A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 25 April 2021, The Fourth Sunday of Easter - 16:30
Isaiah 52:7-10 and Mark 1:1-15
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Mark’s Gospel, whose introduction we heard as our second lesson this evening, has historically been the least appreciated of all the gospels. For many centuries, it was used in public worship far less than any of the others. While great commentaries were written on other gospels, and especially on John’s gospel, Mark attracted significantly less attention in the early and medieval church. In the most solemn week of the Christian year, the week leading up to Easter, it was the narratives of Matthew and John that were used in public worship. So it was these that eventually attracted the great musical settings like those of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach did apparently write a setting of Mark’s passion narrative, but nothing survives, presumably because it wouldn’t have had a prominent place in the regular liturgy of Holy Week like the others.
I’m not sure why people were so put off Mark historically. Perhaps the fact that it’s shorter than all the others might have made the fuller accounts of the others seem more interesting or usable. It’s true, even just listening to the opening of the Gospel, that he goes straight in there, not setting the scene or even really introducing who Jesus is. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We’re given no Christmas story, no family background: Jesus is simply put centre stage- no prelude, no apologies, no explanations: here is the anointed one, whose arrival will change the world.
Mark’s Gospel also been criticised for being written in not very good Greek. And it's true that his Greek isn’t very literary- it’s more, as Rowan Williams writes in a brilliant, short introduction to the Gospel, “like ordinary Daily Mail Greek, of the kind that professionals and travellers in the Mediterranean area would have used” (p.17, Meeting God in Mark, 2014). We don’t know much about Mark himself, except that he had possibly been a companion to Peter and travelled with Paul, the great apostles of the early church, and was most likely from a well-to-do Jewish trading family, with connections in different Mediterranean cities. But whoever he was he certainly knew how to tell a story. The pace of his Gospel is fast-moving and immediate. The opening that we heard draws you in as a reader to listen to this good news announcement; in fifteen verses, we’ve had prophecy, the arrival of John the Baptist, Jesus’ own baptism and anointing and time in the wilderness, finishing with John’s arrest and the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee: “The time is fulfilled,” this introductory section concludes: “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
More recently, modern readers have started to appreciate Mark’s Gospel more, as a story of Christian discipleship. But there’s much more to it, even than that. Mark is a story of conflict- or rather of multiple conflicts. That’s why it’s so exciting to read and why it has such a compelling message. In the dominant conflict which will unfold and build to a climax throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ challenge to the high priestly rulers and their Roman imperial overlords escalates from his preaching and practising the Kingdom of God in the village gatherings of Galilee, to his dramatic demonstration against the Temple and confrontation with the rulers in Jerusalem. It resulted in his tortuous crucifixion by the Romans as an insurrectionary. There’s also conflict between Jesus and his disciples, as he teaches them the mystery of the Kingdom, but they persistently fail to understand what he is teaching and doing, and at the end betray, deny and desert him. By contrast with the misunderstanding and faithless disciples, women, who play an increasingly prominent role in Mark’s story, serve as models of faithfulness.
Perhaps then it’s no surprise that women readers have been among some of the biggest appreciators of Mark. Rachel Held Evans, a young New York Times bestselling author on Christianity, who sadly died in 2019, wrote that “For…Mark, the good news is that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah sent to establish God’s reign on earth, not through conquest, power, and revenge, but through faithfulness, sacrifice, and unconditional love…Jesus is what it looks like when God is king, when God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven”” (p.149, Inspired, 2018). For biblical critic Joanna Dewey, liberation is a key Markan theme: Mark, she writes, “is…perhaps the most liberating Gospel in the Christian Testament for any oppressed or marginalized group,” (p.470-1, Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary, 1994).
Traditionally, the symbol for St Mark is a lion. Some have suggested that the lion, as the king of the beasts, represents John the Baptist crying out at the start, or Jesus’ royal power, which is particularly evident in this Gospel. But in the rest of the bible, a lion is a scary image, its roar compared to the king’s anger, a wicked leader or predator. When the prophets liken God to a lion, it is as a symbol of judgement and destruction, and a cause for lamentation; as C S Lewis said of the Narnia books, “Aslan is not a tame lion”. In a week where a Panorama programme exposed the institutional problem of racism in the Church of England, the uncomfortable challenge of Mark to the religious leaders of his day is also an uncomfortable challenge to us, a much-needed call to greater compassion, to understanding and to listening, on the part of those of us with the power in our institutions- including in the Church- to bring about change.
Mark’s announcement of his Gospel is a good message, an official proclamation of Jesus the anointed and Child of God. It would have been intended to be received by its first hearers as something to be glad about, the arrival of a time of change, not just for individuals, but in public life. Its message of salvation is universal, but it’s also political, and it’s as relevant and needed today as it ever has been. This week we also had the news that former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, whose death sparked worldwide protests against racism and police brutality. Yet, as a US Bishop of Minnesota, said, while this brought a sense of justice, the sickness of racism still needs a cure. The work of God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, which Mark announces with such passion, has still to reach its fulfilment and goal.
Mark’s Gospel, from the start, reminds us of the need for radical compassion. The Gospel’s opening, the baptism, prefigures the end when Jesus will die painfully on the cross, reminding us powerfully before we’ve even really got started that to follow the example of Christ is to die to self, as he descended into the waters of baptism. Covid has shown us the need to show more compassion as a society, to reach out beyond out immediate in-groups and to show solidarity with our neighbours near and far.
Mark’s Gospel, so evocative in its imagery and direct in style, is less simple than it seems at first. “It is,” to quote Rowan Williams again, “a deeply serious story, a world-changing story, whose ramifications extend well beyond the villages of Palestine.” It’s a powerful message for everyone but particularly for the oppressed and for those who would oppress them. May it change us, as it has changed so many, and may we be part of the change to greater compassion that God desires.