In a recent essay by Wendell Berry, he describes himself as “an unconfident reader” of the Gospels. He says, “Anybody half awake these days will be aware that there are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels, and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in their faith. They appear to know precisely the purposes of God, and they appear to be perfectly assured that they are now doing, and in every circumstance will continue to do, precisely God's will as it applies specifically to themselves.”
In contrast Berry says, “I am by principle and often spontaneously, as if by nature, a man of faith. But my reading of the Gospels, comforting and clarifying and instructive as they frequently are, deeply moving or exhilarating as they frequently are, has caused me to understand them also as a burden, sometimes raising the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands.”
About a month ago a long time friend and I were doing some catching up on the phone. I was telling him how much I was enjoying the Gospels course that I was taking, when he told me that he had been reading the Gospel of Mark. He said that he was trying to read the text with a new perspective or in a fresh way. His comments about how the evangelist Mark presents Jesus have stuck with me. This Gospel does not present Jesus as being “gentle,” an image that characterizes much of the evangelical thought about Jesus. Rather, Jesus is referred to as the “Son of God“ and “Son of Man” who’s Kingdom breaks through with authority and power.
My professor points out that Mark frames his Gospel with the idea that God’s Kingdom is “breaking through.” She explains that the first time we hear this is at Jesus’ baptism, when John sees the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.” The word used for parting the heavens is the same word used at the end of the Passion when in the Temple, the curtain is torn in the Holy of Holies. I have always considered this as a symbol of our access to God, when in fact it is another picture of God’s rule or Kingdom “breaking through.”
During the phone conversation my friend commented about the authority in which Jesus acted. I made a few comments about Jesus’ authority to teach, how he exercised his authority over evil spirits, healing the sick, silencing demons, rebuking the Pharisees and calming the wind and sea. My friend said that was not what he meant. He was talking about how Jesus used his authority and that it cost him his life. In a similar way we have seen people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa who have used their authority to save others.
N.T. Wright tells a story about a ship disaster in which a tour boat began to sink and the passengers were screaming frantically. “Suddenly one man - not a member of the crew - took charge. In a clear voice he gave orders, telling people what to do. Relief mixed with the panic as people realized someone at least was in charge, and many managed to reach lifeboats they would otherwise have missed in the dark and the rush. The man himself made his way down to the people trapped in the hold. There he formed a human bridge: holding on with one hand to a ladder and with the other to part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he enabled still more to cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed – the authority by which many had been saved” (11).
Berry exclaims, “The Gospels, then, stand at the opening of a mystery in which our lives are deeply, dangerously and inescapably involved. This is a mystery that the Gospels can only partially reveal, for it could be fully revealed only by more books than the world could contain. It is a mystery that we are condemned but also are highly privileged to live our way into, trusting properly that to our little knowledge greater knowledge may be revealed. It is this privilege that should make us wary of any attempt to reduce faith to a rigmarole of judgments and explanations, or to any sort of familiar talk about God. Reductive religion is just as objectionable as reductive science, and for the same reason: Reality is large, and our minds are small.”