Mark 4:35-41, The Struggle of the Gospel

[June 21, 2015] Today we continue our journey that we began on Trinity Sunday with our profession of faith and baptism into the Triune Name along the pathway of discipleship, the Gospel according to Mark being our guide. Mark is the redactor of Peter’s retelling of the Gospel as he (Peter) wove together the accounts of Matthew and Luke as a way of validating the Gospel according to Luke to an audience of the church in Rome. Peter did this while the Neronian persecution of Christians in Rome was going on, not long before his own arrest and martyrdom. So, the basic structure of Mark’s gospel can be attributed to the insight of Peter, obviously inspired by the Holy Spirit (at least as this was perceived by the community of the church at that time).

Peter was an apostle appointed by Jesus himself, who stood as first among equals in the circle of the Twelve, the rest of whom, however, focused their ministry on Jews. Peter was the leader of the Twelve, who were the eyewitnesses whom Jesus chose to bear their testimony of Jesus to Israel; but Peter also engaged in mission (i.e., the “apostolate”) to the mixed churches of the Diaspora, possibly coming to the church of Rome for a short stay in the early days of the gentile mission. People looked to him to validate the ministry of the apostle Paul, which he did (see Acts 15 and the history preceding that as disclosed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 2).

When the gentile mission began and then reached beyond Palestine and Syria, when Paul and Barnabas, and later Paul and Silas, left Antioch to spread the Gospel along the northern shore of the eastern Mediterranean, mostly focusing on Galatia and the shores of the Aegean Sea, Matthew wrote his gospel to be a stable form of the eyewitness testimony to Jesus, since, as the Gospel spread, the new communities that were developing could no longer rely on firsthand accounts. It was published, I think, in 52 CE, twenty-two years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. His was “The Gospel”: the tradition that Paul and the others handed on to the churches, each church making a copy of their own to be read in their Lord’s Day (Sunday) assemblies, it being also used in the primarily Jewish churches of Palestine, Syria, Egypt and parts further north, east and south. And it was the gospel that was first taken to Rome.

However, early on, in 45-47 CE, during Paul’s first journey as an apostle, Luke, having been converted by Paul, possibly in Antioch of Pisidia, left for Palestine and began his own research on the Gospel. When Matthew’s gospel was published, Luke—I imagine he was informally commissioned by Paul—compiled a gospel of his own, based on Matthew’s. This one was going to be more suitable for the new churches of the Diaspora and the gentile world, and would express the ethos of the Pauline mission (rather than the mission of the Twelve). He finished his gospel, I think, in 56 CE when it was probably also published and circulated.

In 64 CE or thereabouts, the cosmopolitan church of Rome found itself in a dilemma. There were now two gospels, one by Matthew and one by Luke. Those who had come from Syria and Palestine, mostly Jews, probably brought with them the Gospel according to Matthew, and those who had come from the gentile communities of the Mediterranean Diaspora, mostly gentiles, probably brought with them Luke’s gospel. This probably exacerbated tensions that already existed between the two communities (see Paul’s letter to the Romans written in the winter of 56-57). When Peter came to them, they handed this problem to him: no one doubted the authority of Matthew’s gospel, but what were they supposed to do with Luke’s? Would Peter declare Matthew’s the “canonical” gospel for the churches, or would he validate Luke’s to stand alongside it? Luke’s did not follow the same order as Matthew’s; he gave a very different account of Jesus’ conception and infancy; and he added a great deal of material that was not in Matthew’s. He also gives a different version of what are the same stories.

Peter’s solution was to sit with both scrolls before him and weave them together in a digest, often adding details to fill in the stories while skipping over most of the teaching material, thus showing that Luke’s gospel was indeed compatible with Matthew’s. The scribes (or scribe) took careful notes and Mark took their work—if indeed he was not the scribe—and over the next few years, after Peter’s martyrdom, redacted these dictations into the gospel we now have. What Peter in effect did was to create a third gospel. The churches now had three gospels: Matthew and Luke both written to be read on an annual cycle to correspond to the Torah readings in the synagogue the day before, and Mark’s shorter version written to also correspond to those readings, but only for a portion of the year—still to be concluded around Easter (see Michael Goulder’s thesis).

For those who want to know, Q is the material that Matthew and Luke both have in common that Mark left out, mostly the teaching material. Supposing the order reversed and that Mark’s gospel was first, then Matthew and Luke took Mark, added in their own order the teaching material in Q, and then added content of their own. Q then becomes a hypothetical missing source. I do not find the evidence for its existence compelling. I think the evidence indicates that Matthew wrote first, Luke used Matthew, and Mark created a digest of the two of them excluding much of the teaching material.

The section of Mark from which today’s text is taken moves from Jesus’ choosing of the Twelve to be with him in 3:13-19 to his sending them out in 6:7-13. Inside these two events, also bracketing this section, is a description of Jesus’ neighbors coming to retrieve him because they think he is out of his mind (3:20-21) and the story of Jesus going to Nazareth and not being accepted (6:1-6). Where is Jesus at home? Who is his true family? This question is asked and answered by Jesus in 3:31-35. “Looking at those sitting in a circle around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.” Then follows in 4:1-34 a series of parables about the seed of the Word being planted in people and growing. There is the parable of the sower, the parable of the seed’s hidden growth and the parable of the mustard seed having a surprising growth. Jesus’ community is a community of the Word which he has planted in them and which is now mysteriously growing. After Jesus’ tells of these parabolic stories, Mark then relates a number of events that have parabolic significance. Together these events tell about Jesus’ community.

In the first story (4:35-41) the disciples cross a turbulent sea that seeks to swamp their little boat. The sea—in this case a lake that is called a “sea”—represents the gentile world, conjuring in our minds the world of the Mediterranean Sea. If we recall the Acts of the Apostles and the early letters of Paul, the “sea-crossing,” namely the attempt to bring the Gospel to the gentiles, was a very turbulent affair indeed, incurring a great deal of persecution not only in Jerusalem but everywhere the apostles went, and even in the city of Rome where on account of riots in the Jewish quarters over someone named “Chrestus” the Emperor expelled the Jews from the city in 49 CE.

In the second story (5:1-20), having crossed this “sea,” Jesus casts out a legion of demons, arousing the fears of the inhabitants of the area (some of whom are pig farmers, obviously gentiles) who beg Jesus to leave. To Jews and Christians the gentile world is characterized by its idolatry and unclean spirits. Every household has its idols and therefore invokes its demons. The man in the story is their captive. When Jesus frees him it disrupts the gentile economy. The man began to proclaim Jesus in the whole region, but the neighbors are uncomfortable with his liberation (because of how it affects the economy) and beg Jesus to leave. This describes the gentile mission on gentile soil from (I am thinking) the gospel-writer’s point of view.

The third story begins with the president of the synagogue pleading with Jesus to heal his twelve year old daughter who is desperately sick. This symbolizes Israel crying out for their Redeemer to come. Then a woman, who has been sick for the entire duration of the young girl’s life, touches Jesus and is healed. This symbolizes the faithful of Israel turning to Jesus and becoming his believers. The story concludes with the twelve year old girl, now dead (like Israel in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones), being raised by Jesus. This symbolizes the final salvation of Israel when the Messiah comes.

This sequence is the same that Paul envisions in his epistle to the Romans, especially in chapters 9—12. It is the grand picture that was already envisioned by the apostolate of the New Testament. The only part of it that they had not yet witnessed was the final salvation of Israel, but it was something that Jesus taught and that, like all faithful Jews, the apostles all believed. These three stories give us the beginning, middle and end of the history of the Gospel. It also tells the story of Jesus’ community, created by the Word, the Word of the Gospel, a community that also grows on account of it.

We understand now what Mark is doing. Let us return then to the first of these stories. Peter is telling this story, remember, during the Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians. So the turbulent sea that we see in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles is still going on. When the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome fifteen years before, he did not distinguish between Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah and those who did; he just expelled them all (whether he could actually have enforced this is disputed, but at least he would have shut down their assembling). This time it is not the Jews who are being persecuted but “Christians.” What was the difference? “Christians” was the Latin term for those first gentile believers in Antioch. If the term was Latin, it was because it had legal significance. Judaism was tolerated in the Roman Empire, even though the Jews did not honor the civic gods, because it was an ancient religion, and the Romans respected that sort of thing. It wasn’t strictly legal, but it was tolerated and even respected. But the Jews, because they were obligated to their god, still did not honor the civic gods that kept the world running smoothly. Gentiles who converted to Judaism via circumcision, namely the proselytes, were also tolerated because they were now Jews. Gentile “god-fearers” who attended the synagogues were also acceptable, because while they worshipped the god of Israel, they still honored their household (and ancestral) and the community civic gods. But “Christians” got a designation of their own because they were a problem. Like the god-fearers they believed in the god of Israel but unlike them they did not honor either their family gods or the civic gods, and they did not have the excuse that they had converted to Judaism since they were not circumcised. The public was very suspicious of them and if the gods seemed displeased with the city or the countryside, it was very likely because they were not being honored by these Christians. So when Nero needed a scapegoat, they were a very easy target that the public was only too willing to oblige.

The turbulence of the sea during their crossing was the same then as the earlier persecution by the “Judaizers” (those who insisted that gentiles convert). Only now the persecution was coming from the gentiles. It was, however, for the same reason—the Jews persecuted their fellow Jews because they insisted that, if these gentile worshipers of the God of Israel were to give up idolatry, they had to be circumcised, and now these gentile worshipers of Israel’s God are being persecuted for not honoring the gods because as uncircumcised gentiles they are not Jews and therefore have no excuse. They can worship whoever they want. Others however would not tolerate these gentiles disrespecting the gods of their ancestors and the gods that maintained the welfare of the city, countryside and the empire.

Jesus said, “Let us cross over to the other side,” and that was what the church was doing. As a result, “then it began to blow a great gale and the waves were breaking into the boat so that it was almost swamped.” This is the hard time they were having. They wondered whether they were even going to survive it. After all, all the most important leaders of the Christian movement were executed at this time, including both Peter and Paul. (John was an obscure disciple.) Would the church survive?

Within a few years another devastating event would rock both the Jewish and the Christian world. The Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. This event changed the face of Judaism forever. It also affected the church. They too still oriented themselves around that central symbol of Judaism, for they still considered themselves Jews (they worshiped the God of Israel, usually attended synagogue, and they considered the scriptures of the synagogue their scriptures). The consolation they had was that Jesus seemed to say that when that happened—following on the heels of a terrible persecution—he (the Son of Man) would return in glory. This was the awful event that was supposed to mark the end of history. Only it did not happen! Jesus did not come back. Nothing happened. The storm raged and broke over them: imperial persecution devastated the church and the Temple was destroyed and Jesus did not return. And the persecution continued. The boat was being swamped by the waves.

The church was completely demoralized and began searching hard for answers. This was when the gnostic heresies began to gain ground, first in the form of Docetism. They were attempts to find answers for a leaderless and demoralized church. Again, the church was being swamped even more—by these new and unhealthy teachings (they denied the reality and goodness of the visible creation).

It sure looked as if Jesus “was in the stern, his head on the cushion, asleep.”

“They woke him and said to him, ‘Master, do you not care? We are lost!’” The word translated “lost” means to be destroyed, to perish. In other words, we are all about to drown! We can imagine the faithful in the church crying out to Jesus, “Where are you? Do you not see what is going on? Don’t you care? Are you really asleep through all this? How can you have taken us so far only to abandon us now?!”

“And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!’ And the wind dropped, and there followed a great calm.” Wonderful! Jesus is just going to wake up and fix everything and we will all be okay after all. Yet that is not what happened for the church! Persecutions continued. Troubles for Israel continued. The vacuum of leadership took a while to fill.

So, if Jesus stills the storm, how come we do not see this happening? If we do not see things get better, does not our initial question remain? “Do you not care? We are all about to drown!” This is not an unimportant question. The story is nice, but what about its application?

“Then he said to them, ‘Why are you so frightened? Have you still no faith?’” The real storm, the storm that matters, is inside us. This is the key. Let us say our congregation is going through a terrible storm of its own. A sequence of events is taking place that cannot be stopped and all the people are upset because an injustice is taking place and there is no recourse, no help. Obviously there is a storm raging around us; un-imaginary waves are beating our little boat and rolling over it, causing it to swamp. This storm is undoubtedly taking its toll and from a human point of view we are going to go under. Emotionally we are all worked up and we wonder how did things ever get to this point? Where was Jesus when things were developing like this, and where is Jesus now? “Do you not care?” we are tempted to pray. Yet Jesus is not particularly worried. Not because he has no regard for his own life, whether he lives or dies, or the lives of those in the boat with him. It is because he sees things from a divine perspective and he knows there is actually nothing to be concerned about. Jesus never lacked confidence in his Father’s providential care. The Father has this under control and whatever happens is going to be the Father’s will and according to the Father’s designs. Jesus was so sure that things were not over yet, that he could sleep calmly during the storm—the Father had it under control.

So the outside is taken care of. But he looks at us and wonders, what is this storm that I see inside you? The sea inside me is so calm the water looks like glass. But when I look inside you there is such a storm blowing, such panic and uncertainty, such a lack of trust in the Father. That is the real storm, the one that is most deserving of concern. “Why are you so frightened?” After all we have been through together, “Have you still no faith?” When Jesus says, “Quiet now, be calm!” he says it to this storm. When we recognize his presence and see his calmness, we find our own peace and begin to trust him. Our spirit awakens and a calm and trust comes over our souls as it begins to synchronize with our spirit. It is not the outer circumstances that matter so much as this inner circumstance—the presence of Jesus himself in this storm.

So for Mark’s readers, while Christians were being arrested and heretics were agitating (they were labeled “heretics” not for their teachings but because they—as Christians—were causing division), things were slowly taking their course. Even as Mark wrote, a little canon of three gospels (each soon to be known as “the [one] Gospel [but] according to so-an-so”) was developing which would soon be standard in the churches.

Years ago Paul initiated a small collection of his letters (which he sent to Ephesus), namely the first four of his epistles (actually 2 Corinthians was a series of letters that he redacted into one), the 16th chapter of Romans being what we would call the “cover letter.” (Marcion’s collection began with Galatians, then 1 and 2 Corinthians, and then Romans; this might have been the original order.) Then Timothy began to quietly collect others. Now Onesimus, the former slave of Archippus and present episkopos (bishop) of Ephesus began to collect the rest. By the beginning of the 90s the collection would be complete and would be published for the churches. With both “the Gospel” and “the Apostle” the churches were developing a “standard” or canon.

Like Timothy and Onesimus we notice others moving into the shoes of the first generation apostles, only they now tend to be called episkopoi, bishops, as the office of an apostle is called in Acts 1:20, because like the first generation of apostles they “oversee” regions rather than localities. There is now Clement and soon we will hear of Ignatius and even Polycarp. In other words, new leaders were cropping up.

Unknown in Ephesus, there was an obscure early disciple—the young man Jesus chose to take care of his mother, now known as “the elder” not only because of his age but because he was with Jesus in the beginning—who was composing another gospel, one from the point of view of himself and Mary, Jesus’ mother. This gospel was unlike the others, neither with Matthew’s Midrash style nor like Luke’s bio, but more of a “wisdom” interpretation of the gospel, in line perhaps with the Jewish wisdom genre. It refocuses the lens on Jesus and gets at the essence of the Gospel. It neither mentions the Twelve (except in 6:67-71) nor speak of the second advent (except in 21:23), reorients Jesus’ activity around Jerusalem instead of Galilee, telling only seven miracle stories each with extensive commentary, and presents Jesus by his extended conversations and long discourses. It is a simple story carefully composed in a mandala, with a great deal of attention to numbers and balance. The Jesus it ends up with reinterprets Matthew, Luke and Mark’s rendition of Jesus and answers the heretic’s questions while refuting their answers. It is a masterpiece that—better than Paul did (though building on his Trinitarian assumptions), and following more closely the thought-world we find in the epistle to the Hebrews (probably composed by Paul’s female disciple Priscilla)—gives the church a coherent theology of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, though it would take the next millennium to tease it out. This new gospel was a success and many churches had it replace the synoptic tradition. It would take until 154-155 CE for Polycarp and Anicetus, the bishops of Asia and Rome respectively, to find a way to combine John’s gospel with the first three (by splitting Luke-Acts) to create Irenaeus’ fourfold Gospel canon (or standard).

In other words, God was taking care of the church in spite of the storm, and the boat was safely getting to the other shore. The storm that most needed to be calmed, however, was not the outer storm of persecution, historical events and heresy, but the inner storm of unbelief. Jesus did care (and does care for us), and has a future in mind that we cannot yet envision. But he needs us to trust him as these quiet and unassuming workers did—Timothy and Onesimus and the aging John and the young Polycarp. A calming needs to take place, but within us rather than without. “Why are you so frightened?” There was a lot around them to be frightened of, yet with eyes on God these things did not have to seem so powerful. God was actually in control, working things out, in the midst of the chaos. “Have you still no faith?” Consider the Jesus of the gospels; consider now the Jesus that Mark sets before us; and have faith (trust). Commit ourselves to him; keep our allegiance and our loyalty going; do not let it waver. If Jesus seems asleep, it is only because he has nothing to worry about.

Jesus sleeping in Mark 4:38 might remind us of the farmer sleeping in 4:27, a few verses earlier. The farmer scattered his seed on the land, and then, night and day, as he slept and when he was awake, the seed sprouted and grew. In the parable “he does not know” how. “Of its own accord the land produced first the shoot, then the ear, than the full grain in the ear.” It is not so much that the farmer (in this case Jesus) does not know how but rather that we do not know how. The Holy Spirit works quietly in the background, without anyone noticing at first, and causes the growth of the Word of Jesus. At the time that Mark composed his gospel, it looked like nothing was happening. But it was. A great deal was happening, and soon it was to blossom and flourish.

We too need to trust the quiet interior working of the Holy Spirit and the power of Jesus’ Word, the Gospel. We too may only see disaster, but it is not so. We just do not understand what is actually happening. We are distracted by the things that call out for our attention. We are not looking at where things are really happening, much of which is invisible to the eye. We need to relax and trust in our Lord Jesus, and not imagine that everything depends on us. It is our place just to be faithful no matter what and to endure whatever we must and leave the results, the growth of the Gospel, to God.

And indeed, relax the grip on our selves too. We are not going to save ourselves. Nevertheless, God has a grip on us and asks us only to trust and be patient. Without faith though—faith meaning our faithfulness, fidelity, allegiance and loyalty, our fealty—we cannot have the peace we so desire. With it we only need to keep our eyes on Jesus instead of the wind and the waves. Here I am thinking of Peter as he stepped out of the boat and attempted to walk (in Matthew’s gospel, 14:22-33; the same story truncated is in Mark 6:45-52). In this later story what matters is the calm, assuring presence of Jesus—who announces to them, “I am!” which becomes the centerpiece of John’s master work. Let us too then fix our gaze on Jesus, his real presence among us, and fear not.

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