I think that in order to understand the Gospel that we’re using most of this year, the Gospel according to Mark, we have first to understand that there was no Mark
who was an author who sat in his study somewhere to write the story of Jesus’s life, the same way Mark Twain would have sat in his study to write the story of Huckleberry Finn.
The Gospel according to Mark was not composed that way. Rather Mark, whoever he was, took pieces. He took one piece from here and one piece from there, and these pieces were segments of what people had heard and experienced of Jesus’s life, and Mark kind of sewed them together the way someone sews pieces of a quilt and Mark put them into a narrative that had shape and form.
So you have at the beginning of the Gospel this piece about John the Baptist proclaiming that the Messiah is on the way. And then you have a piece about Jesus getting baptized by John in the river Jorden, and the Holy Spirit descending upon him. And then you have a piece of Jesus being driven into the desert by the Devil. And then a piece of Jesus passing by the sea of Galilee to call his disciples. And then, last week, we heard a piece of the story in which Jesus is in the synagogue teaching the people with authority and being recognized by the unclean spirits.
And these are the pieces that together make up the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the stories that lead us from the first mention of Jesus through the passage we have today of the healing of Simon’s mother in law, and Jesus curing all the people in the village.
I find it inspiring to realize that these small pieces were actually stories that came out of the real lives and experiences of the Christians who witnessed Jesus and said: this is what happened to me. Or they said, I was there when he healed Simon’s mother in law and she got up and began to serve them. Or they said: this is what I saw - I was brought to him and he touched me, and my pain just disappeared. Or they said: this is what I heard Jesus say, these words which changed my life when he told me how much I was loved and that my sins were forgiven.
Or maybe they were stories people heard from others, you know how stories are, that someone’s sister’s husband’s family live in this other village, and Jesus went there and did these amazing things, and so that gets added to the Gospel.
So the Gospel is a document which tells not a tale from an author’s imagination or something he or she made up, but it is based on things which arose from the people’s experience of Christ, set down and told again and again until these stories became part of the official text, and the Gospel made its way into our lives today.
And so picture what church was like for that community where this Gospel came from. There at church people gathered together, not in a building like this but in someone’s home. And there was of course food, as there always is, and perhaps even some form of a holy meal where someone takes bread and wine to be blessed , and shared. And I’m sure they prayed, there was liturgy. But at the center of this community, from the time they first gathered in Jesus’s name, what held them, and shaped them, and guided them were these stories of personal experiences of Jesus.
Today our life at church is very different. And I want to suggest this that this year, as we hear passages from the Gospel according to Mark, that we reflect on these stories and consider: What has been our experience of Jesus Christ? What is our piece of the story? What have we seen of him with our own eyes? What have we heard him say that inspires, comforts, directs and guides us? What is our experience?
Because without that sense of our experience, of us being part of the story, I wonder why we would come here, aside from the fact that we do give out underwear. But why would church make sense unless it touches our hearts with the living presence of Christ?
Christians today can easily live without any connection or contact with the living Jesus. In fact, maybe most of what we know about Jesus comes not from our own experiences, but from someone else’s words in sermons or books.
Christianity back when the Gospel according to Mark was being formed was successful because it was all about the believer and the intersection one had with the living Christ. And everyone could participate. There were no professionals.
Today we leave much of our faith to the professionals. And I’ve had people ask me, well what would Jesus think about this? Or what would Jesus say? And I’ve said to them: just ask him yourself. He’s in there somewhere. You know him just as well as I do. Maybe I’ve studied him more, and talked about him more in the course of my work. But surely you know Jesus, for he’s been with you every day of your life.
And so one of the great challenges of Christians today is to locate Jesus within us, and to realize that our faith depends not so much on the external we receive or the ideas and thoughts coming from without, but to realize that our faith, mainly, depends upon the blessed awareness that even right now Jesus is with us and he’s been there forever.
You know tonight at 6:30 something very special happens. We celebrate the other great religious tradition in our nation, with the high feast known as the Super bowl. And many of us will watch as the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles. And I know for my own part, I will be there on my couch very comfortably doing nothing except feeding myself something that is both healthy and hopefully at least kind of tasty.
But you know, I’m not going there tonight to play that game. I’m certainly not going to get dressed up and go on the field. I’m not even going to pretend that my enjoyment of football comes from my participation in it, because I’m not a football player. I’m a spectator.
But in here, I am not just a spectator. I’m one of the players. I can’t just come in and watch as everyone else lives the life of Jesus and participates in the community and shares his body and blood and receives the eternal blessing of his grace, while I sit on the couch and eat my chips.
And I promise that this will be my only football metaphor this year. But my point is this, that we must participate in our faith as the most important part of the journey, aside from God, as the ones who hold in our hands the difference between living a life of drudgery, anguish, fear, boredom and pain, and living a life of purpose. A life connected to the eternal purpose of God.
We must find Jesus and celebrate him within. And he is there.
In the Epistle today, Paul talks about the fact that he has purposely made himself all things to all people and tried to relate with all these different groups in order to win them over to Jesus. And he mentions the groups as the Jews, those under the law, those outside the law, the weak, and so on. He is naming the basic types of people that the community would have known at the time.
And of course there are different ways of reading what Paul is saying, because no one can be all things to all people, and moreover in my experience if we try and be all things to all people we end up being no things to no people, because what can we be aside from ourselves?
But what Paul is saying, it makes sense. And you have to admire what Paul is trying to do. Because he’s saying something like this: whatever group you are part of and whatever category of life you are in, and whoever you are, let me say that there’s something of Jesus within you.
Paul had this incredibly optimistic hope that you could just go to anyone, whoever they are, and say: you know, Jesus is in your experience. You too have tasted the sweet joy of Christ, and known his presence there among the other things in your life. Yes, he’s been there for you. If it’s Jews, those under the law, those outside the law, the weak, whoever it is. Let me, Paul is saying, let me try and help you find where you saw Jesus Christ. Because you have seen him. And you have been touched by his grace.
It’s incredibly hopeful to believe, as Paul did, that he could point out to anyone at all the presence of Jesus in their lives. You get someone who comes to you undergoing the most horrible experience, and you point out to them the presence of Jesus right there in their struggle. You get someone who their whole life has been told, for whatever reason, that they are bad, that they are less than, that they are lacking or corrupt. And you point out to them the presence of Jesus in the person that they actually are. And how much God loves them.
You help people who are really in need of God to realize the news that God is with them, and you’re doing something pretty important, you are evangelizing, creating the story, furthering the Gospel. For the work of Mark was not intended to end there in that church, among those Christians, but it was meant to last until today, and to reach into our lives and to impact our world.
But we have to realize it ourselves, first and foremost, to see him in our lives. So my prayer for today is that we take a moment to realize the awesome story of our own encounter or series of encounters with God, and know the works God has done within us, and those things which God surely will continue to do through the presence of Jesus Christ.