‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’
The 2020 season of Advent signals a recommended shift from a focus on Matthew’s Gospel to that of Mark in the weekly Lectionary. Most scholars agree that Mark was the first written Gospel. According to the historian Eusebius, Bishop Papias wrote in the 2nd century: “This also the Elder said (i.e. quoting someone earlier) that Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately though not in order all that he remembered of the things which were said or done by the Lord.” So we are in direct touch with the authentic teaching and life of Jesus.
Mark offers us an adventure story. The ‘baddies’ appear as early as chapter 2 and the tension is not far from the surface throughout as the story rattles along. If we are indeed overhearing what Peter used to preach, we can sense that he was thrilled to be part of the adventure, albeit not without some personal shame.
Mark sets out his theme in the opening verse (quoted above). The word gospel (in Greek evangelion) means good news; Christians are committed to announcement, to proclamation. Immediately we must remind ourselves of advice attributed to Francis of Assisi: ‘preach the gospel every day and, if necessary, use words!’. The ‘gospel’ is so much more than words as Mark is at pains to remind us on every page. Papias says that Mark wrote down ‘the things which were said and done by the Lord’. Teaching and action. Obedience to the teaching and imitation of the action are required of all disciples, two aspects of gospel proclamation.
The word evangelion also had a secular, political meaning back then. It was used in the cult of the Roman Emperor who was worshipped. ‘Good news’ associated with the ruler or his family was put into public notices written up or declaimed by the equivalent of town criers. (Shades of North Korea today!) So in this innocuous word ‘gospel’ Mark has smuggled in the affirmation that this Jesus, this Lord, will be forever an alternative, a challenge, to the Caesars of this world.
This first verse serves as the title for the whole book: Mark calls Jesus the Christ and the Son of God. As in the fourth Gospel we dive straight in without any Christmas story. Later in this opening passage Mark quotes a voice from heaven saying ‘you are my son’ (v11). From the outset (though unrecognised) the identity of Jesus is the heart of this evangelion and the key to the adventure. For us today the emphasis is not so much on the term ‘Christ’ (Messiah) because by the middle of the century a majority of Christians were Gentiles and ‘Christ’ had simply become Jesus’ name rather than his title, as it still is. For his readers Mark means more – he is highlighting the ultimate importance of Jesus; as we set out on this roller-coaster of a life story, never forget that to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ is to call him God.
And that is indeed amazing.
Revd Peter Brain