Of the four Gospels, that of St Mark, whose feast day we commemorate today, is arguably the most challenging and demanding: its message is stark, powerful and austere, and the Jesus whom St Mark portrays is a strange, uncompromising figure, who continually overturns our expectations and our assumptions.
It is also a gospel of immense passion, written by one who had been seized by the power of the Gospel truth: a truth that its author knew from personal experience was life-transforming; a truth that had the power to save. And so he roots that truth firmly in the hard reality and complexity of human life. St Mark is unafraid to look tragedy, and suffering, and meaninglessness, squarely in the face, as he proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God, and God’s power to liberate, to heal, and to save.
We can know very little with certainty about the author of St Mark’s Gospel. But it is undoubtedly the case that he was writing at a particularly difficult time for the emerging Christian community. The Christian faith was still very young and striving to establish its identity. Christians were a minority group, facing hostility and often persecution. Sadly, they were also already divided amongst themselves over questions of doctrine and Church order – just as Christians are today. And politically the Roman Empire was in a period of considerable instability at the time. So St Mark writes his Gospel to inspire and affirm a community greatly in need of encouragement and hope in challenging times. And, as he does so, the force of his personality and his conviction communicates itself, as he sweeps us up and propels us along with the Gospel message that he proclaims.
This morning’s Gospel reading, from St Mark, is a particularly difficult and pretty blood-curdling text. As we heard, it warns of false prophets; it presents us with apocalyptic imagery of battles, earthquakes, famines, and a disintegration into chaos. It speaks of those who will suffer for their faith: being flogged; arrested; taken away. Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will turn against their parents and send them to their death. It is heady and disturbing stuff: disturbing, not only because of its subject matter but also, because of its truth.
Exactly twenty nine years ago today, on 25th April 1993, it was also a Sunday – and I was preaching on this very same Gospel passage at the main Choral Eucharist at Coventry Cathedral. And it proved to be an interesting time in which to be reflecting on those prophetic swords from St Mark.
If any of you have memories that go back that far, it was during that same week in April 1993 that one of the major news items was the siege by the FBI of the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, Texas, as a result of which 76 people lost their lives. St Mark’s reference to false prophets in his apocalyptic passage seemed particularly cogent that week. And at the same time the war in Bosnia was escalating, and spiralling rapidly out of control.
But every era, every year, every month, every week, has its own share of tragedy, whether large scale or small. When St Mark warns us of battles, and famines, and disasters, and divisions within families, we do not need to look very far to find communities torn apart by violence and feuding, and unspeakable atrocities committed against the weakest and most vulnerable in our own day.
Almost thirty years later we live in a world where there is a major global pandemic; a number of countries on the brink of political and economic collapse, humanitarian crises, and the long-term consequences of climate change that are too terrible to contemplate. If the last twelve months is anything to go by, things seem to be getting worse rather than better.
Christians in the modern era have sometimes been inclined to dismiss the language and imagery of apocalyptic as outmoded and irrelevant; in the wake of the past year, it has become much harder to do so. St Mark himself tells us that ‘such things are bound to happen’. But interestingly, for him they are the birth pangs of a new era. The birth pangs of a new era.
On a number of occasions the Bible makes use of the imagery of childbirth as a metaphor for God’s action breaking into the world. But it was only after the birth of my own first child that I finally began to understand and appreciate the true power and meaning of that image. I can remember my husband, who was present at that birth, reflecting afterwards that he had been completely unprepared for the sheer violence of labour.
Childbirth is one of those experiences which manages to encompass suffering, creation and redemption all at once. The pain is uniquely terrible; the risks are considerable (because even today, things can go badly wrong); but much more remarkable and impossible to describe is the extraordinary and instantaneous transformation of all that pain and grief when, suddenly, there is new life: there is the overwhelming joy and wonder of new creation. A transformation that does not make the pain and suffering of labour any less grievous, but which suddenly sets it in an utterly different perspective. Just as the grief and anguish and desolation of Good Friday is suddenly transformed on Easter Day by the realisation that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
Redemption is always costly – but the joy of new life which is thereby ours – is beyond price.
A theologian from Latin America once wrote: ‘The Kingdom [of God] is not the natural outcome of history. Conflict and judgment intervene.’
All too often our instincts are to avoid conflict at any cost, or to do our best to ignore it or play it down. Where there is disagreement and dissent, it can be so tempting to suppress it, or to explain it away, or to pretend that it is not there. And the longer we do that, the more that the pressure builds up. And the explosion, when it finally happens (which it inevitably will), is a mighty and destructive one. But the Gospel charge to us is not to avoid situations of conflict, or to hide from them, but rather to embrace them. Because redemption does not come through avoidance, but through engagement. We must be prepared to enter the darkness and to pass through it in order to find the light. ‘Such things are bound to happen; but they are the birth pangs of a new era’.
I can remember once sharing in the celebration of a Jewish Passover, at which the following extraordinary words were spoken:
No liberation is easy. As evil takes its toll, so does the fight against it. As tyranny brings death and terror to its victims, so the struggle to overthrow it claims its casualties. In the upheaval, persecuted and persecutor, innocent and guilty, all will suffer. There is no redemption without pain.
St Mark’s Gospel does not promise cheap grace. Nor does it trivialise hope by speaking of it lightly or easily, or in a manner that ignores the often grim reality of human life. Because the good news that St Mark proclaims is proclaimed from the wilderness: the hope and assurance that he promises emerge from the darkness and grief and confusion of human existence. Sometimes from the smallest of cracks and fissures; sometimes from the smallest glimpse of kindness; the smallest gesture of love, and compassion, and friendship. Sometimes it is there that the first glimmers of hope emerge.
Therein lies the authenticity and the power of the Good News of the Gospel – sometimes contrary to anything we might imagine.
Redemption is always costly; but the joy of the new life that is thereby ours, is beyond price.