So the Old Testament itself may be the beginning of the gospel which Mark is proclaiming.

3) I always believe that it is essential to pay attention to context when trying to interpret an isolated phrase or sentence in a Bible passage. The opening of Mark is no exception.

If we pay attention to what follows the opening fragment (again Mark 1:2-8), we find it is not only a quotation from the Old Testament, but also the story of the coming of John the Baptist and his ministry of baptism in the desert. In fact, the quotation from Isaiah serves to leads us into this ministry.

So a third option for understanding the beginning of the gospel is the ministry of John the Baptist. In fact, all four gospels in the New Testament acknowledge that the ministry of John the Baptist as the trigger that launches Jesus on his own ministry. Jesus does not begin his preaching, teaching, and healing until he has been baptized by John.

Christians have ever since acknowledged the crucial role of John in launching the Christian movement by giving him the title the Forerunner. In Orthodox iconography, like the mosaic of the deësis in Istanbul’s church of Hagia Sophia, John always stands to the immediate left of the central icon of Jesus.

Deesis_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg

4) The final possible meaning requires looking upon the whole of Mark’s gospel as the context for its opening sentence fragment.

Scholars have longed noticed that in the manuscript tradition the gospel of Mark has ended oddly. In the earliest manuscripts it ends with chapter 16, verse 8. Scribes added verses 16:9-20 to the gospel only centuries later.

So Mark’s original text appears to have ended with the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed by a young man (an angel?) to the women at the tomb. But oddly Mark’s gospel contains no appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples as do the other three gospels. Instead the young man tells the women that the risen Jesus will go before his disciples into Galilee. There they will see him (Mark 16:6-7).

But Mark never records that appearance in Galilee. Why? That’s one big puzzle in studying Mark.

It is important, however, to recognize what Galilee represents in Mark’s gospel. It is not the Jewish heartland. Judea and Jerusalem are that. Galilee is more of a borderland. Its populace mingles Jews with Gentiles. To a Jewish purist, it is therefore a place where one might risk religious contamination.

Yet the young man tells the women at the tomb that Jesus’ disciples will meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. Is this coded language by which Mark is suggesting that Christians will meet the risen Jesus when they continue his ministry in the borderlands, in those lands where races, ethnic identities, social classes, and religions intermingle.

This leads me to wonder if Mark sees the movement of Christians out of Palestine and into the Gentile world as the continuation of the gospel ministry of Jesus. That gospel ministry began in Galilee. There was the beginning of the gospel, but not the end. The full story is to be found in the spread of the gospel out into the whole world. The ministry of Jesus–his life, his death, his resurrection–is only the beginning.

Now which of these possible interpretations does Mark have in mind when he writes The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God? Is it possible that he does not have just one of these meanings in mind? Is it not possible that that simple, but ambiguous sentence fragment embraces all four?

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Naked Lad on the Run

How do we make sense of a stray detail in Mark’s story of Jesus’ betrayal?

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-31-_-_Kiss_of_Judas

The kiss of Judas from Giotto’s fresco series in the Arena Chapel in Padua, 1305.

In Mark’s account (Mark 14:32-52) of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he includes a detail that has puzzled both scholars and general readers ever since. He says that after Jesus’ arrest, his disciples all fled and deserted him.

Then follows these two odd sentences:

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14:51-52)

Mark does not explain it. He does not tell us who the young man was nor why he was wearing only a linen cloth. Nor are we given any clue why the memory of this young man was preserved. What relevance does it have the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death?

Wild speculation has raged as a result. Some scholars suggest the young man was John Mark, the alleged author of Mark’s gospel. Others have let their imaginations run wilder with even more bizarre fictions.

I myself have long wondered why Mark includes this odd detail in his narrative. And it is only recently that I have come to some inkling of why. Let me offer my speculation.

Mark as a Literary Artist

When we read the gospel of Mark, we find the author has a practice of using the literary device we call an inclusio. In this device the author brackets a part of his narrative between two short stories or comments that serve as bookends for the passage in between.

We see that in Mark with the great block of teaching in the center of Mark’s gospel. There Jesus teaches his disciples about his mission as Messiah and their discipleship (Mark 8:27-10:45). Mark introduces this block of teaching with a story of Jesus healing a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). This healing is a difficult one. It requires two stages.

At the end of the block of teaching, Mark also recounts the story of the healing of another blind man, Bartimaeus of Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). These stories are not accidentally placed. Mark seems to suggest that when Jesus teaches his disciples, he is trying to heal them of their spiritual blindness. This healing is slow and arduous, progressing in stages.

Again, we find Mark uses the device of inclusio when he recounts the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, 20-24. This story comes in two parts. The first part recounts Jesus cursing the tree. The second recounts how the disciples the next day find the tree withered and dead.

It’s a troubling story as it does not fit our preconceptions of Jesus. He seems peevish. But we need to notice that these two parts of the story sandwich a story in between. It is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of its noisy commercial activities in order to restore it to being a house of prayer.

I want to suggest that Mark is once again using inclusio to comment theologically on the story of the temple cleansing. Jesus comes to the temple expecting to find it a place that nurtures spiritual fruit. Instead he finds it a place of noisy commerce. It has betrayed its spiritual purpose. And therefore it is going to swept away in the future.

It may seem odd to us that Mark makes his theological comments in this subtle way instead of making them more directly. But nonetheless he chooses to so do.

Inclusio at Work Again

Now we come to the story in the Garden of Gethsemane. It tells this odd story of the lad who runs away naked at Jesus’ arrest. I want to suggest that this story is again a part of an inclusio that Mark employs to make a theological comment on the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and resurrection.

When Jesus is arrested, all his disciples flee. A bit later, Peter will deny Jesus. None of the disciples, in Mark’s account, attend Jesus in his crucifixion. Jesus dies alone, as I note in my previous blog posting Divine Desolation.

What the passion story reveals for Mark is the true character of the disciples. They are a fearful lot. They have no psychological or spiritual backbone. And when they desert Jesus, they shed any pretense that they may have had of faithfulness and piety.

In including the detail about the young man running away naked, Mark is commenting theologically on the disciples. In a sense, they are stripped naked spiritually, and they run away in shame.

The Second Bracket

Now if this detail forms the first part of an inclusio, we ask: Where is the second bracket? I want to suggest we find it in Mark’s account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8.

When the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb and enter it, Mark says they encounter a young man sitting there. He is dressed in a white robe. Mark does not call him an angel as Matthew does. Mark explicitly calls him a young man.

This young man, I want to contend, is the second bracket. And he too is a theological comment on the story.

With Jesus’ resurrection, the disgraced disciples will be restored to grace. They will be renewed. Jesus will forgive them, explicitly at told in the case of Peter in John 21. In the new era of the kingdom which has dawned with Jesus’ resurrection, they will receive a new status of honor and dignity. They will be called to the noble mission of apostleship. In symbolic terms, they will be spiritually re-clothed as the young man in the tomb has been.

Significantly Mark tells us the young man is dressed in white. Here may be an allusion to the rite of baptism in the early church. When new converts was baptized, they stripped off their secular clothes and were immersed in the baptismal pool as if they were new babies. When they emerged from the waters, they were dressed in white robes and then led into the church congregation for their first participation in the Lord’s Supper. The white robe signified their adoption into the family of God with all it conferred in honor and dignity.

What narrative do we find sandwiched within these two brackets of the inclusio? It is the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In this story, the disciples will be stripped of their pretensions and then restored to honored status in Jesus’ family. The two stories of the young man are alerting the reader or listener as to what is spiritually going on in this tragic yet grand story.

Yet One More Possible Meaning

There is yet another possible meaning in these subtle comments. Jesus himself will be stripped of his honor and dignity in the story that follows the detail of the naked lad running away. He will be heaped with shame, for crucified men were usually stripped naked before being nailed to the cross. Yet in the resurrection Jesus will be re-clothed not only in his resurrected body, but with a spiritual dignity and honor that surpasses all measure.

Once again the two brackets are alerting us how to read the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I concede that if this is what Mark is doing with this strange inclusio, it is very subtle theology. But if we have been paying close attention as we read all the way through Mark’s gospel, we come to realize that though he is abrupt at times and sparing in words, Mark is an extremely subtle theologian. And if we are to catch his depths, we cannot skim through his gospel.

 

Divine Desolation

Mark’s account of the death of Jesus is the bleakest of the four gospels, yet it evokes a surprising sense of awe.

Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_019

The crucifixion of Jesus as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim altarpiece, 15th century

Of the four gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, I find Mark’s account (Mark 15) the bleakest.

Jesus dies utterly alone. All his disciples have fled out of fear of the authorities. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ mother being at the foot of the cross, as John does. Only three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Jose, and Salome, witness his death. They do so from a distance.

In Mark a barrage of abuse accompanies Jesus in his death. In the Roman judgment hall, the Roman soldiers mock him. They spit on him and pay mock homage. The passers-by at the crucifixion site deride him. The priests and scribes witnessing his death mock him as well. In Mark both of the bandits crucified with him also taunt him. There is no mention of the repentant thief that we find in Luke.

Jesus’s final words in Mark are the quotation from Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1) Jesus seems to be saying that even God his Father has abandoned him. The bystanders misunderstand and therefore distort this final cry of desolation. They think Jesus is calling on Elijah to come to his rescue.

These final words in Mark contrast sharply with Jesus’s last words in Luke, where Jesus’ final cry is: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46). This seems to be a much more faith-filled acceptance of death than the words of Psalm 22. They follow upon Jesus’ earlier compassionate words on the cross: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

And in John, Jesus’ final words are a kind of triumphant declaration: It is finished (John 19:30). It is as if Jesus is the valiant soldier, who has achieved his assigned objective, and now in his dying breath declares: “Mission accomplished.”

There is none of these positive notes in Mark’s account. Jesus not only dies alone, but in deep darkness. Mark says a gloom descends upon the land even though it is noontime. It is as if the whole of creation is closing in on Jesus to suffocate him.

A Mystifying Turn in a Bleak Account

It is because of this bleak account that I find so surprisingly unexpected the final words in Mark on Jesus’ death. They are the words of the Roman centurion who presides over the crucifixion. Mark quotes the soldier as saying: Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39).

 An alternate translation of the Greek could also be “Truly this man was a son of God.” The right translation does not concern me, even though it will some who worry this alternate translation disparages Jesus’ divinity. What jumps out at me is this startling comment from a Gentile who apparently had never had any previous contact with Jesus.*

Mark says the comment was provoked by the centurion’s observation of the way Jesus died.

This raises for me the question: What was it about the way Jesus died that would evoke such a startling comment from a bystander who had probably witnessed many a crucifixion? It seems to be all the more extraordinary given Jesus’ final words in Mark. We are left with a mystery.

If their accounts give us accurate reports on the crucifixion, then Luke’s and John’s accounts of Jesus’ dying words may give us some insight into the centurion’s reaction. Comments like those Luke and John record would have likely been highly unusual in a normal crucifixion. And given the barrage of abuse he endured, it is surprising that Jesus never responds with words of anger, cursing, and vituperation such as many a dying man on a cross might have hurled back at his abusers.

But there was something unusual about Jesus’ death that evoked this judgment from the centurion. It is as if the centurion was able to discern the presence of the divine in this moment of desolation. This is what I presume that Mark wants his readers and listeners to discern as well.

What was it that opened the centurion’s eyes to this perception? We cannot know, but as in his life so also in his death, Jesus’ actions evoked a sense of awe from some of the people who encountered him.

Two Awesome Deaths

As I read Mark’s account, I am reminded on another death where the manner in which the condemned man died results in a kind of awe from bystanders. It is the death of Socrates, as recounted in Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo. Like Jesus’ execution, Socraetes’ death too is an blatant act of injustice. But when you read Plato, you get the sense of awe that Plato and Socrates’ other companions had as they witnessed Socrates’ calm acceptance of his approaching death. They must have been mystified by it.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, there are not the notes of placid calmness that we find in Plato. Jesus’ death is much more unsettling. Mark punctures any pious Pollyanna complacency we might feel about that death. Yet Jesus’ death too issues in an emotion of awe on the part of the centurion. That is part of the drama of Mark, and part of the drama of the Christian gospel.

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* I am aware some people question whether Mark records facts accurately. Is the centurion’s comment Mark’s embellishment? We can never know. But the issue of historicity does not concern me. I enter into the story as Mark tells it. And I ask the question that the story raises within me.

 

The Secret Code to the Kingdom of God

We find the key to understanding the Kingdom of God in an unexpected place.

Jesus was a great teacher. That is one of his salient characteristics that the New Testament gospels portray for us. We are told his teaching astounded his audiences, in part by its wisdom and in part by the authority with which he taught. It still does for us today.

His teaching also puzzled people. He said peculiar things, things that were not common sense. And he taught many times by telling short stories. We call them parables. What did these parables mean? Sometimes they struck his audience–and us today–as riddles. They must be told in a secret code. What is the key that unlocks that code?

That’s the first impression we may get when we read Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 4 of his gospel. Mark begins his account by telling one parable that Jesus spoke to the listening crowd.

It told about a farmer planting seed. The seed fell upon various kinds of soil. On three of the soils the seed did not thrive. Only on the fourth did the seed sprout, grow, and produce a rich harvest. Jesus ends with the admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

His disciples don’t understand the parable; they ask Jesus to explain it. He gives his parable an allegorical interpretation. The seed is the word of the gospel. And the four soils are different kinds of people who receive this gospel word. Only one group really absorbs the word and lets it transform their lives.

Must We Have a Secret Code to Understand Jesus’ Teaching?

This interpretation seems to hint that there is indeed a secret code to understanding Jesus’ parables. Our fears are confirmed, we think, when we hear what Jesus says just before he launches into his interpretation:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ [Mark 4:11-12]

Jesus seems to be asserting that there is indeed a secret code to understanding his parables. And it is secret so people will not understand his teaching, but remain trapped in their sinful ways.

This statement has troubled almost everyone who reads Mark’s gospel. It seems the exact opposite to what we think is the motivation of Jesus in teaching. Jesus comes across as a mischievous teacher, not one concerned with clear communication.

It also seems as if Jesus constitutes his disciples into an elite group who alone understand the true meaning of his teaching. Ancient Gnosticism made hay out of this. When they taught that Jesus was a savior, they had in mind that Jesus taught a secret esoteric knowledge that only the spiritually enlightened understood. Everyone else was left with distracting and ultimately useless religious practices.

Decoding the Secret

There has been much scholarly ink spilled on Jesus’ phrase “the secret of the kingdom of God.” What is it? I would like to offer my personal answer.

I propose that “the secret of the kingdom of God” is not some elitist, esoteric knowledge, but is something much simpler. The secret is the person of Jesus himself.

Jesus–his life, his actions, his death, his resurrection–is in fact the secret that opens up our understanding of what the kingdom of God is. His teaching plays an important role in that, but not the most important role. It is his life and character that offer the secret key to our understanding.

As we read further into Mark’s gospel, we discover that for Jesus, the kingdom of God [and his mission in it] is not about fear or coercion or even awe-inspiring spectacle. It is not about domination. It is about doing the will of God and about compassionate service.

If Jesus gives us one secret key to understanding the kingdom of God, then I find it in chapter 10 of Mark. There his disciples James and John come to him asking that they can sit on his right hand and left when Jesus comes in his glory.

Jesus responds that they do not know what they are asking. Because when he comes in his glory, he will not be a king like those rulers among the Gentiles that they see all around them in the ancient world. His kingship is about service. And he ends with these weighty words: For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:45]

These words are the key to understanding Jesus’ understanding of his mission…and his understanding of the kingdom of God. They are the key to the code.

They are also the interpretative key to understanding Jesus’ life. For in the end what reveals the kingdom of God is not primarily Jesus’ teaching. It is the life he lives and the death he accepts. What the resurrection does is to provide divine confirmation that this pattern of living truly reveals what the kingdom of God is. Understanding this pattern becomes the true enlightenment.

The Hard Work of Achieving Enlightenment

But this enlightenment does not come quickly for most of us. It requires a serious engagement with the gospel. As we persist in seeking to understand the kingdom of God, then over time we will grow in our enlightened understanding.

This, I suggest, is the import of another strange thing Jesus says later in chapter 4 of Mark. He says: Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [Mark 4:24-25]

If we continue to struggle with the gospel, if we persist in our meditation upon its words, turning them over in our minds and seeking to open them up, then insight will come. But if we have no time for this serious work, then we are in danger. The insight we already have may slip away and be lost.

When Jacob confronts and wrestles with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32), his persistence in not letting go finally leads to his blessing. In a similar way, I contend, our commitment to the hard work of listening and wrestling with the gospel becomes the key that opens the door into spiritual insight.

When we reach that enlightenment, we discover that the kingdom of God is truly not about being served, about garnering domination and honor, but about extending our lives out into compassionate service to others. That is the secret that the pattern of Jesus’ life and death reveals to us.

Blessed Are They Who Change Their Minds

Reading the gospel in Greek helps redefine the meaning of repentance.

Mary Magdalene by the 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour

Mary Magdalene by the 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour

Have you ever noticed what are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark? In his first chapter, Mark gives a summation of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee. It goes like this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:14-15]

This is Jesus’ preaching in a sound bite version. It is one sentence. It is, however, a weighty sentence. Let me unpack it.

First, Jesus makes a theological assertion. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The Greek word translated time is the word kairos. This Greek word denotes an appointed time, a deadline or a meeting date we might enter into an appointment calendar.

To understand what Jesus is saying we must also cast an eye back to the Old Testament. This time is the time of which the Hebrew prophets often spoke. It is the long-anticipated but also long-delayed time when God would come to deliver his people, to establish justice in the earth, to make unchallenged his sovereignty over the whole earth, and, finally, to usher in an era of universal peace and healing.

That time, Jesus says, has arrived at last. The kingship of God is about to be established fully. Its arrival is right on our doorstep. This would have been astoundingly good news (gospel) to the oppressed people of Galilee… as it continues to be for believers today.

But make no mistake about it. It is a theological claim, whether we believe it or not.

Ethics Follow the Theology

Then Jesus draws the implications for behavior that grow out of this claim. Repent, and believe the good news. Behavior follows upon the theology. (This, by the way, is the same pattern we find in the apostle Paul’s letters, where the first portion of his letters lays out Paul’s theology. In the second portion he draws out the implications of that theology for how Christians are to live. His Letter to the Romans is a classic example.)

Now here’s where knowing a little Greek starts to make things interesting. The Greek word translated repent is the Greek verb metanoeite. Most Bible translators translate it as repent, but I am not sure our common English understanding of repentance does justice to the Greek verb.

We today have this idea that repentance means primarily feeling remorse or contrition for our sins and failures and then resolving to change. Our classic image of repentance is one favored by Renaissance painters. It shows a disheveled Mary Magdalene weeping in front of a burning candle. Repentance for us, therefore, has a very strong emotional cast to it.

The root of metanoeite, however, does not have this strong emotional cast. More literally, it means to change one’s mind. It, therefore, has a more mental rather than emotional flavoring. What it refers to might be more accurately described as changing a mindset, or revising a particular way of looking at things.

What we are being asked to change is those customary ways we approach life, those deep-seated assumptions and convictions that govern our behavior. These assumptions and convictions may be deeply embedded in our psyche. They often come from childhood interpretations of our experiences. They become a part of our emotional make-up. But they are not ephemeral feelings in themselves. They are settled assumptions from which we approach life, react in our relationships, and determine how we will behave.

The Power of Mindsets

Repentance then is discarding or at least revising these settled assumptions in the light of the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. If we really believe this to be good news, it will shake up and transform how we see life and how we behave. We will come to look at life differently, to feel differently, and then to act differently.

In this respect, repentance may involve us in a dramatic change of direction in our life. That change may have strong emotional resonances. But it all begins with that change of mindset.

If this sounds unfamiliar, let me provide an example to clarify what I mean. In a segment of the British TV comedy Faulty Towers, Basil, the hotel owner, learns that a representative of the hotel industry will be visiting his hotel secretly and rating it.

Basil is consumed with frantic anxiety about this upcoming visit. He is determined that this secret inspector will be given a royal treatment while he is staying at the hotel. When a particular guest registers, Basil is convinced that he is the secret inspector. And so he fawns all over this guest, trying to anticipate his every need and whim and satisfying it. In the process Basil makes a fool of himself.

Of course this guest is not the secret inspector. Another guest is, but Basil brushes this other guest off and treats him rudely. Only at the end of the segment does Basil learn his mistake.

It makes for uproarious laughter, but the segment also shows the power of how our beliefs shape our behavior. Basil might have saved the day if he had been willing to question his basic assumptions about who was the inspector and who was not. If he had, his behavior might have dramatically changed, too.

If we believe life is a dog-eat-dog world, then we will live a life based upon one-up-man-ship, keeping a close eye on every opportunity to upend or do in our competitors. If we believe life is structured to beat us down, then we will approach most relationships with suspicion and fear. If, on the other hand, we believe that a loving God is our constant companion throughout our days, then we will approach life with far greater resilience.

Our mindset does indeed shape how we feel and how we act. And if we really believe the Christian gospel message that the kingdom of God has entered into our world through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, then we may need to engage in some serious change in our fundamental assumptions, convictions, and mindsets. That is repentance.

This insight gives rise to a new beatitude: Blessed are they who change their minds.

An Added Note:

Do not take what I have just written as my assuming such a transformation of our mindsets is an instantaneous experience for most of us. It is not. For most of us, it is a journey, a life-long journey. But that is the subject for another blog posting someday.

The Authoritative Voice of Jesus

What must it have been like to hear Jesus speak?

Recently I began re-reading the gospel of Mark. We don’t get far into the gospel before Mark recounts Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-20) is terse. Jesus encounters both sets of brothers along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. All are fishermen. Jesus calls them to follow him, saying “I will make you become fishers of men.” In both cases, Mark says, the brothers leave their nets (and James and John their father) and start to follow Jesus.

Mark says they do this immediately. That detail is likely to arouse curiosity for most readers. Why would these four men abandon everything to follow Jesus upon their first encounter with Jesus–and do so immediately? Had they had some prior contact with Jesus? (The gospel of John suggests that Andrew may have had.)

Mark gives no explanation. He seems unconcerned with the question. His purpose in telling the story is to set it up as a paradigm for Christian discipleship. Here is the essence of discipleship. But Mark may give a subtle answer to our question if we are careful to read between his lines.

Manifesting Authority

In the story that immediately follows (Mark 1:21-28), Mark tells of Jesus’ first healing miracle. In a synagogue in Capernaum, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit challenges Jesus. Jesus casts it out to the amazement of the congregation. They comment to themselves, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

As a prelude to the miracle, Mark says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. The congregation is astonished with his teaching, because “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Mark bookends the miracle with public comments about the authority with which Jesus speaks and acts. This places great emphasis on the sense of authority that people perceive when they are around Jesus.

The fact that these allusions to the authoritative impact of Jesus’ voice and presence follow immediately upon the story of the disciples’ call may suggest an answer to why Simon, Andrew, James, and John respond immediately. When Jesus issues his call, he does so with an authority that leaves the four men no other option but to respond immediately.

If that is the case, then hearing the voice of Jesus directly addressing them must have been a profoundly moving experience. Which triggers my curiosity. What was it about Jesus’ voice that conveyed that sense of authority, an authority that commanded a life-changing response? Was there a special quality to the sound of Jesus’ voice?

Mark does not satisfy my curiosity, nor does any other gospel writer. Yet they bear witness to that sense of authority that Jesus conveyed to those he taught and those he called. It seems to have left an imprint on everyone he met, even his enemies. They castigated him for not staying within the lines of accepted religious discourse as hallowed by scribal tradition. He seemed to take a stance authoritatively above it.

The Sources of Jesus’ Sense of Authority

Where did that quality of authority come from? If we stay within the confines of Mark’s gospel alone, Mark must have seen it coming from Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11). We cannot know what that experience was like for Jesus. But it must have been a deeply transforming experience, comparable to the transforming experience of enlightenment that the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi tree. In both cases, Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama were never the same.

One source of Jesus’ authority therefore must be that profoundly transforming spiritual experience (as it was for the Buddha as well). For those of us who have never experienced such a profoundly soul-shaking experience, we can never fully appreciate how utterly transforming such experiences must be. The apostle Paul would be able to, as would also the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. But for the rest of us, most of us know the reality and power of such experiences by the effect it has on people’s lives afterwards.

This experience of Jesus at his baptism must have also transformed Jesus by solidifying his resolve and commitment to seek first the kingship of God above all other things. His life therefore became a perfect realization of what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “But seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus could live fully in the present moment because he trusted in the loving kingship of his Father.

That fact about Jesus must also have contributed to the sense of authority that people sensed when they heard Jesus teach. He lived what he preached. There was no inconsistency between what he said and what he did. The authority of his teaching therefore drew some of its power from the integrity of the life he lived. That integrity was sealed by his death.

Talk about authority is generally distasteful for many Americans today. The spirit of our age is anti-authoritarian. We are suspicious of authority, and for good reason. When authority is misused and abused, we have good reason for distrusting it. But if we are to understand the mindset of the New Testament, we must come to re-appreciate the legitimate role of authority. The earliest Christian confession is Jesus is Lord. The one we revere is more than a persuasive teacher. He is also one who authoritatively calls: Follow me.

A Basket with Alabaster Eggs

Reading a Bible story dense with meaning.

Once when I was young, I was strolling through a store that was selling an Easter basket filled with smooth and colorful eggs. They looked enticing. But when I tried to lift the basket, I found it very heavy. The eggs were made out of Italian alabaster.

That is my analogy to the experience of reading Mark 4:35-41. This is a very short gospel story—only six verses long. On the surface it seems to be just a naïve miracle story. Jesus calms a ferocious storm on the Sea of Galilee with three words spoken into the wind, “Peace! Be still!” Wow, isn’t that cool!

Mark, however, is never a naïve storyteller. He can be laconic. He does not pad his stories with lots of verbiage. He tends to tell a story straight and direct. Nonetheless he builds a wealth of association into the few details he chooses to use. In that respect, details are heavy with meaning. A short story like this can resemble that basket filled with alabaster eggs.

Many of his associations have links back to the Old Testament. If you are going to plumb the depths of Mark’s writing, you will need to steep yourself in the Hebrew Bible. That is true, however, of the whole New Testament. When you read most New Testament passages, you can gain some meaning from a surface reading. That meaning may be spiritually helpful. But if you draw upon the passage’s links to the Old Testament, the New Testament passage comes even more richly alive.

Sea storms as ferocious monsters

Take, for example, the detail in this story of a ferocious storm at sea. The ancient Israelites were landlubbers, not sailors. They did not venture confidently out upon the sea.

Sea storms were especially terrifying to them as they were to most residents of the Middle Eastern deserts. In fact, in the Old Testament sea storms are often envisioned as sea monsters, those fearful creatures of the depths who could capsize a boat and swallow all its inhabitants alive.

The ancient Hebrews sometimes called one particular sea monster Rahab or Leviathan. The psalms and the prophets have scattered references to how God conquered this monster and cut up its body as food for the fishes. This monster seems to be a relic of some old mythological story that has not been preserved in the Bible.

It’s not accidental that the creation story in Genesis 1 begins with the earth as a formless, watery chaos over which God speaks his authoritative word, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

The raging seas were symbols of all the chaos that can overwhelm their lives, whether foreign invasion, social disorder, financial failure, and loss of health. All these forces of chaos are opposed to God and to the wellbeing of God’s people.

Mark, I believe, has that symbolism in mind when he tells us this story of a storm that rages on the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus commands the storm, he says, “Peace. Be still!” The Greek word that we translate as “be still” literally means “be muzzled.” Jesus is commanding the storm to put the muzzle back on its mouth as if it were a ferocious beast that has broken out of its cage.

If, as some scholars argue, Mark wrote his gospel to a infant church experiencing persecution, then the symbolism of Jesus calming the raging storm would have spoken powerfully to that audience.

Sailing with a community

Let’s take another of Mark’s details, the boat. A boat was an ancient symbol of the community of faith, the church. So when the small band of teacher and disciples moves out onto the sea, they do so in a boat.

That is the way, I believe, Mark is suggesting to his audience how they are all called upon to move out into the storms of our own lives. They need to do so in the company of their fellow believers.

The Lord knows that churches can be imperfect communities. They can be exceedingly fragile. Yet each of us can draw from our church communities a sustaining power when we are going through rough times. We are not called to swim out into the storm all by ourselves. If we do, we’ll likely drown. But we are called to row out into the storms of life within the shelter of the boat and our fellow rowers.

There’s a third significant detail in the story. Mark tells us that when the storm arises, Jesus is asleep on a pillow in the stern of the boat. The stern would be the place where the helmsman would sit to control the tiller that steered the boat. In a Galilean boat he would sit upon the pillow.

But in this story, Jesus occupies the pillow. He occupies the position of the helmsman, who’s steering the boat. But there is one glaring detail out of place. He is asleep.

So often when we are going through tough times we can feel as if Jesus is fast asleep, totally unaware or unmoved by the distress we are in. But in Mark’s telling of the storm, that is an illusion. Though seemingly asleep, Jesus remains at the control point of the whole voyage.

Asking a weighty question

Finally, notice the question the disciples ask at the end of the story. “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

Again if you link this question to prior Old Testament references, like Psalm 107:23-32, the question suggests an unsettling answer. There the psalmist celebrates sailors who set out upon the sea in business ventures. When they run into raging storms that threaten to undo them, they cry out to the Lord. The Lord responds by making “the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Calming sea storms is divine action. So who indeed is this one who is telling the storm to be still, and the storm obeys him?

Maybe you can begin to see how rich this story is in its symbolism. And that makes it a very rich text for sermons.

Special note:
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, for some of my understanding of this text. He gave a presentation on this text at the recent conference of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators in early February. I found it unusually insightful.