Canon Andrew Tawn is the Director of Clergy Development for the Diocese of Leeds
The Second Sunday in Lent
25 February 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Andrew Tawn
Genesis 17. 1-7 & 15-16; Mark 8. 31-38
Have you ever wondered how the gospels came to be written down? I would like to take you on a journey from the moment Jesus spoke the words we heard in today’s gospel to the time they were written down in chapter 8 of Mark’s gospel.
We know Jesus died somewhere around 30 – 33 A.D. We do not know for sure when the gospels were written down, but the majority of scholars reckon Mark’s gospel probably dates from somewhere around 70 AD.
So we have a gap of around 40 years between Jesus’ death and Mark’s gospel being written. What happened in between?
First of all stories of Jesus would have circulated by word of mouth, from disciples and witnesses. These stories would probably have been in little units: a parable, for instance, or a healing story, or a significant event like Jesus’ baptism or the transfiguration.
Nowadays we rely so much on written texts or the internet we carry very few memorised passages in our heads. It is easy to imagine that as those stories were passed from this person to that person, from this church to that church, they would get changed along the way: like Chinese whispers and that famous anecdote of message to ‘send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’. But it is likely that in the oral culture of Jesus’ day and the early church, people would have taken much greater care to preserve these stories accurately.
As the early church grew there would have been an increasing number of people who had never met Jesus: including Paul, Mark and Luke. And as the early church spread away from its Jewish origins to Gentiles these stories would have been translated into Greek, the international language of the Mediterranean world at that time and the language the New Testament is written in. Jesus spoke in Aramaic or Hebrew but only a handful of Aramaic and Hebrew words remain in the Greek New Testament – and the fact that these words were retained shows they were important: words like Abba (father); Amen; Maranatha; Emmanuel; rabbi; Hallelujah; Hosanna; Sabbath.
In the very first years of the church there was an expectation that the second coming of Christ was imminent. Jesus said it would be within the lifetime of those who were with him. So there was no need and no point to write down the story and the teachings of Jesus.
But as the years passed and the second coming did not arrive the sense of expectation began to change. There came a time, 30 – 40 years after Jesus’ death, when first hand witnesses were dying (they would be aged around 60 -70 by then). And so there was an increasing need to write things down for posterity.
Papias (writing c. 95- 120 AD) says Mark’s gospel was based on memoirs of Peter. So although Mark was not one of Jesus’ disciples himself he was using material from a first hand witness.
So which of the four gospels is the earliest and how do they relate to each other?
For many centuries Matthew was thought to be oldest –because it was placed first in order. Nearly all of Mark’s gospel, around 95% of it, is duplicated in Matthew and Luke and it is much shorter, so for centuries Mark was thought to be a kind of pocket version. Shorter and simpler and less important.
From the mid-19th century scholars began to realise that actually Mark’s was the oldest gospel and Matthew and Luke each wrote their gospels as expanded versions of Mark.
The way I think of this is a bit like the way I and my friends did our homework back in our schooldays. One day I might have been a bit short of time and had done some reading but hadn’t had time to write everything down. So one friend kindly let me copy of what he had written. I copied some of his work word for word, but it would have looked a bit suspicious if I had written exactly the same as my friend so I changed things a bit as I went along, correcting some of his English, and adding in some of the extra reading I had done.
The vast majority of scholars reckon Matthew and Luke would have had Mark’s gospel in front of them when they wrote theirs. There are great chunks in their gospels which are almost word for words the same as Mark, but they often polish up his rather basic Greek and add in other stories which either Mark did not know or chose not to include.
Mark probably dates from around 70 AD, with Matthew and Luke 10 or 20 years later, and John possibly later still. Maybe around 100 AD. What makes Mark so special is that this is the oldest record we have of Jesus’ life and teaching.
But his gospel is much more than a collection of stories. Mark’s genius was to take dozens of the separate stories of Jesus and weave them into one coherent narrative. Some of the order is obvious; Jesus’ baptism comes at the beginning and his crucifixion comes at the end. But what about all the parables, and miracles? Where did they fit into the bigger story? How did Mark come to place today’s gospel passage in this position in chapter 8?
When you look at Mark’s gospel as a continuous story you can see he has arranged the material in a careful structure. The first half of the gospel constantly asks the question: Who is Jesus? Who is this that even the wind and waves obey him? Who is this who preaches and teaches with such authority? Isn’t he just a carpenter’s son?
This half reaches its climax in the paragraph just before today’s gospel, where Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And then the direct question: ‘But you – who do you say that I am?’ to which Peter replies, ‘You are the Christ, the Messiah.’
There are no chapters or verses in the original manuscripts of the gospels – they were added much later. But notice that the gospel is 16 chapters long. So this passage, in chapter 8, falls bang in the middle. This is the crux, the pivot, the turning point of the story.
Geographically the first half all centres around Galilee. The second half takes us on a journey to Jerusalem and the cross.
Today’s gospel marks the start of the second half of the gospel. As soon as the disciples have recognised Jesus as Messiah he begins to teach them about the kind of Messiah he was to be. Not a conquering, triumphant Messiah, who overthrows the Romans and restores Israel, but one who suffers. This is the theme of the second half of the gospel.
So Jesus ‘began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed …’
This isn’t what the disciples wanted to hear and Peter tries to rebuke Jesus. But if the disciples found this news of the suffering Messiah hard to take, something even harder was just about to come:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
The only way to be a disciple of Jesus is to follow the way he took. To deny ourselves. To give up self-interest. To stop thinking about what I want, what makes me happy, what gives me security and comfort.
Life would be much easier if Jesus accompanied us, so we could go would where we chose, and make the decisions we wanted, and have Jesus to help us. But that’s not our calling. Our calling is to follow Jesus and say at every choice and decision, ‘Your will be done – not mine’.
And what does it means for us to take up our cross? For some Christians, in some parts of the world, that really does mean following Jesus to a martyr’s death. We are lucky to live in country where Christianity is not persecuted. So what does that mean for us? I suggest it means sharing in God’s concern for those who suffer. If we are to be followers of Jesus we cannot close our eyes to the suffering of the world, we cannot walk by on the other side. We are called to cross the road, to go out of our way, to offer help.
So here in the heart of Mark’s gospel, and in the middle of our journey of Lent, we are posed two stark questions – as challenging for us as they were to Peter and the first disciples:
But you – who you say that Jesus is? What does he really mean to you?
And are you willing to follow him, even though that means denying yourself and taking up the cross of suffering?