Monthly Archives: August 2013

Mark’s Gospel, chapter and verse – did you know?

Did you know that the earliest manuscripts of Gospels that we have were written in Greek capital letters with no gaps between words, no punctuation, and no division into chapters and verses? The earliest manuscript is a small fragment of John’s Gospel dating from about 125 CE.

So, the end of chapter one of Mark’s Gospel marks an artificial division that some later editor has imposed. So far as we know Mark didn’t put those divisions in his original manuscript which is lost. (Incidentally, if there’s any reader of this blog out there who knows when  chapter and verse divisions were introduced and by whom I would be glad to hear from you.) The Gospel writers weren’t just stringing together sayings of Jesus and stories about him. They weren’t writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. They had a plan, a message they wanted to get across. They were part of that great onward flow of the river ‘Jesus Event’. They were helping to shape what we now call Christianity and the Church. Whatever facts they knew about the history of Jesus of Nazareth, they took and shaped according to the purpose they had in mind. Later editors noticed what the Gospel writers were trying to do and introduced chapter and verse divisions to help readers see what they could see.

So far, I’ve been publishing a post more or less every day but things cannot go on at this pace. I’m retired and I’ve got plenty of time but I’m aware that many readers are much busier than I am, so I’m going to limit myself to two posts a week. Actually it will be slightly more than a week before my next post which will focus on the fourth fundamental part of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. I dealt with the other three in my first post.

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Mark’s Gospel chapter 1 verses 35-39. Moving on.

Pickpockets pounce when, in a busy street, we don’t honour the present moment. We don’t want to be here. The desire to be somewhere else claims our attention.  I am still seething with resentment about that thoughtless person who nearly bumped into me while chattering on their mobile. Or I am anxious about missing the bus and I need to get across the road through lots of traffic. The perfect moment for a pickpocket. There are a million reasons why I often don’t want to be here and now. They are all to do with either the past or the future.

Honouring the present moment is tricky. This morning while practicing my daily routine of yoga/meditation I had ideas about what to write in this post. I was tempted to get up at once and switch on the computer. I tried to let go of these persistent (brilliant – obviously!!) thoughts. They kept on stealing my attention. I really wanted to get to that computer! Honouring the present moment is tricky because it often includes honouring the fact that I am not honouring it! Of course we are  always moving on, that’s life. The question is when and how.

Here in chapter 1 verses 35 – 39 we have Jesus in the process of discerning when to move on:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’

Jesus has been an astounding success in Capernaum and still there’s lots more he could do there, so many needy people. He’s got the time (chronos) but is it the kairos? (see the post for August 13th – ‘The heart of the matter’). He withdraws to a deserted place and prays. The disciples find him and tell him, ‘Everyone is looking for you”. How flattering! Well, certainly I would be flattered anyway. ‘Perhaps I really ought to stay’. Or, ‘I’ve had enough of all these pressing people. I really want to get away’. Or, this job is really boring and the boss is a bully. We can always find reasons for not being where we are. The question is, are they the right ones and, if they are, when is the appropriate time (the kairos) to act on them and leave? It’s a question that can only be answered from a place of profound acceptance of myself, here and now, just as I am, without pretence. What if I get it wrong – as I often do? Then that too is part of the here and now, to be fully acknowledged, fully honoured, before moving on. The time to move on is usually only revealed as we learn how to wait. As T S Eliot says in The Four Quartets, “For the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.” Sometimes we have to wait pretty fast. Thank goodness there is such a thing as speedy waiting!

Mark’s Gospel chapter 1 verses 21- 26. Voices in my head.

 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’ Have you come to destroy us. I know who you are, the Holy One of God. But Jesus, rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent….

The authority of Presence is not always welcome or pleasant. The practice of contemplative prayer usually reveals bits of us we prefer not to look at. ‘What have you to do with us….’ the man says; not ‘me’, you notice – ‘us’. All those voices in my head – the scolding, judgemental, frightened, controlling, voices, are like a chorus. Someone passes me in the street muttering to himself and I am tempted to label him ‘mad’. But hang on a minute – he’s only voicing out loud what goes on silently in my head! After the ‘Aha!’ experience I talked about in the previous post, comes the steady, persistent work of learning that these voices are not me – not the real me. Somewhere beneath all the chaos of these voices I discover with Paul of Tarsus that I am rooted and grounded in love; that there’s nothing in all creation that can separate me from the love of God.

‘Be silent….’ commands Jesus. Well, I have to admit it’s no use me saying ‘be silent’ to myself when my mind is in full judgemental flow. That’s like pouring oil on a fire. But to find that place of profound silence within me from which I can simply observe what is going on in my head is to find a healing Presence. It’s like stepping outside a crowded, noisy pub into the quiet peace of a warm summer’s evening. You can still hear the noise going on inside the building but you are no longer caught up in it. ‘Unclean spirits’ is not a phrase we would use in the 21st century but once we have caught a glimpse of the Presence that is always there for us, the noisy pub seems a bit tawdry.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 1 verses 16 – 22. Aha!!

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me….’

Here’s an encounter of Jesus with a couple of men who say, ‘Aha! so this is it!’ Jesus had the kind of presence that wakes you up, alerts you, grabs your wholehearted attention.

A concert pianist comes on and sits at the piano. As she settles on the stool and gathers herself, the conductor waits, the orchestra waits, the audience waits. It’s a moment of intense expectation before the creative performance begins. The energy is there, the creative skill is there. Behind it all there are the hours of hard practice. Now it all comes together. There’s not only the authentic ‘voice’ of Beethoven, there’s the skill and authenticity of pianist, conductor and orchestra.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.

In December 2005 I wandered in to a bookshop and ‘by chance’, apparently at random, picked up a book. It was A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I recognised an authentic voice speaking with a gentle authority which made sense of my experience –  35 years of ministry as an Anglican priest and nine years of retirement during which I had let go of God. It was an Aha! experience. Now, eight years later, having discovered the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer (why had no one told me about it? How had I missed it for 35 years?!!) I return to the New Testament with fresh eyes. I still find difficulty in using the word God: it is too burdened with assumptions that I no longer hold. But the recognition energy of the Jesus event (see my last blog post for this phrase) resonates with me.

So, did I encounter Jesus in that Aha! experience? Do I encounter him now? I can only pose another question: do I encounter Beethoven during a performance of one of his piano concertos? Without his towering genius the performance could not happen; without the creative skills of conductor and orchestra it could not happen. And suppose the audience are all engrossed on their mobile phones while the music sounds around them? What would my experience be then? I suggest that there is a sense in which I do encounter Beethoven perhaps even in spite of an unresponsive audience but how much more if we are all enraptured by the performance.

Likewise, I suggest that without the whole ‘Jesus event’ – Jesus himself, disciples, Gospel writers, Paul’s letters, the emergent Christian community – there’s no way in which an encounter, an Aha! experience can happen. When it does happen, I have entered the kingdom, the realm of Being, that Jesus spoke of. That, of course is just the beginning. I can then work at deepening the experience, learn how to keep on entering the realm of Being so that it becomes more and more a part of me and the way I live.

Mark chapter 1 verse 15. The heart of the matter.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.

For almost two millennia we have had problems with three vital words in this passage: time, kingdom and repent.

  • TIME. Greek speaking writers of the Gospels had two words to choose from. They are chronos and kairos. Chronos is time you can measure in seconds, minutes, hours, with a chronometer. Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century Dominican, wrote, “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time”. He was talking about chronos.  Kairos is more subtle. We might call it significant time, appropriate time, critical time. Jesus seems to have been much more aware of kairos and for him the kairos was always now. That’s why he could say to someone who wanted to attend a funeral before following him, let the dead bury their dead. Kairos, the present moment, is the narrow gate through which we must pass before we can discern the kingdom. There is never a future in which I might get round to following Jesus. The ‘time’ for doing that is always now, because it is fulfilled – filled full with good measure, pressed down, running over with the abundant riches of God’s grace. There are times (chronos) when I am overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions which keep me from seeing the light and following the path Jesus points to. Discovering that path has everything to do with repentance as we shall see in a moment.
  • KINGDOM.  What did Jesus mean? Where was it? When would it come? The disciples didn’t understand? “Of course they didn’t!” writes Sebastian Moore in The Contagion of Jesus,  “For they didn’t know what it was like to have the inner God-track open, clear of all the junk with which we make it impassable”. This applies to lots of us lots of the time. ‘Kingdom’ suggests to us a physical place ruled over by a monarch who is out there somewhere. More helpful for me is Eckhart Tolle’s phrase ‘realm of Being’ – a state of affairs in which everything we take for granted about being human is turned upside down. The parables  of Jesus are rich with startling reversals that puzzled and upset his audiences and have continued to do so ever since. Incidentally most Biblical scholars agree that with the parables we get closer to words Jesus actually spoke than anywhere else.
  • REPENT. Now here’s a word to trip over! After a  tricky journey from Aramaic (spoken by Jesus), through Greek (in which the Gospels were written) then by way of Latin into English. The trouble lies in that last translation from Latin to English. The Latin word poenare has overtones of punishment, so when we repent we say sorry. Right? Well, will you try a little experiment? Would you like to pause for a moment and just look at the word ‘repent’….. Next, take any one of the letters in the word. Let’s take ‘e’ for example. Notice the shape of the letter…….notice the spaces which help to make the shape ‘e’. Don’t think about what you see, just notice. ………..OK? Done that? You have just ‘repented’!! Repentance has almost nothing to do with the past; nothing to do with sin. The Greek word is metanoia which means a mind-shift like the one you just used to look at the shape of an individual letter. Cynthia Bourgeault describes repentance as, “a radical shift in consciousness: away from alienation  and polarisation……into the unified field of divine abundance that can be perceived only through the heart”. (The Wisdom Jesus, page 62) The truth is, it’s not what you see, it’s the way that you see it. R.S. Thomas expresses it beautifully in ‘The Bright Field’.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 1 verses 14 and 15

Coming up – one of the most important verses in the Gospels. But first a little detour.

Imagine you are in a theatre watching a stunning performance by an outstanding actor. You don’t know the play and it hasn’t been published in a book yet (come to think about it, it was like that in Shakespeare’s day). Afterwards you talk about it with friends. You are interested in the play and emotionally caught up in that great performance. You remember some of the words spoken. Your friends recall other words. You’ve had a shared experience of the message of the play and the performance of the actor. Then you meet someone who knows the actor and they can tell you things about him.

I suggest that it was something like that for those who heard Jesus in the flesh and for others who were influenced by those who had been with him. Of course I’m talking about an infinitely deeper and richer experience than going to the theatre.  Think of a river, flowing from its source, gathering momentum, picking up water from side streams, tumbling over rocks and waterfalls. It is one river system, dependent on its source, but containing many elements. Someone standing on the bank somewhere knows only the stream that flows past and may never have visited the source. Jesus, the communities that sprang up after his death, the letters and Gospels they wrote, the church that gradually emerged, are all part of one energising, dynamic event.  Every one knows the  river exists. You can see it, dive into it, fish in it. So a Gospel is part of the river ‘Jesus Event’. Jesus, his disciples, Paul, the Gospel writers, the emerging church were, (still are) part of the river ‘Jesus Event’.

So a Gospel is not, repeat not, a biography of the man Jesus. Nor is it a collection of his sayings. A Gospel is part of the river ‘Jesus Event’. It is both part of the flow and a witness to it. Jesus, who never bothered to write anything down, changed the course of history!  Going back to my theatre image, he was concerned only to give a life transforming experience. Many scholars think that people eventually decided they had better make a collection of his sayings, and that the Gospel writers used that collection to suit their own purpose and design. Careful analysis of what they wrote suggests that surprisingly few of the words they put into the mouth of Jesus were actually spoken by him. Does that matter? I hope this blog will show that it does not because it was all part of the river ‘Jesus Event’. So the next two crucial verses, especially verse 15 were unlikely to have been spoken by Jesus in this form, yet they are a wonderful, concise summary. Like an embryonic cell they contain the genetic blueprint for the life and teaching of Jesus. More, much more, about this blueprint in my next blog. Meanwhile here are the verses:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 1 verses 1 – 13

“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)

Let’s start by laying aside the separate categories into which the components of Christianity have been divided: Jesus, Bible, Church and so on. Instead let’s think ourselves into a world of profound upheaval when old certainties are crumbling and something new is bubbling up. Let’s call this the Jesus experience. Suppose Jesus had died in 1930, the year before I was born. Mark, the first Gospel, was written around 1970. Now in 2013 all four Gospels have been written but you and I might not yet have seen all of them. We might know about at least one more Gospel, written by Thomas. Oh! and if we have seen copies of any of these we might not know who the author was. They would not have looked like books with a title and an author page. We might also have seen some of Paul’s letters which were written between 1950 and 1970. If you are over 60 you might know of the disappointment of older fellow Christians when the promised return of Jesus did not happen.

With these thoughts in mind we turn to the Gospel we know as Mark’s. It’s written in a terse, punchy style and begins:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

‘Christ’ meant ‘anointed one’. Forget the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It wasn’t developed for at least another hundred and fifty years. We don’t know exactly what was in Mark’s mind when he wrote ‘son of God’. We do know that the phrase was used quite often in the Old Testament to refer to all Jews for example, plus angels and the king of Israel.

The beginning for Mark is the ministry of John the Baptist. History, they say, is written by the winners. There are clues in the Gospels suggesting rivalry between the followers of John and Jesus. We should read verse 7 with some caution:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water: but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

‘The Holy Spirit’ is a Christian phrase: not one that John would have used. But John clearly appealed to lots of people in that period of widespread dissatisfaction with the way things were going both spiritually and politically. We are on surer ground in supposing that John strongly influenced Jesus and baptized him. It was a moment of profound enlightenment.

… he saw the heavens torn apart…..

After it Jesus needs to spend time absorbing the impact and the implications:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan….

Typically, Matthew and Luke expand on Mark’s bald statement, so I’ll leave it until I get to their versions much later in this blog.

In 1964 I bought a copy of the then newly published New English Bible. It was interleaved with blank pages on which, over the years, I have written comments. So, for example, in 1984 I wrote beside verse 12: “And now we experience a different kind of wilderness in which the symbolism and mythology of Christianity no longer glow with meaning; become threadbare….The call is to find new life and energy.” It was to be another twenty years before that new life dawned for me.