[April 11, 2010] The Gospel according to Mark, as I have pointed out before, was probably originally the transcript of the apostle Peter’s retelling the Gospel story, using the manuscripts of Matthew and Luke as they were held in front of him, when he was in Rome during the time of Nero’s awful persecution of the church. He was probably validating the Gospel according to Luke for those people who did not want to receive another gospel in addition to Matthew’s. But he also was framing the story in such a way as to encourage the church in its time of trial, and to show the church, through the example of Jesus, how to be faithful in the midst of misunderstanding, hardship, resistance, opposition and persecution.
Last Sunday was Easter and we read the last chapter of Mark. There, in the story of the resurrection, the young man in the tomb told the women to “go and tell His disciples and Peter that He is going before you into Galilee. There you will see Him, even as He told you” (16:7). One of the things this does, as we listen to it, is that it sends us, the listeners back to the beginning of the story, to hear it over again in the light of the resurrection: “You are seeking Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has been raised; He is not here.” Jesus, the faithful Servant of the Lord, was also the One possessed of the divine (eternal) life, a life that could (and did) overcome death. While we still need to read the Gospel according to John to see this expounded fully, the church has had the ministry of the apostle Paul to help it understand that “the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation” (1 Peter 3:15-16). The life that was (and is) in Jesus—the divine life that could overcome death—is in us through the Holy Spirit, and is our life. What we identify as our life, our soul, is not. It can only live if He—Christ (Jesus the Nazarene)—is our life, “even as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote to [us] in all his letters, speaking in them concerning these things.”
So, when we return to chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, we look at the life of Jesus with these new eyes. Jesus is the faithful Servant, but He is also the One who now lives in us, having fulfilled His faithful service by carrying it out to the end. We read the story now and see Jesus not as the great exception (though He was—and is—uniquely unique), and not only as an exterior example that we must try to emulate, but as the One who is the secret of our life now. He of whom we read is the One who lives within us. We can follow Him because to follow Him is the only way we can be true to the life that is within us. That life (Jesus’ own)—within us—is the source of the strength we need for our lives as disciples.
Though we fail continually, it is only because we still identify our soul as our life. We do not align ourselves with what is true. We are like Peter on the night when Jesus was betrayed. We are still relying on our own strength. “Go, tell the disciples and Peter that He is going before you into Galilee” (Mark 16:7). Peter after the resurrection, having come to a devastating knowing of himself, finds a strength within that is not this soul of his. He learns to live by the Holy Spirit—the resurrected life of Christ, the life that Christ lived by all along.
Let us then hear the Gospel with enlightened ears.
We skip over the calling of the fishermen, and Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue of Capernaum, and His cleansing of the synagogue of its demon. The people in the synagogue offered Him resistance but now He is free to minister among them.
Serving (Mark 1:29-34)
He immediately goes across the street to Peter’s house where Peter—called Simon here—lives with his wife and mother-in-law (see 1 Corinthians 9:5), and the four disciples, Peter and his brother Andrew and James and John, go with Him. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever and they immediately tell Him about her. Now fevers in those days were more serious affairs than they are for us; they often killed people. Nevertheless, Jesus came to her and raised her up, holding her hand, and the fever left her, and she served them.
Having restored the synagogue (we may think of the local church) by cleansing it of its demon, Jesus next restores the home (the household) of the disciple. Having restored it, hospitality is also restored—the mother-in-law serves them (such being the order of the home in those days).
After Jesus restores our households—the households of the disciples—He next restores the city (polis) or town, at least ideally. In any case, the town is next to receive the impact of the Gospel. The whole town was gathered together at the door. Notice that the place for ministry to the town, here, is the household. Our home is the normal setting for us to reach out and impact our neighbors. This is something that the Gospel according to Luke brought out, and we find it again here. Jesus heals the sick and cast out the demons.
Notice a couple of things here. First is Mark’s use of the word “immediately” It helps give the gospel its fast pace. He uses the words “immediately” thirty-five times, eleven of those times in the first two chapters. It expresses the urgency and energy with which Jesus serves.
The second thing is how Mark says that Jesus “raised” Peter’s mother-in-law. He “raised her up, grasping her hand,” the same thing He did in the case of the dead daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:41-42) and the epileptic boy who appeared to be dead (Mark 9:26-27). Mark thus makes a connection to the idea of resurrection that is less obvious in the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke and therefore worth paying attention to. The power with which Jesus “raised” these three people, of course is the power of the Spirit with which He was anointed at His baptism, but what characterizes this life-giving power is that it overcomes death. The Spirit that empowered His service was not different than His own life, the life that was within Him except that it manifested outwardly.
The point for us to grasp is that when we serve others, it is in the power of the resurrection. It is not the mere manifestation of power, but the power of life that overcomes death. The power of resurrection is the power of the new creation, the power of the age to come. It is a deifying or divinizing power because the old creation is “clothed upon” (2 Corinthians 5:3) with eternal life, made alive with the divine life. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the creation itself becomes–through participation by grace—what Jesus is in His incarnation (manifested in resurrection), human and divine. Ministry is, therefore, our bringing into this alienated world something of the age to come.
Another point in connection to this is that this ministry of the divine life does not take place through the image or the transfer of information or by organization or an impersonal institution. Ministry is always personal. Jesus held the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law as later He will touch the leper. This is not to say that physical touch is necessary, but what is necessary is some sort of personal connection, the connection of an “I” and a “you.” That which exists between the “I” and the “you” is the secret of the life of the Trinity, the eternal life of which we are speaking. Without it, the ministry of life does not take place. This is why, in addition to touch, the medium of the word is important. Through the word we—you and I—can connect, and we can connect in a personal way with God.
Dependence on Prayer (1:35)
Very early in the morning, while it was still night (see Mark 16:2), Jesus rose up to pray. No doubt, this is the best time to pray. He went to a deserted place to pray, where He could concentrate without the distractions of people who did not share His devotion. We are often so practical that we have no regard for this sort of thing, and do not respect the need of those who minister the Word for sleep so that they can rise up early and for solitude. We almost treat prayer as unnecessary, as a kind of luxury. Sometimes I even encounter the attitude that it is something for exceptional people like Jesus and popes and monks and nuns, but not ordinary preachers and certainly not every day disciples. This attitude is sin.
Jesus did not need to take hours apart to pray because He was divine but because He was human. Certainly we need to do this even more than He, though we always do it less. An active life such as His requires just as much a life of solitude and prayer. It is not that one person engages in activity and the other person engages in prayer. The more active we wish to be, the more time we should take aside for prayer. We may become less active because of health and age, but our commitment to prayer cannot become less.
It is true that some people find it easier to spend lengthy time in prayer than others, but this has less to do with individual constitution than with determination, preparation, and practice.
We love to make excuses for ourselves but the reality is that we choose not to spend time in prayer. Of course, what we say is that we are too busy. There are so many demands placed on us, so many needs all around us, and so many responsibilities. All that this means is that because we live by the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we determine our own priorities instead of paying attention to the inner demand of the life within us. The people crowded around Jesus demanding to be healed, but that was not Jesus’ priority. The needs of the people around Jesus did not dictate His life or His actions. He spent time in prayer in order to give priority of place to the life within Him and to cultivate it by communion with the Father. Time spent in prayer was more important than all of His activity.
He knew this. Because He lived accordingly, not acting in a frenzied, busy sort of way, but acting by choice, acting deliberately, and giving priority of place to His inner life and the activity of prayer, His outward activity could be effective.
While we can pray in the midst of our busy-ness, so could Jesus. He nevertheless rose early in the morning and sought out a place to be alone to that He could spend a lengthy period of time in prayer without the distractions from demanding people. While Jesus on occasion lost sleep, for a sustained life of discipleship we need to get a healthy amount of sleep if we are to rise early for prayer.
Acting Independently of People’s Demands (1:36-38)
Jesus separated from people and did not tell them where He was going so that He could be left alone. Nevertheless, they sought Him out and eventually found Him. “All are seeking You,” they tell Him. Please pay attention to this. The people have so many needs; the world has so many needs. They demand that Jesus pay attention to them and cater to their needs. The needs around us also demand to be addressed. And the needs are bottomless. There is no end to them. The human situation is horrible, for no sooner than you address some needs than you discover ever more pressing levels of need. Some people think that the reason the church exists is to address the needs of the world, to feed all the hungry mouths around us, to comfort all the suffering people.
But Jesus says no. It does not matter, He says. That is not my agenda. “Let us go elsewhere.” Imagine that! “Let us go elsewhere.” It is hardly that Jesus does not care. The day before showed His desire and energy to serve. But He had to live by His own agenda, not by what everyone else demanded of Him. We can be sure that they pointed out to Him His gifts and abilities. Look at what You can do for us! Nevertheless, He said “no.” This is what it means to live by your inner sense of direction. Jesus was not directed by outward demands and pressure. He did not let other people and their needs control His life. He directed Himself according to His true sense of self and the impulse of the life within Him.
We burn out because we are driven by outward forces, by the desires and expectations of others. We become “busy” because we are trying to satisfy the needs around us. We say “yes” to far too many things, and we accept the beliefs of others as to what is and is not important. Yet inwardly the life that is within us is ignored and repressed. We become exhausted and maybe resentful.
Jesus said, “Let us go elsewhere into the nearby towns that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I came out.” To preach (kērussō) does not mean what people nowadays seem to think—to give a forceful, inspiring or even entertaining exhortation, to pound out a moral imperative for people to follow. It means, rather, to herald, to make an announcement, to make something public. It means, in other words, to proclaim the news. The news in this case is the drawing near of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Himself. Jesus had a purpose, a reason for being here, and that was what determined His course of action, not the demands and expectation of others.
We also need to be clear about our purpose, our reason for being, so that we do not simply live at the whim of others. We need to live our lives on purpose, and not simply “survive” or “get by,” or do as others do. We live by a higher purpose. Of course, if Jesus has called us so that we are His disciples, that is our purpose. What form that takes in our individual lives is something we also need to become clear about. Nevertheless, the point remains—that we need to live by this and not by the outward pressure or demands or expectations of others.
So Jesus did not return to Capernaum that day but headed out and preached in the whole of Galilee, freeing people from the power of their demons and, through His call to discipleship, from the greater powers of the world.
Before Jesus returned to Capernaum in 2:1 we are only given one example of His ministry as He toured the towns of Galilee. This is the story of the leper. This man obviously was not in one of the towns but came to Jesus as Jesus was from one town to the next. For lepers were outcast and had to keep separated from others. Nor could others touch them without becoming unclean. In Matthew this story is connected with the following in a series of stories that depict in parabolic form the mission of the church. In Luke this story is connected with the following in a series of stories that illustrate the Jubilee or liberation that Jesus was bringing. Here it may also introduce the story in which Jesus pronounces the forgiveness of sins to the paralytic before He calls the sinner Levi. But we will treat it for the moment as an illustration of Jesus’ heart of service.
The outcast man—whose very disease was a picture to the Jews of the affect of sin on human nature, a vivid mirror held up to people that they shunned and put away from themselves—this man came up to Jesus and begged Him, saying, “If You are willing, You can cleanse me.” The question is whether Jesus is willing. The man may have been afraid that Jesus would shun him as everyone else did. He may have been afraid that Jesus would act as convention dictated. So He says to Jesus, “If you are willing.”
Jesus was moved with compassion and, stretching out His hand (here Mark makes a point of it), He touched Him—which all others were unwilling to do. Jesus makes a personal connection to this man by touching him. This man did not simply represent an anonymous, statistical need. Jesus saw him as a person. He also took a risk by touching Him, for all who touch a leper become unclean themselves. Then Jesus says, “I am willing; be cleansed!” He speaks to the man as He touches Him, as one Person to another, and expresses the compassion that He felt inside. This is how ministry is done.
And this heals the man. He is cleansed. We may not heal people of leprosy with a touch (and an important word), but we may begin to bring some restoration to the world by acting in this way. Jesus felt compassion for this individual man; He then touched him; and He spoke to him. Likewise, we need to make a personal connection to them, and to serve them, we need to be moved with compassion. It is our compassion that makes us willing.
Our will is not so free as people think. Sometimes we just do not have the will. Then we can either force ourselves to do something, or we may just not do it. It is very important that our will be engaged and that we act according to our will. If we do not do certain things, it is often because we do not will do it. We do not find the will because the motive behind the will has not changed.
We often are not willing because we are selfish. We do not change the way we live—regardless of our professed beliefs—because what motivates us is something else. We are motivated by survival needs, or the need to have the approval or recognition of others. You see? But Jesus was moved by compassion because He was free to live before the Father without all these fears and concerns that we have. Probably the reason He was free of these fears and concerns that preoccupy our motives is the time that He spent in prayer. The Father was more real to Him than the things of which we are afraid. As a result, He could act without a mixture of motives. He could say freely and genuinely, “I am willing; be cleansed.” This integrity between His inner life and His acts, this alignment and harmony, was communicated to this man by touch and Jesus’ utterly sincere words, affected him. The life of Jesus brought him healing.
Jesus sternly warns the man to do as the Torah prescribed. Jesus did not disregard the Torah but considered every iota and serif of it to be important. Yet the man disregarded Jesus’ instruction. We too, when Jesus heals us, do not want the discipline of discipleship. We may describe discipleship as “conversion therapy,” for it teaches the new convert, the one who has discovered Jesus as their Savior, to get in harmony with God’s will. We love our new found excitement as much as we love Jesus and so we often cause more trouble than help to His purposes. The people responded to Jesus as a miracle worker because it was something that catered to their needs. Jesus had intended to go to these towns to preach, but was hindered by the people’s anxiety to receive a miraculous healing from Him.
Our own neediness may crowd Jesus away from us. He wants to give us something else, but all we see is our need. Sometimes, however, if we can just put our needs on hold for a moment and listen, we may discover that what Jesus has to reveal to us may cause us to see our needs in a new light and may even resolve our needs in a more wholesome way. Jesus has something to reveal to us. Let us not crowd Him out because our own needs so completely fill our vision. This is why Jesus told the man not to tell anyone.
Nevertheless, all things serve God’s purpose, and the healed leper actually spread the Word (logos) as he spread Jesus’ fame. He would have done better, however, if he had done as Jesus instructed. The excitement he stirred up—because people want their immediate needs met—actually hindered Jesus’ preaching ministry.