Saturday, 25 July 2015

Mark: Why?

I've been working quite intensively with Mark's Gospel over several months now, in detail and - especially - as a whole, and I'm left with the feeling that I never really knew it before. It is so much less a simple history or biography and so much more an open-ended account filled with pace and emotion, confusion, uncertainty and pain. So I wonder, why did Mark write it?

Something we may not realise about those days is that written records of people and events were seen as much less reliable than an oral history. A document is written by just one person, often with an axe to grind, whereas an oral record is owned and protected by the community. An oral record will typically be formed and shaped by eye-witnesses, then told and retold amongst people who have heard it before and will complain about changes and inaccuracies. So why would Mark write down what Jesus did?

In many ways I am still in mid-ponder on this, but my initial thoughts are that Mark had two reasons for doing so: because the communities which had safeguarded the oral record that far were being disrupted, and because the communities were being disrupted.

As I said above, an oral record is trusted because it is owned and protected by its community. During the early-to-mid sixties AD the community in Rome was heavily persecuted, its leaders executed, and its members scattered. Then the communities in Galilee and Judea got caught up in the Jewish rebellion from 66 AD. And in 68 and 69 AD, following Nero's suicide, the empire as a whole faced an ensuing civil war, including Antioch and Alexandria, two more centres of Christian community.

So the oral record was being damaged, at just the time that key eye witnesses were being killed (or just dying). Mark had been very close to Peter and Paul in Rome and knew their stories about Jesus well ... but there was no guarantee he would survive himself. So a written record is the lesser of two evils: at least there would still have been enough eye witnesses, and those who had heard the eye witness stories, to attest to the truthfulness of Mark's retelling.

But Mark's Gospel is about more than that.

From Paul's early letters it is clear that many in the early churches expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes - thirty-odd years had gone by since Jesus' resurrection, what was going on?

More important though would have been the terrible suffering the Christian community in Rome had gone through, that the communities in Galilee and Judea were going through, and that communities in Syria and Egypt would have been afraid would come to them soon. These were people living good lives as they followed Jesus together and awaited his return; why were they suffering?

I think that is the key question behind Mark's telling of the events of Jesus' ministry. One person's written record may be less reliable than a community's telling, but it is more useful for making a point.

Mark's Gospel account says it is the beginning of good news, not the end. It says it is about Jesus who is the Messiah, the Son of God, affirmed by God and by man. But this Jesus suffered and died, and tells his followers that they too will suffer and die. Following Jesus doesn't protect you from suffering and persecution, it makes it more likely!

Mark's account shows the disciples permanently confused, always a step or two behind, often afraid. Jesus, meanwhile, keeps talking about an upside down Kingdom where death is the path to life and humiliation is the path to glory - exactly the kind of things which had been happening in Rome.

Mark is telling his readers not to get discouraged, their experience is not a sign that God's plan has gone wrong, but a sign that it is progressing.

If the disciples were shown as confused and afraid, how much more was Peter the one who always seemed to get things wrong. Yet Mark's readers had known a Peter who was the strong leader of their church; Peter had denied Jesus once, now he had willingly given his life for him. If Peter can change like that then so can any of them.

Mark leaves his writing open-ended: will the women overcome their fear and confusion and tell their story? Will the disciples go back to Galilee, to meet Jesus in their daily lives and to continue to follow him there? Will the Christian community in Rome, and throughout the empire, be able to go back to their lives? Will they be able to find Jesus there, in the midst of devastation, and can they walk with him again?

"Why?" remains a live question today. Mark provides no simple answer, but points to a person; a person who leads us through an upside-down world toward a Kingdom of justice and peace. His question is: "Will you follow?".

Monday, 20 July 2015


Tim Farron, the new Lib-Dem leader seems to be getting a lot of stick for being an evangelical Christian. In particular, he has been quizzed on his views on homosexuality and been seen as evasive because when asked if homosexual sex is a sin he would only answer that "my firm belief is that we are all sinners." It doesn't help that he has apparently abstained on an earlier vote affecting gay marriage.

I know very little about Tim Farron except that he was one of the minority of Lib-Dem MPs who actually kept their promise to vote against tuition fee rises.

I also know that Christianity, even evangelical Christianity, is a broad church with a wide range of views concerning homosexuality and gay marriage. The commonest view, certainly in my experience, is that peoples' private sexual behaviour is their own business. As Jesus (and Paul) said, "Do not judge."

One would certainly expect that a Christian who self-identifies as an old-style social liberal would be strongly in favour of equal rights for all minorities, including LGBT+ individuals. Indeed, Farron claims that he abstained from that gay marriage vote because it didn't go far enough.

What got me thinking, though, was the link between "we are all sinners" and the sinfulness, or otherwise, of homosexual sex.

Jesus was often asked questions as a 'test' or a 'trap', and refused to go along with the underlying assumptions. That's often the difficulty with these binary, yes/no, challenges - either answer affirms an invalid viewpoint. Jesus often replied with a question or a story, but he's rather better at that than I am, and probably than Farron is. So what might Farron be getting at?

I think that the problem with the "is homosexual sex sinful" question is that it ignores the relationship. In effect it reduces two people to their sexual organs and nothing else, which is a terrible, reductionist thing to do with people who are made in God's image.

When you look at a couple who claim to love one another in terms of their relationship, then you have some sort of basis for talking about Jesus and about sin. Jesus spoke about lustful thoughts, and anger as internal equivalents of adultery and murder. Paul spoke about greed and selfishness as being idolatry. And Jesus is clear that, as far as he is concerned, it is these things which come from within which are defiling, sinful, rather than the externals.

'Sin' is a tricky word to fling around, but it is reasonable to suggest that any relationship which involves lust, anger, selfishness or greed is a relationship of sinners. I hope that my own marriage also includes a lot of positive stuff, but there is no doubt that these elements are there too. We are sinners. Maybe there is a homosexual couple out there who are able to avoid these traps: if so, their relationship is clearly less sinful than mine.

In a Christian context what matters is God's grace and I see nothing anywhere in the Bible to suggest that God lavishes his grace any less on sexual minorities than on anyone else. God deals lovingly with people and relationships, not labels and prejudices.

There is an ugly, intolerant wing to secularism, just as there is an ugly intolerant wing to the church, but it would be terribly sad if the Liberal party, of all parties, were to turn against Farron because of his faith. They should give him time and see how he grows into his role. By his fruits shall they know him.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Mark: Not The End

The 'end' of Mark's Gospel is odd, doubly so.

Firstly, the original ends very strangely and, secondly, later editors have stuffed on a couple of extra bits, to try to 'correct' the strange original.

The original ending says:
"Don't be alarmed," he said, "You are looking for Jesus the Nazerene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter. He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you."
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
What sort of ending is that? Who would end a story this way?

Obviously, Mark would. The reason is that this is not a simple story, or biography, or history. It's not anything where the reader or listener is a passive observer. This is a story which continues and where Mark's listeners were called to be part of that story, and where you and I are called to be part of the story too.

As Mark told us, way back at the start, this 'Gospel' is the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God. We are, or can be, part of the continuation of that good news.

Mark's readers knew that the women had overcome their fear, moved past their initial reluctance, and told the disciples. They knew because they already knew the story - Peter had been with them in Rome for several years before he was executed.

Mark's story ends with an implicit question - what will the women do - to which his readers knew the answer. But Mark is also asking the Christians in Rome a question - will they give up after the persecution they have been through or will they carry on, however confused, upset and afraid they are feeling? We know now that the church in Rome continued and grew; but now the question is passed on to us. What will we do with the good news of Jesus? Will we pass it on, or does it end with us?

The 21st-Century church in Britain has different problems, different confusions, different worries, but I think it is fair to say that things haven't gone the way we'd have expected or hoped in recent decades. If we're really honest, the church hasn't done a particularly good job over many years, certainly not in following the example we've seen Jesus set in Mark's Gospel.

Just as Jesus told the disciples, it's time to go back to basics, to return to Galilee to meet him there and start again. The disciples hadn't done particularly well, but they had endured and God could use them. Maybe we haven't done that well in following Jesus in confusing times either, but God can use us.

Where is your Galilee? What lies at the beginning of your journey of faith, and where is its heart? How can you rediscover that simple walk with Jesus, that early enthusiasm, that honest appreciation of the life that Jesus brings? And how will you pass that on?

This is not the end!

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Triumph Over Death

The end is nigh! This is the final week of the CTM Parish's Mark sermon series, as we come to the end of Mark's Gospel. Of course, we all know how the story ends - it's pretty much summed up in the title above ... isn't it?

Except that Mark doesn't really tell it that way.

At the end of last week's instalment, the trap had closed - Jesus was on his own, betrayed, abandoned and captured. The religious authorities had taken him and planned to exact their revenge. The outlook was bleak.

They give Jesus a mockery of a trial, and are still having trouble making their case. So Jesus helps them out, agreeing that he is "the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One." A reminder that Jesus is no helpless victim in this process; he has been prodding and poking and shaming the religious leaders to provoke a reaction from the beginning. He is not letting them off the hook now: they can choose to do evil or they can choose to do good, but they must choose.

Off to Pilate, the local leader of the occupying Roman power. He is playing his own games, but has no interest in blocking a determined drive by the native powers-that-be. Jesus is tortured, mocked and condemned to death.

Then they crucify Jesus.

There's more mockery, mostly along the lines of 'if Jesus is really who he says then he'll come down off the cross and avoid the suffering and death'. Maybe it's a cry of anyone faced with suffering: surely if God loves us then he would save us from this. Yet Jesus is telling us - as he has told us before - that in God's upside-down Kingdom life comes through death, and healing through wounds.

Mark's readers in Rome had been forced to endure terrible suffering and loss: they had made it through, but how to make sense of the cost? Mark, as ever, doesn't give a clear explanation, he just shows Jesus on a cross. Jesus quoting an ancient Hebrew song: a song which begins in lonely suffering - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" - but ends in vindication and triumph, "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him."

The sun goes dark, Jesus breathes his last, and the curtain in the Temple is torn in two. Just as the heavens had been torn apart at Jesus baptism, for God to affirm Jesus as his son, now the veil of the Temple - symbolically separating God from the people - is torn apart, and the foreign NCO in charge of the execution squad affirms Jesus as God's son.

It's strangers and religious leaders who have condemned Jesus, but it is also strangers and a religious leader who help him: Simon of Cyrene who carries his cross, the unnamed centurion who tells his identity, and now Joseph of Arimathea lays Jesus in his tomb. Women - two Marys - look on.

After the Sabbath is over the story takes a twist: the tomb is empty, Jesus is not there.

Our best estimate of the original ending is that the three women were told to tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised and is going ahead of them to Galilee, but they "said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." That's it: the alternative endings given in most Bibles are believed to be later additions.

But how can the story be known, how can Jesus' resurrection be known, if the women kept silent? That's the point, of course. They were terribly afraid, they wanted to keep silent, but at some point they must have spoken out anyway. And so the Church began.

In late 60's Rome Christians were terribly afraid, they would have wanted to keep silent, but what would they actually do? Can the Church carry on? Mark's Gospel is open ended.

In early 21st-Century Britain many Christians seem ... unwilling to speak up; at least those who are not modern day Pharisees. Uncertainty about what it all means, doubt about the place of faith in a secular world, unwillingness to force one's beliefs onto another, many different reasons perhaps.

But the end result is that those who faithfully and lovingly follow Jesus are not heard; the message of God's Grace through Jesus is drowned out; how can the Church continue?

Now, as then, Mark's Gospel remains open-ended.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Mark: Are Wives Like Cars?

Maybe you know what it's like: you get your first job, you can afford to buy your first car ... and it's wonderful! Beautiful, shiny, the feeling of freedom.

A few years later, the car's a bit less shiny, a bit tatty round the edges, perhaps, doesn't go quite as well as it once did; anyway, you've done quite well for yourself, you can afford better, something that shows off your success. So you trade in your old car and buy a nice shiny newer, better one.

Is that how it is with wives? Is it how it should be?

As a rule of thumb, if you think Jesus is setting down a command, a law, a line you mustn't cross - you probably haven't understood what he is talking about. That certainly applies to what he said about divorce (taking that passage from Mark slightly out of sequence). It begins with the Pharisees seeking to 'test' Jesus: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

We know, from other writings, that this was a live question at the time: not so much the question of lawfulness - that was just the opening gambit - but the question of what was sufficient reason for divorce. Can a man divorce his wife (it was always that way round, by the way) for any reason he fancies (like changing his car), or is it only for specific reasons, such as persistent infidelity or - 'obviously' - infertility.

The Law of Moses is, at first sight, clear: "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her". Incidentally, the point of that 'certificate of dismissal', or Get, is that it states that the woman is free to remarry.

On the other hand, the Prophets seem divided: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel," as Malachi puts it. But there are also prophets who talk about divorce as the appropriate response to extreme infidelity (generally as an analogy with Israel), for example in Jeremiah: "For all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce."

Jesus would have been expected to do the rabbinic thing of bouncing around these quotes (and others, especially Hosea), along with precedents and other rabbis' teachings, before coming up with a balanced judgement about when it was right for a man to divorce his wife, and when not.

Jesus doesn't play that game.

The underlying assumption of the question is that wives are possessions. Either possessions which can be freely traded, like cars, or functional items whose job is to provide (legitimate) children ... dynastic enablers, if you like. This assumption is (in)famously reflected in the tenth commandment, not to covet a neighbour's house, wife, slave, ox or donkey.

Jesus comes at the issue from a different angle - for Jesus the starting point is the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1, where God creates humanity in his own image, male and female together, to work in partnership looking after his world.

Women are not 'things' to be possessed but colleagues and companions to be joined with in true partnership. There are families to raise, together, communities to build, together, and a fallen world to heal, together. That's the way marriage was meant to work ... sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but God's intent should be the starting point for discussion.

Divorce is allowed in the Old Testament for when this breaks down, for 'hardness of heart' as Jesus puts it. The commitment, 'contract' if you like, is for lifelong faithfulness to one another, and is before God, so don't treat it lightly.

But 'hardness of heart' is as real today as it was in Ancient Israel. Violence, abuse, abandonment, and extreme unfaithfulness can all destroy a marriage - the wrongdoing is not the certificate of divorce, but the (possibly many) factors which caused the breakdown.

Technically, the most faithful wife, once divorced and remarried, breaks her original commitment when she first sleeps with her new husband. Then the first contract is broken, annulled, and a new contract established, hopefully one which will last, bringing healing and purpose - the way God intended marriage to be.

I usually try not to criticise other church traditions on this blog, but to me the Roman Catholic church's take on divorce and remarriage - refusing communion to the new family - is simply heartless and evil. The new Pope has suggested he wants to change this, but to have treated people that way at all is simply wrong.

So if Jesus isn't giving a rule here, yet another burden, then what is he saying?

Firstly that marriage is a precious union of equals, a lifelong commitment before God. Do everything in your power to make that work for good.

But do also recognise that we live in a fallen world and relationships do go wrong. If so, the Bible gives us a way out. Divorce should never be taken as an easy option, but sometimes, because we all have hard hearts, breaking the old covenant and starting anew, before God, is the only way forward.

God loves you and is on your side, trust him with all that you are.