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Epiphany 4

Sunday, 28 January 2024
John Conway, Provost

How might we share in, relate to, the urgency we find in Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of Mark?

Epiphany 4

Do not smile and say
you are already with us.
Millions do not know you
and to us who do,
what is the difference?
What is the point of your presence
if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives, shatter
our complacency.
Make your word
flesh of our flesh,
blood of our blood
and our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness
of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus
that other peace is made,
your peace.

Those bracing words from the beloved former Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, Helder Camara, echo, in their urgency and freshness and starkness, the world of Mark’s Gospel that we are invited to enter this year.

We are in the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel; after Jesus’ baptism and sojourn in the desert, we heard last week of his announcement of the coming of the Kingdom and his calling of the first disciples and their prompt and unquestioning following of him. And now he takes to a public stage – in a synagogue in Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, he begins to teach. And teach in a way that displays that authority – the authority that caused Simon and Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and follow him. The local townsfolk are amazed, and his fame begins to spread. But it is the man with an unclean spirit, the man no doubt shunned and looked on with suspicion or unease by others, who recognises and names Jesus: ‘I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’

The first chapter of Mark establishes the shape of things to come from the start. There is an urgency to Jesus’ proclamation and ministry; disciples, and others, respond in amazement and in following; and yet, those who follow will often misunderstand and get it wrong. And the outsider, the unexpected and overlooked, who recognises and names Jesus for who he is – recognises him as both healer, and threat to the status quo.
Press us uncomfortably. For only thus that other peace is made, your peace.
When the man with the unclean spirit cries out, What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’, a literal translation of his words is ‘What have you in common with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’. In Jesus’ world there are no insiders and outsiders; no ‘those in the know’ and those in the dark; boundaries are blurred and divisions overturned; common ground is found. And in that his authority is seen and known.

So, how do we respond to that urgency and that authority? 2000 years separate us from the world of the first disciples, from that small synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus first begins to make a name for himself. Can urgency be sustained across 2000 years, and in a very different time and context? We know that the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed as already present - the in-breaking kingdom that lends an urgency and impetus to his life - that kingdom is not already present in a straightforward literal sense. Or at least the world is as resistant to its power as it ever has been. How might we share in, relate to, the urgency we find in Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of Mark? For that urgency is unsettling, but it can also feel remote, alien to our seemingly more settled times.

The person and authority of Jesus still speaks to us. To spend time, via the pages of the Gospels, and through the practices of the church, in the presence of Jesus is to find that he still has a unique ability to shape and question us. In a moment we will baptise Ivo into the death and resurrection of Jesus; promising and hoping that he will be shaped by that presence of Christ given by the Spirit to him in baptism. What is true for Ivo, is true for all the baptised, and that shaping of our lives by Christ is, at least partly, what brings us here. But can the urgency be sustained and felt?

The urgency of Jesus that we meet in Mark is not solely that of Jesus himself. His authority and ministry, his death and resurrection, of course gave the early church a huge source of energy and drive; an impetus to the growth of the early church. But the gospels, in their current form, only begin to be written down about 35-40 years onwards after the death of Christ. That setting down of the good news of Jesus is done partly to preserve the memories and stories of the first generation of followers who have, by this point, almost died out; it’s done to connect and unite the growing and geographical diverse early church; but it’s also done because the early church finds itself offering the good news of Christ in a new and urgent context. Mark is written in the aftermath, or at least around the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That destruction brought into focus an existential threat to the identity, meaning and purpose of the people of Israel, which had, since the restoration of the temple in the 5th century before Christ, increasingly found its religious and political focus there. The destruction of the Temple by the occupying Roman forces ripped the heart out of many contemporary understandings of who the people of Israel, the contemporaries of the first Christians, were. It is in that urgent need for an understanding of the purposes of God in this new context, that the Gospels are written. It is that urgent context that enables the urgency of Jesus to be heard, his abiding authority recognised and responded to afresh by this next generation of followers. And it is that urgent need that is what connects Mark’s time to ours; means that his words, and the person and authority of Jesus that he re-presents, have a relevancy, can connect afresh, create new followers of Christ. For our needs may be different, but they are urgent too; our needs in a world seemingly on the brink of violence; where divisions between those perceived to be like us and those perceived to be not, seem to be hardening; a world of those on the inside and many more on the outside; a world where we wonder if we are loved by God; a world, above all, where we urgently need to find new ways to live that are more sustainable in the face of our climate crisis. Our needs are urgent, but those very needs enable us to hear the urgent voice of him who utters words that blur and overcome division, that shatter complacency and change lives. The urgency of one who has authority; but whose power does not dominate, but liberates. As we read Mark in the year ahead let us do so with hearts open to discover how the urgent Jesus might address our urgent needs; to discover again that always already present kingdom, where God’s peace might be our peace. Amen.

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