Reading: Mark 1:1-20
I am glad to start our study of Mark. Mark was never my go-to gospel; I read Matthew or Luke and John. John was my favorite, because it is the most clear about who Jesus was. Matthew was my favorite to read about what Jesus taught — though, in reflection, this was purely personal preference — Luke had some favorite stories in it however. I didn’t really read Mark because Mark gives so few details; all but a few words of Mark are in Matthew, Luke, or both — and those things that are unique to Mark are things that I really don’t understand why they are there at all. To be fair I did not appreciate Mark until I head a storyteller recite it, in full.
As you might know, Mark is commonly considered to be the oldest gospel. Mark is thought to have been written down while Nero was persecuting Christians. There is some debate in among early Christian writers whether this is John Mark that we see in Acts, or if this is another Mark — but, either way, Mark is identified as a disciple of Peter.
First century Christian leader Papias is one of the few Christians who wrote at the same time the New Testament was being written; Papias was early enough that there were people around who actually saw Jesus — but late enough that it became clear that Jesus might not come back before they died. Mark was likely written about the same time that Papias was born, and the other three gospels would have been written in his lifetime. Papias was best known for writing a 5 volume work on the sayings of Jesus, which unfortunately is lost.
Papias tells us that John the Elder told him that Mark was Peter’s interpreter; and that Mark wrote down the story that Peter told from memory. John further told Papias that Mark related this accurately, and that he was careful not to omit or recall anything falsely.
This tradition tells us that Mark was a story that was told, and a story that was transmitted — it is, in its earliest form an oral Gospel. It is the story of Jesus, as related and remembered by Peter. This story starts when the name Jesus is first known — Jesus was shown to the world by John the Baptist. Peter’s story of Jesus starts maybe 6 weeks before he became a disciple.
Peter’s story starts with John the Baptist preaching the repentance of sin, and baptizing — and that one would come after him who would baptize with the holy spirit. Jesus then goes to the wilderness, then when John is arrested Jesus enters public ministry, stepping right into John the Baptist’s shoes.
One thing that I’ve learned is that the way somebody begins a story colors the whole story. The story Peter tells begins with John introducing Jesus — and right away, what happens? John is arrested for preaching. Now, if I read the other gospels, I learn that John is arrested because his preaching makes Herod look bad, and he’s also not too polite to the Pharisees; but listening to Mark alone I only get what is most important — details would make the story last longer! The detail is that John preaches that Jesus is coming, and is arrested; Jesus steps right into John’s place, and risks the same fate. Later in the story, Mark tells us that John is killed — Jesus risks that same fate.
This story of Jesus ends with Jesus crucified — but remember, in it’s earliest version, tradition tells us that Peter is telling this story; this story is not only the story of Jesus, but it is also the story of Peter. In Acts 2, the first apostle to speak about Jesus to the crowds is Peter, and in Acts 4, Peter is arrested for his preaching, and forbidden to speak of Jesus any more. John’s arrest not only prefigures what will happen to Jesus, but it also describes the beginning of Peter’s ministry, and the reality of the first Christians. The opening of this story reminds Christians that the world is not friendly and it has never been friendly. There is something about the gospel that those in power hope to silence. Peter does not tell us what this is during this story, he just tells the story.
I am growing to love Mark for what it is. Mark does not tell us what Jesus taught, it does not give us very many details about the story — but it does more than any other gospel get into the experiences that Jesus and the disciples had. From the beginning, we see that there is a danger to preaching this gospel. We see that Jesus is always on the move — everything feels like it happens so fast, and you can see in the story hints that Jesus and the disciples are tired. Mark has nothing subversive to say, yet the subtext is very subversive. From Jesus stepping into John’s place after John is arrested, to Jesus telling those who recognized him as something more than a prophet to keep silent, and not tell anybody; there is a sense that any moment, Jesus might be arrested or stoned. Mark is great because we know exactly what the cost of discipleship is from reading it. I don’t have the luxury of retreating into my mind — no, I march to the cross with Jesus.
Over time, I’ve come to accept that the gospel is that I’m invited to walk with Jesus — and, I have faith that if I walk with Jesus, I will end up where Jesus is — that the resurrection and final judgment will go well for me. Mark is a reminder that if I walk with Jesus, before this resurrection I might just have to end up at the cross. I don’t have the luxury to argue about how to interpret a certain teaching, or if it is a metaphor — I just have the knowledge that sometimes walking with Jesus is a march that ends at the cross. Peter knew this, and still followed Jesus to the very end of his life — and, tradition tells us that the end was that Nero had Peter crucified.