We begin reading today at Sunday Mass the Gospel of Mark. The Sunday readings are divided into three different annual cycles of readings. These have the names: “Year A”, Year B”, and “Year C.” In each of these years, the Church has us listen to one of the three Synoptic Gospels, which are Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Gospel of John, because it is dramatically different from these Synoptic Gospels, is read in portions in each of these three liturgical years. The Gospel of Mark is read in Year B, which is the liturgical year that we begin now. In the early Church, people thought that the Gospel of Matthew was the first to have been written. This is why the Gospels are ordered Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible. However, today, Bible scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was written first and that it was used by both Matthew and Luke indirectly to write their Gospels. Because the three seem to have similar sources, they are called the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John is so different that it is believed to have been based upon an entirely different set of traditions. For this reason it is not one of the Synoptic Gospels and is read each year in small portions. In fact because the Gospel of Mark is the shortest, this year, during Year B of the Lectionary, in the summer there are six weeks in which we read from chapter six, the bread of life discourse, from the Gospel of John.
Since we will be reading the Gospel of Mark throughout the coming year, I thought I would take a little time this Sunday to say a few things about it. As I mentioned, Bible scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was the first to have been written. It is believed to have been written by the same John Mark that we hear about in many of Paul’s letters around the end of the 50’s or early 60’s. This means it was written only about twenty or thirty years after Christ’s resurrection. Those who have studied the Gospel think that it was written in Rome for the Church of Rome. Part of the reason that it was written was to answer for the Christian community, which was beginning to face persecution under Nero: “Why do Christian disciples who are faithful to Jesus have to undergo suffering in this life?” While he was living in Rome, it is believed that John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, was actually a close friend and companion to the patron of our parish, St. Peter. In one of his letters, Peter actually calls Mark his son (1 Peter 5:13). Because of his close relationship with Peter, it is actually thought that the Gospel of Mark is a telling of the Gospel according to the recollections and testimony of St. Peter. For this reason, some of the events of Peter’s life can be seen to shape the Gospel and the message that Mark presents in his Gospel. One of the characteristics of Mark’s Gospel is that it is the briefest and most action packed. Unlike the other Gospels which contain a greater amount of the words of Jesus, Mark’s Gospel focuses on telling the story of Jesus’s mission and only gives a few of His words and stories.
Two of the distinctive themes that we see in Mark’s Gospel are that of the Messianic Secret and the call to discipleship. The first, which is known as the Messianic Secret, relates to the fact that Jesus tells all those whom he heals and forgives, even the demons who recognize Him as the Son of God, not to tell anyone who He is. Despite His telling them to keep it a secret that He is the Messiah, they still go and proclaim His identity publicly. Even after St. Peter professes that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells him not to tell anyone about His identity (Mark 8:30). Peter’s confession of faith is also a turning point in the Gospel. During the first eight chapters, Jesus goes about doing good works so that people will recognize Him as the Messiah. Once Peter confesses Him as the Messiah, the Gospel begins to deal with the fact that Jesus must suffer and die to save all humanity from their sins. The Gospel wishes disciples to understand that if Jesus, who was sinless had to suffer, then those disciples who follow Jesus should not be surprised if they too must suffer in this life. While Jesus came to overcome sin, suffering and death, the fruits of His victory are not enjoyed exclusively in this life. They are shared with those who persevere and share in His resurrection.
The second major theme of Mark’s Gospel, that of discipleship, is one that we see introduced in this Sunday’s readings as we begin to hear the Gospel proclaimed this Sunday. As the Gospel declares, Jesus has come to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come in His person and to call those who encounter Him to repent in order that they may begin to follow Him and become His disciples. In his Gospel, Mark never wastes time. Those who encounter the Good News of God among us in the person of Jesus recognize Him and change because of who He is. We see this today in the call of the disciples. As soon as Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John hear the call of Jesus, they drop everything and follow Him. We also hear that once they begin to follow Jesus they are also called to share the Good News and bring it to other followers by sharing this Good News and becoming fishers of people so that others might also come to know Jesus. Knowing who Jesus is demands change and that those who encounter Him come to follow Him and change their lives. Once they have encountered Jesus, those called are to get to know Him and to allow His words and saving deeds to change them. Yet, as we see throughout the Gospel, discipleship takes time and patience. Happily the example of Peter shows us that disciples do not have to be perfect; they are called to be faithful. Again and again, the disciples misunderstand who Jesus is and are constantly making mistakes. Peter will be corrected again and again. However, Peter perseveres and grows in his knowledge and love for the Lord. Like Peter in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls each of us to get to know Him and to deepen in our love for Him.
As we begin this new liturgical year, this is what I would like to invite each of us to do— Get to know the Lord. Although we are going to be reading the Gospel of Mark throughout this liturgical year, that is not the same as reading the Gospel in its entirety and reflecting upon the story of Christ’s life, mission, death and resurrection. I would like to invite each of us to take the time this year to sit down and read the Gospel of Mark. It is the shortest Gospel. It can be read in a few hours. Perhaps it could be read over a few Sundays. For
those who might like to get more familiar with the Gospel, Sister Helen Cameron will be offering a Bible study on the Gospel on Monday afternoons this coming February. There is information about this in the bulletin. As Jesus calls the first disciples to come and follow Him— to get to know Him— so He calls you and I to get to know Him today. He invites us to know Him first and foremost in order that we might turn away from sin and welcome the Kingdom into our lives. He invites us to be His disciples. He also invites us to know Him so that we too might invite others to know His salvation; that we too might be fishers of people. There is so much misunderstanding in the world today about who Jesus is and what He invites us to be. It is important that we who desire to be His disciples know the Gospels and are able to speak about Jesus to those whom we meet. Really each one of us who want to know the Lord and follow Him should have read all four of the Gospels. We should read them over and over again. A great start- or way of continuing to read them— would be to read that Gospel which the Church is reading throughout the year at her liturgical celebrations. This year that is the Gospel of Mark.
Happily, the theme of discipleship runs through all of our readings this Sunday. In the first reading from the Book of Jonah, the prophet Jonah is sent by God to call the people of Nineveh to conversion. They are to be given forty days to turn away from their sins and towards God. To the great surprise of the prophet they turn to the Lord immediately and the Lord forgives them. All who turn to God will be welcome and forgiven. Paul tells us in the second reading that once we have turned to Christ and become His disciples, we are to order our entire lives in such a way that following Jesus is our priority. Discipleship means making Christ our priority and ordering everything else according to our goal of union with Him. The Psalm reminds us that just as Jesus’ disciples had to get to know His ways before they could become convinced disciples, we too, who wish to be His disciples today must say with the Psalmist: “Teach me your way O Lord”. Today as we begin Mark’s Gospel, we hear proclaimed the fundamental message of the Christian faith: In Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God is in our midst. We must repent of all ways contrary to His Kingdom and become His disciples. As we follow Jesus, we are each to invite others to do the same by proclaiming His marvellous deeds by our words and example. To be disciples, we must do as the Psalmist reminds us— we must know the ways of the Lord. Mark wrote his Gospel that we might know the ways of the Lord, repent and become His disciples. The call of the Gospel invites all of us to get to know the Lord by getting to know His Gospel. As the Church does this throughout the coming year by proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, I would invite each of us to follow the words of the Psalmist by getting to the know the Lord by reading and studying the Gospel of Mark. By this reading may we grow closer to the Saviour who invites all of us to follow Him and become fishers of people.
May we all hear the call of the Lord to welcome the Kingdom of God into our lives by repenting and following after Jesus.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor— St. Peter’s Church— Toronto.