We are celebrating today the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, the author of what many scholars believe to be the earliest of the four gospels, the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s account of the life of Jesus is usually dated around the year 70 C.E., approximately forty years after Jesus’ death. As a way of exploring its significance, I’d like to pose three questions: First, what is a gospel? Second, what is unique about Mark’s gospel? And third, what does this say about our gospel?
Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who refers to his account of the life of Jesus as a “gospel” – and he does this right from the start. His opening words are “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). The word “gospel” means “good news,” which is how it is translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, from which we read tonight. Mark has “good news” to tell his readers and us about Jesus, whom he refers to as the Christ, the Son of God.
New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson, Jr. tells us that the word “gospel” can be used in three ways: First, it is used to signify a specific literary genre. A gospel, he says, is “a collection of traditions about Jesus presented in story form.” “The purpose of Mark’s Gospel,” writes Williamson, “is to bear witness to Jesus Christ as proclaimer and embodiment of the Kingdom of God, and to challenge readers to follow him in anticipation of his final coming as Son of Man.”
A gospel, then, is not primarily an historical document or a biography, but rather it is an account of Jesus’ life that is written to witness to him, and to persuade others to come to believe and follow him. Mark is convinced that Jesus is the “Son of God,” who has come to inaugurate and proclaim the Reign of God, and to invite others to follow him. He makes this clear in his opening line, and the rest of his text will be a gradual unfolding of what that means, both for his contemporaries and for us.
Mark tells his story in three stages: (1) The first part of his gospel is located in Galilee (in the north), and contains an account of Jesus’ teaching and preaching, and of the miracles he performed there. (2) The second part describes Jesus and his disciples “on the way” from Galilee to Jerusalem. On this journey, Jesus explains to his disciples that he is about to suffer and to die and to be raised again, and teaches them what it will mean for them to follow him on the way. (3) The final section of the gospel takes place in Jerusalem, and recounts Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. Mark’s gospel, then, is an example of a particular literary genre, a story of the life and ministry of Jesus consisting of three parts.
A second way of understanding the word “gospel,” Williamson writes, is to see it as a theological message. A gospel is “a narrative [of] good news about God and God’s Kingdom.” From a theological perspective, Mark has two main concerns: the first has to do with his understanding of who Jesus is (what we might refer to as “Christology”) and the second has to do with his understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus (that is, the nature of “Discipleship”).
Who is Jesus for Mark? The answer lies in the titles assigned to Jesus in the Gospel. He is the long-awaited “Messiah,” the “Son of God” who has come into the world to announce the coming of God’s Kingdom. The good news of the Kingdom of God is at the heart of Mark’s gospel. Jesus not only announces the arrival of the Kingdom, but he embodies it. He is the Kingdom incarnated. Everything that he says and does reflects the values of this Kingdom and reveals its mission in the world. His work is to teach and to preach and to heal, and to invite others to join him as members of this Kingdom who live by its values and carry out its mission in the world.
And what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? Mark’s view of discipleship is influenced by his own circumstances. He is writing to a church that is under persecution. Its members are under attack from both religious and secular forces. Many of them are paying dearly – sometimes with their very lives – for their commitment to Jesus. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus invites his followers to join him on the way – that is, the way of dying and rising, of laying down one’s life in order to discover new life. Jesus’ own disciples have difficulty understanding and embracing this path in Mark’s telling of the story. It is only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that they are able to grasp the meaning of his suffering, dying and rising – and of their own.
A third and final way of understanding a “gospel” is as a canonical writing that is of fundamental importance in the Scriptures of the Church. The four gospels that are included in the New Testament were chosen by the Church to be part of its sacred texts. They were deemed to be accurate representations of the life of Jesus and of the gospel he proclaimed and embodied. For the first eighteen centuries of the Church’s history, the gospels were accepted not only as sacred Scripture, but also as historically-accurate descriptions of Jesus’ life and times. This assumption was challenged in the 19th century as scholars began to search for the historical Jesus and to separate the faith of the Evangelists from historical facts. We recognize today that the Gospels are not to be seen primarily as historical documents – though they do include many historically-accurate facts – but as writings which represent the beliefs of early Christian communities.
The word “gospel,” then, can refer to (1) a particular literary genre, (2) a theological message, or (3) a canonical writing. The Gospel of Mark contains all of these dimensions. The final question we are left with is, “What does this mean for our Gospel?”
We are a community of faith not unlike the community for which Mark wrote his Gospel. We too have come to know and believe in Jesus as the “Messiah” and “Son of God.” We too have entered into the Kingdom of God and are striving to live by its values and fulfill its mission. We too have joined Jesus on the way, and are embracing his way of dying and rising as the pattern for our own lives. We too have “good news” to share with others: the good news of God’s Kingdom and of the salvation and healing that it offers to us all.
What is our Gospel, especially now, in 2014? What “good news” do we have to proclaim and to embody in our own generation? The Church’s message is rooted in the experience of Jesus’ disciples and of the evangelists, but it also needs to be re-interpreted in every age. How will we understand its message for us and for our contemporaries? How is the message being shaped by the multi-cultural setting in which we live? How is it being shaped by new theological perspectives and interpretations? How is it being shaped by our expanding knowledge of the universe? How is it being shaped by the various cultures in which we live? The Gospel is 2,000 years old, but it is also always new. It must be rediscovered in every generation.
Mark was bold enough to articulate “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” for his generation. Can we do the same for ours?
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