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“Ordinary Gospel’

Essential Mark: Week 6

Mark 7:31-36; 10:46-52

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

October 18, 2015

TELL ME THE OLD, OLD STORY OF JESUS AND HIS LOVE. You’ve probably heard that favorite of time gone by. We’ve had that song for 150 years. But we’ve had the desire to hear the “old, old story” for far longer than that.  Over 2,000 years have passed and people still want to hear the story of Jesus and his love. In the New Testament the first things written were the letters Paul wrote. These letters give us an incredibly important set of beliefs that have helped shape Christianity into the deep river of faith it is today. But Paul and his letters are not the story. They are theology. If we want to hear the old, old story, we have only one place to go and that is the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they are the story. Only 65 pages in all, when read in my Bible at home, these four gospels comprise all that we know of the story of Jesus’ earthly life. And the humblest of them all is the Gospel According to Mark.

For a long time it was set aside for its bad grammar—it has been noted that the writing has over 200 improper constructions that only a barely literate person would have used. It was set aside for its writers’ poor creative style—using the same vocabulary like “immediately” over and over again with no variation. And it was set aside for its abrupt storytelling—like rarely noting where an event happened or hardly ever laying out the details of who was involved. With his abrupt beginning and bewildering ending, Mark’s gospel was soon passed over for other options. And why not? Matthew and Luke had more complete teachings from Jesus, and John had a deeper theology. St. Augustine said it all, even as early as the year 400, when he wrote, “Mark looks like [the Gospel of] Matthew’s attendant and epitomizer. By himself, separately, Mark has little to record.”

Not only was Mark humble compared to the other gospels, he was downright infantile compared to works written in the ancient world around the same time. Unlike biographies of the time, Mark does not even pretend to cover all of Jesus’ life, and he does not attempt to cite any sources for what he knows. Unlike the popular romances of the time, Mark’s writing is too serious. Unlike popular histories of the time, Mark does not tell the story of a famous king or queen as was appropriate. He writes about a poor carpenter and his fishermen friends. Even for ancient standards, Mark’s research, or lack thereof, would have been openly mocked. Unbelievers put his writing in the dust bin as even believers consigned him to the corner.

Then everything changed. In the early 1700s, a lay person in the church named Thomas Chubb offered the wild idea that maybe the Gospel According to Mark was actually the first gospel to be written. Over the next hundred years most scholars began to agree and today it is accepted that indeed Mark wrote his gospel first, perhaps as early as the year 65. And not only was he the first to write the gospels, he offered the first gospel anyone, anywhere, had ever read. That is the reason it did not fit in with any other genre of his day! It  was because “gospel” had never existed before Mark wrote it.

Can you imagine that? We take it for granted that there are four gospels but there was no requirement that any of them had to exist. Paul was busy starting churches all over the Mediterranean world and he had no gospel story to get copied and pass out to people. In fact, this doesn’t seem important to Paul for he almost never even refers to Jesus’ earthly life. The Church was growing even without it. No, Mark did something completely new when he set ink to scroll and wrote those first words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…” When he did that, he changed everything, for we know that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels with Mark’s words right in front of them. Without his words they might never have written at all and even if they had written, imagine how incomplete they would have been.

Knowing he was the earliest means something else as well. Although we are not altogether certain who wrote the gospel—“Mark” was the most common name in the region at the time—we know that even if he was not one of the disciples he directly knew someone who directly knew Jesus. We know this because only about 35 years separate Jesus’ life and Mark’s writing. And we know this because of a single verse toward the end of the book when Mark writes, “They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear his cross.” Did you hear that? “They pressed into service Simon of Cyrene; you remember him: Alexander and Rufus’ dad.” Hear what that means? There is familiarity there and common recognition. Mark is writing his gospel to people who knew the sons of the man who carried Jesus’ cross. Just imagine that!

All of a sudden this humblest of all writings becomes the story we all strain to hear. We have been listening to it again in these last weeks and we have been reminded of what Mark’s gospel is. First, it is a gospel that does not pretend to solve everything for us. Mark does not believe in being neat and tidy. Instead, in Mark’s gospel we meet Jesus who only wants to teach in parables and he demands people keep his identity a secret. In Mark’s gospel the last converted believer is the Roman centurion and he is converted, not because of miracles or preaching, but because he sees how terribly Jesus suffers and dies. And in Mark’s gospel Jesus rises from the dead to an unfinished page, a gospel that ends as abruptly as it began. No, Mark is not willing to solve anything for us. He simply wants us to meet Jesus and see for ourselves.

And there is a second thing we know about this gospel. We know it changed the world. Even his rudimentary writing now seems right. Why should he be eloquent and flowery when he was sharing how God’s reign had broken into the world in his son Jesus? How could he slow down to offer background and setting for the message he had to share? Why should the writing be fancy and highbrow when Jesus shows us that God’s love is for all, especially the weak and the small? Even the suffering, from which Mark does not flinch, even that opens our hearts to who God is in this world and how he loves.

Mark’s message is simple and his story is clear. We first hear it from the heavens at the beginning when God says, “You Jesus are my beloved Son,” and we last hear it from the centurion’s lips when he gasps, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Everything in between is written so the world can meet Jesus and come to the same recognition.

Yes, we know that Mark’s gospel changed the world. It changed his community and 10-15 years later it changed Luke’s community, then Matthew’s, and later even John’s. And it has kept changing the world, now 2,000 years beyond.

And not only the world, but his gospel has changed you. Through Mark’s modest and humble and even infantile effort, you were told the old, old story. The one where your sins were forgiven and you took up your mat and started new again. The one where, despite everything that stood in the way, Jesus reached out and touched you and made you clean. The one where he broke his body and he gave it to you. You know: THE OLD, OLD STORY. The one about Jesus and his love. Amen.