Over the next year, I’d like to commit Mondays to Mark. Since completing my Master of Divinity at Multnomah Theological Seminary last May, I have been applying and interviewing for various pastoral positions. None have been the right fit. Instead of sitting around and waiting for a job, I would like to challenge myself to teaching through the book of Mark on a weekly basis. I may not have a physical congregation to build up and serve, but perhaps I can be useful in the virtual sphere. Will you join me each Monday in Mark?
Let me start today’s introduction of Mark by asking you a question.
How do you compose an email? Do you get right to the point? Or, do you spend a few sentences with niceties? I tend to jump right to business because I hate to waste people’s time. But, I have a friend who will not hit send until she has spent at least two paragraphs catching me up on her life and asking thoroughly about mine. I don’t know the point of her email until the very last sentence. We have very different communication styles. If Mark lived today, he would compose emails like I do. Short and simple.
Mark is abrupt.
The book of Mark is the shortest of the four accounts of the life of Jesus. There are only 16 chapters. It is short in word count and some have argued, short in style, calling it primitive and simple. Mark’s stories stop and start quickly, switching tenses haphazardly and rushing from one incident to another. It abruptly ends at the empty tomb, leaving us hanging with many unanswered questions. As a result, it has a rough and ready style that pulls you into the narrative as if being retold in the first person. It helps to hear the stories out loud, to get a better sense of its excited urgency.
Mark is telling Peter’s stories.
The book of Mark is most likely a compilation of Peter’s stories about Jesus. Peter was a notable follower of Jesus, who many believe became the first leader of the Roman church. Since the book itself does not name its author, nor its source, we cannot be certain about its provenance. But, I believe the following is true about Mark.
Elder John, who may or may not have been the Apostle John and who wrote the 3 epistles of John in the New Testament, called Mark the “interpreter of Peter,” saying that Peter approved of what Mark wrote. This information was written down by Eusebius, who wrote a history of the church, in 300 AD. Elder John said that the book of Mark accurately reflects all the stories that Peter related about his personal experience with Jesus. In Peter’s first letter, Peter calls Mark “his son,” a euphemistic way to claim patronage of Mark. (1 Peter 5:13)
There are several mentions of a Mark in the New Testament, which may be referring to the same man or different Marks. If they are the same man, then Mark is the cousin of Barnabas, a co-worker of Paul, a missionary, and his mother owned the house in Jerusalem that housed the upper room and provided shelter for the early Christians. African Christian Scholars believe that he was the one who ran away naked at Jesus’ arrest. From African tradition, we also learn that Mark wrote Peter’s stories while Peter was imprisoned in Rome under Nero’s persecution. Then, Mark traveled back to Africa to plant churches in Libya and Egypt. Eusebius says Mark was martyred in Alexandria in 68 AD.
My imaginative mind likes to place Peter behind the rough and urgent storytelling style of Mark. It fits what all the gospels portray about Peter’s personality. He was quick, unapologetic, hasty and utterly convinced that Jesus was the Christ. I imagine Mark’s experience with Peter was similar to my own experience with my dad. My father was a fantastic storyteller. He traveled and spoke extensively when I was a child, and I never tired of hearing him tell and retell his stories of being a missionary in the Amazon jungle. He had a particular lilt to his voice. He used broken sentences at some places to give a staccato rhythm to the tale. He jumped back and forth to Portuguese and English to lend authenticity. I can still recite some of his favorites verbatim, and in his exact style today and you would feel like you are reliving the stories of Hank Scheltema. This is how I imagine the stories of Mark’s Gospel. Mark wrote the stories as he heard Peter tell and retell them, and if we listen closely we can hear Peter through Mark’s words.
Each Monday, we’ll look at a short section of Mark and I will read the text as I translate it from the original language, a simply written Greek. You will experience the story as if you are hearing it firsthand, from the “horses” mouth himself.
Mark is a paradox.
I’ve titled Mark, the dissonant gospel. By this I mean that Mark portrays Jesus as a contradiction. The goal of Mark is to present Jesus as the Christ, but a Christ that is incompatible with all expectations. Rejected by rulers yet recognized by demons. A revelation yet shrouded in secrets. Righteous yet loved by sinners. The giver of life yet a dead man. The contrasts pile up and grate against each other.
About a decade ago, I was introduced to this idea of cognitive dissonance because I suffered from it. I held two conflicting beliefs about women that caused me great mental anguish. I believed that the Bible taught women were created to be subjected to men, yet I also believed that God had created men and women equal. The two beliefs did not seem to add up. I began to ask questions and express my doubt in a search to find an answer. I discovered that the Bible passages I had always interpreted to mean women were subjected, were not as clear cut as I was led to believe. There was another well-reasoned interpretation. My cognitive dissonance about the role of women was eased as I gave up a long-held misguided belief about what the Bible taught.
Mark writes of Jesus as someone who creates cognitive dissonance. Jesus does not conform to our ideas, but requires our ideas conform to his example. He demands we either abandon him as irrational or become devoted to him as deeply profound. Mark’s abrupt style encourages questions and invites exploration. He does not fear the mystery that leaves us with only one answer. Good news is packaged in paradoxes. Mark does not present a feel-good, easy to follow Christ. Yet, if what Mark relates is true, those who work through the paradoxes can reasonably do nothing else but follow Christ. There is no middle road in Mark. Mark does not encourage fence straddlers. Either the dissonance turns us off, or we do the hard work of evaluating our lives to find that the source of the dissonance is not Jesus himself, but our own values and opinions that need to be abandoned.
Mark calls the believer and the unbeliever alike to examine what we know about Jesus and to wrestle with what it means for our lives today. The dissonant gospel of Mark might just hold the answer to figuring out the paradoxes of our own lives.
Will you join me each Monday in the dissonant gospel of Mark?