Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16
There’s a cartoon with Jesus talking to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who are sitting in a circle. One of them is looking out the window, distracted; one of them is dozing; one of them is doodling; one of them is fiddling with his tunic. Jesus notices all this, and he says to the group: “Now listen up! I don’t want there to be four versions of what I’m saying….”
Well, we have four versions of the Gospel, all quite similar, and yet each one distinctive. Today we honor the witness of one of these Gospel writers, Saint Mark. Mark was not one of the original 12 apostles; however Jesus also appointed a wider circle of 70 disciples, believed to have included Mark.[i]Information in the New Testament about his life is sketchy, though we know that Mark was a fellow missionary at various times with Saints Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy.[ii]We can infer Mark had a close relationship with Saint Peter, who writes about “my son Mark.”[iii]And according to the Acts of the Apostles, his mother’s house in Jerusalem was a center of Christian life.[iv]In Egypt, the Coptic Church remembers Saint Mark as its founder and patron, Mark having been martyred in Egypt in year 68.
In his Gospel writing, Mark keeps a secret. It’s actually Jesus’ secret. In Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus will typically ask something, listen to something, do something like perform a healing or other miracle, and thenJesus will say, “Don’t tell anyone.” In many instances, Jesus insists on silence.[v]And it’s not just with outsiders. The same pertains to his relationship with the 12 apostles. Early on, Jesus asks them, “‘Who do yousay that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him.”[vi]
So what’s going on? Why the secret?
First, we must remember that we are reading Mark’s Gospel account backwards. We already know how this story ends: Jesus ultimately faces crucifixion and death, he rises from the dead, he appears to various people, including his apostles, and – as Mark concludes his Gospel – “after [Jesus] had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” Meanwhile, what happens to his apostles? They certainly don’t keep any more secrets. In the end, it’s quite the opposite. Mark writes: “[The apostles] went out and proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ everywhere…”[vii]We know how this story ends; but Mark is writing as if we didn’t know.
In Chapter 1 of the Gospel according to Mark, he does not begin in eternity, before all time (like in the beginning of the Gospel according to John), nor does Mark begin with Jesus’ infant birth (like with the Gospel according to Matthew and Luke). Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism. From the outset of Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus is already an adult. As Jesus begins his public ministry, he is intent on keeping the secret, according to Mark. What’s the secret? The secret is related to identity: not Jesus’ identity but his followers’ identity.
Jesus’ apostles and his early followers are not able to understand where this all is leading, and they are afraid to ask.[viii]Many followers were wowed by Jesus’ miraculous provision of food, by his power to heal, by his recurring message of God’s love and mercy for everyone. Jesus’ teaching was profoundly simple and accessible – mostly in the form of parables drawn from everyday life. Jesus would say, repeatedly, “You have heard it said… but I say,” and what he said was fresh news and good news. The multitudes followed Jesus. Some followed Jesus for access to political power. The prophets had predicted that the Messiah would become a ruler, the King of Kings, and those attracted to that kind of power – including some among his own apostles – could not wait to get to Jerusalem for the takeover.
Hence, the secret. Jesus’ followers were not ready to know, not able to know, where all this was leading. If you followed Jesus, he would lead you to the cross, a double tragedy. Not only would he face crucifixion, but, if you were his follower, you would probably face the same. People could not take this in – Jesus knew it – and so Jesus did not talk about the cost of discipleship. Not until the end, and by then, virtually all of his disciples and the multitudes who had followed Jesus had abandoned him.
But that’s not the last word. In the calendar of the church, we remember the life and witness of Saint Mark because this “Jesus movement” did not die at the cross. Way, way back, when people began following Jesus because of his spectacular miracles, he gained one of many converts. Mark recalls Jesus’ saying to this new believer, “Do you believe because [you experienced this miracle]? You will see greater things than these.”[ix]The postscript is that Mark, personally, and the other apostles and disciples, and then the multitudes began to understand the “greater things” that Jesus had talked about: resurrection power. The power they had experienced in Jesus’ earthly life continued to be theirs, in the best of times andin the worst of times.
We all have our own version of this story. However it is that you met up with Jesus, you have had some real experience of Jesus, or you would not have become one of his followers. You have experienced something significant in Jesus that has made a world of difference to you, or you would certainly be elsewhere this evening. We receive from Jesus the promise of his presence and his provision, always. You can look back on your life and see how that has been so true for you. (This is what I imagine about your life.) But there’s something ahead in life that you will face. And you’re not yet ready to know all of what it will be. You’re not prepared, not yet. It’s a secret. Jesus is holding the secret. And, in the fullness of time, you will know, you will be ready to know. But for right now, you wouldn’t be able to take it in. You would not yet understand how you can face what is ahead.
How the Gospel according to Mark ends is not how it begins. This Gospel account ends with a bold assurance of Jesus’ presence, and provision, and power. That promise comes to each of us. Why we will need all this assurance, we’re not yet fully ready to know. But Jesus knows. And Jesus knows that we don’t know, not yet. Whatever tomorrow will bring, God knows. And we have the assurance of Jesus’ presence, and provision, and power will be real to each one of us, and it will be as miraculous as the stories we read in the Gospel. Maybe greater. The most amazing thing about miracles is that they happen.[x]
[ii]Except for being referred to as “John” in Acts 12:25, 13:5; 13, and 15:37, elsewhere in the New Testament, he is called by his Latin surname, Mark. Mark may have been Saint Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10). Mark accompanied Barnabas and Paul to Antioch (Acts 12-13; 2 Timothy 4:11). Later tradition identifies Mark with the young man fleeing naked at the time of Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51–52). Saint Mark is traditionally represented as a lion, derived from Mark’s description of John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:3), which artists have imagined as a roaring lion.
[iii]1 Peter 5:13.
[v]Mark 1:39-2:5; 7:31-36; 8:22-26; 8:30-33; 9:4-9; 9:30-32.
[x]This is a riff on the writing of G. K Chesterton (1874-1936), English writer, philosopher, theologian.
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