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Rethinking the gospel of mark: resurrection narrative as epic.

It is more than twenty years since I took the class "Resurrection Narratives" with Dr. Gwen Sayler (1) in which we discussed the Gospel record and whether the bodily resurrection was necessary for Christianity to have meaning. After vigorous debate, we concluded that the necessity of the bodily resurrection was, and continues to be, a matter of faith.

The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John not only reported the resurrection, they included reports of the risen Christ interacting with the disciples for a period of time afterwards. Although the Gospel of Mark reports Jesus' resurrection, the end is so unsatisfactory that more than one inexpert addition has been attempted. As we discussed Mark's narrative of the empty tomb, I had an epiphany moment when I put the end of Mark and the end of the movie "The NeverEnding Story" (2) together.

In "TNES," Bastian reads a story about Atreyu, the young hero, who must travel to the Empress's palace in Fantasia to find whatever has caused her to fall ill. If he fails, Fantasia will end and the world will be without imagination. Atreyu arrives at the palace as Fantasia is collapsing, and the Princess calls upon Bastian, who has come with Atreyu, to give the Empress a new name. There are a few terrifying moments when Bastian cannot do so. When he succeeds in naming the Empress, the history of Fantasia is rewritten.

As Bastian must name the Empress in "TNES," so we are called upon in Mark to name our Lord in every generation in order to maintain the health of Christ's ministry and dominion. Claiming Christ's name, we enter into the Markan narrative, not only as readers and observers, but as participants with Christ in his resurrection ministries, that is, reaching out in Christ's name to the socially dead of our time and raising them into the new life in Christ that we share.

We are more easily able to understand this ministry of resurrection when we are able to catalog who the social dead of Jesus' time were. In knowing the dead, we can witness those who are raised. In Jesus' time the dead included the blind, the deaf, the lame, the maimed, the diseased, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. Today this list remains much the same.

This catalog is important in Mark's narrative because these are the people who are recorded as being saved/healed ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]-ed). It is the leper and the lame, the possessed and the powerless, the grieving and the dying, the chronically ill and the outsider, the deaf and the blind, who are saved/healed, made whole in Christ. And although Jesus commands many to tell no one, their very change in status from outside to inside the household of God is apparent just by their existence.

In the world of resurrection re-creation, the disabled community (women and men) is gathered into Christ's body as living members. Conversely, the temporarily able-bodied, including Jesus' disciples and all who live in privilege, seem to be the ones who have the greatest difficulty believing.

The crisis of salvation within the Markan narrative is so great that, at the end of the crucifixion/resurrection narrative, we hear no naming, we see no confidence, we feel no assurance. Why not? What was Mark thinking? The answer is to start Mark again. The Easter proclamation is Mark 1:1 "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." This must be the Easter proclamation. It is necessarily predicated on the empty tomb. Indeed, this statement cannot be other than the Easter proclamation, or it would not claim Jesus Christ "the Son of God" but only the person, Jesus the man.

If Mark 1:1 is the Easter proclamation, then we need to rethink the structure of Mark. It is not a linear narrative that moves from beginning to end. The Markan narrative is circular, like all epic literature, a form at least as old as Homer's Iliad. Mark begins in medias res, in the middle of the story. The culmination of events is then followed by the precipitating crisis. In other words, the beginning is the "middle" of the story, the middle is the "end," and the end is the "beginning." (3)

This circular narrative understanding of Mark means Mark is not a passion narrative with an extended preface. Instead, Mark is an extended resurrection story with a realistic understanding of ministry tied to the passion narrative. Mark calls us all to rethink and rewrite the narratives of life with the truly human and the truly divine Jesus before us going to Galilee and going with us in our walks together in ministry.

Like other epic literature, Mark begins in the "middle" with the resurrection proclamation (1:1) and moves through the feeding of the 4000 (8:21). The stories of healing the blind (8:22-26 and 10:46-52) bookmark the "end" of the narrative. The concluding statement is "Immediately, he regained his sight and followed [Christ] on the way." (4) Thus the end of Mark is a statement of "faith and following" rather than the perplexing "fear and silence." Within the framework of epic, the "beginning" of the narrative then is the road to Jerusalem and the cross told in Mark 11:1-16:8.

As others have noted, the tearing of the temple curtain (5) cannot be the only tearing for there is not one but two curtains, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (6) In the structure of "middle/end/beginning," the first curtain is torn at the time of Christ's death, the second curtain at Jesus' baptism. (7) These tearings, through which the holy of holies is revealed and the boundary between the earthly kingdom and God's kingdom is ruptured, lead us to the transfiguration. (8)

Although it may be counterintuitive, these tearings support an epic narrative style that begins in chapter 11 with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. This means it is not the last tearing that reveals an empty tomb with only a few who flee with fear and trembling, telling no one. Read as epic, the account moves from fear and trembling at the tearing in Mark 15:38 to the confidence of Mark 1:1 and the more positive baptismal tearing. Following this epic trajectory the movement is from the baptismal tearing to the building of a new community, raised from social death to life in the new community of Christ.

Mark is written between the earlier writings of Paul who declares his active calling by a post-resurrection, spiritually encountered Jesus (which will be described in Acts 9) and Matthew and Luke, whose birth narratives were written in answer to the need of the church for a historical, human Jesus. Mark presents an incarnate, resurrected Christ who leads the ministry of those who will follow. This resurrected Jesus continues to walk among us, calling us to discipleship and leading us into ministry. Together we are about building up the body of Christ.

As the Hebrew people were led out of slavery into the wilderness to become a new people living in a covenantal relationship with God, so we enter into the wilderness time with Jesus to learn a new covenantal relationship with Christ. This new covenantal relationship is based on the Eucharistic meal the disciples received (14:22-25) and leads to the feedings of the many (6:34-44 and 8:1-8).

The shift in these feeding stories where Jesus presides leads us from the new covenantal meal into meals of ministry. Christ's ability to create the great sign event, whether found in his resurrected power to do so or through the generosity of those gathered, proclaims continually that God is concerned for the hungry and works in ways that the hungry might be fed.

How is this understanding expressed in the Mark readings for the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany?

First Sunday of Advent--Mark 13:24-37

The Advent readings begin with Mark's little apocalypse. Pointing to the "middle" of Mark, this passage becomes a key for understanding Mark's gospel as a whole: the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars points to the events of the crucifixion and the resurrection world of gathering the elect. The example of the fig tree is no longer a sign of Day of Judgment closure, but a sign of anticipated harvest. The parable of the man going on a journey points more to the tomb and resurrection world than the parousia. And the admonition to "keep awake" calls us to watch for the continued presence and works of Christ as he leads us into resurrection living.

This text demands active engagement with Christ in raising up the social dead into active, integrated participation. Separate but equal treatment is not the object. Homeless shelters and food pantries are worthwhile ministries, but here we are challenged to go further. We are called to care for the household of God in ways that raise those whom we serve into partnership, into ways of living which proclaim that not only do those in need need us, but we need those who are needy.

In creedal speech, we do not say "He will come to judge the living and the dead," as-much-as "he comes to judge the living and the dead." That is, those of us who are privileged to be the living are judged now alongside of and with those who do not share our privilege and are therefore outside life. Yet if we are able to be the slaves of God's household, we will find ways of hospitality for those who would enter. As doorkeepers, we will find ways to open those doors with welcome to those who are outside. It is not our responsibility to polish and maintain what we have. Rather, we prepare a community of believers who wait to celebrate the life we have together in Christ, to be raised up from the waters of baptism into new ways of living and eat together at the table of Christ's presence and forgiveness. And then, "His kingdom will have no end."

Second Sunday of Advent--Mark 1:1-8

Like none of the other Gospels, Mark, by starting in the middle, meets us where we are. We are not the beginning of the faith story, nor are we the end of the story. We stand firmly in the middle. We enter into the Gospel narrative whenever we are able to proclaim the words of new resurrection living. As we enter into the "middle" of Marks story, the resurrection narrative bids us to enter into God's new creation, justified in Christ.

"The beginning of..." ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--Mark 1:1) echoes the ancient "In the beginning..." ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--en 1:1). Both are the words of creation, but, unlike the genitive clause of Genesis that has no real answer to what is beginning, Mark insists on us knowing. The new creation begins with "the good news of Jesus Christ," and a later emphasis, "the Son of God."

As Genesis describes the created universe, Mark invites us into the resurrection re-creation. Having witnessed humanity's willingness to kill God, Christ comes to reestablish God's relationship with creation. From the darkness of the tomb, the light of Christ shines anew and reshapes our consciousness of God's continued activity of grace and forgiveness. We are confronted with the need to confess our sin, to turn our lives around, and to reorient our lives to the vision of Christ's new ways of resurrection living.

In order to do this, we must separate ourselves from the old world. John comes calling us to repentance of the old world and points us to the one who will drown us, cleanse us, renew us in the Holy Spirit raising us up into the new creation. Like Moses, John cries out against the powers of the world to let God's people go, to release them from the tyranny of sin in order to live for God alone.

The reference to Jesus' sandals reminds us not only of rules of hospitality, but also of God's command at the burning bush to Moses to remove his sandals because he, Moses, is standing on holy ground. Certainly, God has the right to command humanity, but it would be inappropriate for humanity to remove God's sandals. Here we find that John is unworthy of commanding Christ to remove his sandals. He is unworthy of even untying the thong of those sandals.

In the resurrection world, holy ground is no longer site-specific. Wherever God's liberating word is preached, wherever Christ stands, wherever Christ's presence is recognized, there is the locus of the holy. So now, on the shores of the Jordan, from the whole Judean countryside and from all of Jerusalem, the people gather for the exodus from the old and move into the new.

The Baptism of our Lord--Mark 1:4-11

We back up a little to pick up where we last left Mark, with the preaching of John and the baptism of Jesus. In his baptism, we recognize Christ's humanity and witness the conferring of the Holy Spirit. In this event, the curtain between heaven and earth is torn apart.

All pictures I have seen depicting this event show a pretty, blue sky and a beautiful dove either in flight descending or sitting on Jesus' shoulder. Curious, I have interviewed a number of totally blind people concerning this text (although it was not a scientific study). When those who have been totally blind from birth think about this day, they commonly describe it as a day when there was a terrible, cataclysmic, incredible, amazing, awesome storm. One said, "It must have been something. I wish I had been there with a recorder."

Seeing and hearing "the heavens torn apart," the veil between God's kingdom and earth, at least deserves some consideration on this day. As the voice of God brings creation into being in Genesis, so now God's breath/Spirit ([TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]) speaks and identifies Jesus as God's Son. Although this passage does not have the flare of the Pentecost event of Acts 2, certainly this is a Pentecost moment in Mark.

Including v. 12 in the pericope moves the conversation from the event to the locus of community formation. As Moses and the Hebrew people escape Egypt and are formed in the wilderness with its many temptations to turn back and turn away from God, so Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where he, and we, will be tempted. Out of this wilderness time, we too will become a new community in a new covenantal relationship with God. We will revisit his new formation time as we move into Lent.

Second Sunday in Epiphany--Mark 1:14-20

Leaving the wilderness, Jesus enters into Galilee where he had promised to meet his disciples (16:7), and begins the gathering of the new resurrection community. The proclamation here is resurrection-world vocabulary. Jesus comes "proclaiming the good news of God... Repent and believe in the good news." The good news is, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!" The heavens are torn apart and God's kingdom has interfaced with creation as one amazing app, and it is free! He has come to lead his disciples into new ways of living. The witness is there before us. He is the Word of God incarnate, walking among his people.

Indeed, we have witnessed the words of new creation in Jesus Christ and the conference of the Holy Spirit. Now the truly human and the truly divine Christ begins the gathering.

As in John 21, the disciples do not immediately know him, but hearing his voice calling them to greater work, they leave what they are doing and follow without question. In Mark, this is the first calling of the disciples, but we, as reader/hearers, see not only the human Jesus recruiting his disciples, we also witness the divine Jesus commissioning us to fish for people. It reminds us that we are not called only once. Jesus continues to arrive in our lives calling us again and again in the midst of our mundane work to fellowship and following. If we fish, we will fish for people. If we are farmers, we will plant kingdom seeds. Whatever we do is needed for the gathering of God's people.

Indeed the kingdom of God has drawn near. We have witnessed the tearing of the veil that separates us from God's kingdom and heard the words of our risen Lord calling us into ministry. We too are called to follow in these new ways of disciple living.

Third Sunday in Epiphany--Mark 1:21-28

Jesus now travels with his disciples to Capernaum continuing the gathering. In the synagogue, he teaches with the authority of the one who has overcome the grave, approved by the Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit. He does not teach as a student of another rabbi but as a teacher with God's Trinity testimony.

What the people see before them is the person of Jesus, but what the unclean spirit sees is the cosmic Christ. In the cosmic battle between God's good and evil, the unclean spirit claims the knowledge of the transcendent Christ. The unclean spirit, using the royal we, asks, "Have you come to destroy us?"

Although the unclean spirit using royal language may refer to a Roman sympathizer, it is enough to consider how the powers of the world tempt us away from following Christ. Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be silent and come out, and immediately it leaves, although not without agony, convulsions, and loud protests.

Similarly, whenever we try new ways of teaching and worshipping, we continue to witness and hear the complaints of change. The convulsions can be strong enough to split our worshipping communities, and voices of discontent can be heard. With the people of Capernaum, we wonder, "What is this new teaching? By what authority is this new teaching given? Who is this that continues to cast out unclean spirits among us?"

Through our continued faithful following, Jesus' fame continues to spread.

Fourth Sunday in Epiphany--Mark 1:29-39

Simon's mother-in-law is in bed with a fever serious enough for Jesus to lift (raise) her up. In this raised-up life she enters into serving.

Whether the news of her healing spreads throughout the town or the expulsion of the unclean spirit earlier is the cause, the town gathers around the door of the house in the evening. Here we see that the doorkeeper has flung the doors open to those who would be in relationship with Christ.

In creation terms, this is the time of creation. Out of darkness, light is given. In the darkness of our lives, God continues to speak. In the times of despair, Christs victory over the grave continues to give us hope. Now Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons.

Again, we witness that the people encounter the truly human Jesus while the demons enter into contention with the cosmic resurrected Christ. Again, the demons are silenced. The one who has conquered death has authority over evil.

Jesus' gathering ministry includes women, the sick, and those who are possessed by those things that draw us away from Christ. We may not be able to find wholeness and health within ourselves, but in Christ's presence and the relationship we have with one another in Christ, wholeness and healing are possible.

In the morning, Jesus goes out to pray in a deserted creation-place, not unlike the formless void ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of Gen 1:2. We read that Simon and the others follow him into this place from which creation comes. When his disciples find him, they report, "Everyone is seeking you." The seeking they report tends to refer to those with whom Jesus has just been. In this deserted creation-place, however, Jesus hears it as creation's longing. He enthusiastically calls his disciples to go to new places of gathering, to enter into relationship with those who will live in new ways of wholeness. Jesus continues to meet, teach, and lead throughout the place where he promised to encounter his disciples--Galilee.

It is tempting to make Galilee geographically specific, but for us, Galilee is the place of ministry and manifests its reality whenever we recognize Christ in our midst.

Transfiguration Sunday--Mark 9:2-9

Thus far in Mark, Jesus has gathered the people: the sick, the possessed, the leper, the lame, the old and the young, women and men; he has fed the hungry (the 5000 and the 4000) and healed both Jews and gentiles. Jesus has taught and people have listened so that the deaf can hear and proclaim the good news. Now we begin seeing the way of faith.

This new resurrection way of living will be in conflict with the powers of the world. The blind see that this new way of living is seeing "people like trees [crosses] (9) walking." (10) Even Peter has a momentary glimpse of the importance of what this resurrected Jesus means. Thus Peter declares, "You are the Christ/Messiah." (11) This revelation should prepare the disciples for the transfiguration, but Peter loses the vision within the next three verses and within the week, the disciples will only be able to see the one who stands before them.

For the disciples, the glimpse of life in the resurrected world leaves them desiring life without suffering. There is the hope of victory without consequences. As the resurrection narrative begins to look to its "end" and "beginning," Jesus reminds his disciples of the price paid for this resurrection world and calls us to take up our crosses and follow.

Although Jesus takes up his cross on a Friday, the cross of Christian faith is a first day, resurrection commitment. Our cross is not Christ's cross of crucifixion. The cross we bear gives witness to the one we follow. We receive our crosses in Baptism and bear them with hope for the present and future of God's resurrection kingdom.

The Transfiguration occurs "and six days after..." ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; --Mark :2a); i.e., it is into the seventh day of something. Mark does not tell us what day it is after. From the words of Mark 9:1 it appears to be six days after a first day, the day God's kingdom comes with the power to overcome death and the grave because the promise that "some... will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power" is a first day, Sunday, statement. It follows that promises based on this power claim that day for its happening. Six days later would then place us in the seventh day, Sabbath.

In creation language this puts us in the time of sabbath completion of the new creation. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain "apart, by themselves" where Jesus is transfigured. Since we have witnessed the tearing of the heavens in chapter 1, we should not be surprised to see Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, nor should we be surprised that the disciples should be invited into this sabbath time.

What surprises us is that Peter and the others still either cannot or do not appreciate the revelation of the risen Christ. They continue to see the human Jesus before them. They are not ready to proclaim the good news yet. Peter, wishing to commemorate the moment, wants to build dwellings as if adding shrines for worship and veneration has anything to do with the resurrection way.

At this nexus moment of God's kingdom and God's creation when one would expect worship and praise, we witness fear and paralysis. Overshadowed by God's presence, the disciples hear the words that will send them to the end of their internship: "This is my son; the beloved. Listen to him." When all is said and done, instead of being transformed, they see only Jesus. The disciples still do not fully understand who Jesus is beyond their favored status of discipleship. So they are charged to tell no one of this time until they witness the resurrection of the son of man from the dead.

Considering also v. 10, the disciples' questions echo Mark 16:8, and challenge us to ponder within ourselves, "What does this rising from the dead mean? Will we remain terrified and silent, or are we able to proclaim God's good news for God's people?"

In this time of resurrection ministry, is the rising from the dead a transfer in membership from the world to God's kingdom in heaven? Or, is God's kingdom creation inclusive? In resurrection living, do we work as harvesters gathering in those whom we meet? Do we actively seek the social dead around us and find ways to raise them up into Christs resurrection living?

Of course, Jesus' leading takes us back down the mountain into greater works of gathering.


In reading Mark as epic, the Messianic secret is Christ's extended life among us after the resurrection in a world that is not yet ready to know him. Those who experience and hear his teaching see God's kingdom in the world that surrounds them.

This post-resurrection understanding acts as a bridge between Paul's knowledge of Christ received on the Damascus road and the later need for an historical personage. Mark's gospel also presents a unified Trinity relationship at Jesus' baptism which sets the stage for the truly human and truly divine Christ. As such, Mark is not so much an account of the historical Jesus as it is an account of Christ's continued presence among us, leading us to the cross and the mystery of the empty tomb, challenging us to name Christ in every generation.

Peter T. Heide

Assistant Pastor of Education, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Baraboo, Wisconsin

(1.) Professor of Bible, Wartburg Theological Seminary. Cf. Prof. Sayler's article in Currents, 381.

(2.) "The NeverEnding Story" (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984). Referenced hereafter as "TNES."

(3.) The editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2014). in medias res. In Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1 August 2014,

(4.) Mark 10:52.

(5.) Mark 15:38.

(6.) Friedman, R. E. (1992). Tabernacle. In (D. N. Freedman, ed.) The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. (New York: Doubleday), 6.292-300.

(7.) Mark 1:10.

(8.) Mark 9:3.

(9.) The metaphor of tree being associated with cross is mentioned in Gal 3:13: "cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." Also as one who has lost his sight and regained it several times, I can say that seeing people praying in the orans position looks like the trunk of trees with branches outstretched. In a worship setting, if the congregation uses the orans position, arms will overlap creating X crosses.

(10.) Mark 8:24.

(11.) Mark 8:29.

RELATED ARTICLE: Stir up to carol or forest green.

Peter Heide, 2011

Stir up your power, O Christ, and come. Arise and show your face In ways the humble blind can see, The deaf can hear your grace. Wake us, O God. With mercy speak The dangers of our sins. Then blameless hold and teach the meek Your new ways to begin.

Stir up our hearts, Lord God, that we Make straight, prepare his way. And for his coming, strengthen us To serve Christ in this day. With pure, true lives washed in his blood, In holiness, we wait His righteousness that paves our road And saves us from our fate.

Stir up our wills, Lord God, we pray. Your people long to hear The words of prophets, old, fulfilled, Love's testament of cheer. You lift the lowly and the poor; A table you prepare, Providing food, forgiveness, hope, Abundance, light, and care.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With healing, grace, and might, Free us from sin; your mercy give And, in death's darkness, light. For we, your vessels, bear your love, Redeeming Word proclaim, to people all around the world, Your precious holy name.
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Author:Heide, Peter T.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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