Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Sixth Sunday after Trinity. My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Reading: Mark 6:14-29
St Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by him. John the Baptist, however, immediately disappears from the scene in the Gospel until our Gospel reading this week. St Mark tells us that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee begins after John the Baptist has been arrested by King Herod. Our Gospel reading this week describes the subsequent execution of John the Baptist. This means that much we have been reading about in our Gospel readings over the past few weeks occurred while John the Baptist was in prison.
What is all too easy to miss in all this is the gap between Jesus’ baptism by John and Jesus’ appearance in Galilee. St Mark describes Jesus’ appearance this way:
‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God …’ (Mark 1:14)
What St Mark doesn’t tell us is what happened after Jesus’ baptism, but before his appearance in Galilee after John’s arrest. Fortunately, St John does. St John, who, it would seem, is familiar with St Mark’s Gospel (or at least the stories about Jesus in it), tells us explicitly in his Gospel that he is describing this period between Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ ministry in Galilee after John the Baptist’s arrest. St John writes:
‘After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.’ (John 3:22-24)
St John has described Jesus’ first miracle in Cana of Galilee, his setting up home in Capernaum, and then a time of ministry in Jerusalem and Judea. This period of extended ministry in Judea explains why, in St Mark’s account of Jesus’ appearance in Galilee, Jesus attracts people from so wide an area. St Mark writes:
‘… hearing all that he [Jesus] was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.’ (Mark 3:8)
It also explains why from the very beginning of St Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus attracts the attention of the scribes and Pharisees. St Mark’s focus on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee can lead us to missing his ministry outside of Galilee and to think that Jesus confined himself to Galilee.
(The reason why books on Jesus’ life also give this impression is that scholars refuse to take St John’s Gospel into account when reconstructing the ministry of Jesus. St John, however, provides important historical information about this period between Jesus’ baptism and John the Baptist’s arrest.)
We learn from St John’s Gospel that, before John is arrested, Jesus conducts something of a parallel ministry to John the Baptist in Judea. This includes baptizing people in the way John the Baptist baptizes people. St John tells us it is actually Jesus’ disciples, and not Jesus, who do the baptizing, but it is clear that it is on Jesus’ authority and behalf (John 3:22-23; 4:1-2). John the Baptist’s arrest coincides with mounting opposition to Jesus in Judea (John 4:1-3).
The reason for Jesus not going to Galilee while John the Baptist is still free seems to be because he does not want to detract from John the Baptist’s own ministry. When John the Baptist is arrested, however, this is no longer an issue, and so Jesus goes to Galilee where St Mark takes up the story. St Mark’s account and St John’s will come together again for the feeding of the 5,000 as we will see in a couple of weeks’ time.
John the Baptist and Jesus, then, are closely linked in both St Mark’s and St John’s Gospel. St Luke, in his Gospel, also links Jesus and John the Baptist, explaining that their mothers are related. This relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is probably an added reason that, after King Herod has had John the Baptist beheaded, people think Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead. It is what King Herod himself thinks. There are obviously clear similarities between Jesus and John the Baptist, regardless of the differences in their appearance and approach (Luke 7:18-35).
St Mark uses his account of John the Baptist’s arrest and murder as an opportunity to pause his account of Jesus’ ministry and to reflect on what people are saying about Jesus. Jesus has become well-known and people have different opinions about him. As well as those who think Jesus is John the Baptist returning from the dead, some think it is Elijah. People also thought that John the Baptist was Elijah. Again, this confirms the similarity between Jesus and John the Baptist that they can both be likened to the same famous figure from Israel’s history. Others, however, see Jesus as a prophet like the prophets God has sent to Israel in the past.
Everything Jesus is doing in his teaching, exorcisms, and healings, however, is challenging people to make a decision concerning his identity and who they think he is. When Jesus calmed the storm, St Mark tells us that the disciples asked:
‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41)
The dominant answer given to this question by those who are not his disciples is that Jesus is a prophet of some kind, whether John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one in his own right. What is clear is that, with the exception of those in Nazareth where he grew up, people think Jesus is someone special. Even in Nazareth, they can’t make him out. On the one hand, Jesus is doing all these amazing things; on the other, however, he is the carpenter, the son of Mary, whose family they know (Mark 6:1-6). Jesus will ask his disciples directly who they think he is after he has given them more time and information to help them make their mind up.
Significantly, at this stage in St Mark’s Gospel, St Mark doesn’t record anyone as thinking or saying that Jesus is the Messiah. The demons recognize him, but he tells them to be quiet! The first person to recognize Jesus as the Messiah will be Peter. But that’s not for a couple of chapters yet, and even then, it’s complicated!
St Mark, however, has told us, his readers, at the very beginning of his Gospel who Jesus is. St Mark writes:
‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (Mark 1:1)
St Mark in his Gospel presents Jesus’ ministry to us as it was experienced by people at first, St Mark invites us to come to this conclusion ourselves.
So, what do we think of what St Mark has told us about Jesus so far?
Jesus has cast out demons, healed people, worked a miracle, and taught about the Kingdom of God. The question for us then is, ‘Who do we think Jesus is?’ Strangely, even after 2,000 years or so, our answers reflect the same sort of confusion that we see in the minds of those who first encountered Jesus.
I want to look briefly at three of the answers that are often given to this question of who Jesus is. Interestingly, the answers given today mirror the answers of people at the time of Jesus.
1. Just a man like any other
The first answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ is that Jesus was ‘just a man like any other’.
There are those, like the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, who cannot accept that Jesus was anything other than an ordinary human being, that and nothing more. For them, Jesus was someone who was in every way just another member of the human race. They cannot accept that Jesus was in any way different to anyone else. As they said in Nazareth, ‘We know his family.’ Jesus may have made an impression, but plenty of people make an impression. It doesn’t make them anything other than human.
Those who answer like this are prepared to admit that it is surprising that the movement Jesus started continued after his death, especially when it was such a humiliating death. They will concede that it is also surprising that those who knew Jesus best believed that he was not only alive, but had all along been God made man. Nevertheless, the conviction of those who give the answer that Jesus was only one of us trumps all that. They will not entertain any other possibility. Their minds are made up.
If our answer is that Jesus was just a man like any other, then Jesus would be as amazed at our unbelief as he was amazed at the unbelief of those at Nazareth. The irony, of course, is that those who take this position often accuse those of us who believe in Jesus of being irrational, dogmatic, and bigoted. The accusation frequently made against believers is that we have closed minds. It is, however, the minds of those who refuse to consider any alternative to their belief that Jesus was just a man that are closed.
To those who think like this, all that I would ask of you is that you at least consider the evidence and the possibility that there may be more to Jesus than you have so far been willing to allow. Open your mind!
2. A great prophet and teacher
The second answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ is that Jesus was a great prophet and teacher.
The first answer to the question of Jesus’ identity, which is one of outright dismissal of Jesus, is not, however, the most common. Much more common is the view that Jesus was a prophet, indeed a great prophet, one like Elijah even. Those who take this view see Jesus as a religious teacher who can take his place alongside others they see as prophets or religious teachers, people such as Buddha, Mohammed, and Gandhi.
Those giving this second type of answer acknowledge Jesus’ influence and even his greatness. They may even accept some of his teaching. Not, of course, his teaching about the need for us to believe in him exclusively and commit ourselves to him wholeheartedly, nor his teaching about judgement and the consequences of not believing in him. They focus instead on what they see as Jesus’ teaching about being kind, like the Good Samaritan, and of thinking of the needs of others as well as our own.
If, however, all that was special about Jesus was that he taught us that we should be nice, it is hard to see why he would inspire his followers to be willing to die for him, as many of the first disciples who had known him personally were willing to do. You can still believe in being nice without having to die for the person who told you that you should be.
What is more, if someone tells you that you will go to hell if you don't believe in them and make a life changing commitment to them, you wouldn’t normally think them nice. Indeed, if this is what they taught, would you take the slightest bit of notice of anything else they said? Wouldn't you think them either mad or bad?
To those who think like this, I would ask, ‘How is it possible to think Jesus was a great prophet and teacher when you ignore what was central to his teaching, namely his claims about himself.’
3. A God approved man
The third answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ is that Jesus was a God approved man.
The previous two answers assume that Jesus’ life ended with his death. There are those, who while not believing in Jesus’ resurrection in the way the first believers believed in it, who, nevertheless, think that in some sense at least, Jesus came back from the dead. They don’t, of course, think like King Herod that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life again, but they are willing to go so far as to say that Jesus himself has come back from the dead. They are convinced that Jesus was more than just some mother’s son; he wasn’t simply a carpenter no different to anyone else. They also accept that Jesus demanded commitment both to himself personally and to his message.
They won't, though, go as far as the first disciples were willing to go. Instead, like those who give the first answer to the question, they prefer to think of Jesus as entirely human. Like those who give the second answer, they too think Jesus was a prophet. They also believe, however, that because of the goodness of Jesus’ life as an ordinary human being and in recognition of his teaching and achievements as a prophet, God honoured Jesus by, making it possible for him to live on after his death. God gave his seal of approval to Jesus, so that Jesus can be said still to be alive.
Those who give this third answer don’t think that God’s approval means that Jesus got it all right in his earthly life. No human does. Nevertheless, they think Jesus got a sufficient amount right for people to believe in him. Of course, it is they who get to decide what it is he got right. And it is perhaps no surprise that those who take this approach think that what Jesus got right is what they have already decided is right.
In some ways, this third approach is the most dangerous for it appears to take Jesus seriously when it does no such thing. Jesus, on this understanding of who he is, becomes someone we honour but take little notice of. Why should we? We have ourselves already decided what it is that Jesus said and taught.
The identity of Jesus remains the great question of history. Was Jesus just a man who seemed to be able to make an impression? Was he simply another prophet, even a great prophet? What was it about him that made him so special that God enabled him to live on after his death?
The reality is that most people don’t care. It’s not a question that bothers them. They think there are far more important and pressing questions.
The Gospel writers all want us to see that the question the disciples asked themselves, Who is this … ?’ is one of the most important questions we will ever be asked.
The three answers to the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ all focus on who Jesus was. The Gospel writers all answer the question by telling us who he is. Jesus is not simply a person or prophet in the past; he is very much alive and living in the present.
This means that it is not enough simply to answer the question. We need both to answer it AND to act upon it. The Gospels make it plain that we don’t follow Jesus’ teaching, we follow Jesus. Jesus’ teaching is only of interest to us because we are his followers and believe he is who he claimed to be and who the Gospels describe him as being. If you don’t want to believe in Jesus as the Gospels present him, that is, as God become man, the Word made flesh, who died and rose again, and who is alive and will return, then there is not much point bothering with him. If Jesus isn’t who the Gospel writers tell us he is, then, at best, he is indeed just another religious prophet, and there are more than enough of them.
St John speaks for all the Gospel writers when he tells his readers why he wrote his Gospel. St John writes:
‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)
St Mark too hopes that as we read his account of the life of Jesus, we also will come to believe in Jesus and that through believing we may have life in his name.