1: Where has Mark gone ?

This year in the calendar of the church is what is called Year B. That means that, for the most part, the Gospel reading will be drawn from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus that we have in our Bibles: the work that starts, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we call, by tradition, the Gospel according to Mark. (In Year A, we have passages from Matthew; in Year C, selections from Luke.)

Except that, with one notable exception, Sunday readings from some weeks ago, right through until Pentecost (this year, falling on 23 May) are not drawn from Mark! Where has Mark gone?

We are in the midst of readings, during Lent, from John (7—28 March); then there will be readings, during Holy Week, once again from John (29 March to 2 April). We will hear an excerpt from Matthew on Holy Saturday (3 April); stories from John and Luke on Easter Sunday (4 April); and then another string of passages from John during the season of Easter (11 April to 16 May).

Pentecost Sunday designates part of John 15, and then Trinity Sunday offers John 3. Stories from Mark are nowhere to be seen. Where has Mark gone?

(To be fair: the lectionary has to do this, if it is to provide a good selection from the Gospel according to John, as that Gospel doesn’t have it’s own year. So its passages are spliced throughout Lent and Easter in all three years.)

The one exception to this Mark-drought is Sunday 28 March. If you celebrate this as Palm Sunday, then a passage from Mark is offered (Mark 11:1-11)—although an alternative from John is provided! If you celebrate this as Passion Sunday, then the whole passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel is offered (Mark 14:1—15:47)—with an alternative being a shorter excerpt from that extended narrative (Mark 15:1-39, with 40-47 as an option).

So it will not be until June before we return to the weekly diet of stories from the beginning of the good news—6 June, to be precise, where we pick up the narrative with Jesus in his home town, surrounded (as is usual in this Gospel) by a crowd, being criticised by his family and accused by some Jerusalem scribes (Mark 3:20-35). Hardly a propitious place to rejoin this early Gospel story.

(And even then, there is a five-week interruption in August, when we hear all bar a handful of the 71 verses in John 6 !)

So: I plan on offering a series of blogs leading up to Passion Sunday (28 March) which deals with elements in the story that Mark first told—at least in written form—about what transpired in Jerusalem, at Passover, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

But first, some general comments about this earliest and shortest Gospel.

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We know that Jesus did not write an account of his life; in fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader. Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.

The story of Jesus is told, first, in the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one, the shortest account. We know this, because of Church tradition, as the gospel according to Mark. This work, it is clear, forms the primary source for two subsequent accounts of Jesus: the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one (the gospel according to Matthew) and an orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us (the gospel according to Luke).

In this earliest written account of Jesus, we find stories told by Jesus, and stories told about Jesus, which had already been circulating in oral form for some decades. It is likely that some of these stories had already come together in short collections.

The distinctive contribution of this collated story was twofold. First, it places side-by-side a number of different traditions, or collections of stories, about Jesus. Second, these stories are arranged in a dramatic way, beginning with the stories about Jesus in his native area of Galilee, and culminating in the account of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.

This work thus provides a much fuller ‘story of Jesus’ than any of the individual oral stories about him. Isolated incidents are placed within a larger context. Individual sayings and deeds of Jesus are grouped together with similar sayings or deeds. Episodes are linked together to form a coherent account of who Jesus was and what it meant to follow his way.

There are two main parts this account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and then telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16).

But this account of Jesus is more than just a compilation of existing stories. It is infused with vigour and intensity. The story moves from one incident to the next; yet the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. A sense of drama runs through the Gospel. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie script!

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Central to this narrative is a story of conflict. Jesus is set into conflict with the authorities from early on. It is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy (2:7), and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated (3:6). The shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity.

The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. His own family called him crazy (3:21), the people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching (6:3), and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).

The popularity of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem was fleeting, even though he acquitted himself so well in arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem (11:27–12:40). His actions in the Temple forecourt were controversial (11:15-17) and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level (11:18). The final teachings he gave his disciples begin with a prediction of the destruction of the Temple before recounting the apocalyptic woes that are in store (13:3–37).

The plot hatched by the authorities (12:12; 14:1-2) led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers (14:10, 43-46), all knowledge of him was denied by another (14:30; 14:66-72), and all abandoned him at his point of need (14:50). The tragic climax of Jesus’ death is a scene of utter abandonment: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Only some—a group of faithful women—watched from afar (15:40) before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured (16:1)—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them (16:2-7).

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Yet the account found in the beginning of the good news is still more than a dramatic account of a tragic death; for this work appears to be a kind of political manifesto, advocating the way of Jesus in a situation of deep tension and widespread conflict. The whole Gospel conveys the significance of Jesus and his message about the kingdom: “the time is near!” (1:15).

This story reveals the key fact that faithful discipleship will mean enduring suffering, as Jesus did. He writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up the cross (8:34). These were potent words in the Roman Empire; death by crucifixion was the fate in store for criminals, especially those engaged in any political activities which the Roman authorities perceived to be a threat to the peace of the Empire.

Jesus’ injunction to “take up your cross” was advice which was loaded with danger. Was he advocating resistance against an oppressive Roman rule? The story which is told in this Gospel addresses issues which were pressing on the lives of those who told it, read it, and heard it.

Almost all of this work, the beginning of the good news, appears in basically the same order, in the two following accounts—the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us and the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one. (We know these works as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to Matthew.)

Both of these accounts expand the story, incorporating additional material—some is found in both accounts, other stories are recounted in one or the other of the orderly account and the book of origins. So the contribution made by the beginning of the good news is significant, and enduring.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

3 Mark: placing suffering and death at the heart of the Gospel

4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

The Lectionary: ordering the liberty of the preacher

I am a longterm lectionary devotee (as preacher, as teacher, as thesis supervisor, as blog writer). There is a richness in the lectionary that I appreciate. It has a clear structure, an observable order, a logic to its pattern, a rationale to the progress that it offers us, year by year, through the seasons of the (church) year.

There are also some frustrations with the lectionary: what stories are not included, what stories appear more than once (even if in different versions), where the passage starts (omitting verses that give “context”), where the passage ends (omitting significant follow-one verses), how the passage is edited (such as parts omitted), and so on.

But this is only to be expected: it is a human creation, subject to the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of its compilers, bound in many ways to the traditions of the church, limited by the number of Sunday’s that are to be found over three years. So I take it as it is, with its own biases as well as the benefits it offers.

Alongside this structure and order, the lectionary invites choice. It stimulates in me a consideration of the options available to me, and offers ways of using it that generates creativity in whatever I do as preacher, liturgies, or instructor. Every week, there are four readings listed in the lectionary. That itself suggests some choice (at least, in my denominational context).

However, the lectionary is far more than just four readings. It is a three-year creation, following a similar pattern in each of the three years, whilst still being designed to allow for a different focus each year.

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The lectionary is is based on a repeating year-long cycle, following a well-established tradition of tracing the Christian story through a familiar pattern. It starts by looking to the coming of Jesus (the four weeks of Advent), before celebrating the birth of Jesus (the twelve days of Christmas) and rejoicing in the revelation of God (a season of varying numbers of weeks during Epiphany–sometimes simply called Ordinary Time).

It continues by walking the pathway towards the cross (another six weeks, in Lent) and then remembering the pivotal events of the last meal of Jesus (Maundy Thursday), the death of Jesus (Good Friday), a time of waiting (Holy Saturday), and the empty tomb (Easter Sunday).

This is followed by a season celebrating the appearances of the risen one and the shaping of the early church (seven weeks in the season of Easter), reaching a climactic point of with the Day of Pentecost (the gift of the Spirit).

But this is only the halfway point. After these six months of richness, the ensuing six months (with the rather unfortunate name of Ordinary Time) allow time for tracing through in order the story told in one of the Gospels; or the narratives, prophetic works, and writings found in Hebrew Scriptures; or the string of Letters found in the New Testament.

So, whilst the first half of the year is based on key moments in the story of Jesus, the second half of the year is more devoted to follow through passages from a common source in their narrative order. It is sometimes referred to as a season of growth–growing in understanding of scripture, growing in discipleship and faith.

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The lectionary that we follow is the Revised Common Lectionary. You can access it at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ and read responses to a whole range of frequently asked questions at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/faq2.php

This ecumenical lectionary is based on an earlier version, The Common Lectionary, which derives from the daily and weekly lectionaries used for centuries in the Roman Catholic tradition. And behind those lectionaries, there sits the Jewish custom of reading right through the Torah, the five Books of Moses, each year, with a particular selection of chapters set for each Sabbath day.

There are other options for lectionaries–the Narrative Lectionary, Uncommon Preaching, Beyond the Lectionary–but the Revised Common Lectionary is the most widespread, used across a good range of denominations, right round the world.

Christian lectionaries can be identified as far back as the fourth century. A lection is a passage to be read; a lectionary is thus an arrangement of passages to be read (and heard). Over time, in monasteries, lectionaries developed to provide sets of readings for the monks to hear and chant, as they gathered to worship at set hours throughout each day, and then further readings for worship each Sunday, right through the year.

The Jaharis Byzantine Lectionary,
held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA

Following a lectionary in our time is a good challenge to preachers—it invites them to step away from that clutch of familiar, beloved passages to which they would turn when considering “what shall I preach on?”, and challenges the preacher not simply to lapse back into familiar themes week after week.

It is also a fine resource for a community of faith. It clearly indicates “what is on next week”. It means that keen members can read the passages in advance of worship–perhaps even following a lectionary-based Bible reading guide like With Love to the World, for personal use or with a group. (See http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/).

It also means that visiting preachers can have an idea of what has just been preached on and what is coming after their visit, to avoid embarrassing “double-ups”.

It’s also fascinating to note just how often a passage that seems to be quite unrelated to the current context can “come alive” and offer striking or unforeseen insights into that situation. That’s a real gift that the lectionary offers!

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Sometimes, people talk about what is “set” in the lectionary. (I confess to have been guilty of this on occasions.) That seems to be the expectation, even the requirement, in some denominations with a highly structured (and some would say inflexible) approach to worship.

But my own denomination has roots traced to the “non-conformist” section of the church: protestants emerging from the Reformation, pietists flowing from the Wesleyan revival, a congregational emphasis growing from anti-establishment commitments of the past. Perhaps it is better for us to describe the passages available each week as being “offered” to us. They are offered; we need to consider how we accept them, how we use them, what they each offer to us.

In Year A, the focus is on the first Gospel, attributed to Matthew, alongside the ancestral narratives and account of the formation of Israel in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture. Following one or the other of these threads over a number of months can be an enriching experience for a community of faith.

In Year B, the focus is on the shortest Gospel, attributed to Mark, paralleled with passages drawn from the Writings of ancient Israel, whilst in Year C, the third Gospel, attributed to Luke, alongside a series of passages drawn from the prophetic tradition of Israel. These years each offer their own distinctives. There is enriching variety across the three years.

The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, is spread throughout these three years, at designated places throughout the year, whilst passages from the book of Acts are offered each year in the season of Easter (the weeks following after Easter Sunday). And passages from the various Letters found in the New Testament are spread across all three years.

In each of the three years, on every Sunday and special feast day, a selection from the Psalms is also offered. This ensures that over the course of three years, virtually all the Psalms are offered for Sunday worship.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for many other books of scripture. There are some striking omissions from the lectionary, when we look at the whole set of offerings. Many of the stories relating to women, for instance, do not appear. Some of the more difficult passages (the “texts of terror”, as they have been called) are missing. Some of the juicy parts of certain letters are missing.

Even with four readings each Sunday, 52 times each year, over three years, there still is not time for everything to be included. The only way to deal with “the whole Bible” is actually to undertake one of those “read the whole Bible in one year” programmes. That will mean reading quite a few chapters each and every day! (For instance, I found this website, that offers a range of possibilities: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-reading-plan/)

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How do we respond to the offering of four Bible passages each and every Sunday? There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than a sermon that stodgily treats the OT, then the Epistle, the Gospel (and sometimes even the Psalm), all with 20 minutes! This slavish, literalist use of the resources provided in the lectionary is inevitably (in the negative sense) utterly deadly. It deadens my mind and depresses my spirit.

Likewise, there is nothing inviting or encouraging in a preacher who starts, “this week the lectionary offers hopeless passages, but I have to follow it, so here goes nothing”. It offers a structure and an order, but it is not a demand and a non-negotiable requirement, surely.

There is actually an abundance of choices when I consider the lectionary: do follow the Gospel? or take a pathway though the OT readings and the enriching theological ideas they offer? Might I focus on the psalms for a season, or a month? Should I take a letter when it appears, and examine it with care over 4 or 6 or 8 weeks? Or is it best, in this age of small attention rates and high expectation of novelty, simply to change it up week by week?

Of course, there is also the option to follow the lectionary in the key seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—then after the Pentecost celebration, in the long stretch of six months leading up to Advent, reshape worship with a local focus, or topical issues, or even a series on a theme or a book, and so on.

After 43 years I still find enrichment, challenge, and stimulation, and frustration, when I turn to the lectionary each week. And because the UCA is committed to “ordered liberty”, in worship, and in preaching, I am grateful for the order offered by the lectionary and the liberty possible in considering whether, why, and how the lectionary might shape what I end up doing.

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The Revised Common Lectionary can be accessed at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://uniting.church/2020-2021-lectionary-is-available-for-free-download/

There is a rich collection of resources to assist anyone using the Revised Common Lectionary, at The Text This Week, http://www.textweek.com/

A useful daily Bible reading guide, based on the RCL, is With Love to the World, at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/