And Then What?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. At the first service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we read through what most scholars consider to be the ending of this Gospel.  Like them, we were confused by the abrupt nature of the conclusion, and wondered how that form might impact the content.  The Gospel text was Mark 16:1-8; we also heard from the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:34-43?  

To hear the sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

When is an ending not an ending?

The Gospel of Mark is puzzling, to say the least.  It’s confusing, at best.  Here we are, just a few hours away from the end of our multi-year study of what so far as we know is the first attempt at a written record of the life of Jesus, and it ends in the middle of a sentence.  Mark’s account of the life of Jesus ends with the word “for” – in Greek, it’s gar.  “They didn’t say anything to anyone, they were afraid for…”  Who ends a story with the word “for”?  It’s crazy talk, that’s what that is.  It can’t be right.

And for centuries, people agreed with that assessment.  Obviously, there’s a problem.  So if you look in your pew Bibles, you’ll see that the gospel of Mark goes all the way to verse 20.  But there’s a footnote saying that “most ancient authorities conclude the Gospel at the end of verse 8.”  People have argued for centuries – what happened here?  Did the original ending get lost?  You have all had old books laying around the house and pages just sort of fall out after a while…Is that the story?  Or did Mark somehow mean to walk out on the story so abruptly?  If you really want a nice, tidy, ending, you’ll have to come back for the 11:00 service, because at that time we’ll take up the “alternate ending” of the Gospel of Mark.

In the meantime, though, I’ll tell you that most recent scholars, and your pastor, believe that Mark knew exactly what he was doing – and he cut the story short.  After all, if you remember the beginning of the Gospel, you’ll recall that Jesus’ entry was pretty abrupt – there’s no infancy, no childhood – he just shows up. Well, here, he just leaves.  And then what?  It’s a mystery.

What do we know?  Well, on Thursday, we read a pretty conclusive passage indicating that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.  We can know for sure that he was dead – the executioner, the women, Joseph of Arimathea, and even Pilate’s personal intelligence officer all agree that Jesus had died.  There was a corpse.  And we know that he was buried. A leader of the council put him in his own tomb.  The women followed and saw him buried.  There are witnesses to these things.

artist unknown

And then, a few days later, the women go back to do things right – they had been too rushed, and perhaps too afraid, on Friday.  So Sunday they stop by to visit the grave and take care of things.  All of a sudden, things look a little different.  The tomb is open.  And there’s a young man inside.  Matthew tells us that he’s an angel.  Luke and John say that he had a friend with him.  It doesn’t seem to matter to Mark.  The young man gives a message to the women.

Now I want you to pay attention here, because you’re seeing something in the Gospel of Mark that you haven’t seen before.  All through the Gospel, the people who follow Jesus seem to bounce around in their ability to be faithful.  Mostly, they’re consistent.  Sometimes they are able to hold onto the faith, other times they leave it. Even Peter denies Jesus.  In the garden, everyone, including the young man we think was Mark, flees.  But so far, there has been one group of people who have managed to do, more or less, what is asked of them: the women. No matter how much the other disciples screw things up, the faithful women seem to be there for Jesus.  They don’t always ask the right questions, as when the mother of James and John asked if they could sit next to Jesus in the kingdom – but they are consistently present, and invested, and willing.

But what does this young man say to them? “Go, and tell the disciples…” And what do they do? “They fled…they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Finally, it comes to this.  Even the women – the ones who were willing to go to Hell and back for Jesus – bail out.  They can’t get their heads around the idea of resurrection.  It’s just too improbable, even for them.  Even for God.  And so they run away, silent and scared.

In Mark’s telling, the first Easter was characterized by confusion.  By people running around in the half-light of dawn, sure that something has happened, but not sure what.  Someone is lying – is it the Roman Guards, who are accusing the disciples of having stolen the body?  Or is it the disciples themselves?  What’s going on here?

Remember when we began this study, I mentioned that we think that Mark is the first Gospel to have been written.  Think about that, and then think about the ways that the other Gospels end.  Matthew has the angel I’ve already mentioned, and then Jesus himself is there.  There’s an incredible ending where the risen Christ is worshipped by his disciples, and then he gives them their final orders, and then he is taken into heaven as they watch.  And Luke, probably written about the same time as Matthew, ends with the risen Christ showing up on the road to Emmaus, spending quality time with his disciples, engaged in contemplative conversation and even having devotions over dinner with them, for crying out loud.  John, writing even later, can’t say enough about the resurrection.  We see the empty grave clothes; we walk around inside the empty tomb. John shows us Jesus and Mary in the garden, Thomas and Jesus meeting in the upper room; Jesus is having lunch with Peter and the fellas on the beach…

But Mark?  In Mark, we’ve got “a young man” – was he an angel?  Maybe? – who says, “Yes, I know, you’re looking for Jesus.  Well, good news.  He’s not dead anymore.  He’s been raised.”

That’s it, Mark? That’s the best you’ve got? An unidentified male of indeterminate ethnicity telling us that Jesus has been raised? Where’s Jesus?  Where’s the Lord?

Mark doesn’t show us the risen Christ – he shows us a witness telling us that Jesus is risen…and then he says, “And what do you think?  Can you believe this?”

And Mark doesn’t seem particularly eager to convince us himself…because as we’ve said, the women were afraid.  Our last hope for faithful witness has apparently failed.  They are told to go and tell people, and Mark says that they didn’t say anything.

But of course, eventually, they did, right?  I mean, if the only witnesses never said anything, then we’d never know anything about the resurrection, right?  Obviously, eventually, they said something to someone. Mark just stops telling his story before the women start telling theirs.  Because Mark knewthe story of the resurrection. Mark’s community in Rome knew the story of the resurrection.  They probably heard it from the same source as you did a few moments ago: Peter himself vouched for the fact that the story got through.

So that means – follow me here – that somehow, sometime, somewhere, after the women failed to tell, they eventually came around and said something. They testified.  In spite of their fear, in spite of their confusion, the first witnesses to the resurrection were able to find it in themselves to regain their courage and composure and to point to the best thing that has ever happened. This morning we can praise God for, and learn from, women whose faith overcame their fear

And that best thing was great news for Mark’s community. Because they were in fear.  They were unsure what was going to happen to them.  They were afraid of what their faith might cost them…and they, no less than the women, were able to hear the voice of a witness who said, “He has been raised from the dead.  Go and tell people about it.  And better yet, he is going before you.  You will see him – just like he promised.”

Mark’s readers didn’t have the luxury of walking around inside the empty tomb, or having dinner with Jesus, or getting all poetic about the good news of resurrection.  They were being eaten alive by wild animals or being burnt by the government as they tried to hold onto their faith.  All they had was the promise that Jesus will be ahead of them.  That they would see him.  That he would be waiting for them.  Isn’t that good news?

And if they fail to witness – if their fear gets the best of them, or anxiety shuts their mouths – there’s hope for them, just like there’s hope for every single follower of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.  This ending is great news for Mark’s friends.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

And to be honest, it’s my favorite Easter story, too. The other Gospels all end with the disciples having figured it out, at least a little bit.  Look at Matthew, John, or Luke, and you’ll see that the disciples have found the resurrected Jesus, they have begun to understand something of what resurrection is about.  They’ve gotten it together, at least a bit.

My life is not usually like that.  I can’t usually identify with Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, who touches Jesus’ hands and side and falls down crying, “My Lord and my God!”  I mean, it looks swell in the painting and everything, but I’ve never touched him.

But Mark’s ending?  Grief? Fear?  Amazement?  I mean, I spend half my life asking, “And then what?  What am I going to do NOW?”  Disciples that are running around scared and confused and uncertain?  These are guys that I can relate to!

I don’t know everything about your life, and you sure don’t want to know all about mine.  But I know that there have been plenty of days in even the past few months where I’ve found myself scared and confused and uncertain.  There have been times when I wasn’t sure who I could trust, with what, and everything I looked at seemed to be blanketed with a thick gray fog. I am certain beyond a doubt that some of you know what that looks like.

And if, for some reason, you find yourself staring at the pastor this morning thinking, “what is that man going on about?  Fear? Uncertainty? Anxiety?  Here? In Church?  Why, never have I ever experienced anything close to that…” – well, all I have to say to you is what Penguins announcer Mike Lange says: “Get in the fast lane, grandma! The Bingo game is ready to roll!”  There’s a lot in this world I can’t be sure of, but of this I am completely and utterly convinced: you will be confused and afraid.  You will know doubt and anxiety.

The Good News from Mark is that we don’t have to have all the answers. We move forward in the sure and certain knowledge that we don’t have much sure and certain knowledge…only that he is going ahead of us.  In the confused and scary places.  In the celebratory places.  And we will see him.  And that will be enough.  You can count on that.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Who Stands Alone?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 31, 2019), we were served another “Markan Sandwich”: this one having to do with the trials of Peter (in the courtyard) and Jesus (before the high priest).  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:53-72

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the player below:

The teacher was furious.  He had found a note in the hallway, and on it was scrawled, “I hate this school so much.  It’s filled with idiots!”  They had been talking about self-esteem and pride, and the teacher didn’t know what to do. He held the note above his head and said, “Is that what you think?  That this building is filled with idiots?  I would like to ask everyone who thinks that they’re an idiot to please stand up right now!”

There was a tense silence, and finally little Davie stood. “Really?  Davie?  You think you’re an idiot?”  The student replied, “Well, actually, no sir, I don’t.  I just hated to see you standing there all alone, sir.”

As we continue in our study of Mark, we see here in chapter 14 a study of two men who are, fundamentally, alone.  I’d like to invite you to consider what it means to be alone, and who is alone in this passage, and why.

Let me encourage you to think of this passage as another “Markan sandwich”.  You’ll recall that the author of the second Gospel often begins a story, then interrupts it with another, and finally concludes the first.  Most often, this is done because the two events will offer commentary on each other.

In the passage you’ve heard today, we see two very different men who are undergoing two very different types of trial.  Peter is out in the crowds, seeking to navigate the court of public opinion, while Jesus is the subject of a formal, albeit illegal or irregular, arraignment.  How do we hear God’s word of hope in these stories?  What do they say to their original hearers, and to us?

Persecution of the First Christians, by Giuseppe Mancinelli (1813-1875)

Let’s remember when this Gospel was written – probably about thirty years or so after the incidents it describes.  The first audience for this little pamphlet was a young Christian community in Rome, one that had in all likelihood been taught and nurtured by the Apostle Peter himself.  This group of believers was facing a significant threat – they were being persecuted, arrested, imprisoned, and even killed by the Empire.

Often when we hear of civil or religious authorities bursting into a room and bringing panic, fear, and even death, we think of someplace far away or long ago.  Not so the earliest readers of Mark’s Gospel – for them, this could have been the part of the story that seemed the most accessible.  This passage could have literally been snatched from the headlines because it was so close to their own experience.

So what is happening in this text?

Well, Jesus has been dragged from that little debacle in the Garden of Gethsemane into a full-blown arraignment before the leading council of the Jewish people, called the Sanhedrin.  If you’d like to check this out, you’ll discover many articles that describe the numerous ways that this trial was, itself, illegal. Jewish law forbad legal proceedings at night; there were many false witnesses; and Jesus was being coerced into testifying against himself.

Again, Mark’s first audience would know all about these instances wherein the “justice system” was used as an instrument of oppression and control, rather than a tool for liberation and vindication.  Clearly, Mark intends to present Jesus as a positive role model for his friends and community who are facing such injustice, and that is amplified when Jesus finally does speak.  When he is asked “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”, he offers two little words in Greek: “Ego eimi”.  Translated, of course, that means, “I am.”  To most Westerners in the 21stcentury, “I am” is an innocent statement. “Who’s going to the Penguins game today? Who’s ready for ice cream?” “I am!”

Yet when you say “I am” in Hebrew, you say, “Yahweh”.  That changes things significantly.  And even though Jesus was speaking in Greek or Aramaic, the undertones were clear: here was Jesus, confirming to the Sanhedrin what he had forbidden the disciples to speak about earlier: he is the Messiah.  In fact, he doubles down on that by not only saying “I am” but by following that up with a “Son of Man” statement – again, a strong pronouncement in the ears of his Jewish audience.

Jesus, when pressed, speaks nothing but the truth, and he suffers for it. He is condemned by unjust people after an unfair sham of a trial and then treated shamefully.  He is cursed by others and led him away to a beating he did not deserve.

Peter’s Denial, by Rembrandt (1660)

Peter, on the other hand, is not compelled to be present by anything other than his own conscience.  He had tried to defend Jesus in the Garden, but after dropping his sword and leaving his friends, he skulked along in the shadows behind the procession to the high priest.

His trial comes, not at the hand of any official representative of either the Temple nor from the Imperial government, but from the folks who surround him in the palace courtyard.

And whereas Jesus refused to speak, Peter can’t shut up. And note the progression of his denials: First, he feigns ignorance: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Then, he denies any connection with the community in which he and Jesus were intimately involved: “I’m not one of them!”. And finally, he disavows any personal relationship with Jesus: “I don’t know him!”  And rather than being found guilty by some outside party, as was Jesus, Peter brings down curses on himself.  The last glimpse we will have in the Gospel of Mark of this beloved disciple is of him weeping at the gate, stumbling into the darkness, regretting his own failures as a disciple and friend.  Now, having said that, I should also point out that it’s reasonable to expect that the first readers of Mark, the Christians in the city of Rome, would already be familiar with some other Peter stories; they would, in all probability, recognize that their own community had been shaped by his leadership.  Most of them would know about his imprisonment and perhaps even his death at the hands of the Roman Empire – so even though this is the last we read about Peter in Mark, the original audience would know that it’s not the end of his story.

So that’s a little bit about how the first readers of the Gospel might have heard this story in their context.  Jesus as one who is unjustly arrested, unjustly imprisoned, unjustly beaten, but who tells the truth and walks through it; Peter as one who fails miserably, who denies who he is and what he has been, yet as they know, who comes around and lives into his best self because of his community. What about us? What are the implications for this passage in our own day? What can we learn from this, and what can we do with it?

There are a lot of directions that we could go, and many possibilities for interpretation here.  This morning, though, I’d like to leave most of those ideas behind and focus on the question I asked at the beginning of the message: who is standing alone, and why?

Peter’s Denial, by Michael O’Brien (contemporary; used by permission; see more like this at http://studiobrien.com)

In this text, both Jesus and Peter are fundamentally alone at a crucial moment in their lives.  Peter is seeking anonymity as he hides in plain sight by the fire. Can you picture him drawing his cloak up over his head, hiding his face?  As he is recognized by others in the crowd in spite of his attempts to conceal his identity, he retreats into further isolation by removing himself from the fire circle and heading into the entryway or outer court.  Peter is clearly feeling unsafe and exposed in this environment.

In the same way, Jesus is surrounded by other people but more alone, perhaps, than he has been in his earthly lifetime.  As he is dragged into the trial, people come one after another and seek to “other” him.  He is diminished and assaulted verbally, physically, mentally, and spiritually by self-important people in the room who are doing everything they can to remind him that he is not like them and he is not welcome and not worthy; that he doesn’t belong and doesn’t know who he is.

I would like to suggest that both Peter and Jesus are in situations that are clearly removed from the Divine intent.  The conditions in which they find themselves are filled with evidence of fallenness, brokenness, and the far-off-ness of the Kingdom of God which they both proclaimed not all that long ago.

For some reason, as I read and re-read this scripture throughout the week, I was reminded of a brief passage from Genesis 2.  For the entire duration of the amazing creation poems that comprise most of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, we are only told of that which has been pronounced “good”.  Earth and sky, sun and moon, water and dry land – it’s all “good”.  But there near the end of the second chapter, we find that there is a “not good” that is introduced:  “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human is alone.  I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.’” (Genesis 2:18)  If you were to scan the various translations of that verse, you’ll see that some versions indicate that God makes a ‘helper’ for the first human, while others call that second human a ‘helpmeet’, a ‘partner’, or a ‘companion’.  No matter how the word is translated, the implication is clear: according to the norms set forth at Creation, isolation, loneliness, or being “othered” is not good; this kind of alone-ness is not reflective of God’s best for God’s children.

So here is a word for this day, beloved:  If the character in the story that most grabbed you was Peter – if you know how it feels to want to make yourself smaller, to hide, to cringe in the shadows or walk toward the edges of your community in fear… if you understand how it is to cower in shame, or pain, or isolation… then let me please beg you to take a step out of those shadows and let some part of yourself, your story, and your pain be known.

If you have been hiding, then let me ask you to come out a little bit. There is no need to create a full-scale PR campaign, to rush the microphone during “Joys and Concerns”, or to open up your own website – but if you have felt that kind of loneliness and isolation, then let me encourage you to take a step toward another person.  Maybe it’s me; maybe it’s the person sitting next to you or the one watching your children now – but let me ask you to find someone with whom you can be true.  Share a part of your story with someone else, and together with that person, walk toward community and look for some sort of healing, hope, and restoration together.  It is not good for you to be alone, or isolated. Allow your community to help make things better.

And some of you looked at Jesus in his time of trial and abuse and you cringed on his behalf.  Why was he so alone in this his hour of need?  Did you want to scream to his friends, his brothers, his beloved followers, “Where are you now?”

If you noticed the look of isolation and maybe even abandonment in the eyes of your Lord this morning, if you were appalled at the ways in which Jesus was “othered”, then let me implore you to search for that in the faces that surround you this and every day.  Someone near you is feeling abandoned or vulnerable or exposed.  Someone close to you is hiding in fear, and cringing.

Perhaps a call from the Gospel for us today is to move to stand a little closer to that person.  I’m not suggesting that you do this in order to rescue, or fix, or change, or heal anything about that person’s life – because it may be that the reason they’re alone is because something else in our world is so broken that they have become “othered”.  Let me encourage you to become a companion, or what I might call a “non-anxious presence” in the room.

One word that has been used with some frequency in discussions like this is “ally”, and I use it guardedly today because I understand that it carries with it some baggage and connotations that may be less than helpful. That said, however, one of the best things about an ally is that neither party in such relationship is called to submit to or even become like the other.  When Germany was bombing the daylights out of Britain during World War II, for instance, the US did not, as an ally, scold the British for being British. We didn’t walk into London and teach them a better way to be English, or insist that they call lorries “trucks” or chips “French fries.”  We didn’t try to make them become like us – we went and we stood with them and helped them maintain their sense of self and sovereignty at a time when they were feeling very much at risk of being abandoned or even obliterated.

One writer at the University of Kansas has this to say about being an ally:

Sometimes, it’s just reaching out and caring; sometimes it means taking a stand against ethnic, sexist, or other oppressive jokes; sometimes it is thinking about a person and encouraging them to keep trying; it can mean… speaking out publicly against injustice; sometimes it means backing a person’s leadership; sometimes it entails organizing a demonstration against discrimination.

Whatever the circumstances, as community members, we probably have a greater capacity to be effective allies to each other than we realize. We have the ability to think about each other, empower each other, and act on each other’s behalf in our day-to-day lives or in emergency situations.

And like almost anything else, being an ally is a skill. Although being an ally often comes quite naturally, you can learn how to be an ally; and the more you do it the better you get at it.[1]

So here is the call of the Gospel today, beloved: If you feel isolated, or exposed, or insignificant because of who you are, or who you have been told that you are, then let me encourage you to seek an ally here – to reach out for one who can help you feel less vulnerable.  And if you know that someone else is in a space that might be unsafe for them because of their race, their religion, their sexuality, or any other part of their lives, then you can let that person know that they are not alone.

Our world and our culture tend to be divisive; we are increasingly polarized, fractured, and divided.  Jesus and Peter are great examples this morning of those who were driven, for whatever reason, to a place where they were scapegoated,  isolated, or abandoned.   I suspect that a significant reason for the writing of this passage in the Gospel of Mark is that Peter had said on more than one occasion, “I wish I’d have been able to do more; I wish I’d have spoken up for him more, or better.  I wish I could have been there for him.”  Similarly, Peter’s very presence in Rome was proof positive that somehow in the days following the darkest hour of his life, someone he loved and trusted moved closer to him and whispered, “It will get better, my friend. Hold on.  I am here.  We will get through this.”

That is the Good News of the Gospel, my friends.  That you can get through this.  And someone here can be with you while you do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development (https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/culture/cultural-competence/be-an-ally/main)

Previews of Coming Attractions

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of May in 2018, we considered the story of John the Baptist’s gruesome death at the hands of Herod Antipas, the reasons that Mark may have had for including it, and how that matters to the church in the 21st century.  Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Hebrews 13:1-3.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon05-06-2018.mp3 into your browser window.

As we continue our study of Mark’s gospel, you will be forgiven if you find this reading hard to accept.  After all, it seems so far-fetched, doesn’t it?  Who could think the powerful leader of an entire nation – a nation that saw itself as an example of moral purity, and whose leader enjoyed the complete support of the nation’s religious conservatives – who could even imagine that a leader such as that might be involved in multiple marriages, messy divorces, and tawdry cover-ups?  I know, it seems far-fetched, but please use your imaginations to at least consider whether such a thing could ever actually happen… Because, as the late, great Casey Stengel once said, “You could look it up.”

Before you think you know what I’m saying with this scripture text and a sermon titled “Previews of Coming Attractions”, let’s take a look at what is happening here.

Our text introduces us to “King Herod”.  This is not the same Herod of whom we spoke a few months ago at Christmas.  ThatHerod, also known as “Herod the Great”, was the man that the Romans installed to serve as their client king over most of Palestine.  Herod the Great was the ruler who met the wise men and who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.  When he died several years after the birth of Jesus, his territory was divided among three of his sons and a daughter. Today’s Herod, also called “Herod Antipas”, was in charge of Galilee and some territory to the East of the Jordan river.

Herod Antipas divorced his first wife so that he could marry a woman named Herodias.  That might have been messy enough, but Herodias was also married to Antipas’ brother, whom Mark calls Philip but who apparently was actually, if not creatively, named Herod II.  Furthermore, not only was she Antipas’ sister-in-law, she was also his niece.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod, Giovanni Fattori (19th c.)

Mark tells us that the most powerful religious prophet of the day, John the Baptist, had pointed out to anyone who would listen how immoral and unsavory this arrangement was, thus earning the hatred of Herodias in particular.  As you’ve heard, Herodias finally got her wish to have John silenced when her husband/uncle was running his mouth at a birthday party he’d given for himself.

By itself, it is a disturbing story for lots of reasons.  However, as we are looking at the Gospel of Mark, I think it’s fair to ask why Mark tells us this story.  What reason would he have for thinking that, out of all the important things to say about Jesus, the Kingdom, and the community that formed as a result of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, it was important to spend fifteen verses talking about the death of Jesus’ cousin?

Well, for starters, this story reveals the growing power of the movement that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke had begun.  When the Gospel of Mark begins, Jesus is an itinerant Rabbi wandering the backcountry of the Galilee.  He’s got some impressive credentials and can preach up a storm, but by worldly standards he is nobody.  Yet as the Gospel progresses, people start to pay attention.  The crowds get larger, and soon enough Herod Antipas takes notice. The author of the second Gospel wants us to know that the person and work of Jesus was garnering some significant acclaim – so much so that the local government begins to get concerned about who Jesus is and what he is saying.

From a literary perspective, I think that the author of Mark is truly giving us a “preview of coming attractions” in this section.  There are some real and important parallels with what happens in this encounter between Herod Antipas and John and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as ordered by Pilate. Look at this:

  • In both instances, the civil authority is more than a little fascinated by a religious teacher, and appears to be willing to keep him around for a while.
  • Both Herod Antipas and Pilate fall prey to their own egos and make the mistake of trying to impress a crowd with some sort of lavish gesture.
  • Each ruler allows himself to be manipulated by the hostility of another party – in Antipas’ case, it was Herodias, while in Pilate’s it was the Jewish leaders.
  • At the end of the day, both Antipas and Pilate are reduced to being mostly spectators at an execution for which they in fact bear prime responsibility – they become impotent actors in dramas that grow beyond themselves.

Okay, those things may give us an insight as to why Mark feels it’s important for us to know about the death of John, but why does he tell us this story now?  Jesus is clearly on a roll as his movement is taking off in Galilee; we’ve just seen an instance where Jesus is transferring some of his power and authority to his disciples as he sends them out into the countryside… why does Mark interrupt himself at this point with what is essentially a “flashback” episode – he breaks his train of thought to tell us something that had evidently occurred some time previous. Why would he do that?

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Puvis de Cheyennes (1869)

Do you remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about the “Markan sandwich”?  We looked at chapter 5, and discovered how Mark started to talk about a man named Jairus and his sick daughter, and then interrupted himself to talk about the healing of a woman who had been sick for a long time, and then went back to the story of Jairus and his daughter.  As we talked about that passage, we noted that there are times when Mark chooses to insert some apparently unrelated material in the middle of a narrative in such a way that allows us to see both the original narrative and the interruption in a different light.  Here, he’s doing that again.

The first part of the “sandwich” is the passage we had last week: Jesus sent out the disciples to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

The interruption is our text for this week: the death of John at the hands of Herod.  And the conclusion of the sandwich will be our text for next week: the return of the disciples which leads to the feeding of the 5,000.  Let’s think for a moment about how these seemingly unrelated stories can help to interpret each other.

One of the themes in the Gospel of Mark is that the movement of the Holy Spirit is a threat to those who yearn for or worship the power or illusion of success that this world has to offer.  Do you remember that in chapter 1, we saw that just after Jesus began preaching about the nearness of the Kingdom, John was arrested by Herod Antipas?  Here in chapter 6, the disciples give evidence of the nearness of God’s Kingdom, and we’re told of John’s death.  In chapter 11, we’ll read about how the masses are responding to the presence of the Kingdom on the day we know as Palm Sunday, and that leads to the arrest and death of Jesus.  In chapter 13, Jesus gives his “farewell speech” to his disciples and he warns them that when they preach the Gospel, it will mean trouble for them and for those whom they love. 

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Leon Gérome (1883)

So one could argue that inserting a story about the death of John the Baptist into an account of disciples who are trying to point faithfully to the coming of the Kingdom of God is, for all intents and purposes, a “preview of coming attractions” for the ones who are Mark’s first audience – the Christians who are struggling to have faith while living under Nero’s persecutions in first-century Rome. Perhaps those believers have begun to wonder what they had done to deserve this kind of treatment and whether Jesus himself could be trusted, and Mark uses this story to say, “Hold on!  Hang in there! Be of good courage.  I see that you are facing imprisonment and suffering and death, and trust me – the story isn’t over yet! Nothing of eternal consequence has been lost!”

Can you see how that interpretation might fit for the first readers of this Gospel nearly 2000 years ago?

Unfortunately, there are too many 21stcentury American Christians who will read this passage and say, “Oh, thank you so much, Mark, for including this story. We, too, are suffering horrible persecution for our faith and this is a great encouragement to us.”

A recent survey[1]indicated that a majority of white Evangelical Christians see themselves as the most oppressed group in the USA.  It’s people who look like me, by and large, who believe that they face more persecution than anyone else: more than Muslims, more than atheists, more than sexual minorities.  When pressed for evidence of this claim, we hear about

  • The county clerk who works in a state where same-sex marriage is legal and who must therefore act against her conscience in issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples
  • A Hollywood celebrity who is passionately outspoken about her views concerning gender and sexuality is disinvited from an appearance on a television program hosted by someone with differing views.
  • The Christian church that is threatened with the loss of its tax-free status after its pastor campaigned for a particular candidate in a recent election.

When I hear this, I’m sorry to say, I am tempted to respond with something less than compassion. Don’t get me wrong – there are important issues here, and they deserve to be discussed.  But to say that I am being persecuted because someone disagrees with me is, at best, a stretch and at worst, an outright lie.  The white church in America is experiencing some grief at the loss of extensive privilege that it has enjoyed for hundreds of years. I get that.  But let’s not call loss of privilege “persecution” or “oppression”. These are differences of opinion or inconveniences or cultural change, not victimization.

A writer for Foreign Policy magazine recently put it this way:

How will we know when American Christians are genuinely under threat? When they start changing their names from the obviously biblical “Andrew” and “Mary” to the more secular “William” or “Jennifer” in order to avoid hiring discrimination. When Christians in Congress hide their faith and instead loudly claim to be atheists. When Christians are regularly blocked from buying homes or renting apartments in the good parts of town. When the president of the United States calls for Christians to be banned from the country. Then we can start taking claims of religious discrimination at face value.[2]

A few moments ago I read to you a passage of Scripture that contains a direct commandment that is, unfortunately, impossible for many of my Christian sisters and brothers to keep. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those who are in prison…and those who are suffering…”

Most of us are literally incapable of doing this.  We cannot “remember” those who are imprisoned or who are suffering torture because we have never known them.  The word “remember” implies some sort of previous knowledge.  “Do you remember the last time that the Pirates won the World Series?” is an appropriate question, because that has happened in at least some of our lifetimes.  Yet if I were to ask, “Do you remember that time you had your photo taken with President Lincoln?”, that would be nonsense – because you cannot remember that which you never knew.

In the same way, too many of us have no awareness of or connection with those who are truly struggling or facing persecution for their faith.

Mark chapter 6 cries out to the church in Pittsburgh in 2018 to do at least four things.

First, can we all get down on our knees at some point today and cry out with thanksgiving to God for the fact that you and I have never known the kinds of anguish and suffering inflicted on John the Baptist, Jesus, the first disciples, or the earliest followers of Jesus?

Second, before we stand up from that prayer, we need to repent of and give up the notions of privilege that equate our loss of privilege with someone else’s suffering.

Thirdly, will you invest an hour of your time in the week to come learning about and looking for ways to somehow be connected with someone who truly is marginalized or persecuted?  Go home and do a quick Google search on the kinds of oppression faced by women and sexual and religious minorities in the nation of Pakistan.  Learn about the fact that there are only 300,000 Christians in the entire nation of North Korea, and as many as 75,000 of them are currently in forced-labor camps.  Ask me about the South Sudanese pastors I know who have not seen their families for months because they’ve had to choose between serving the Lord and living in a safe neighborhood.

Here’s the deal, beloved: this chapter is not included in the Book of Mark as an “attaboy” to me, encouraging me to bear up under the intense persecution that I, as a 57 year old white man in the richest country the world has ever known, must be experiencing. Instead, I think that it is here as a reminder for me to ask, each and every day, “How does the Gospel with which I’ve been entrusted affect any of the folks in the scenarios above?  What can I do to create a world that is more in line with the reign and rule of God that Jesus called ‘the Kingdom’, and how can I point to its nearness in the lives of those who truly are suffering?”

The author of Mark makes it pretty plain that Jesus was directly and viscerally impacted by the persecution and death of John.  In what ways am I bothered by the injustices of our age, and what am I willing to do about it?  May God have mercy on me as I seek to respond as did Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.prri.org/research/lgbt-transgender-bathroom-discrimination-religious-liberty/

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/12/12/no-christians-do-not-face-looming-persecution-in-america/?utm_term=.1c61c5fc9ff9