Saturday, January 28, 2006

Irresistable force meets immoveable object

This year we find ourselves reading in church through the gospel of Mark.  Now the first thing any of us notice about this gospel, probably, is how short it is – just 16 chapters – and also how compact it is, a telegram gospel that hasn’t got any time to waste, that just gets straight down to the business of making big claims about who Jesus is.  A few centuries ago Bible scholars thought that Mark was like a summary of Matthew and Luke, written afterwards like a sort of Readers’ Digest Condensed Book – now we know that Mark was actually the first gospel written – a raw and urgent gospel written for the first generation of Christians living in a time of confusion and war.

And there are a couple of keys we need to help us unlock Mark’s gospel, to help us hear where Mark’s coming from and what it’s got to do with us.  And I think the keys are these: confusion, conflict and freedom.  A century ago, a Bible scholar named William Wrede pointed out that all the way through Mark’s gospel there is a tension between what we - the readers – do know but the human characters in the story don’t know – that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah.  John the Baptist comes closest but seems to have been expecting something a bit different – Peter blurts it out but literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about – only the demons that Jesus defeat know for sure who he is but the disciples miss the point all the way along until finally, when all his friends have run away in fear and confusion, it’s left to a Roman centurion to make the definitive claim: surely this man was God’s Son.  Mark’s gospel is required reading for disciples who know deep down that they don’t measure up.  The key to being a disciple is not self-knowledge – knowing who we are – but knowing who Jesus is.

The second key is this – that Mark more than any of the other gospel writers shows Jesus as being in conflict with the scribes and lawyers – not coming to fulfil the law as Matthew tells us, but to set it aside.  For Mark, the law of Israel is superseded by the new revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth – the temple that Roman forces tear down a generation later is no longer needed by his fledgling Christian community.  Mark’s Jesus has a way of dividing opinion, the first time he opens his mouth in the synagogue he finds himself locked in conflict not only with the religious leaders of the day but with demonic forces.  Mark’s gospel is for disciples who don’t have the luxury of an each-way bet.

And the third key is freedom – writing to a tired and dispirited community during or just after the failed uprising against Rome in the late 60s, Mark shows Jesus not only as the one who attracts trouble but as the one whose purpose is to set free those who are held captive – Jesus echoes the strange figure of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the one who promises freedom to God’s people, and to us.

So how does this Jesus begin? – newly baptised, prepared by fasting in the desert and accompanied by a troupe of fresh-faced disciples – he starts teaching.  If the stories and parables that begin in the next chapter are anything to go by, Jesus’ approach to preaching is different – he doesn’t start, as the scribes do, by expounding the finer points of the Law of Moses – but by drawing directly on common life experience to teach about God’s love and compassion.  You know what God is like because God made you, God made the world you live in.  Even though things get muddled and confused in your life, you know the goodness of things, you know what love is.  Don’t be afraid.  Jesus’ approach to teaching about God is to give power to the ones listening, not the one doing the talking.  

And then the story gets interrupted by a demon – the first full-frontal challenge to Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Here is where we modern types tend to get a bit vague – is this just an example of something we would recognise today as schizophrenia or some other psychiatric illness?  Well maybe, but explaining it away doesn’t do justice to the fact that something real is happening here, the demonic - at the very least - is what holds people in a grip so powerful that they spend their whole lives and every ounce of their energy trying to twist free, the demonic is what holds real men and women captive – we don’t need to look too far in our own world to see the same sort of thing happening, whether it’s mental illness, or political oppression, or the insane competition for money and status and consumer goods.  And this demon recognises Jesus, the demonic knows only too well that it can’t exist alongside holiness – another word that tends to embarrass modern folk, even some Christians, with its old-fashioned whiff of piety.  Holiness is the opposite of madness because holiness is connection with what gives us life.

And it’s how Jesus meets the challenge of the demonic that is the essential point of the ‘good news’ of God’s reign.  We don’t know what Jesus’ sermon was about that day, but we do know what his point was – it’s a demonstration of what John the Baptist means when he says that Jesus is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.  The important point is setting people free from what binds them, from the shame or guilt of past failures or the anxiety of a fearful future.  The authority that Jesus teaches with is the authority that sets people free and makes new beginnings possible.

The reign of God that Jesus teaches us about in Mark’s gospel is good news because it sets us free to be the people God created us to be.  Don’t be afraid.  The God who made you, who loves you, is growing within you – but we need to understand the powers that keep people from being truly free, the false gods that enslave people.  Jesus makes no bones about it – proclaiming the good news of God’s reign means seeing ourselves as being in opposition to the alternative.  We need to learn to recognise the symptoms of the madness of the world we live in – people living lives dominated by loneliness in a world where so many live for themselves alone – people afraid to take the risk of reaching out to another human being because of the memory of past rejection or loss.

Hearing and being transformed by Jesus’ announcement of the reign of God also means having the courage to confront our own madness, naming the smallness of our capacity to love, our selfishness and the ways we hem ourselves in with shame and guilt.  But as post-resurrection disciples who do know the secret that the human characters of Mark’s gospel struggle to understand – the secret of who Jesus really is that is finally fully revealed when he submits to a shameful death on the cross – that intersection of human madness and divine love - and – impossibly! - draws from it new life and freedom - as post-resurrection disciples we also need to hear that all of our failures and limitations, all the smallness and all the madness of our own lives are transformed to the extent that we dare to bring them face-to-face with the holiness of God in Jesus Christ.

This of course is the very centre of our Christian faith and spirituality – what St Paul refers to as growing towards maturity in Christ – depends on our participation, in prayer, in our life as a Church, above all in the sacrament of the Eucharist – in recognising and confronting all that alienates and entraps us, all that enslaves our world and the whole weight of human suffering – and offer it up to be transformed by the suffering love of Christ.   

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What’s this?’ A new teaching! He commands even the unclean spirits with authority, and they obey him’.