We begin at the very beginning. Mark is commonly accepted as our earliest source of a complete gospel. It is thought to have been written in the first century, around the early to mid-sixties, during a time of heightened conflict for the early Church. Faced with violent persecution by the Romans, the early Church places increasing pressure on the Jewish community to participate in the resistance against the Romans. This would eventually lead to demands to fight against the Romans to protect the temple in Jerusalem, and its practices and worship, as the center and heart of Jewish religion and life.
The Beginnings of the Church
Just 30 years after the death of Jesus, the Roman Empire was engaged in a massive persecution of the young Christian churches. The fledging Church, powered by the Spirit, had surged into the Mediterranean world. The formerly frightened apostles, all Jews, grew increasingly stronger in their faith and obedience to their Master’s command to preach the Good News and to pursue his ministry of hope for the poor, for justice and forgiveness for all, and for the arrival of God’s kingdom of abiding peace on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified as the "King of the Jews." As missionaries and evangelists poured out from Jerusalem and Galilee into the Greek and Roman world along the trade routes and to centers of learning, the Church’s growth was phenomenal. Because its practice and message were literally "good news for the poor of the earth," it was among the poor, in particular, that the Church flourished.
The movement had begun as an offshoot of Judaism, calling Jews to deeper conversion and to prophetic nonviolent resistance to evil and the influence of Roman imperialism. The growing movement became a new religion with its adherents dubbed the followers of the "Way" (Acts 24). As the Church made more and more converts among non-Jews, it became increasingly universal in its membership, including the many peoples of the Roman Empire and beyond.
This expansion brought freshness and enthusiasm among new believers, along with tension among the original followers and their Jewish companions and adherents. Tension arose when the Church sought to define itself as not primarily Jewish but as the kingdom of God upon earth, a gathering of the companions of the crucified and now risen Jesus. The awareness of Jesus as the beloved Son of God grew and was expressed liturgically through prayer and ritual, including baptism, confirmation, the laying on of hands, and the Eucharist, the breaking of bread together. The faith of the church was being learned, articulated, lived, and passed on by word of mouth in phrases and through the repetition of stories told by Jesus and those who witnessed to him.
But problems arose within the church communities and also because of political, social, and religious factors in the surrounding societies. By the year 60 C.E. both major leaders of the Church, Peter in Jerusalem and Rome, and Paul in the missionary areas, had been killed in the persecution. The loss of Peter and Paul is described accurately in the famous quote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." The valor, courage, and witness of the martyrs brought their followers closer together and strengthened the faith and purpose of the Church. Hundreds, if not thousands, died proclaiming Jesus as Lord and refusing to bow to the Roman emperor as god.
Along with those who died were many apostates, those who gave up their faith, dragging the community down in despair and loss. Christians today often tend to look at the early Church as an impossible utopian concept or a marvelous time when everyone was intent on becoming martyrs for the faith, unfamiliar with human weakness or the obvious fears of torture or the loss of life and property that would result from imprisonment. However, many succumbed and gave up their faith; others waited until the persecution died down and then returned to the Church, seeking forgiveness from the community, soberly aware of their failings, their sin, and how their actions contributed to the loss of faith in others.
The primary teaching of Jesus is forgiveness—for everything, for everyone, in all circumstances and deeds. The early church communities were soon faced with what to do with public sinners who failed miserably to live up to their baptismal promises, with those who reneged on their vows and betrayed their communities. Were they to be allowed to return? Were they to be welcomed back to the intimacies of the breaking of the Word and bread? How were they to be reconciled with those who had been betrayed by their fellow believers? Obedience to Jesus’ commands during this time of persecution demanded of the Church a maturity that came through the presence and power of the Spirit of God abiding in the community.
Thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, his followers were considered traitors and subversives by the empire of Rome, which was far reaching and capable of systematic and brutal torture and execution. Peter and Paul had both died at the hands of its killing machine. Although legal according to Roman standards, their deaths were unjust and viciously self-serving. Church leaders and those who defended their relationship to Jesus as Lord publicly paid the ultimate price of witness—martyrdom.
Even the towering figures we know as Peter and Paul confronted this conflict: obedience to the words and person of Jesus the Lord or obedience to the Roman authorities. Peter died by crucifixion. Tradition says that he deemed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord whom he had betrayed so fiercely and savagely and so pleaded with the soldiers to be crucified upside down that they obliged him. This man who had been fearful and disloyal as a follower was totally converted to the Good News and to the following of Jesus, even though it was long and arduous, with failures and abysmal moments of humiliation and betrayal. It was Peter who sinned, vehemently denying any association with his Lord and cursing his name. By the power of the Spirit, it was Peter who repented, confessing his own weakness and God’s goodness and mercy. It was also Peter who became the leader of the Church universal.
Paul, the great orator, preacher, and missionary, was also a famed Jewish rabbi trained under Gamaliel. While he lived under house arrest in Rome for nearly two years, he continued to write letters and teach. He was called to crucifixion for his teaching and also for being a Christian. In the end, though, the great Paul fell back upon his Roman citizenship and declared that he would not be subject to the degradation and humiliation of crucifixion. As a Roman, he was accorded the privilege of beheading—a swift execution without the public brutality and shame that was part of the ritual of crucifixion.
Paul’s decision must have been devastating and demoralizing for his fellow Christians. In the end, to save himself from suffering and death, Paul claimed his Roman citizenship rather than his citizenship in the kingdom of God. This has been rarely alluded to throughout history or even today. Somehow, at the end, Paul betrayed his belief in the Master and the downtrodden; he shamed Jesus by using his position in the world to protect himself. Yet, this reveals much about the daily struggles of the early Church—the actions of its own members that could be courageous, but also calculating when it came to their own lives and deaths.
It is Peter, and not Paul, who is the image of a believer in the gospel of Mark. Peter is the model for those who sin again and again because of personal weakness or fear, for those who do not understand or give priority to their own ideas and agendas. Peter is also a model for those who only slowly and painstakingly come to understand the meaning of Jesus, the poor and crucified one, risen from the dead. Peter is the one who, when called, follows, stumbles and then becomes a stumbling block for others as he betrays Jesus. Peter is slow to realize that he must repent and that he needs massive forgiveness. In the end, after Jesus’ resurrection, he finally "gets it," thanks to the power of the Spirit.
The Themes of Mark’s Gospel
In the sixties, as the Church continued to grow both in spite of and because of the Roman persecution, the Spirit led Mark to pen an account of Jesus, the Good News of God, and his teachings. The gospel is often referred to as an account of the passion, with an introductory set of questions and answers: If Jesus is who he claims to be, then why did he have to die and suffer as he did? And the corollary follows: If we are going to be followers of this Jesus, will we also suffer and die as he did? While this is a valid approach to the gospel of Mark, it seems to blunt the terror of the actual times and the hard choices that had to be made.
While the account of the passion is often seen as overarching, Jesus’ deliberate and clear invitation in chapter 8 to "deny yourself, pick up your cross and come after me" makes it much more than a passion account. Chapter 8 is key. It marks the turning toward Jerusalem, the place where the prophets met rejection and death, and the place of Jesus’ own rejection and death. Thus, Mark’s gospel is about more than just a set of theological propositions about the nature and person of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. It should be read, studied, and reflected upon as a text to prepare for baptism and as essential reading for those seeking to be true to their baptismal promises. The first century was an age and time when to be baptized was an act of faith and courage that placed believers’ very lives in jeopardy, including the lives of those they loved and were bound to. Mark’s gospel is really a primer on the cross that tells of suffering, rejection, and faithfulness. It demonstrates how to "deny one’s very self to save one’s soul" and how to forgive those who betray you or fail you or deliver you over to death. It tells of how to follow Jesus, literally, to Jerusalem and the mount of Calvary and then on to resurrection glory.
Mark’s gospel is also about making a community strong and free. The early Church communities were at the bottom of the heap in the Roman Empire. Regarded as subversive and dangerous by the ruling authorities and their very presence could evoke hatred and inordinate fear that translated into vicious torture which prolonged the agony of dying. Mark’s gospel is a declaration of faith in the power of the Good News to the poor and in the forgiveness and mercy of God. It is a call to proclaim the incarnation with our bodies and souls.
And so, in Mark’s gospel, it is Peter who reminds the community of new and older believers what will be demanded of them by the very fact of their baptism into Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Peter will speak the communities’ fears and thoughts that conflict with the teachings of Jesus. Peter will resist Jesus’ call to the cross and obedience and his instructions about forgiveness as a way of life. And it is Peter who betrays Jesus, from his initial misunderstanding at the beginning of the gospel, to his later rejection when he perceives that Jesus is not what he expected or wanted, and then to his outright betrayal, cursing and showing shame at even being associated with Jesus. Peter is the disciple who leads, sometimes leading the other disciples away from Jesus or keeping at a safe distance to protect his own safety.
This is also the story of the internal life of the Church as its members struggled with persecution by the Roman Empire. Their refusal to acknowledge the emperor a god, the only one worthy of worship and obedience, was viewed as a supreme insult. The Church as a whole was also under enormous pressure from the leadership of the Jewish community who had often been in collusion with the Romans and the Roman procurator in Jerusalem in exchange for the right to continue worshiping in the temple. Some factions within Judaism sought to engage in massive protests and violently resist the rule of Rome, reclaiming their sacred ground for worship after it had been defiled by the presence of the Roman soldiers and working to rebuild Israel as a nation. By the sixties, the time of Mark’s writing, these zealots and rebel forces, who were becoming better organized, were demanding that the followers of the Way, still seen as Jewish or connected to Judaism, join them and fight against the Romans to secure the temple grounds and reinstate Israel as a free nation, neither occupied nor controlled by Rome. They had had enough of being despised and humiliated in their own country.
So the Church as a whole had to decide if it would fight with the Jews to defend the temple against the Romans. A clear line was drawn. The gospel of Mark delineates the meaning of that line: What is demanded in lifestyle, personally and communally, by a follower of Jesus the crucified and risen one? It is a choice, sadly, that will separate the people into two religions and begin a time of hostility that will fester and grow for millennia.
It is decided that because a Christian cannot kill and be a follower of Jesus, these members of the early Church will not align themselves with the Jews to fight against the Romans in defense of the temple. For them, the new temple is the Body of Christ. Followers of Jesus and the cross are not to kill—not for any reason or anyone or to defend anything. One may lay down one’s life for what one believes but one may not take up arms or kill as a believer. This stance is written large into the gospel of Mark as part and parcel of what defines one as a Christian baptized into the Body and Blood of Jesus. This decision and its ramifications, as outlined in Mark, became the teaching and practice of the first 350 years of the Church—no member of an army or anyone willing to kill can be admitted to baptism. They may be enrolled in the catechumenate but they cannot be baptized since they are lacking in the primary "mark," if you will, of a follower of Jesus—one who lives by love, even love unto death and love for enemies as friends, in imitation of Jesus who loves all of us this way.
The Challenge of the Way
This is the historical and religious backdrop of the gospel of Mark. It tells the story of the communities of followers of Jesus, a movement that traveled from Jerusalem through Galilee and the Roman trade routes to the heart of the Roman Empire, lodging there as the Church of Rome, which, in time, would become the center of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It was not an easy or smooth beginning. At times the Church stumbled and fell upon its own rocks. It has also been a stumbling block for others as surely as it seeks to be a haven of sanctuary and hope for the poor, the lost, the despairing and the outcast. It is a very human community spurred on by the Spirit of Jesus hovering over his disciples, accompanying them, walking ahead of them and sharing their sufferings, their failures and fears. But the Spirit never abandoned them. Jesus, the Son of the Father, baptized in the Spirit, merciful and faithful unto death, loving and forgiving even as he dies, is with them. After the resurrection, Jesus goes before them into Galilee, leading them out into the world to preach his Word and live it in their own bodies and communities.
This is the shadow of history behind this reading of Mark’s gospel, the shortest of the texts of the Good News. These are the questions we must ask ourselves today: What would our Christian communities, our parishes and churches, be like if we responded as the early Church did to the demands of the Spirit of God in Jesus the crucified? Would we have the faith and courage in our time to resist persecution, refusing to kill even under pressure from the authorities and even under threat of loss and death?
And we should not forget the specter of Paul’s last act that lingers and hovers. Do we resort to our place in society to protect us or shield us from the consequences of preaching the gospel? Or worse, have we learned to use our position of power in our culture or nation (with the United States often seen by others as a "new" Roman Empire) to betray our faith, to twist it and accommodate it to our political, economic, or social agendas while we ignore the poor and oppressed? Would our claim to be Christians be recognizable by our Lord and teacher Jesus the crucified one?
We must read the gospel of Mark in its context and then apply it to our time. As we walk with the companions of Jesus, with Peter, James, John, and the others, men and women like us, and listen to the Word of God in Jesus, we must let the gospel convict us, convert us, confirm us, and call us to repentance and the practice of being the Good News to the poor in today’s world. If this brings persecution or we find ourselves considered subversive and dangerous to the powers that be, then it should be our privilege and grace to rejoice, for this is how Jesus was seen. Perhaps we are beginning to act like our Master and Lord, Jesus the crucified and risen one.
"Come and follow me!" The journey to Jerusalem and to the cross begins. What we were signed with at our baptisms, we now pick up and shoulder as we walk together in glory. As Catherine of Siena once said, "If you believe that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father, in the power of the Spirit, then all the way home to heaven, is heaven."
In the tradition of Jesus, a master story teller and the story of God, a story is a good way to begin.
Once upon a time there was a man who was seeking meaning in his life. He and his friend had been searching for a way to live that was graceful, freeing and respectful of others. His friend would encourage him, and he would sustain her in their seeking. One day they heard of a teacher and were fascinated by the stories others told of him. They decided together to seek the teacher out to ask to be allowed to become apprentices, disciples of his way.
He happened to pass by the village where they were staying and along with the crowds they listened to his words. Later they sought out his company, presenting themselves and asking to be initiated into his following. It was the custom at that time to be interviewed by the teacher and then, when he had asked them a question and listened to their answer, he would decide, right there and then, on the spot, whether they would be suitable for his teaching and company.
Of course, they were nervous as both wanted to be accepted. They began in earnest: "Master, we wish to join you and follow you and learn to live as you do, according to your words." And the Master looked at them kindly but spoke realistically. "How do you know that you want to follow me, or what you are getting yourselves into?"
They were quick to reply: "Your words, Master, they stir us. This is what we have always believed and wanted and now we have found it in you!" The Master was silent a moment, as though he were praying. "Are you sure?" he queried them. "Do you have any idea what you are asking in wanting to belong to my disciples?" "Yes, we’re sure," they both declared. The Master shook his head slowly and looking at them, said, "You may come and follow me, but believe me, you will lose everything you think you know, including your surety. Do you still want to join me?" "Yes, yes," they declared again. And so, they were permitted, even welcomed to his band of followers.
From that night forward there was a foreboding, a sense of unease that both of them, along with all the others—who had been asked the very same questions, sought to smother and ignore, in spite of all that would happen to them. The unease grew and festered, and sometimes in the group, when they didn’t understand, they would pick at it, like a scab newly formed on a sore, until it was red and raw and bleeding.
But they had left everything for this. It had to be what they were looking for—it had to be. They would make it so. They were sure they could do it. But the Master’s refrain, which he spoke like a mantra, whispering almost continuously, never failed to stir up both their hopes and their fears. "Do you want to lose everything—do you want only me? Are you sure?"
Do we want to lose everything? Or, at least, are we willing to lose everything and be left with only Jesus? Are we sure? This is the place where we must start losing everything, bit by bit, piece by piece. What will we lay aside first?
In the early Church one of the primary means of teaching catechumens and deepening the faith of the baptized was to share the psalms together, praying in the Spirit with Jesus to the Father. So, in light of this tradition, each chapter will end with a psalm to add another dimension to the gospel text. We are summoned to believe in Jesus and to worship the God of Jesus, Father and Spirit, even in the face of public disdain and pressure, as a people that belongs to God alone. We pray:
Keep me safe, O God,
for in you I take refuge,
I say to the Lord,
"You are my Lord, my only good."
The gods of the earth are but nothing,
cursed be those who delight in them.
Those who run after foreign gods
only have their sorrows multiplied.
Let me not shed blood for them,
nor their names be heard on my lips.
O Lord, my inheritance and my cup,
my chosen portion—hold secure my lot.
The best part has been allotted to me.
Delightful indeed is my inheritance!
I bless the Lord who counsels me;
even at night my inmost self instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
for with him at my hand, I will never be shaken.
My heart, therefore, exults, my soul rejoices;
my body too will rest assured.
For you will not abandon
my soul to the grave,
Nor will you suffer your holy one
to see decay in the land of the dead.
You will show me the path of life,
in your presence the fullness of joy,
at your right hand happiness forever.