Practicing Resurrection: Hearing the Unspoken No

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

In Jewish tradition, a rabbi is required to refuse the request for conversion three times before answering in the affirmative. Each time, the potential convert has to face rejection, doubt, introspection. Only through perseverance, it is thought, can one understand what it really means to be a Jew.

The structure of this pericope is rather genius. Gathered together–whether by swimming or by boat–a simple charcoal fire organizes the make-shift community. A familiar scene. Jesus producing a miracle and then demanding that all be fed. There is no absence. Nothing is bereft. Bread in abundance; fishy aplenty. All has been prepared by God. And like they have during the feeding of the 5,000 (reported by all the gospels) and the 4,000 (reported by Mark and Matthew, but not Luke and John), and the last supper (not reported by John), they gather again. The author of John notes that Jesus’ grab and gab is the third resurrection visit.

Reclining after the meal, Jesus turns to Simon Peter. Do you love me? he asks. No matter how many times I read it, Jesus’ voice will always be that of Tevya (preferably voiced by Topol) from Fiddler on the Roof; do you love me?  When Peter says yes, Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs.” No explanation. No qualifications. “Feed my lambs.” One can imagine Peter’s thoughts: What does it mean to feed? Who are lambs? How often am I to feed them? Before he can muster a question, Peter is faced with Jesus doubling down: “Do you love me?” Now I hear Golde from Fiddler: “Do I what!?” With the second question, one imagines what might be going on in Peter’s mind. Do I love you?  Of course. Of course I do, but why do you keep asking? Peter assents, and Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” Again, the questions: What does it mean to tend? So am I to only tend to the sheep and feed the lambs? Do the lambs not need tending and the sheep not need feeding? What’s going on here?

“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Each time. Each time Simon Peter is forbidden to forget the face of his father. Each time he is challenged to bring his whole self. Do you really understand what it means to love? Do you understand what it means to love God through Jesus Christ? Because this love is not just about you. It is about others. It is about the sheep and the lambs. It is about feeding and tending.  

Sometimes we have to hear the unspoken “no.” Sometimes we have to be asked the same question several times to assure others we really mean what we say. The movement of this passage is beautiful. They all know who Jesus is as they eat with him on the beach, but none of them dare ask. They don’t give voice to their questions. They shovel pieces of fish and bread into their mouths, looking awkwardly from face to face. Do we talk about the fact that we’re eating with a dead man? Or at least a man who was dead but now is not? And what does this mean for us? We can imagine that all of these issues are racing through their minds, but Jesus is not concerned about that. He wants to make sure that Peter (and here we could go into a whole discussion of apostolic succession and how this passage parallels Matthew 16:19, but let’s not and say that we didn’t) understands the depths and requirements of love. Like rabbis who will follow for centuries, he wants to make certain that those who wish to follow in the ways of the Jewish God fully understand what is required.

 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

I cut out that line about death. That is the author of John speaking to us, and with all due respect John gets it wrong. This is not about Jesus’ death. I mean, maybe it is but I think it is about so much more. This is about the requirements of love. Love does take us where we don’t wish to go. At least the love Jesus teaches us. But the promise is that we won’t be alone. God will be with us. And others whom God animates will be there, too.

We have to hear the “no.” The no to doing what is easy or comfortable. The no that comes with realizing that we most likely will not be the persons we hoped we would be, but if we follow God we will be the persons we are meant to be. We have to hear the “no” that God gives to shallow or empty love. We have to hear the “no” to certain questions that God simply will not answer, because God is more concerned with how we are loving. How do we practice this love, this resurrection?

Follow me.

Well, fiddlesticks. Yeah. I will. I’ll tend and feed and eat and love and follow and swim and take boats and be confused. Keep asking, though God. Because eventually I’ll hear the unspoken nos as a final “yes.”

Practicing Resurrection: Naked Night Fishing

Lunker 1997 by Peter Doig born 1959
Lunker 1997 Peter Doig born 1959 Presented by the artist and Charles Booth-Clibborn 1998 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P11550

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

 

This week has been dark for me. Painful. Disconcerting. Maddening. As each day passed, with its attenuating missed experiences, I sank further into a dirty nest of blankets and sweat. It is an odd thing, this illness. I have no broken bone or plummeting T-cell count to which I can point and say, “Here. This is why I can’t. This is why I simply can’t.” Even the experts who provide my care admit, at some point it just takes faith that we’ll figure out how to deal with the chemicals that course through my brain. It seems almost everyone has an opinion: eat this, don’t eat that; do this, don’t do that; have you tried yoga? How can I do yoga when I’m night fishing nude and nothing is biting?

It is perhaps my greatest fear: to be followed by people and for us to catch nothing. To be sitting in the boat, completely exposed, with people looking at me and shaking their heads in disappointment. That demon visited this week; he unpacked, got himself comfortable, and refused to leave my side. In the darkness, when I cast out my line, nothing worth keeping bit. Self-doubt, fear, feelings of insecurity, dread, and self-loathing were abundant; they leapt into the boat and flopped around, fighting for the same air as I. As they slapped against my naked flesh, my demon sat in the boat with me, pointing to each species and saying, “This? This is what you will use to feed the people? This is what you offer to others in service to your God? This isn’t palatable. No wonder the congregation is shrinking.”

Sarah Silverman has a comedy special titled Jesus is Magic. Sadly, this notion often passes for theology. Despairing? Give it to Jesus? Angry? Look to Jesus. But what we often forget is that there are times in our lives in which we will be nude, fishing in the dark and catching nothing. And that’s where I was, my boat becoming a rotating cast of people I feared I was disappointing or letting down. Family. Friends. Congregants. Each had a turn. Some stayed longer than others. Some came back for repeat visits. For me, depression is not lonely. It is filled with visitors. And it matters not that I am, in reality, surrounded by wonderful, amazing, supportive people who love me; in my head, they are just being fooled. I know the truth. In the darkness, I see who I really am.

At least that is the best way for me to describe it. Depression is not rational; it cares not for degrees or loving words from others. Depression eats happiness and sows seeds of self-hatred. It shuts everything else out and demands my full attention.

This morning I think I heard Jesus whisper “Child.” The boat seems less filled with menacing creatures, and I do believe that is sunlight rising behind Jesus’ form. And I tell you, I want to jump out of this boat like Forrest Gump greeting Lieutenant Dan. The Greek text describes Peter as girding up his loins with his clothing, and jumping into the water instead of waiting for the vessel to dock. I get that. It is a sense that the darkness might be abating.

There are times when we stay on the boat with all the fish Jesus has helped us to gather, and there are times that we jump into the water, determined to get to Jesus first, even if it only lasts for a few precious minutes. The thing is, I don’t think God judges us one way or the other, really. When I’m strong, when I’m doing well, when the meds are doing their work and I’m doing mine, I’m on that boat. I’m gathering the fish together and telling the others on the boat to take a break and go see Jesus. I got it covered. I’ll finish the haul. I’ll mend any nets needing tending. Go. Be with God. I’m good.

I hope to be back there soon. As I said, the sun is coming up and I’m about to jump into the water and start swimming. I look forward to being with God, and to the breakfast I will share with others. A few months ago, the Session of the church I serve agreed to allow  Communion each Sunday after the service during the season of Easter. I’m anticipating that it will be the most delicious, filling, and empowering meal I will have had in a long time. People will be there. Not visitors. Not demons.Not creatures demanding to be named and acknowledged. God’s children. Together. And we will be fed. And we will see Jesus. Some will have taken the boat. Some will have swam. But we will be there together.

The Gospel According to Luke (Skywalker)

harrison-ford-han-solo-and-mark-hamill-lukePrologue

I was born in 1976, too young to remember seeing A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back in the theater, but old enough to have had both the films firmly in my grasp when my father took me and my best friend, Kevin Cooney, to see Return of the Jedi for my 8th birthday. I’ll never forget the wonder, the magic, the sense of adventure and satisfaction that filled me. I demanded that we see it again, and sure enough, I convinced my grandmother (who thoroughly hated it) to take me a few weeks later. Thus began my lifelong fandom.

I’ll never claim to be the biggest Star Wars fan in the world; I don’t do cosplay; I don’t read the books; I don’t watch non-theatrical releases; my T-shirt collection is sparse; my toys are long since lost or broken. But Star Wars was my entire childhood; my brother, of blessed memory, was Han Solo. There was no question about roles when we played Star Wars. He was the cool, suave, impossible, handsome renegade and I was the cute, somewhat annoying whiner who was too smart for his own good. Even at the time, I was the most spiritual person in my atheist family. When my brother died in 2002 and I officiated his memorial service, I told the story about how we used to go riding on his Kawasaki KZ-650, and before he’d open up the throttle, he’d yell to me as I held on, “You’re all clear kid!”

Star Wars has shaped my life.

Luke-and-Yoda-Hiking-on-Dagobah

It Is Your Destiny

My favorite film has been and will always be The Empire Strikes back. I think part of the reason is that this was the only film in the original trilogy that I owned on VHS for about five years. I would watch it at least once a week, with particular attention paid to Luke in the Dagobah System. Upon arrival, he is the same impatient brat who was eager to leave Tatooine; certainly, watching Obi Wan being struck down has shaped him. He’s joined the Rebellion and he feels the nascent seeds of spirituality growing within him. He has tapped into the Force, and he is hooked. Like his father before him, Luke feels his own power but is conflicted as to why he desires it. Is it to be like the hero Annakin he has heard so little about from his Aunt and Uncle? Is it to destroy Darth Vader, his nemesis, and the Emperor? With Yoda’s tutelage, Luke begins the Dark Night of the Soul. He explores his own limits, his own preconceptions, his own ideas about what it means to be a Jedi. Before George Lucas nearly ruined the entire franchise with the midichlorians, Empire presents a hero on a spiritual journey. Learning that Vader and Anakin are one and the same is an assault on who Luke thinks he is; it causes him to question his identity and his role in the world. It creates, first and foremost, a spiritual crisis. After losing his hand–a trope throughout the films–Luke must lose other things as well: his anger, his confusion, his desires.

did-return-of-the-jedi-s-alternate-ending-inspire-episode-7-672411 So when we first see Luke in Return of the Jedi, he is a changed man. His vocal cadence is slower, more confident. He is able to easily manipulate the mind of Bib Fortuna. He is in complete control of a seemingly impossible situation. We assume that his training has continued under Yoda, but we also sense that he has had to come to terms with himself; we can imagine many long walks, many sleepless nights as he wrestles with the legacy of his parentage. We speculate that he has felt rage, betrayal, confusion, and all the other emotions that come with devastating news.

But we should never forget that being a Jedi is a spiritual pursuit. The Force is not a weapon, but rather an energy that creates, pervades, and destroys all things, concepts that are equally applicable to Christianity and Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism, Islam and Taoism. A Jedi Knight is equal parts monk and warrior, teacher and minister.

luke-skywalkerFAThe Force Awakens (and spoilers abound)

I was antsy upon sitting down to view The Force Awakens, in no small part because of the prequels. Most of us fans know this conversation, so I need not repeat it. My friend Derrick Weston, who encouraged me to write this piece as part of a larger project a group of us Star Wars geeks are unfolding, had messaged me and, without any spoilers, simply wrote, “JJ did it.” So while I was nervous, Derrick’s assurance let me know that I was in for a treat. The film unfolded and I found myself grinning from ear to ear, but in the back of my mind I was wondering, Where’s Luke? I perked up upon learning that Luke had been training new Jedis, only to have them destroyed by Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), who is seeking to complete what his grandfather (Annakin or Vader, I wonder) had started. Sadly, some jackass on a political thread had ruined the major plot points, so Han’s death did not surprise me, although I still gasped and felt a part of my childhood die as his body, like Darth Maul, Luke, and the Emperor before him, fell into a vast space toward an unknown bottom. Still, I wondered, where’s Luke?

And then it came. Rey’s arduous climb up the steps; the wonderful helicopter shots establishing the remoteness of place, a scene wholly unlike the CGI-rendered worlds that plagued the prequels. A solitary, hooded figure, wearing the robes of Obi Wan Kenobi, of Mace Windu, of Qui-Gon, of Yoda, of Annakin Skywalker. Turning around and pulling off the hood, there he was. Luke. Older. Bearded. His eyes–owed to masterful acting by Mark Hamill–betraying knowledge, confusion, surprise, trepidation, and peace. The lightsaber that had been passed from his father to Obi Wan to Luke to…now in the hand of Rey (who has an as yet unknown relationship to Luke), extended as an offering. For the second time, I gasped. Cue music and credits.

Its been three weeks since I’ve seen the film. I need to go back and watch it again; I know that there things that I’m missing, but luckily I am part of a group of smart people willing to spend their time having online discussions about this aspect or that aspect. It is fun to be part of such a community.

But today would have been my brother’s 47th birthday. He is on my mind and on my heart. And I am thinking about my journey and how it mirrors Luke’s. I was an atheist learning toward agnosticism when Stephen took his own life in 2002. I won’t write much about it; if you want to know the story (shameless plug), buy my book The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. Stephen’s death led to my conversion, which led to attending a church, which led to suggestions that I go to seminary, which led to a three year process toward ordination, which ended in my pastoring a small church in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. My own impatience and need to go out to conquer the world has required some truncating and training; I have been impetuous; I have wanted to get away from where I grew up and to join something big and exciting. I’ve wanted to pastor a big church and have thousands of people follow my blog and read my books. I’ve felt jealousy at colleagues who have achieved that.

Yet, I realize that I am ultimately looking to be Luke on that island. At least, what I am projecting upon him. A man who prepares for his calling; one who sees the world around him in trouble, but who has the wisdom to wait. To connect with the Force (or God) for direction. A man who no longer allows himself to be directed by passions and desires for greatness, but rather to serve. To protect. To love. To combat evil, but out of compassion and understanding.

After all these years, I still want to be Luke.

Jesus the Proclaimer, or Jesus the Proclaimed? (Mark 1:4 – 11)

Introduction

The Gospel of Mark opens with neither nativity nor noetic, but rather with a voice crying out to the world: “Here is my messenger, whom I send on ahead of you to prepare your way. A voice of someone shouting in the desert, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”[1] And so begins a primary conflict within Christianity: Is the gospel about Jesus the proclaimer, or Jesus the proclaimed? Is Christian truth to be found through the words of Jesus, who made the imminent Kingdom of God the center of his message, one that reaches deep into the vibrant salvation history of Israel; or is Christianity rather expressed by the experiences of the first generation of Christians, who saw Jesus raised and understood this to be evidence of a new covenant?

In the Gospel of Mark, we see evidence for both positions.

The first thing to establish is that the author of Mark makes an error. The passage quoted in 1:2b-3 (known as the “epigram” of Mark) combines language from both Malachi 3:1—“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the Lord of hosts”—and Isaiah 40:3—“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”[2] Despite this error, we know that something spectacular is occurring, an event that is reminiscent of God’s sending Moses to proclaim the covenant to the newly-freed Hebrews: “’Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is him.’”[3] In the words of Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you, Mr. Jones?”

The listener/reader[4]—and most importantly, the Markan Community—does know that something is going on, because we have been informed in v. 1 (known as the “title” of Mark) that there is good news (evangeliou) about Jesus the Anointed (Jesou Christou) contained in the story. It will be up to us to establish what these terms mean (i.e., what is the “gospel,” and what does it mean for Jesus to be an “Anointed One”?). Some manuscripts add the tag “Son of God” (uiou Theou) after “Anointed,” further complicating the investigation, but one thing is clear: This is no ordinary story, and listening to the details will have important and life-changing ramifications.

As we begin our journey, we should always keep in mind that, at the heart of Mark’s Gospel, there is a central question: Who is this Jesus?

Who is this Jesus?

As we shall see, throughout Mark’s gospel there are questions as to Jesus’ identity. In the main, there are three primary options: Jesus is John the Baptizer raised; Jesus is Elijah; or Jesus is one of the prophets (most likely, Moses). Clearly, Jesus cannot be John the Baptizer raised, for in the opening verses Jesus and John come into contact with one another. However, themes are established: John’s manner of dress—a mantle of camel hair and a leather belt around his waist—is the same as that of Elijah the Tishbite.[5]Yet, we cannot get off so easily, understanding only John to be Elijah, for the Tishbite, too, underwent a journey of forty days and forty nights without eating or drinking, so as to prepare himself for battle with the priests and priestesses of Baal and Ashterah, Canaanite fertility deities. Jesus has such an experience in 1:12-13. The author of Mark is using central theological symbols to signal the importance of both John the Baptizer and of Jesus. But what do these symbols mean?

Elijah the Tishbite

Elijah the Tishbite is a 9th century B.C.E. prophet who lived in Gilead, most likely an area that had retained a good deal of religious purity in the face of rampant syncretism, or integration of other traditions into cultic worship. At the time of his ministry, the throne of Israel is held by a man named Ahab, whose wife Jezebel is an adherent of Phoenician fertility deities. While Ahab seems to remain loyal to YHWH—for all of Ahab’s sons are named after the Jewish God—he is not only tolerant of other religions, but he also allows Jezebel to support her prophets out of the Temple treasury (1 Kings 18:19). This proves to be a bridge too far for Elijah. He storms into the court of the king and announces an impending drought, caused by God and meant to bring about the repentance of Ahab and larger Israel, who are engaged in apostasy. Elijah proclaims YHWH the God of All Things—specifically, the God of Life—and issues a direct challenge to the supposed purview of the Baal and Ashterah, that of fertility. As drought and pestilence spread across the land, Ahab becomes more desperate. Finally, he allows for a confrontation on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and Jezebel’s prophets, acting as surrogates for their respective deities. 1 Kings 18, in essence, records a divine playground fight. My God is better than your god, this narrative proclaims. The superior deity will be the one who will make it rain fire. Elijah, greatly outnumbered (450 to 1), mocks the prophets, who dance and wail, beseeching their deities to bring down fire. Elijah is highly entertained by this; he wonders if Baal has “gone aside,” a euphemism for taking a pee, and taunts the prophets until they fall to the ground in exhaustion. Then, Elijah arises, performs a sacrifice, confesses faith in God, and has some of those people present drench the altar with water. When it is flooded, Elijah asks God to bring about fire, which God does. Elijah then slaughters the prophets of Baal and Ashterah. Jezebel is enraged, and vows to kill Elijah, which sets up Elijah’s period of flight for forty days and forty nights, marking him as a new Moses (see below). Finally, God delivers Elijah from the wrath of Jezebel by sending a whirlwind—along with a chariot of fire and horses—and taking Elijah, still alive, into the heavens. According to Jewish belief (Malachi 4:5-6), Elijah is to appear before the Day of Yahweh, a time when God’s kingdom will be established and evil will be defeated definitively. Elijah’s role is to be one of reconciliation (Malachi 4:6) and, at least according to Sirach 48:10, to bring about the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. [6]

As we shall see, Elijah plays an important role in the Gospel of Mark; he even makes an appearance in Mark 9:2-13. Thematically, however, Elijah poses an interesting quandary. We can see him as a portent of promise, a prophet proclaiming the good work of God through Christ. Yet, we cannot ignore the troublesome aspects of the Elijah story: the ridicule, disdain, and destruction of non-Jewish prophets. As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the present commentary is to foster dialogue, to emphasize the commonalities between two of the world’s great Wisdom traditions. What then do we do with Elijah?

Moses

The secret to interpreting Elijah may come through the lens of Moses, the first and, arguably, greatest of all the prophets. The word prophet properly means “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson,” so Moses represents the ability of human beings to receive and communicate divine revelations. Under the leadership of Moses, the Hebrew people are liberated from the shackles of slavery and led into freedom; the Jewish story is one of deliverance from oppression. Indeed, each one of us experiences this (or the possibility of it) every moment of our lives. We can be delivered from the oppression of ignorance, sin, greed, hatred, selfishness, and into the promised land of community, fellowship, and commonality. With Moses, God starts again with the people, promising them an unbreakable covenant relationship.

Perhaps that is how we can see Elijah: a man who experiences God intimately, and despite forty days and nights of sustenance-free wandering, is never bereft of God. Elijah, who is rescued from the murderous rage of Jezebel, represents the freedom from fear and death we can experience when in relationship with God. When we have confidence in the Lord, we can prevail, even when greatly outnumbered.

In truth, Elijah is a difficult figure. For the Markan community, he most likely is used to symbol the coming of the eschaton (end times). As we will discuss later, the Markan community is wrong concerning the timing of the Parousia, or second coming, but we cannot dismiss the presence of Elijah in the narrative. It is also entirely possible that the figure of Elijah is used to highlight the denseness—even idiocy—of those around Jesus (and perhaps within the Markan community itself). Without question, Elijah is important to Mark’s gospel, so he must be important to responsible interpretations.

John the Baptizer

John is remembered for his act of baptism. The act of ritual cleansing was already a constituent part of Judaism by the time John began his ministry. God commanded that Moses bring his brother Aaron—considered the first High Priest—and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting for a ritual bath.[7] Other books in the Torah also contain proscriptions concerning ritual cleansing.[8]During the time of John the Baptizer, “ritual cleansing was instituted for the purification of gentile converts to Judaism.”[9]But the opening of Mark seems to indicate that John is baptizing Jews—people come from the Judean countryside and from the city of Jerusalem—and that he connects the act to a “change of heart that leads to the forgiveness of sins.” In Greek, the word metanao is translated as “repent” or “change of heart.” On a deeper level, “repent” means to “return,” much as the people of Israel return to God under the leadership of Moses. Here, we see John the Baptizer initiating a ceremony that will allow people to return to God. He baptizes them in the Jordan River, the very body of water the people cross under the leadership of Joshua in order to claim the land of Canaan, which had been given to them by God.[10]The return, symbolically, to the sight of deliverance for their ancestors, entering into the cleansing waters of covenantal redemption. They return to God in spirit, body, and mind.

There are other signs of covenant present as well. After Jesus is baptized by John, the spirit descends on him like a dove.[11]We are reminded how God creates in Genesis 1:1-5, sweeping over the waters and bringing order out of chaos; we are reminded, too, of God sending the bird to Noah as a sign of a new covenant in Genesis 8:8-12. Here, Jesus functions as a symbol of a new creation, a new model for humanity, a new paradigm for reconciliation. God says to Jesus: “You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.” For the Markan listener/reader, there is a definitive answer to the question, “Who is this Jesus?”He is God’s son. But, again, we must ask: What does this mean?

The Significance of Baptism

Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Traditions, and Protestants disagree somewhat on the timing and purpose of baptism, but there is no doubting that it holds a central position in Christian faith life. In the main, we do it because Jesus did it. It marks the beginning of his ministry in the world, and for most of us baptism indicates the beginning of our walk with God through Christ. For Paul, baptism initiates us into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which allows us to assume new identities in the person of Jesus.[12] We die and are born again, as it were. As to whether this was John the Baptizer’s understanding, we can never know. It seems clear to me, however, that John saw the act as one of reconciling wholeness, an external symbol that the fracturing of the individual life has ended by inclusion into a larger human family, one that has God as the pater familias (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:4-6). Baptism shows us that there are no solitary Christians; Jesus undergoes baptism and then, after forty days and nights of battling the Adversary, he enters into the world to proclaim the coming kingdom. So, too, are we who undergo baptism called to enter into the world as disciples of God. We are connected to all those who have been baptized before us, to those who are still living, and to those who will be baptized in the future. In baptism one dies to selfishness, and is given the largest family possible: the entire human race (Galatians 3:28). At baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that descends at Pentecost (Acts 2); the same Paraclete that seals us (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14) to God. We are new creations, just as Jesus is the new Adam (Romans 5:18-21).[13]

Some might object that this is too broad and ecumenical an understanding of baptism, but in the coming posts I will show that Jesus, especially in Mark’s gospel, does not discriminate concerning whom he will serve: Lepers, sinners, hemorrhaging women, Gentiles, tax collectors: all make the cut. Why? Because Jesus stresses the commonalities of humanity as being divinely-mandated, whereas the differences so often stressed by mortals are manufactured by human beings.

The Dharma River

A foundational idea in Buddhism is that all life is dukkha, which often is translated as “suffering,” but better means that things are “awry” or “unsatisfactory.” We attach to impermanent things, such as a false sense of “self,” and, as a result, we suffer. Believing there to be a concretized “I,” we become prideful, lashing out in violence and ignorance when we perceive that the “I” has been insulted. In Buddhism, ignorance is mistaking the part for the whole. Imagine this: Man number one is speaking to a friend for 45 minutes; let’s call the friend man number two. A great deal of information is exchanged, and they bandy about a good number of ideas before a third friend sidles up to the pair just as man number one says, “Well, I guess my brother is just not a good sibling in that regard.” That third friend tells his wife about this statement, who then tells her sister, who just so happens to be the cousin of the first man’s hairdresser, who is the best friend of the first man’s brother. The brother, upon hearing the gossip, calls up his sibling and begins yelling, cursing, and denouncing him, believing that he has grasped the “reality” of the situation. Dukkha.

The second noble truth of is samudaya, that we continuously create our own suffering. We enter into a cycle of behavior in which we are attracted, disappointed, and then repulsed. We try to extricate ourselves from situations, most often through duplicity and selfishness. For example, imagine a party. A woman has gone out after a hard week of work. She is looking to unwind when, across the room, she sees the man of her dreams. He is physically attractive, and to her delight he is wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of her favorite band and is thumbing through a copy of her favorite novel. Their eyes meet, and the world stops. An introduction leads to conversation that leads to supper that leads to a goodnight kiss. The angels sing; the world stops, as if they are the only two inhabitants. Fast forward three months: after returning home from work, the woman finds that her paramour, who is unemployed, has slept all day, eaten her food, and has left the apartment strewn with beer cans and dirty underclothing. The same book he had been thumbing through months before lays unread on the side of the couch with a video-game controller on top of it. She wants out. They fight, call one another names, accuse each other of the most horrible moral lapses known to humanity. The relationship over, the woman decides to go out to relax. Upon entering a restaurant, she sees the man of her dreams…

This is what we do, according to the Buddha. We engage in a never-ending cycle that creates suffering because we are attached to that which is impermanent, that which is fleeting. The good news, however, is that there is a way out. This is the Third Noble Truth: nirodha. There is a cessation of dukkha, which can be achieved, in part, by following the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth (magga). In the coming months, we will examine these beliefs in more detail as they pertain to the Gospel of Mark, but for now suffice it to say, this is the heart of Buddhism: One can end one’s suffering.

In Buddhism, the word dharma (dhamma) means “teaching.” Adherents enter into the dharma river, the river of teaching. While there are many interpretations regarding the river—it can be a metaphor for life, rather than teaching; it can represent tradition or community—one thing is clear; a person is fundamentally changed from the point of entry to the point of departure. In one interpretation of the dharma river, a person must build a raft to get from one shore to another. The shore of entry is that of dukkha; the shore of arrival is that of enlightenment, or nibbana. When on the other shore, a person does not place the raft on his or her back and then continue to walk. No. A person sets the raft aside, as it is no longer necessary for the journey. That raft is the Four Noble Truths. They can get one to the other side, but they are not enlightenment in and of themselves.

So what has this to do with Christianity and the Gospel of Mark? Jesus enters into the water, marking himself for his ministry. He is initiated into the divine plan, signaling his willingness to go where God directs him. He leaves behind that which he had done before, and embarks upon his divine mission. And, as we shall see, Jesus is driven into the wilderness before entering into the world. Baptism marks us, yes. But it is not the good news. We do not carry the river with us; we do not remain forever wet with the water of our baptism. We leave our old selves behind; we die to a life of selfishness, injustice, and lack of compassion. The dove descends upon us, propelling us forward to enter into relationship.

We go into the world to proclaim the good news.

The question then becomes, what does that mean? Both for Mark, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians? Such is the challenge that lies before us as we go with Jesus from the river to the cross.


[1] Scholar’s Version (SV) Translation

[2] Revised Standard Version (RSV) Translation

[3] Exodus 23;20-1.

[4] Please see “An Introduction to a Progressive Commentary; Assumptions Amidst Gumption.”

[5] 2 Kings 1:8.

[6] Readers are encouraged to reference the Elijah cycle (1 Kings 17-19, 21; 2 Kings 1:1-2:18).

[7] Exodus 29:4; more elaborate instructions are mentioned in Exodus 30:17-21.

[8] Leviticus 17:15-16; Deuteronomy 21:6.

[9] “Baptism.” Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.Ed. David Noel Freedman.

[10] Joshua 3:1

[11] It is important to note that the Markan Greek is very clear; an actual dove does not appear, but rather the spirit acting like a dove.

[12] Romans 6:1-11; Galatians 3:27-29

[13] For an outstanding yet encapsulated discussion of baptism, see Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 288-295.