“He has been raised. He is not here”. Mark’s resurrection is undoubtedly the strangest. So strange that later manuscripts add endings on to it in order for it to get all tied up in a nice little bow. But its original ends with the women fleecing and it says, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Well, we know they did tell someone eventually, because otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. But the more I’ve thought about it, this is probably an appropriate ending. The other Gospels make the resurrection too easy. Mark reminds us that this stuff is hard. It’s hard to believe, let alone share. There are a lot of reasons to doubt it. People who do actually seem pretty reasonable. But let’s remember, we do not serve a “reasonable” God. We serve a God who is decidedly unreasonable, that is a God who does crazy, awe inspiring, confusing things. This God does more than we can ever ask or imagine. This God always has another trick up the sleeve. And on this day, we remember that this God is alive, born into the world, and born in us, doing what God does best: breathing life into dead and dying things. I don’t always understand it, I sometimes even struggle to believe it, but I also stand here on Easter morning in amazement in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. Praise be to God, who gives us the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
And then it was over. Jesus is laid in a tomb. So final. What I’ve always appreciated about this story is that it is Joseph of Arimathea who gives Jesus a proper burial. He is a member of the very counsel, the religious system, that Jesus came to upset. Joseph of Arimathea is a reminder that many times corrupt systems consist of good people, who, in the context of their system, simply lose an honest sense of their system’s problems. Joseph’s goodness comes out here. He took great risk in giving Jesus this burial. But at Jesus’ death, something overtakes him and he can’t not give Jesus the dignity he deserves. It’s a beautiful part of the story. I think it’s a beautiful thing any time you see some one going out of their way to give dignity to another a human.
So Joseph of Arimathea lays him in the tomb, and like a vault door a stone is rolled over to cover it. You can almost hear its heaviness as it encloses the tomb. How final this must have felt for the disciples. We know the end of the story, but they didn’t. Their master, their Lord, their friend is dead and buried beneath the earth. They are marked men now too. They know the authorities will have nothing of this movement. They’ve lost their friend, and their own security is uncertain. There’s is nothing left to do but find somewhere to hide out and wait. But wait for what?
Meanwhile, deep beneath surface, where no one can see it, where no one can hear it, where no one can feel it, something is stirring. God is up to something. When the stone rolls over to slam the door on hope, may we always remember that it is there, buried deep beneath the surface, that though we cannot see, hear or feel it, God is up to something.
Mark 1:10: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” This is how Mark began. It’s easy to miss what’s going on here, because there’s a dove. The dove sounds gentle, quiet and peaceful, which I suppose it is, but there isn’t merely a dove. The text says also that Jesus saw “the heavens torn apart”. Think about that. That’s a violent image. In Matthew and Luke the heavens simply “were opened”, but in Mark they are “torn apart”. They are split. The Greek word is σχιζω (skitzo), and it means “to divide by use of force”. It’s not a gentle word. It’s where we get our word for schizophrenia, which literally translates “split mind” (it may be the most violent thing that can happen to one’s mind). It shows up one other place in Mark, and it is Mark’s two uses of this word that are why this series is called “Opening Mark”. Its second use is right here in 15:38. When Jesus was baptized, and in that sense given new life, the heavens tore apart and the Spirit descended like a dove. That is, when he was baptized and given new life, the place where the Spirit of God lived was torn open and the Spirit came upon him. And when he died, the veil of the Holy of Holies, the place the people believed the Spirit of God dwelled, and in that sense in fact did, was torn apart and the Spirit of God was unleashed upon the whole world. At Jesus’ baptism the the Spirit’s home tore apart and cam upon him. At his death, the Spirit’s home tore apart and baptized the world.
This whole Gospel Jesus has been turning the temple system inside out, outside in, and upside down. He has been dismantling an exclusive system where how “holy” or “clean” you are determines how to close to God you can get. That system centered around a place, an inner court, into which only the elite of the elite were allowed. In Mark, Jesus’ death is not just where our sins are forgiven. It is that, but it seems to me that it is not just or even primarily that. Jesus’ death is about access. Jesus’ death is about finally breaking down religious exclusivity and unleashing the Spirit of God upon the world, giving the world, the whole world (no exceptions), new life. The crucified him because he was a threat to their system and they needed to stop him, but you can’t stop shalom. You can’t stop wholeness.
Still today nations may rage, hunger may prevail, poverty may endure, but all, each and every human on this earth has access, is immersed in, is baptized in the Spirit of God. No one is excluded, no one is deemed unworthy or unclean, no one is denied. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why it is Good Friday.
After the long journey by foot to the hill of death, Jesus is finally nailed to the cross and then high and lifted up. He hangs there like, and with, common criminals. And many would say, “yet he has committed no crime”. But he has. He has committed a crime. We must not forget that. Jesus is a criminal. He did not deny accusations of being a king, and in fact, he pretty much embraced them when he stood before the high priest. This is treason. We also kill people for that in this country today. Jesus was a criminal, and so there he stands, pinned to a cross, enduring a literally excruciating death (the words excruciating and crucify have the same root). He never complained. He never cried “mistrial”. He never lawyered up. He accepted his fate. Why? Well, many theologians will argue, because it was the will of God. Maybe. They’re way smarter than I am. I suppose the garden would indicate so. But it was also the will of Rome and the will of the religious establishment. It was the legal consequence of turning the ways of the world upside down, by bringing in what was out, by giving voice to the voiceless, power to powerless, and by raising up what was down and bringing down what was up.
So there he hangs. A common criminal. Tortured, mocked and beaten beyond recognition. Condemned to death. And with the literal spiritual weight of the world on his shoulders. Son of God. Son of Man. And without whom I would not know my name: Beloved.
And so it begins. This is the point in the journey where it’s okay to put theology aside and simply observe. For centuries theologians have argued about what exactly is happening theologically through Jesus’ suffering leading up to and on the cross. And these arguments need to happen. These are crucial scenes in the life of our faith- many would say the core of it. I do not want to dismiss the theological importance and necessity of the remainder of chapter 15, but I also think that sometimes theology can distract us from what God is trying to do within us. It can become a defense for intimacy. By dissecting the image, I don’t have to see it in its whole. By picking apart what it means, I don’t have to discern what it’s saying. Furthermore this Gospel has been, up to this point, about what Jesus is doing in the world. Suddenly it is about what the world is doing to Jesus.
So here it begins. Jesus is mocked, made to look like a “king”. He is given a crown of thorns. He is struck with a reed, spat on and then led away to be crucified. The hard gruesome message here is, I think, this is what the Kingdom of God looks like. We want it to be filled with glory, wonder and majesty. But this Holy Week, let the sobering image of a mocked, spat upon, struck down, and led away Jesus be our image of Kingdom of God glory, wonder and majesty. Let it sober your mind and heart. Let it work in you. Let God work in you through it. O, sacred head now wounded…
So now Jesus is before Pontius Pilate, the local political authority. I find Jesus’ response to the political authorities interesting in contrast to his response to the religious authorities. The religious authorities ask him if he is the Messiah, and he answers with a plain “yes” and then adds to it. He kind of sticks it to the religious authorities. But then the political authorities question him about being a king, he goes passive and silent. Why? I think it’s simple, and I think we’ve seen it throughout the entire Gospel. Jesus doesn’t give a rip about what Rome thinks. When Rome asks, “are you the king of Jews”, Jesus says, “you say so” because they do not even have the same definition of what a king is. I think Jesus is hinting here that he is not the king of the Jews in the sense that Rome thinks he is asserting himself as one, so this question is going nowhere. There is no conversation for Jesus to have with Rome, because Rome doesn’t matter. So, “you say so” followed by silence makes sense. If we go back to the attempted trap with the coin in Mark 12, Jesus is saying here now about himself “Rome is not my God and I am not Rome’s”. And so Jesus places himself fully into the hands and at the mercy of Rome, because, well, who cares. It’s just Rome.
I think Jesus’ handling of Rome is a good reminder for us of just how temporary the world in which we currently live is. It matters right now, to be sure, and there are governments that certainly do impact the course and trajectory of the world (like Rome and the USA), but in the grand sweep of what God is up to in the world, it’s all fading. God will be God no matter what the world is doing. God will be about wholeness and shalom in the world no matter what any given regime says or does. The trajectory of shalom may be slow, beneath service and hard to see at times, but it is a stronger trajectory than the trajectory of political power. Jesus is totally at the mercy of “Pax Romana” here. Rome has all the power in the world to affect his life right here and right now, and that is very real. But Rome, “Pax Romana”, cannot stop shalom.
I always struggle with Peter’s denial of Christ. It seems too fabricated. In the Upper Room Jesus says, “easy there, Pedro, you’re gonna deny me three times before the cock crows” (my paraphrase), and then it all happens so perfectly. “You were with him”, “no I wasn’t”, “yes you were”, “no I wasn’t”, “yuh huh”, “nuh uh”… cock-a-doodle-doo, Pedro. I also think it’s interesting that pretty much all of Jesus’ other disciples are long gone and no one seems to care about that. Can you imagine this scenario? All along you’ve been following Jesus, and not quite getting it. You’re thinking he can do anything, because, well, he has done anything. He’s healed, he’s cast out evil spirits, he’s walked on water, he’s calmed storms, he’s fed thousands on a little bread a couple fish. He can do it all. He’s unstoppable. Then he gets arrested. Well, he can get out of this, right? He’s James Bond. He’s Batman. He can always slip the trap. But he doesn’t. He lets them tie him up and take him away. So who is he now? He seems to have just given up. You believe that he can slip the trap, but he doesn’t. I think a healthy dose doubt is very understandable at this point. And I think Jesus might think so too.
Does Jesus ever really shame, guilt or condemn Peter for his denial? It doesn’t seem like it. He just states it as a fact that he will deny him, and he does. All the while, Peter is the one on whom Jesus says he will build his church in Matthew 16. Peter will deny Jesus, but I don’t think Jesus ever has any plans on giving up on Peter. I think part of that is that Jesus understands that having seasons of doubting him is pretty natural. Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, that means that he does not operate like this world. He will not fight with sword and shield to gain or maintain power. It will appear at times that the world has gotten the best of him, and his arrest, trial and conviction certainly fall into that category.
I wonder if Jesus expects that we will have days and seasons of great doubt. He doesn’t rejoice in it, but he also doesn’t condemn in it. I wonder if Jesus wants us to press into our doubt. The natural tendency is to fight it, but I wonder if doubt is like quicksand; the more you fight it, the deeper you go. I wonder if we need to claim our doubt more, if we need to own it. I wonder if they only way to move through our doubt is to press into it. We just keep moving, one foot in front of the other, naming our doubt, but continually looking to the hills where one day the gift of faith will come again. And all the while, no matter how deep we go, Jesus never gives up on us.
“I am”. It’s such a simple and almost meaningless phrase in our language and culture. So it’s easy to breeze right through it when we see it in the scriptures. But you can’t. Whenever you see “I am”, especially coming out of Jesus and in a context like this, take note. The Greek is “εγω ειμι” (ego eimi) and it is the Greek version of what we read in Exodus 3 when Moses is called by God to free the people of Israel from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. Moses asks God “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am who I Am”… “you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent you to me” (Exodus 3:13-14). Let’s put some pieces together here as to why this incites such anger in the high priest that he tears his clothes.
First of all, remember that this name for who God is, is the name given in the context of freeing Israel from slavery. When the people of the day heard that phrase (“I Am”) they were hearing liberation language. Second, it’s important to point out that it was not Moses (a mere man) who freed Israel. He was the messenger, but it was “I Am” who actually did the liberating. In this scene, Israel is not under the same kind of slavery as they were in Egypt, but they are oppressed. The distinction was that in this case they had some religious freedom to the point where it allowed a lot of corruption to take place between the oppressor (Rome) and the oppressed religious establishment. Remember that all along, especially sense entering Jerusalem, Jesus has challenged both of these entities (which is why both he Pharisees and Herodians come after him at one point). So now Israel is in a place where they are a people occupied by Rome, but are also trapped in a corrupt relationship between their own religious leaders and the oppressor. Liberation is a lot harder when your own leaders are benefitting from the oppression. So after all of Jesus’ work to challenge both the religious and political authorities, he now stands on “trial” in the religious court. They are asking him if he is the “son of God”, the “Messiah”. It’s important to understand that from a Jewish perspective there is a distinction between “Messiah” and “God Almighty”. We like to view them as one and the same, but there is a distinction. Even King David was considered to some degree to be a “Messiah”. They are asking Jesus if he is the Messiah. And Jesus says, “I Am”.
Essentially what Jesus is doing here is not only saying “yes, I am the Messiah” (he is saying that), but he’s also saying, “I Am”. Meaning “I have come to set the people free”. He has just claimed freedom for the people, but not just freedom from Rome, freedom from a corrupt Israel as well. He has just named the religious elite as the oppressor. And this is, I think, what incites such anger from the high priest. Jesus has turned the table by essentially putting the high priest on trial. He holds this identifying name (“I Am”), the name that comes from the story they would be immersed in at this time (it’s Passover, remember), against the religious leaders. There is probably nothing Jesus could say in this moment to seal his fate more. All the while, however, we must remember just what kind of liberation Jesus is bringing. Political? Religious? Something else?
And then it happens. Judas shows up with “a crowd with swords and clubs”, as well as the powers that be, ready to arrest Jesus. One of the things I’ve never understood about Jesus’ arrest is why does Judas need to signal which one is Jesus? It would seem obvious which one is him. Nevertheless, Judas kisses him, they arrest him, and, once again, we get more evidence of how Jesus’ followers don’t get it. They respond in violence at his arrest. Jesus responds by challenging the authorities as he says, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?”, but it seems to me that underneath there is subtle challenge to his followers as well. In John Jesus actually does condemn these violent acts of his followers, but here in Mark he simply stays calm and his peaceful response is enough to communicate that the actions of his followers are not how “we do this” in the kingdom of God. His followers actions stem from obedience and loyalty, but they are also a gross misunderstanding of who Jesus is. Somehow in this Jesus diffuses the violence, and when he does, his followers flee: “All of them deserted him and fled”. Their loyalty only goes so far. With clubs and swords put away, they don’t know what to do, they fear for their own lives, and they flee. They are willing to defend Jesus, but they are not willing to follow him.
How often has this been true in my life? I’m willing to get into an intellectual argument about the validity of belief in Jesus. I will defend him to no end. I’ll battle with people on social media, I’ll share smarmy blogs, I’ll jab and I’ll poke at those who jab and poke at me. I’ll defend my Jesus. But will I follow him? Will I be willing to follow him to the cross where he dies for his enemies rather than defending himself against them. Am I willing to do the same? Am I willing to lay down the swords of argument and defense of my faith in order to love and serve my enemies? Defending Jesus is easy. Following him… that’s a whole other thing.
As we head into Chapter 14, we are heading into the time and space when it all happens. Jesus has been predicting his death for some time now. We’ve heard about it, the disciples haven’t understood it, and now it is time. But, for me, as we’ve read this all chronologically and slowly, it feels like it’s sneaking up on me. It’s kind of like a road trip when you’re a kid, and you get to a point where you don’t think you’re ever going to arrive, but then suddenly you’re there.
14:3-11… So Jesus and his disciples have entered Jerusalem, and, as we’ve seen, it’s been far from a trip of pleasantries. It’s been one confrontation after another with the ruling powers of the day. In Chapter 14 those ruling powers have decided they’ve had enough and it’s time to get him. In 14:1 we read “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for away to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” That’s pretty clear. After these encounters with the powers of the day, Jesus and the disciples head out to Bethany (a “suburb” of Jerusalem, if you will) to say there. As they were at the table a woman comes in and begins to anoint his head with oil. This may seem like a random story in the midst of the path to the cross, but it is crucially important. Most obviously, this story tells us that this woman was preparing Jesus body for burial. That’s pretty clear. But there’s more going on here. This story stands in stark contrast to the people waving palms and to the disciples wonderings about sitting at Jesus’ right hand. Throughout the Gospel of Mark we have masses of people, even those closest to Jesus, simply not getting it. They don’t understand a) who Jesus is, and b) what it means to be in relationship with him.
Those waving palms are anointing him a king, just like any other king. The disciples wondering who is going to sit at his side are putting him on a throne, just like any other king. No one is understanding who he is. Then an unnamed woman comes in, and she anoints him with oil. She understands who he is. He is a king, but a king who will lay his life down. He is a king who’s going to die- whose purpose is to die.
But there’s something else she gets here, that no one else seems to get. She understands what it is to love Jesus, not just be an obedient follower. Her acts here are acts of love and devotion, not mere loyalty and obedience. In a sea of people “not getting it”, here in chapter 14, right before the rubber really starts to meet the road, we have an unnamed women- in that sense a nobody- who gets it. Who gets all of it. Such is the Kingdom of God.
14:12-25… Immeidately following this woman’s anointing of Jesus’ body we get one of the most familiar scenes in the Gospels: The institution of the Lord’s Supper. It’s two days later now and Jesus and his disciples will head back into Jerusalem, but at great risk of those who want to kill him. So they have this plan to get into a home while evading the authorities. This whole bit about the man carrying a jar of water (verse 13) reminds me of some kind of bank heist movie. In any case, this plan will get them to what we often refer to as “the upper room”. It is here that they share the passover feast (a feast remembering and retelling Israel’s freedom from Egypt- their defining story as a people), and as they are doing so, Jesus breaks bread and holds up wine referring to them as his body and blood respectively. While they should be remembering a story of what was (the Passover), Jesus begins to tell a story of what will be. They should be remembering, but Jesus is foreshadowing. Something new is happening.
14:26-31… In the midst of all this, Judas has fled (after the waste of the oil back in Bethany) to betray Jesus. And after what we now know as the The Lord’s Supper, he leads them out to the Mount of Olives- a place they presumably went to often. Here he speaks of them deserting him. In the context of Judas fleeing to betray him and Jesus speaking of deserters, Peter speaks up (as he is want to do) and says that he will never do so. “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times” says Jesus. The disciples must be beginning to understand that something serious is going on tonight. This night must feel like no other, right? Can you feel the tension? It’s as thick as thieves.
14:32-42… It is here that we see Jesus at perhaps his most honest and vulnerable. Jesus says to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death…” It actually gives me comfort knowing that Jesus feels this deeply. So often his words about his death come off as matter of fact, and in his son-of-Godness he seems to be fearless about it. But here we see his humanity. He is grieved. He prays to “Abba, Father”, which is to say, “daddy…”. And he asks to be spared of this task. Yet he still submits his will. This, to me, is true strength. Not being afraid sounds strong, but moving forward while being afraid is stronger. And the way in which Jesus handles this is through prayer. It is in prayer that he gains his strength. Lately I’ve been wondering a lot about prayer and how it works. It is not magic. I have come to believe that what prayer really is, is stepping into trust. Prayer is a physical act of stepping into trust that there is something bigger than I at work in this world, a something that is good and trustworthy. Prayer is a physical act of confessing that I don’t see the whole the picture, that I don’t get the whole of what is going on, and then releasing control to the one who does. Prayer says, “I don’t get it, but I trust that you do.” It is in doing this that I believe that we are able, then, to take the next step in life. It is through this that we find the strength and courage not to just say, but to live “not what I want, but what you want”. Even Jesus, the Son of God, needs to step into prayer in order to step into trust. If he needs to, how much more so do I?