Reading Mark’s Gospel

Notes

Most of us have a pretty good grasp of the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels. We know that he was born in Bethlehem, brought up in Nazareth, was baptised by John in the River Jordan, healed taught … and eventually was tried and crucified in Jerusalem and to be raised three days later.
But why do we have four accounts of this?
As we look at the different accounts each is distinctive, drawing out different aspects of Jesus life and ministry, coming from different perspectives and aiming their message at different groups of people.
But we tend to be familiar with a narrative that blends all four together.
That is a shame, it is as though we took your favourite meal and put it into a food blender and then gave you a bowl of pureed mush. Great for babies, not good for adults.
Over the past few years I have taken a particular interest in Mark’s Gospel, it is probably the earliest to be written (between AD 60 and 70 according to most commentators) and the shortest. It is the easiest to overlook because, being the first, Matthew and Luke repeated and tweaked a lot of Mark’s material. But Mark is very distinctive, he has a unique style and a vital message that is all too easily missed if we concentrate on the other gospels or a processed blend of all four.
I usually take a couple of hours to read the whole of Mark but some folk say you can read it in an hour and may study courses encourage us to do just that. The problem is that we come knowing the blended version and so, even sitting down with Mark, it is hard to pick out Mark’s particular emphasise. So, in these notes, I just want to point out how Mark does highlight passages and themes and how we can identify his particular narrative plot.

1: The shape of Mark’s narrative

A single story

The story starts with John the Baptist and Jesus’ Baptism, moves to ministry in and around Galilee with lots of crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee. Then moves, via Jericho, for Jesus final visit to Jerusalem lasting less than a week.
(Matthew and Luke also only have one visit to Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry, probably because they are using Mark, but John has three visits)
There are no natural sections in the story, one part blends into the next.

It’s a downhill storyline

The story starts with Jesus’ success but opposition grows, the disciples don’t understand, and support declines and then Jesus is finally alone on the cross.
So, who are the exceptions who seem to get it right – some may surprise you – and why?

Interlacing themes

Mark seems to have themes that recur, e.g. John the Baptist, bread (including crumbs), the sea and storms.
How do they develop, how are similar stories subtlety different and why?

2: How does Mark grab our attention?

Dramatic detail

Mark’s account seems to go a quite a pace, but we can suddenly change speed and a lot more dramatic details is added.
For example; having had a rush of activity in chapter one with very little detail, chapter two starts with a more vivid scene in a house, the scene is set, we can imagine noises on the roof and chunks of the roof beginning to fall and then a body lowered down. It is here that we see the first conflict. What is it about?

Language

Sometimes the language is strong, e.g. blasphemy agains the Holy Spirt and unforgivable sins (3:29). At other times Mark keeps the actual Aramaic words e.g. Abba for father (14:36)

Events that are out of time or place

Sometimes the scene shifts dramatically or events seem out of time, e.g.
• The execution of John is written as a flash back (6:14-29), so why is it here? (Notice how Matthew (14:1-12), using Mark starts with the flashback but seems to forget that it was a flashback as the previous narrative re-starts in verse 13).
• The transfiguration (9:2-8) seems almost like a resurrection appearance, why here?
• A woman anoints Jesus for his burial before he has even died (14:1-9). Why here (you may like to look at the last verse Mark wrote (16:8)

Repetition

Sometimes stories are repeated but with subtle changes, e.g.
• there are two calling of fishermen (1:16-20), what is the difference?
• two feeding of crowds (6:30-44, 8:1-13, see also 8:14-21). Does this have any connection with crumbs in 7:24-30 or breaking bread in 14:22?
• what other pairs (or even triples) do you notice? How is Mark using them?
Sandwiches
Mark sometimes sandwiches one story inside another e.g. the healing of a woman with continuous bleeding inside the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5:21-43). How do the two stories relate?
Which other sandwiches do you notice as you read through?
Sometimes Mark combines this with repetition e.g. with the two stories of restoring sight (8:22-26 and 10:46-52). What light does this shed on the stories sandwiched between the two and what comes after the second event?
Do other repetitions function in a similar way?
(Sandwiching like these is sometimes referred to as intercalation)

3: Understanding Mark

The stories that Mark uses to in his narrative seem to rub against one another so that the overall effect is much richer than telling the individual stories. This is called intertextuality, one text engaging with another. We could go further and look at how these texts relate to the Old Testament, sometimes this is fairly obvious but not always. Part of Mark’s skill is that if you do catch these allusions they enrich the story even further, but it still works even if (as many of Mark’s first readers would have been) 1st Century gentiles who knew nothing of what we call the Old Testament.
Mark’s first readers (and hearers) would have been Christian disciples who were being persecuted or at the very least feared that they would be persecuted. Their own stories would echo aspects of Mark. This would be another layer of intertextuality. How would they understand their own persecution in the light of Jesus death; their own fear in the light of the disciples fear, perhaps especially Peter.
Which begs the question how do our own stories of discipleship, our fears and failures, find echoes in this story? Does this story help us to understand our own situations and lives better?
I don’t think Mark is trying to teach us doctrine, systematic theology or creeds, so much as helping us to see God’s work, love and forgiveness in our own lives.

4: Reading Mark

OK so how do we go about reading Mark?

Set aside enough time

To get the sweep of Mark our basic reading has to try to take it all in. I reckon it takes me a couple of hours to read the whole of Mark. I usually break up (perhaps a couple of hour sessions) so that I can keep my concentration but keeping the sessions close enough together to keep the continuity. Perhaps an hour before and after a meal? We are all different so you will need to work out your own way of doing things, but do try to keep the continuity.

Keep a piece of paper and pencil handy

It is very easy to get struck by something that feels really important and want to stay with it. The problem is that this could interrupt the flow of the Mark’s narrative. If you have a paper and pencil handy you can just make a note and carry on, but do comeback later.
A note from personal experience – make fuller notes that you might at first think necessary. I have quite a collection of cryptic notes and I really did not understand a day or two later!

Be aware of the questions

Don’t forget about the food processor. We are trying to hear Mark’s distinctive message to us and coming with questions can help that – they can turn reading into a deeper, more rewarding study.

Keep a record of your reading

It is amazingly easy to forget wonderful insights. Do keep some record of your thoughts, they can be a rich and rewarding read in months and years to come. You will probably surprise yourself!

Enjoy!

Mark is a brilliant story teller and his story bears reading and re-reading. I first developed a particular interest in Mark in 2009, yesterday I did another read through and still ended up with a page full of notes. Wonderful!

A Maundy Thursday reflection

Separation and Connection

A reflection from Llandaff Diocese written by Jimmy Page, an ordinand (someone in training for ordination).

Ordinand Jimmy Page writes… Maundy Thursday 9th April

We who are many are one Bread, one Body; for we are all partakers of the one Bread (CiW 1984).  This week I had the pleasure of experiencing my first online Mass.  Initially, as this situation evolved, I hadn’t seen the point of all these online Masses people were planning to do.  I had been a pretty vocal advocate of online services generally, and in particular of live streamed services which I considered more personable, because you see them as they happen rather than hours or days later.
But I had seen the idea of an online Mass somewhat superfluous, thinking that since I would be unable to partake of the sacrament myself, watching someone else do it was rather pointless.
I was mistaken.
As I discovered when Brecon Cathedral (the mother church of my own diocese and so holding a special place in my own heart) announced that they would be streaming/broadcasting online their Sunday Eucharist. The joy I felt when I heard this was wonderful, though a little surprising and my brain had to do a complete and very sharp U-turn to keep up with what my heart was telling it I now believed.
These feelings were fully confirmed by the service itself. Once I had turned my laptop sideways so I could see what was going on, I began to feel a real connection not only to the three people in the Cathedral but also to all the others watching… and in fact all the people that weren’t. At the point when the peace came and I shared the peace with my own family, I found I was much more conscious of the Body of Christ. Humans are generally quite simple creatures, and when we say
‘One Bread … one Body’;
it is easy to think of that in terms of the congregation currently gathered. But take that congregation away, lock us all in our houses and rather than causing me to feel separated from the Body of my own congregation it made me feel more aware of, and more connected to the Body of Christ as a whole.
As St Paul writes in Romans 12:5 “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.”
Some very trying times are ahead of us, there is no denying this, but right now I am taking comfort in these words. We are members of one another and whatever challenges face us in the days to come, we will face them together, as the Body of Christ. If we remain true to each other and hold each other in prayer then nothing can separate that One Body.

Peace be with you …

This is another reflection from Llandaff Diocese in Wales. This one is written by a parish priest, Rev’d Andrew Davies:

The Rev’d Andrew Davies writes…

Life as we know it is in turmoil, we see empty streets and our television screens such as Trafalgar Square and its surrounding area. We are told that certain television programmes such as EastEnders and Casualty have halted their rehearsals. Life for many appears on hold, and fear is creeping into the lives of many.

However, within all this we see some good, we see compassion, we see others concerned and caring for those around them. people ensuring that neighbours are cared for, extra food being given to Foodbanks and the list could go on. 

That is because in all this turmoil human goodness still prevails. 

In Judges 6: 23-24 we are told that the “Lord said to Gideon ‘Peace do not be afraid.’ So, Gideon built an altar to the Lord and called it ‘the Lord is peace.’

In John 14: 27 Jesus himself says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I leave with you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

So, I offer you this prayer:

Father, we’ re in need of your peace and truth
to soothe our hearts and spirits right now.
When we find ourselves awake in the middle of the night, our pressing needs and worries can feel overwhelming.
We need to be reminded of your constant love,
healing, and grace.
We ask for your Mighty Power to surround us.
And we thank you that you have set us free
and that you are bigger than anything we face in this life.
We lay our burdens before you, every single one,
or we know they’re much safer in your hands
than our own.
Amen.

… people will never forget how you made them feel.

By Heather Temple-Williams

Heather Temple-Williams

Heather wrote …

At first glance this seems an odd quote of choice for a speechwriter. After all, my job is all about the words. I would love to think that my words will go down in history; that one day, a speech I have written will be included in a book entitled “Best Speeches of the 21st Century”. The reality however, is that non-political speeches by civil servants rarely go down in history, unless it’s for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, I still strive to write well. To write speeches that will leave a lasting impression, long after the words have been forgotten.

Jesus didn’t need a speechwriter. He knew exactly what to say. He could be challenging, curt and confrontational. He could also be calming, caring and compassionate. Wherever he went, crowds followed him, because the things he said were astonishing and because the things he did were even more astonishing. But I believe that Jesus would not have drawn such large crowds, or kept his disciples for three years and more, if he had treated people with indifference, disdain, or worse. I believe that Jesus’ love and compassion for people spoke as clearly as his words. That is why a child was brave enough to go up to him with his lunch. That is why a woman, unclean by the standards of the day, felt able to press through the crowd and touch his cloak.                             .

The question for today is, how do we make people feel? Do we make them feel inadequate with our religious knowledge? Do we carry out good deeds with bad grace? Or, do people feel loved and at peace? Do we leave people better than we found them? Jesus commanded us to preach the gospel. Not all of us will do that from a pulpit or a platform, but we can all do it through kind words and kind deeds. People will forget what we say and even what we do. But the most important thing is that they remember how we made them feel. Because then they will know that God loves them.

About Heather Temple-Williams

I did a quick Google search about Heather.

As her reflection suggests, her Linkedin profile describes her as a speech writer for the Welsh Governemnt, she is also a Law Graduate and theology Student. She is now part of an ecumenical church in Cardiff.

She has spoken more about her story here.

How can we sing the Lord’s song …

Keith Farrin reflected on that verse from Ps 137 in the light of our experiences now of Covid-19 and our exile into isolation.

“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

A Reflection in the time of Covid-19.

When I look at the news now, this nation does appear as a foreign land. Nothing we have experienced before; nothing we could have expected. 

While for most people this disease results in mild symptoms from which they will recover, for a few it will require specialist care, for a few of those it will result in death.

We cannot go to church, receive ‘by faith with thanksgiving’ the sacrament of bread and wine, we cannot ‘kneel in prayer together’.

We cannot meet for coffee, shake hands, or hold to comfort each other in our confusion, grief or joy.

What are we to do?

            The people of the southern kingdom of Israel faced the loss of their temple when Nebuchadnezzar, in 597 BC. carried off the royal family and leading citizens to exile in Babylon. (1 Kings 24.10 -17) For them it was catastrophic, their faith was based in their land, centred around the Temple.

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  (Psalm 137 vs. 1.)

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  (vs. 4.)

Jeremiah chose to stay with the people left behind.

Ezekiel went to Babylon, bringing God’s word to the exiles.

            Yet that period of exile was formative for Judaism.  They added to and edited their sacred scriptures, they learnt to pray where they were, to their surprise they found that God was there with them. “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me;” (Jeremiah 29. 12 – 13)

The question was posed, “Can these dry bones live?” (Ez. 37. 3)

 The answer was a resounding Yes! (Ez.37.1 – 14)

Much later, long after they had returned, when in AD70 the Temple was destroyed, they had a system of prayer to fall back on, to sustain them.

 They had Synagogues in their main villages as we have our churches, but they also had their prayers, not dependent upon the Temple.

We do have our prayers, but we have in many cases lost the habit of them, relying on the “ministers” to always lead them in Church. We can reclaim that heritage. We can pray for health workers, for all who continue at risk to provide for our needs, and to pray for the families of all who die.

As “Resurrection people” we can have confidence, whatever happens.

Jesus prayed, ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ (John 17. 25 – 26)

By the grace of God, we can emerge more resilient from this.

Keep in touch via telephone, Facebook or website, we remain one body, though scattered as grain.

AKF. April 2020

Sunday Worship ‘together’?

What are we doing when we share our Sunday worship? Is it really a Eucharist or Communion when we can’t be together?

What are we doing when we share our Sunday worship? Is it really a Eucharist or Communion when we can’t be together?

These notes go with the livestream video

Spiritual Communion

Bishop Stephen has written about receiving Spiritual Communion, receiving the blessing of Jesus presence without the physical Bread and Wine.
https://www.chelmsford.anglican.org/spiritual-communion

“you will notice a short prayer at the heart of the service which draws on the story of the woman who comes to Jesus but only touches the hem of his garment. She still receives healing and blessing (See Mark 5. 25-34). In a way, spiritual communion is like this. We are not able to receive the sacramental bread and wine. But in a spiritual communion we still come to Jesus and he still receives us.”

This is a particularly poignant way of praying; it emphasises our separation and isolation. It may help us to pray for our own need and the needs of those who are even more isolated than we are.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is at the heart of the Communion service. The central prayer is called the Eucharistic Prayer and this comes from the Greek – eucharisto means ‘I give thanks’.

Mark’s gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, puts the last supper in a wider context. In a sense the Last Supper is the climax of in a series of three, the feeding of 5,000, then 4,000 and then the 12. On each occasion Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and then gave it to the disciples – in Mark it is emphasised that the numbers reduce on each occasion. Luke adds a fourth, the disciples again recognised Jesus, this time risen, as he took bread, gave thanks and broke it in Emmaus.

So we can give thanks for all our food, whenever we eat or drink this can become a Eucharist – a time for giving thanks.

Prayer as Action

Sister Vassa is an Orthodox Nun posted a video blog talking about ‘Being Church when churches are Closed’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZBWuYI4WVo This includes doing the actions that we would do in church but at home – actions can be as eloquent prayers as words.

What actions can we take that can become prayers? Perhaps holding up empty hands in supplication, raising our hands in praise. The glorious thing about doing this at home is precisely that we are alone – no one else is watching if we think we might be making a bit of a fool of ourselves!

And if it gives God a laugh, that can’t be bad can it?

Coming together

So what can we do together? Well we can make palm crosses and then share them using facebook (if you have difficulty posting them online could you email me a photo to rev.richard.jordan@gmail.com?)

When we come to watch our morning service on Facebook, could we have a piece of bread and a drink ready to ‘receive’ as we come to the Communion? Brenda tells me that from a Catholic perspective three things are necessary for concretion; form, matter and intention.

The form is the order of service – well that is in place as we are using Common Worship.

Matter is the bread and wine – these are offered by lay folk in our usual Sunday worship in the offertory procession so you would be your own offertory procession (that might take us back to Sr Vassa. She talks about having a procession with the cross around her flat).Inte