Preaching: Mark 1:14-20
Today's gospel lesson is divided into two parts. Verses 14-15 make a transition from the previous introduction and serve as a summary of Jesus' public ministry: "preaching the Gospel of God." Yet Mark has characterized his entire work as "gospel" (1:1), which includes all the events therein contained. The following verses (16-20) are thus a concrete illustration of the gospel-action of Jesus.
1. Thomas Talley1 has presented a comprehensive study of the development of the liturgical year, which presents a detailed discussion of early Alexandrian baptismal practices, including a reconstruction of the lectionary used for candidates for baptism. His careful research suggests that it was the Gospel of Mark which was used for catechumenal instruction, beginning on Epiphany with the reading of the account of Jesus' baptism. The gospel was read in course through the six weeks of Lent with the temptation narrative on the first Sunday of Lent. Thus, today's lesson would have been heard by candidates for baptism during the first week of Lent.
How would early Egyptian candidates for baptism have heard this lesson? And what would their teachers, catechists, preachers have expounded to them? Of course, there is no way of knowing. But it is interesting to view the entire gospel of Mark as a "catechumenal manual," a manual of how one should live new life in Christ Jesus.
I would imagine that the candidates would be struck by the announcement that the time has been fulfilled; the moment is upon them. Whether or not they would have seen the imprisonment of John as indicative of the continuity between John's preaching and Jesus' is uncertain. For the candidates it is a time for risk and decision. Their task is twofold—to repent and to believe. I would imagine that their spiritual guides would have explained that repentance is a movement away from sin and that belief is a movement toward Jesus. Indeed I would imagine that Bultmann's dictum "the Proclaimer becomes the Proclaimed" would be operative here. Further, I would imagine that the immediate responses of Simon, Andrew, James and John would strike with a great deal of force; the four radically altered their way of life—and did it immediately.
Since Mark's is the primary Gospel for this lectionary cycle, it may be helpful for the preacher to keep in mind the tradition of early Alexandria. Reflecting on how those coming to faith may hear the gospel can give fresh insight into how the gospel should have an impact on the already baptized.
2. David Buttrick2 has suggested that the "distillation" of a single "point" from a scriptural pericope creates a danger of misrepresenting that the Word of God actually says. It is the movement of the entire passage that creates meaning, nor an isolated word of sentence. Thus if one accepts that point of view, the preacher today needs to preach the entirety of the passage, viz. the mission summary of vv. 14-15 and the verses detailing the call of the disciples.
The linkage between the two parts is not a difficult one to establish. The call of the disciples is an instantiation of the preaching ministry of Jesus. Jesus' call was immediately effective in their lives—they left all and followed Jesus. Their response was an indication that the reign of God was so clearly at hand that they could not but follow. And the text seems to suggest that they had at least an incipient belief in Jesus. It is silent concerning the content of repentance. Of course, the text is a typical Markan sketch, which seems to telescope both time and space.
The narrative structure of the text is clear. Mark announces that God's reign is here in the eschatological actions of Jesus; the time is now for repentance and belief. Disciples are called to follow Jesus, the preacher, the one greater than John the Baptizer. The text remains somewhat safe when viewed in biblical "then" time. The text becomes more than a little challenging when the time frame is shifted to the "now" time.
The preacher will need to ponder what the signs of God's reign are today, here and now; just how is the time fulfilled? Or conversely, what are the signs that God's eschatological reign is being subverted? United States culture can become an easy whipping boy and be presented in such a way that the hearers will see nothing but bleakness and the presence of the demonic. It will be far more challenging to identify what positive signs of God's reign are found in our present day. It is only on this basis, I believe, that one can ask the consequent questions: of what do we need to repent and in what/whom do we need to believe? Finally, the preacher will want to explore the fallout of repentance/belief, viz. discipleship.
Since Mark's gospel will be read throughout the year, today's sermon could serve rather as an "introduction." It need not explore every nuance of the kairos of God, repentance and belief, and discipleship. It could well serve as a template or blueprint for future homiletic ventures and be a sort of "previews of coming attractions." Just as the early Alexandrian candidates were led gradually through the gospel as a "manual of living," so too could we preachers lead our congregations, as well as ourselves, through the Markan manual.
John Allyn Melloh
1. Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (NY: Pueblo, 1986), p. 204ff. 2. Cf. David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).