What a Gospel is (and isn’t)
The four Gospels, which are the first four books of the New Testament, provide accounts of the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus. ‘Gospel’ means good news, and the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection are good news for us who need to know about God’s love and forgiveness in order to lead a life that reflects our trust in God’s promises for us and for all people.
Each gospel presents a portrait of Jesus and his ministry, as well as an account of his death and resurrection. However, the first three present a similar point of reference for the life and teachings of Jesus. They are called “Synoptic Gospels” because they share this common point of view. It is thought that Mark’s Gospel was the first , and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their own portrait of Jesus. Each of them also used a book of sayings of Jesus (Scholars call it Q) and some sources exclusive to them. A good study Bible will give you much of the source information.
We are used to thinking of biographies when we think of portraits of people and their lives. We expect that they will be supported by documentation such as birth certificates and letters and expense reports. “Lives” of famous people were not the same in the Evangelists’ day, they were used for teaching. So the Gospels, too are used to shape the faith of a people as well as relate the stories that support the image of the one in whom we put our faith. The portrait of Jesus which emerges from each Gospel will highlight a different facet of Jesus’ life and teaching and purpose. But they all tell us clearly that God came to be among God’s people. They teach us about Jesus’ death and resurrection as the completion of the promises God made throughout all the Scriptures. They show us in Jesus that God is trustworthy to the end.
These Gospels were written in the last third of the first century. There was no one around any longer who had known Jesus personally. So these are collections of documents and stories and preaching put into order for the next generations of believers. Us.
Notes on The Gospel According to Mark
As you read chapters 1-5 of the Gospel of Mark, pay particularly close attention to these:
First words: what are the first words Jesus speaks. What has happened before? How might this be Jesus’ manifesto?
‘Immediately’: notice how the narrative moves from place to place
Authority: notice observations and questions about Jesus’ teaching and his power
“The Messianic Secret”: Jesus tells people not to tell about his miracles for them, but the writer lets us in on the action. A plot device or theological device?
Biblical scholars believe that Mark was written to be read aloud in community. Try reading these chapters aloud. Notice any difference between how it works when spoken instead of just read?
The portrait of Jesus that emerges from each Evangelist addresses a specific community to which it is written:
As you read, what are the characteristics of the Jesus you meet so far in Mark’s Gospel? How would you describe him?
What does he tell you about the Kingdom of God?
Holy Trinity Sunday
June 3, 2012
Preparing to read the Gospel According to Mark
Memorial Day I finished a novel about the discovery some lost gospels in the Egyptian desert after the end of WWII. These were found at Nag Hamadi, and in the story, a the man who uncovered them was killed because they were so dangerous. The danger to the faithful from the gospels which had not been included in the New Testament, was the reason why they had been buried in the desert in the first century. It was a good story – but like “The Da Vinci Code” -the church is the villain in those stories because it will kill all those who endanger its control of the faithful.
There were indeed alternate gospels with sayings and stories which were not included in the Bible. You can find most of them online and read them for yourself. Once you do, it’s pretty clear why they were not included, as they don’t come close to the power of the Gospels we have today.
The words of the Scripture which we claim as the authority and norm of our teaching and preaching were not only inspired by the Holy Spirit as they were written, they reached out as God’s living word to the people who read them and collected and preserved them for us. So those words which ‘made the cut’ into Scripture told about God’s love for sinners. Those ancestors in the Hebrew Bible were just as flawed as the people you know, just as ungrateful for all that God had done for them, and just as quick to forget about loving your neighbor in their need to make their religion work for them. So authentic Bible stories contain both law and gospel: the law part calls out our failures to live as God’s people, and turns us to God for forgiveness; the gospel part assures us that our forgiveness is a gift, unearned and undeserved, but ours because God loves us and continues to walk with us. All of scripture is law and gospel, but in the New Testament, the story of Jesus’ ministry, of his brutal death and glorious resurrection is the heart of the whole Bible. It tells us that God became one of us to show us how deep God’s love is. God did not shy away from the worst that humanity has to offer in order to show us that love.
Any ‘gospel’ which does not expose the full brutality of Jesus’ suffering at the hands of the religious and political authorities is less than the full measure of the truth about God’s willingness to be fully human, and about the depth of God’s love for humanity – for you and me. And any ‘gospel ’ which does not bring Jesus back to life in the flesh does not give us the truth about God’s power to overcome evil and death, our final enemy. Our trust, our faith is based on Jesus’ willingness and ability to be both fully God and fully human. Nothing less works.
Jesus left his disciples with his own Holy Spirit, promised to give them the understanding of the message he bore and the power of the words to transform hearts as Jesus himself transformed them. The men and women who heard the news of Jesus experienced his presence with them and among them, just as we do now. And so as the men and women who had known Jesus died, and as their own disciples grew old, the stories they told came to be written for new generations to meet Jesus in the story of his life and ministry.
Although the Gospels bear a resemblance to the stories of famous philosophers, Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of them, is also unique. Mark was very familiar with the prophecies of Isaiah about the Messiah, God’s anointed one who would bring salvation, be a light to the nations, and swallow up death forever. He drew on those images and words as he related the events of Jesus’ ministry. He doesn’t just tell us the story, he lays out its significance as he tells it. In that way, Mark’s work is unique in the writings of the ancient world. He invented a new kind of writing to give us the good news of Jesus. Scholars think that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as their model, along with other sources (Look at the insert “What a Gospel Is (And Isn’t)). So we imagine Matthew at his desk with Mark’s Gospel there on his right hand, Q somewhere over there on the left, and his other notes spread here and there as he tries to keep them in order while he writes. Luke’s process may have been much the same.
Mark calls his writing “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And so it is. The Gospel is the good news for our bad situation. If you are lost, it tells you that Jesus would leave everyone who is secure to come and find you and bring you home. If you are afraid, it tells you that Jesus can still all the storms in your life. If you feel guilty and ashamed, it tells you that Jesus loved the worst of sinners and stuck up for them. If you think you don’t know enough, it tells you that the faith of a child is honored. Whatever your need, your loss, your woundedness, Jesus heals, forgives, welcomes, comforts. That’s what the Gospels give us.
The Gospels that we are about to read together this summer, are those that have been accepted by the church since the earliest days, not because the church was threatened by other writings, not because other important documents were lost. They have been accepted because in them we have the story that still has the power to reach right out of the page before us and tell us what we need to know about God’s love and faithfulness. It brings us the truth that is the rock on which we stand. There is no other.
So I invite you to join us on a journey through the Gospels. We begin with Mark, since that was the first. If you will read a chapter a day, or 5 to 7 a week, we can read through all of them by the end of September. There will be notes for you each week, and a place for notes and questions as you read. And there will be plenty of time for conversation about what you’ve read over coffee. Everything will also be up on the web, so if you miss a week, you can still keep up.
Now may the peace which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.