Youth Gathering Preparations: The Gospel of Mark

Youth Gatherings typically have a theme verse. However, in 2015, the ELCA has decided to use a theme book, Mark! In our first preparation meeting students took time looking through the book of Mark and developing their Kingdom Specs (a way of looking at the world through the lenses of Jesus and Discipleship using the experiences of the people throughout the Gospel.

The Gospel of Mark is considered by many scholars to be the oldest of the four Gospels in the New Testament. It was most likely written around 70 A.D. during the failed revolt against Rome and the subsequent destruction of the temple. The people of Israel, as well as the followers of Jesus, were thrown into chaos and were searching for new ways to remain organized in the midst of this post-revolt chaos including:
  • Working to ensure careful teaching and practice of Jewish law in one’s daily life.
  • Finding new ways to preserve the purity codes and rituals of the temple.
  • Seeking the ascetic or spiritual life of living in community in the desert and partaking in certain spiritual practices such as fasting, not owning anything and daily immersion (baptism).
  • Organizing for political autonomy through violent rebellion against the Roman Empire and any other oppressor.

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ public ministry in this chaotic unrest. Mark makes Jesus’ identity elusive, as if to make the point that Jesus does not quite fit cleanly into any of these proposals above. Even Jesus’ followers spend most of their time in Mark trying to figure out how Jesus fits into this milieu. This Gospel was written with an intense sense of urgency for this audience of followers of Jesus, who were anxious and uncertain about the future in a world where Roman power seemed undisputed but communities of Christians expected and hoped for God’s just victory and God’s righteous deliverance of God’s people. Mark’s audience was eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus and was beginning to wonder why it had not already happened. They were anxious and their future uncertain; such tension and anxiety are all too familiar to the people of Detroit. It is into this context that Mark’s Gospel is thrown as the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Biblical scholars have identified some key theological themes in the Gospel of Mark. The themes provide Mark’s audience with good news and hope in the midst of their despair. In short, these themes help us see the kingdom of God, also sometimes referred to as the reign of God or rule of God, in a particular way where the least become the greatest and vice versa.

1. JESUS’ IDENTITY

There is a hope that Jesus, as the Messiah, will be a great and mighty political leader who will bring about Israel’s independence once and for all. Many also see him as a powerful miracle worker. But Mark challenges these views of Jesus. Instead, Jesus is the Son of God, who has come to suffer. Jesus’ identity cannot be known until after his death.

2. DISCIPLESHIP

If Jesus is the Son of God who has come to suffer, then you can easily imagine how Mark portrays the life of discipleship. Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that following Jesus and recognizing his identity are intertwined. We come to know who Jesus truly is by following him, yet we can’t truly follow him until we know who he truly is. Jesus’ disciples never fully grasp either of these things in Mark’s Gospel, yet God keeps giving them second and third and fourth chances to follow and discover, even right up until the end of the Gospel.

3. KINGDOM OF GOD

When we view the world through Mark’s lenses of Jesus and discipleship, we begin to see the world in new ways. God’s reign is not seen in power, as the world knows it. The wealthy and healthy and powerful social elite are not signs of or ambassadors for God’s kingdom. Rather, the kingdom of God looks like a child (Mark 10:13-16), a widow giving her last coin (Mark 12:41-44), a seed growing in good soil (Mark 4:1-9) and a woman begging like a dog (Mark 7:24-30).

4. END AS BEGINNING

Just as we start to fear that the disciples (and possibly we ourselves) will never fully understand Jesus or discipleship, Mark’s Gospel culminates in an ending that is really only the beginning. Most of the scholarship on Mark’s Gospel will claim Mark 16:8a as the original ending and the rest as several alternate endings added later on. As you can see, the Gospel doesn’t end really. The disciples are left with yet another “second chance” to follow Jesus. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ doesn’t end but continues with the disciples (you and me!) continuing our journey toward Galilee (or perhaps even Detroit?) where Jesus, the Son of God who has come to suffer, has gone before us into the world’s suffering. The invitation is to follow Jesus into such suffering and compassion and see the radical kingdom of God emerging in the most unexpected places!

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