Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Anti-religious book stirs up my church members

A large percentage of my adult church members are meeting to read and discuss a challenging book, which relies on eye-witness testimony from the New Testament period to

  • + portray the followers of Jesus as objects of sarcasm and ridicule;
  • + suggest that clergy are a largely self-serving interest group who keep people busy with anything but God;
  • + assert that Jesus himself did not consider his message a coherent, rational philosophy but instead sought to demonstrate its validity with healings, exorcisms and other appeals to the supernatural;
  • + present the first Easter as a scene of confusion.

OK, some of you already rolled your eyes and said, "He's talking about the Gospel of Mark." You got it.

For reasons known but to God, Mark has emerged as my go-to Gospel at turning points in congregational life. A home study of Mark at my last church (along with a goofy softball team) opened up men's ministry and fueled growth. Here at Good Shepherd, Sioux Falls, an eight month study of Mark has generated our first widespread home Bible studies as we seek God's vision for our parish.

My gratitude for Mark was nudged again by one of today's Morning Prayer lessons, II Peter 1:12-21, which includes

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Church history and tradition say that Peter's "effort" to provide "recall" was to share his testimony with Mark, who relied on Peter in composing the Gospel. After reading those verses from II Peter, I immediately emailed them to all of the Bible study group leaders, rejoicing in the work they do to continue this eyewitness testimony to Christ until he comes again.

Back to my teaser points about Mark as an "anti-religious book":

  • + The Apostles are treated with sarcasm and ridicule - by Jesus himself! In one of my favorite examples, Jesus heals various physical impairments, then asks his followers if they "can't see and can't hear" what he is teaching them.
  • + After an array of demons, the next group to attack Jesus are clergy - religious leaders from the capital city start shadowing Jesus to investigate and discredit him. He lambastes them for creating self-serving, hard-hearted rules that distance people from God. (Yes, theological "conservatives" can come up with cold doctrinal slogans and legalisms, but then theological "liberals" are prone to clerical titles, entitlements and elitism. Any ordained person who reads Mark without getting his/her sacred cows killed has a real problem spiritually, IMO).
  • + Mark begins abruptly, with the launch of Jesus' adult ministry (Mark is useless for Christmas pageants). And this ministry consists of preaching, then validating the word with demonstrations of divine power. While John is a more engaging Gospel for the philosophically minded (one of my parishioners has made good use of John for college campus ministry), Mark's presentations of Jesus and faith in him are unapologetic about direct connection to supernatural power.
  • + There is very little disagreement across theological lines that the earliest manuscripts of Mark have a very edgy ending. The tomb is empty, and those who discover it run off in fear and confusion.

There is a strange comfort to be found in these aspects of Mark. Jesus calls people who frequently misunderstand or just plain miss what he's about. Written for persecuted Christians in Rome, for whom the attempt to follow Jesus was anything but tidy piety, Mark must have provided some reassurance that one can be following Jesus while stumbling, bumbling and wondering. Perhaps this gives Mark the potential to provide even greater comfort to disciples in our confusing day.


One discovery in our home groups has been that a monthly gathering (two chapters per month for eight months) has worked waaaaaaay better than the usual weekly model. I know that's heresy, apostasy and who knows what other evil... but there it is.

For some of those who are taking part, once-a-month is making the groups something they look forward to, rather than "one more thing" on already loaded calendars.

There's been zero attrition from the once-a-month groups.

Folks are building relationships and of course they are talking about things more than once a month. They continue to discuss the Gospel at coffee hour and in other meetings.

I think that once-a-month gives God some extra time and space to surprise people with applications of what they've read.

The group leaders meet with me in the first week of each month to study and prepare. We check in as to what's going on in their groups, and then I do a line-by-line exposition of the Gospel chapters. I am often blessed by the leaders' insights. It is a great joy to hear questions and comments that indicate how faithfully they've been reading and grappling with the Gospel.

Finally, the blessing that comes back to me every time I lead a study of Mark is that its brevity allows many people to read an entire Gospel for the very first time. So many people, even in the church, have never read an entire account of Jesus' words and deeds. How blessed am I to help that happen.

1 comment:

Alice C. Linsley said...

Mark is my favorite of the synoptic Gospels. It provokes and veils so that we can't help but be drawn in!