Chapter 1 people: rewriting the story

In using Mark’s gospel as an imaginative account of Jesus’ murder, I realised that his narrative of that murder is the key to the whole of his story of God’s persuasion of human beings in the life of Jesus; and although this story is only one of many in the New Testament, I want to look at it more comprehensively, to begin rewriting the story of God.

The first verse of Mark’s gospel is notoriously slapdash in its syntax:

“Beginning / origin/ foundation/ of the joyful message of Jesus messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet…..

There is no punctuation in the Greek MSS so it’s not clear whether the opening sentence ends after Messiah or continues into the reference to Isaiah. It is clear however that Mark is emphasising the first word. He wants to remind the reader of that other beginning which is the first word in the Book of Genesis, which signals the mysterious start of God’s creation of the universe. He is saying that the ministry of Jesus is part of that creative movement of God, indeed, a decisive part.

A little later, in the baptism of Jesus, Mark tells us that at that moment, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart ( the Greek verb is schizo as in schizophrenia). The Genesis story tells that God made a vault to separate the realm of the universe from the realm of God. Mark is saying, in language borrowed from the Hebrew Bible that all separation of God from his creation is abolished in the mission of Jesus.

Mark shows us the dove of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, settling on Jesus, while God’s voice recognises Jesus as his/ her dear son. Then “immediately” as Mark insists, the Holy Spirit drives(!) him out to be tested by Satan, the enemy of God and power of evil. This phase of creation involves battling the power of evil. How quickly and vividly Mark establishes the theology of his gospel!

God is the creator God who is still at work making a universe of which he/she can say, that it is good. In pursuit of this goal God recognises Jesus as the dear son and rips open the vault of heaven to send the Holy Spirit upon him.

Jesus who is called Messiah, ie anointed person, is God’s dear child, God’s human partner in the battle against evil. Jesus does not separate himself from other human beings but comes with sinners seeking a new start in baptism.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God with the universe and its creatures. It’s dovelike shape is a reminder of its brooding presence over the waters of chaos in Genesis, a telling image of God’s persuasive love. It is the available God, present in every event, but especially present to Jesus, who is uniquely responsive to it.

Let’s not say that from the beginning of Mark’s gospel we have a doctrine of the Trinity, but rather that we have a vivid articulation of the dimensions of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

At the risk of ridicule let me imagine God, as the One in whose womb the universe is being born. Jesus is the child God has made already before the programme started, as the model for all things. The Holy Spirit is the life God shares with her children, through the health of her own body. The pregnancy is menaced by disease, so the Holy Spirit actively persuades the universe towards life, and Jesus plays the role of good physician. When disease strikes the physician, clearly we have a crisis. The key to this clumsy metaphor is that just as a woman does not have access to her own womb, so God the mother/ father does not have direct access to creation, because God respects the creation’s own processes of growth.( freewill).

Mark goes on to depict Jesus as teacher and healer, who in both activities battles for life against death. Evil and death are linked powers in Mark’s view, infecting not only bodies but minds and doctrines. When he teaches that the Sabbath was made for human beings and not the reverse, he tackles the deadening power of religion on scriptural law. The same power can be seen today in the conservative insistence on what Leviticus says about homosexual acts. Jesus’ principle of interpretation is that all rules are intended for the benefit of human beings. For life and not for death. That is to say that scriptures must be interpreted in the light of the Holy Spirit, the life God shares with people. When the religious leaders estimate that Jesus’ healings are enabled by the power of evil, Jesus warns them that if they badmouth the spirit, because they do not value its gift of life, it may not be available to them to prompt their own escape from death. The same principle is announced when Mark shows him dealing with a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. When conscious that he is being observed by religious leaders, he asks, Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil? To rescue life or to kill? Actual, ordinary life, the gift of the creator, is the touchstone of his teaching and healing. Of course we may say he is also concerned with the quality of life, but he is disturbingly unconcerned with what some would define as quality, when he forgives sins almost casually and provides physical health.

What are the evil spirits against whom he acts so decisively? Elsewhere I have analysed these as a combination of personal damage and social prejudice. Leprosy as such is physical damage but the society’s fear of the disease and rejection of the sufferer is social prejudice which makes the sufferer feel unworthy, to the extent that they find it hard to believe that anyone cares. As when the leper says to Jesus, If you want to….you can make me clean. Or there is the damage done to the demon-possessed man from Gerasa, by the Roman conquest, who gives his name as Legion. The brutality of Roman conquest is matched by the fear of his community, to leave him afflicted. Jesus has the courage to do battle for the man’s life, but in order to do so, he has to enter the conflicted realm where evil has power and may damage him. His willingness to put himself at risk is a measure of his trust in the efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

Evil is no-creation or un-creation, the embrace of chaos as a tool for gaining power over the forces of the universe and over the bodies and minds of living creatures. It is ultimately self-destructive, but it lives a parasitic existence on the back of those it seduces, terrorises and torments. Mark represents this evil principally in diseased people whom Jesus heals, and in the powerful religious leaders whom he opposes. The corrupt court of Herod who almost literally consumes his people, and the equally corrupt government of Pilate are other possessed bodies.

Evil is only manifest in human arrogance, wealth, malice, hard-heartedness, lies and cruelty, so Mark leaves it open whether it has an origin beyond humanity. The Satan, the enemy of God, may as easily be a product of human evil as its cause. Evil is happy to maintain the kind of secret hegemony it exercises in the Israel that Jesus challenges, but once challenged, once exposed by the demonstration of goodness, it reveals itself as a vicious killer.

But the crucial moment of revelation is the moment of Jesus’ dying, when he is separated from the presence of the father/ mother God, because the Holy Spirit is no longer active but suffering. What is happening here? Mark tells us with the sign of the temple curtain torn asunder ( Greek schizo, as in the baptism story) that here the heart of God is revealed as ready to suffer out of love for his/her human son, and for the universe through him. At the same moment evil is revealed as a busted flush because with all its force it cannot compel allegiance from a human being, even when the human being feels abandoned by God. In face of the sorrow of God and of God’s child, evil is shown up as brutal and impotent. The exposure of the human/divine partnership reveals limitless resources of love; the exposure of evil reveals it as bankrupt.

This is the point where the reasonable reader says, Come on, in spite of all your rhetoric, Jesus is dead, snuffed out, nailed down, kaput, yes? So we may give him a sort of spiritual superiority to the powers of evil, but not victory, if we want to keep,our feet on the ground. In the real world the result is Sanhedrin +Romans 1: Jesus+ God 0.

Even from a perspective of worldly realism, we may question this alleged result. Has it not often been the case that the example of the martyred leader has given courage to the apparently defeated forces of justice so that they rally, persist and finally win? The persuasive power of the martyr, which shares in the persuasive love of God, cannot be safely ignored by the worldly powers that killed him/her.

But from the perspective of God there is more to say. We left God suffering the death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit rendered inept by Jesus’ acquaintance with grief. And God the father/ mother, in whom we live and move and have our being also suffered the same event. But to suffer is to receive, and to receive is to take into oneself, and to be taken into the self of God is to find life if you want it or death if you don’t. In this suffering, therefore, in this grieving love, Jesus finds again the life he has always shared with God, and evil people find the death which is their true desire. And the life of Jesus, no longer circumscribed by earthly limits, is unlimited in its scope and joy: the son is with the father, the child is with the mother.

But this is not yet the resurrection, since it leaves the human beings whom Jesus loved out of the picture. They are left simply with what they saw or heard of Jesus: that he died painfully opposing the powers of evil, out of love for God and the world. If the veil has been torn away, what they can see is a dead body on a stake. The question is: Is that enough? Can they believe that this is nevertheless a victory, and not a skin -of -the -teeth victory but an overwhelming conquest of evil and death? The answer is, they can, as they decide to continue Jesus’ ministry. No jiggery-pokery with tombs, no visions beyond those often seen by mourning people, are given to them. Perhaps it took months, assisted by Jesus prophecy that he would meet them again in Galilee, the place of the “beginning” where the doing of God’s persuasion in the world has to start again and again.

Mark gives no stories of Jesus’ appearing; only the enigmatic empty tomb and the command to keep the rendezvous with him. What we know is, eventually they announced the resurrection. They were persuaded and believed they could persuade others. The stories of Jesus appearing to individuals and groups are skilled narrative versions of this fundamental faith: persuaded by Jesus’ life and death, they believed he was alive in God, victorious over evil. So of course his tomb is empty, of course his most faithful followers, women, experience him as alive, of course his presence is felt in the discussions they had about his mission and death, of course he offers forgiveness and re-employment to Peter and all his shaky disciples. Yet it’s important that all this comes from facing the terrible silence of God that Jesus faced in his dying. God must not give them sneaky evidence of the truth. Out of their disappointment, their rage at injustice and the doers of it, their continuing loyalty to Jesus’ as the true ruler, out of their guts, they must imagine it for themselves; then it is resurrection, in which God and human beings give strength to each other and can celebrate with each other as partners in victory.

That partnership in which human beings share God’s ability to create liberation out of a sorrowful defeat, gives them a present into which they dare to import the promise of God’s future; they can live tomorrow’s life today. This is called the gift or shared life of the Holy Spirit, who is constitutive of the Assembly of Christian believers.

Yes, this is my imagination of Mark’s imagination of Jesus, except I have missed out much of his rich picture. But I have tried to be faithful to his strange truth. In my next blog I will attempt a critique of what I have written.

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