As we read St. Mark’s gospel this year, it will be important to recognize that his audience is not getting new information. They have heard many stories about Jesus, and Mark’s intention is not tell them more, but to help them understand what they already know. This is the first gospel, and its author deserves to be considered a major literary innovator. Indeed, he uses sophisticated literary devices to help his congregation make the decision to follow Jesus, and he can help us as well.
The first thing we must realize is that we all know how this ends. Jesus is crucified. Why then does the first chapter of Mark present Jesus as a man of power?
Last week, we saw that Mark calls this a gospel: good news. The immediate context for this was an imperial decree. The good news was something the emperor had done to administer the “Pax Romana”, the peace of Rome. As Jesus was to himself discover, this meant that if you disturbed the official order, Rome killed you: the Peace of the dead. Jesus himself calls people into a kingdom. This was not a religious term, and those who heard it would have assumed that Jesus was a leader who would make Israel a proper kingdom by horses, chariots, and war.
His power is real, but it is not based on force of any kind. He first shows his power by the call of his disciples. People were called in the Old Testament – remember Moses or Jeremiah – but by the time of Jesus, potential disciples would check out rabbis and if they wanted to follow, would ask to follow him. Jesus, on the other hand, directly calls them.
Today, we see Jesus again showing power. He enters a synagogue and he taught with “one having authority and not like the scribes.” Scribes had a very flexible job description, from notaries to librarians. In this case, they were Biblical commentators. In the synagogue service a passage of the Old Testament would be read and then a scribe would read an interpretation of it by an acknowledged teacher. No one expected a riveting performance. Jesus simply preached. Mark is not concerned today about what he said, but the way he said it: simple, direct and effective. This was not a commentary – it was a proclamation,
This inflamed a person who was demonically possessed and whom Jesus immediately freed. Yet this too is a great show of power. Exorcisms in the ancient world – whether Jewish or not -were complicated affairs. Reading descriptions of exorcisms contemporary with Jesus can be a bit tedious: many steps, some almost comical. One of the tactics of a demon – then as now – was to get something on the exorcist. The demon calls Jesus the “Holy one of God”, not to show recognition, much less respect, but to get some power over him.
He does not get far. Jesus simply orders him out and he goes. The people in the congregation may have regretted not getting an elaborate show, but they understood immediately the significance and linked this with his teaching. Jesus speaks the word of God, which any good Jew would have known is always powerful and effective – whether casting out demons or forming disciples. We will see the in the rest of the first chapter when Jesus will cure the sick, drive out more demons and restore a leper to his family. This is real power. The peace of the living – more powerful than the Peace of Rome.
Mark’s readers from Palestine in the 1st Century to Brooklyn in the 21st know that Jesus will be executed. Mark wants us to know that Jesus could have stopped this at any time. Jesus chose his death, and as we continue to read this Gospel, we know that the good news is that he did so out of love.
Mark uses the phrase “handed over” 17 times in the gospel, and will reveal that the shadow of the cross falls everywhere and on everyone.
As we read Mark further, we must, however, begin to look for two things:
The love of Jesus did not conquer despite the cross but because of it, indeed through it. The instrument of his death is the instrument of our salvation.
Our discipleship will be judged on how much we love like Jesus. How much do we will the good of the other whether we like the person or not? Mark will reveal to us each week that this is the love of and from the Cross.
The cross is the measure of all things, including St. Charles Borromeo Church.
This is always true, but usually not acknowledged. Last year at this time when everything was going frightening well in the parish, I doubt I would have consciously connected the parish and the Cross, much less preached on it. Yet what a difference a year makes!
We have been recreating the parish every week, and, by the grace of God, not without some success. Yet, to be honest we know that we need much more thought and work and most of all prayer to create the new foundations we will need.
It has been obvious that most of what we have achieved has been because we have had the gift of the many leaders from the community. To reorient and rebuild further we will need more. One person or even one perspective cannot experience or articulate the love that will alone fulfill our call.
So today we will ask that those who have accepted the call to be members of our Parish Pastoral council be blessed and pledge themselves to the task. By God’s design, our plans will enfold as we read Mark this year and may they reflect the love he will reveal to us every week.
I am sure that many creative strategies and structures will emerge, but if we seek to do this without the love of and from the Cross, we will not connect to Jesus, and his word will be silent in our hearts and community. If we love, even timidly, we may not know in advance what success will mean, but failure will be impossible.