“Here begins the Good News of Jesus Christ.” So writes Mark as he starts his narrative of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is not the first sentence in the New Testament, but it should be. When the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion 1700 years ago, church fathers placed Matthew as the first book of the Greek Testament and Mark as the second. But in modern times, biblical scholars have ascertained that Mark was written first. Matthew copied Mark about 20 years later, making some changes and additions as he did so.
So to my mind, “Here begins the Good News of Jesus Christ” is the opening sentence of The New Testament. But what does Mark mean by the Good News? Just what is the gospel truth, to use the Old English word “gospel,” which was the original English translation of the Greek word “evangel?” Sadly, there is no consensus on its meaning.
Some churches say the good news is that wealth and happiness flows to those who follow Jesus. Some argue it is about the advent of a world of greater justice and equality. Some say it is that obeying traditional notions of sexual morality will bring one closer to God. Still others says the good news is that belief in Jesus can earn you a ticket to heaven.
I see some merit in all of these ideas. I enjoy prosperity and happiness; I work for greater justice and equality; and I try to lead a moral life, although my morality has little in common with the patriarchy upheld by conservative churches. Finally, I long for heaven, although for me this is “heaven on earth” and not “pie in the sky when you die bye and bye” preached by some churches.
Still, none of these understandings of The Good News is what compelled me to follow the Way of the Cross 20 years ago when I returned to church. For me, the Good News is about idolatry. The gospel of Jesus, or Jehovah the Salvation, and the gospel of the Christ, or the King of the Jews, is that tribal gods and kings like Jehovah and David are idols who are unworthy of worship. I believe Mark wrote his story of the life and death of Jesus to come to grips with the death of his illusions in these idols.
Mark is not explicit about this. Instead, he conveys the good news via parable. This is not just the many short parables Jesus tells to his friends in his Gospel, but Mark’s entire story, which I view as one long parable.
Between now and Easter, I will reflect on Mark’s parable. In the four Sundays before Lent, we will hear the rest of the first chapter of Mark. During Lent, we will hear some of what Jesus does and says on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. On Easter, which falls on April 4 this year, we will hear Mark’s last chapter, in which the tomb of Jesus is found empty. On these Sundays, I will reflect on the parabolic arc of Mark’s story and how it might help us confront the false idols whose worship stands between us and the God who is Love.
Mark wrote his book at a particularly difficult moment – in the Year 70 when the Romans had breached the walls of Jerusalem after a three-year siege. The Romans then proceeded to kill tens of thousands of Jewish patriots, to burn the Holy City to the ground, and to take apart Jehovah’s magnificent Temple stone by stone.
In the midst of this crushing defeat, Mark and his community scrambled to somehow reclaim sacred values of love and justice from under the rubble. To do so, they told the story of Jesus, which helped them realize that their worship life had been partial and therefore unsuccessful in keeping them connected to the Sacred. Jehovah, or Jesus, is dead, writes Mark; to which his community replied, “Long live the God who is Love!” The Christ, or King, is dead writes Mark; to which his community replied “long live the Risen Christ in the hearts of all who value love.”
I can’t imagine any situation in which the death of one’s illusions in a god is not good news even if it is painful. We start this process as children. Out of necessity, all of us worship our parents when we are infants. But later we realize they are flawed mortals, just like us. So over time, we transfer our devotion to a peer group, or a nation, or an ideology.
The worship of an idol leads to crisis; and crisis leads to disillusionment, which, with Grace, is followed by the worship of a new object, which we hope is closer to something truly worthy of ultimate concern; something closer to universal love.
An example of such a crisis is unfolding before our eyes this week as the current U.S. President is replaced by Joe Biden. Tens of millions of people worship the current President as a god, despite of, or perhaps because of his ignorance, racism, and abusive words and actions. In this false worship, they have been supported by White Christian nationalist churches in the U.S.
We might wonder how churches founded on Mark’s disillusionment with the worship of tribal gods and kings could end up 2,000 years later worshipping a figure like the President who inspires disgust in so many others of us.
Unfortunately, I don’t see today’s crisis in the White Evangelical Church as exceptional. The power of idolatry is so strong that the church founded by Rome in the Fourth Century and its successor churches in Europe’s empires have almost always paid idolatrous homage to czars, kings, and presidents.
Fortunately, idolatry, whether at the level of an empire or at the level of the individual, is eroded by the troubles of life. For individuals, this erosions leads to a confrontation with different kinds of egotism. For nations, it is usually a confrontation with nationalism.
Both the nation and the ego are illusions, although their grip on our psyches can be wickedly strong. Transcending egotism and nationalism moves us closer to universal Love — although to be frank, I struggle to fully understand why this is so. Perhaps between now and Easter, I will come to understand it better!
In today’s reading, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John. This situates Jesus in a Jewish community of peasants in occupied Palestine in the First Century. Like the stories of our lives, Jesus’ story begins with the concrete and moves towards the universal. We are baptized by a particular family in a particular time and within a particular community of faith. The pain and glory of life is to both honour our roots and to rise above them over time to something more universal.
So, during the weeks of Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, let us journey with Jesus from his roots in family and tribe towards the heights of mountains and the depths of the Cross. In so doing, may we retrace our own trajectory from the worship of false idols to the embrace of a Love that transcends our small selves and our blinkered nations.
May it be so. Amen.