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Preaching Mark 15:1-39 (47)

 

The key question in Mark’s Gospel is who is Jesus?  As a skilled story teller, Mark teases the reader with partial answers, withholding the decisive clue until Chapter 15. Mark introduces Jesus early as a teacher (Mk 1:21-22). But his teaching has something different: “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

What about “exorcist” as the best description of Jesus’ identity? The first demonstration of the “authority” evident in his teaching was the casting out of a demon (1:23-28). Yet, he defied the accepted rules of exorcism and simply silenced the demon and commanded its departure!

Would “healer” fully describe Jesus? Restoration of health and curing of diseases were integral to his ministry. But his healing was unconventional and inclusive. He healed with a word, a touch, a command; and he defied the accepted norms of who was to be included among the restored.

What about “miracle worker?” Many of his acts defied natural law! He fed a multitude with five loaves and two fish (6:30-44, 8:1-10); stilled a stormy sea (4:35-41); walked on water (6:45-52); restored a girl to life (5:21-24, 35-43); made barren a fig tree (11:12-14, 20-24). He seemed to have command over the natural order! As the crowd asks in amazement: “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him” (4:41)?

The drama of identity intensifies at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am”? (8:27-30) The answers put him in the same company as John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets. Then comes from Peter the most definitive declaration thus far: “You are the Messiah” (8:30).

Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ! That settles the question!  Or does it? Jesus’ response indicates that there is more yet to be known about who he is. He “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him”. If the answer is correct, why not shout it from the rooftops? Why the secret?  

Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ identity as Messiah was correct but premature and incomplete! He was teacher and more, exorcist and more, miracle worker and more, Messiah and more!  Limiting who Jesus is to any of these designations will distort his identity and miss his radical nature and mission. The decisive revelation is yet to come as Jesus confounds the disciples by speaking of his suffering, death, and resurrection!

The pivotal disclosure of Jesus’ identity comes in Mark’s passion narrative in chapter 15. All the hints and disclosures of who he is come to a dramatic climax as Jesus stands before Pilate. Religious and political leaders have labeled him as a traitor, blasphemer, and impostor “king of the Jews.”

 Pilate is puzzled by the whole drama and pushes Jesus to tell him who he is. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus merely retorts, “You say so.”  Accusations were hurled at him, but he keeps silent! He refuses to defend himself with explanations of who he is. His actions will reveal who he is for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear!

Mark is convinced that Jesus’ true identity can be known only in his Passion. Any declaration apart from his actions in the face of the false charges, the appearance before Pilate, the violent cries of the crowd, the mocking and cruelty of the soldiers will be incomplete and truncated.

His dominant response to the hatred, cruelty, and violence is silence! In Mark’s account of the trial and crucifixion, Jesus only speaks twice. In response to Pilate’s question, Jesus merely responded, “You say so.” The second word was a cry: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

The end came with Jesus giving an inaudible cry “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (v.38).

Then follows the decisive, ultimate answer to the question who is Jesus and it comes from the most unlikely person. Here is the climax toward which Mark has been building: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!” (v. 39).

Mark declares that Jesus’ true identity as God’s Son is known only in seeing him take upon himself the consequences of humanity’s sin, alienation, suffering, despair, and death!  Transcending and permeating his actions as teacher, exorcist, miracle worker, and Messiah is the incarnation of relentless Love. It is a love which enters into radical solidarity with humanity and absorbs in transformative silence the powers of sin and death.

The transformative power of Jesus’ identity revealed in his Passion begins to stir among the women who had observed his crucifixion and death “from a distance” (v. 40-41). Now, they moved closer to care for his body. A member of the council, Joseph of Arimathea, took possession of the body, respectfully wrapped it in “linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that he had hewn out of the rock” (v. 46). Now, the scene is set for God’s ultimate validation of Jesus’ identity as declared by the centurion: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Mark 15 is one of those pericopes which preaches itself! The preacher has multiple options for themes on which to focus, each with the potential for personal and social transformation. Among those are Pilate’s political expediency, the crowd’s choice of Barabbas over Jesus, the injustice of religions leaders, the cruelty of the soldiers, the silence of Jesus in the face of abuse and accusations, Jesus’ cry of abandonment by God, the compassion and faithfulness of the women and Joseph of Arimathea.

But in an age when religion is used to sanction and bless everything from unbridled profit seeking to outright war and violence and when Jesus is used to champion exclusivity and hatred, a simple telling of Mark’s Passion may be sufficient. If the story could convince a violent pagan Roman soldier, Mark is convinced it can reach anyone!

Bishop Kenneth L. Carder

                   

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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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