Have you ever noticed that most people seem to enjoy getting caught up in a good mystery? At least novelists, movie makers, dramatists of all stripes seem to think so. Why is this, do you suppose?
Maybe it’s because many of us, perhaps most of us, first noticed when we were little kids that life itself is something of a mystery. When we grow up we go to the movies and find it fascinating to see how convincing actors can be in facing some mystery that has taken over their lives. A good mystery can be very entertaining, of course. But I wonder if there’s not something deeper going on here.
This is how it works. Perhaps you’ve noticed that for all the progress humankind has made in the last few centuries, our problems seem merely to change rather than recede. Maybe they even get more difficult. You’ve surely noticed that the twentieth century’s struggles with assorted fascisms and communisms have mostly become fading historical memories. But security, justice and global understanding certainly have not won the day. You’ve noticed that stability, economic justice and human flourishing continue to have a hard time of it. Greed does win. Virtue is still on the scaffold. Does it ever seem to you that we move only from one pattern of fragility to another? There is no lack of learned theories as to why this is. But really understanding the mystery of our life together, our human life, does seem to elude us.
Cheer up! We are not the first generation to notice this–and I’m sure we shall not be the last. Way back there, in the first century of our era, a disciple of a disciple of Jesus, believed that the life of Christ itself can best understood as a mystery. Previously, no one else had ever attempted to write a connected narrative of that life. He decided to try. The result is what we call the Gospel according to Mark. And central to that narrative is what scholars speak of as “the Messianic Secret.” Mark asks, “Who was Jesus, really? And why was it so hard for his disciples to figure that out? And why were the authorities so fiercely determined that that secret not be disclosed and believed?” No book like this–religious or secular–had ever been written before. Mark was a literary innovator–a genius.
So who then is Jesus of Nazareth and why does it matter? Mark gives his answer in his first sentence, chapter 1, verse 1: Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and his coming is good news for everybody. Mark and the reader thus are in cahoots. So at least they know what’s going on. But the people in the stories generally do not know that Jesus is the Messiah and they have typically have a very hard time coming to accept that astonishing claim. Peter, precisely at midpoint in the Gospel, is the first to figure out the Messianic secret, and so he gets to be the chief of the disciples. But as your read Mark you can only ask, “What took Peter so long?” It’s easy to run out of patience with the disciples at being so slow to figure out what’s happening. Don’t they have eyes to see, ears to hear?
That brings us to a second mystery: why would the people who are so dull in getting the message that Mark is trying to put across–be the very people upon whom the whole future of Jesus’ mission depends?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the political and religious authorities not only don’t understand what’s going on but are vigorous in seeing to it that Jesus’ agenda and he with it are wiped out. They see Jesus as a menace who must be stopped at all costs. And, up to the very end, it looks very much as though they will get their way.
No, what is more surprising is the odd behavior of the people closest to him, his family and close friends. They seem mostly bewildered, confused, uncertain, unstable, unconvinced. You may recall the discerning if uncharitable, depiction offered by Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in J. D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Holden confesses: “I got undressed and got in bed. I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy…me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples” (p. 130. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1945).
Actually Holden is not such a bad theologian. He’s read Mark carefully and wrestles with the text. The mystery, of course, is why would Jesus, if he’s really serious about getting out his message of the Kingdom of God to folks, go ahead and choose as companions and agents–such a sad bunch as the twelve that Mark tells us about. I realize Jesus is not a Marine Corps recruiting officer, but why on earth should he add to his problems with the authorities by entrusting his mission to these guys? That really is a mystery. And that mystery, too, will lead to another one, as we shall soon see.
The little story read in our churches as the Gospel for the day may give us the key. Last week we heard how Jesus was rejected by the folks in his hometown. “He was amazed at their unbelief.” So now he shifts his strategy. He sends out twelve friends on a mission into the nearby villages. The instructions are brief–perhaps so brief as to be incomprehensible to modern readers of Mark who may not know the Jewish code language Jesus is using. The twelve are given a four-point assignment for their journey.
1. They are to imitate Israel’s journey during the Exodus.
2. They are to call the local villagers to repent.
3. They are to cast out demons
4. They axe to cure the sick.
The surprise ending of today’s narrative is that while Jesus’ own work was mostly rejected, these typically confused, disappointing, unstable guys who usually were “about as much use to Jesus a hole in the head” were–successful. Their amazing effectiveness is not the point. The meaning of their ministry is. Our only problem now is to figure out the code and to think about why that matters to us now.
Point one: The disciples of Jesus do their work on the basis of the memory of God’s saving of Israel during the Exodus. Whatever Jesus is up to and whoever he is, it is all a part of the great narrative of God’s acting in the history of his people over many generations and in many places. The Jesus story brings that long history to a climax. His story only makes sense if we see that its basic claim is that God still goes with his people on their journey to save, to free and to sustain them. Jesus warns: Don’t do your life journey alone. You need a companion; someone else needs you.
Point two. The disciples of Jesus have as their basic task to call people to repent, that is, to be open to God and God’s reign in their lives. A radical shift in human loyalty is called for. The true basis of our lives is not our turning in on our isolated selves but our turning out to the living God who is source and the goal of our lives. Why stuff your life with trivia? Your task is to focus your life on the One whose name is love.
Point three. The disciples of Jesus are to become realistic enough to recognize evil when they see it. They need to have the courage to castigate the demonic spirits and the evil forces that hold people in bondage. Pay attention to the fact that God’s goodness is being subverted right now. Do not dream for a moment that everything is OK in a world that is OK.
Point four. The disciples of Jesus are to be healers. As he himself repeatedly showed, salvation means healing. For some disciples today this mandate has found literal resonance in ministries of health care as people are engaged as research scientists, physicians, surgeons, nurses, psychiatrists, agents of healing in body and mind and spirit. For others of us, as in the biblical narratives, healing is a matter of culture and politics and economics. Social systems can be toxic and often have been. Sometimes surgery is called for. So defy the tyrants. Abort apartheid. Deconstruct economic systems that make poor poorer and the rich richer. Reject cultures of violence and hostility. They enslave the human spirit. Disciples are to cry out for alternatives that celebrate peace and human flourishing.
The final mystery is now before us. It’s not about Jesus’ identity. It’s not why did he pick such apparently incompetent people to God’s work. It’s why is Mark telling this story? Maybe that’s the biggest mystery of all. Does he really expect his narrative to be good news for his readers? That is, does he actually think that followers of Jesus now far beyond Galilee are somehow to participate in this mission? Does he think that readers such as we will be able to discern how to be part of this work? Do disciples have to figure out how to be healers, courageous truth tellers? Are they are to live lives centered on God instead of on the stupid junk of a dehumanizing culture? Are they are to see their life journey as a part of God’s people’s great trek toward freedom, justice and peace? If these questions sound too abstract, let’s consider a few specifies.
I believe that all four of these points in Mark’s account were vividly present in this very space a few weeks ago when the Cathedral and our friends across the nation celebrated here the signing of a Nuclear Reduction/Disarmament Initiative. After a press conference in St. John’s Chapel, leaders of the major faith traditions of our nation: Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Jewish praised God and prayed together. Why? Thirty-five national religious leaders, generals and admirals joined together to testify that our nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons for national security is (I quote) “morally untenable and militarily unjustifiable. [These weapons] constitute a threat to the security of our nation, a peril to world peace, a danger to the whole human family.” Clearly the political leadership of the United States does not now agree with this military-religious initiative, yet. We Christians, I am convinced, can see this kind of witness as a particularly relevant demonstration of the truth of the four points for discipleship.
As we gather here at this service of Holy Communion today, Christians, Muslims and Jews are at Camp David seeking ways to move ahead on the search for peace and justice in the Middle East. There can be no doubt that these faith groups who all hail Abraham as the Father of Faith are obligated by their religion to prize justice over advantage, peace over hostility, power as the servant of peace and justice. Whether this obligation will be met now and in the days ahead remains to be seen. Diplomatic cleverness will not pull it off. Nothing is clearer than that the fundamental affirmations of these faiths demand much more from us all than the nations have been willing to offer in the past. For Christians, I believe, the path is clear: The kind of discipleship dramatized by Mark frees us from being burdened by moral confusion. All four of these marks of discipleship impel us forward as servants of peace.
For some of us the issues have a very personal face. It has been my privilege to spend the past few weeks at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria with a group of Episcopal, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Disciples, Lutheran and Roman Catholic clergy who are engaged in a doctoral program in ethical studies. The consensus on virtually every issue that came up in our apparently random group was astonishing. Pastoral accounts of the personal struggles that their people face today would be depressing indeed were it not for the persistent, hopeful faith which these pastors’ people share. Their families implode. Cancers strike. Children are abandoned emotionally if not physically. This personal list is endless. The good news is that discipleship is alive and vital across the broad spectrum of the churches–a discipleship more inclusive than any institution can contain.
Perhaps you have seen this final mystery coming. What’s before us, my friends, is not just the inability of people to figure out who Jesus is. That’s an old problem–a quest that seems more alive today than ever. Nor is it just the puzzle of why he would chose such dubious, unpromising, disappointing people to be his closest companions. The mystery is that he still persists in doing that. Doesn’t he ever learn? Why does he keep on expecting some very unimpressive, inadequate people to do a job which is far beyond their capabilities? Make that our capabilities. The mystery is how is he going to get his work done with us and through us, in spite of us? How does he do that? I’m sure I don’t know. All I know is that a part of the gospel, the good news, is that he has set things up so that you, yes you, get to join him in his mission on a journey into life. Perhaps that is the deepest mystery of your life. Amen.