Finding the Light of the Resurrection in the Shadow of the Cross- Reflections in the Gospel of Mark

“When I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
– Mark 14:25

 

The Gospel story is, at its heart a Resurrection story. But as Mark reminds his readers, this Resurrection story, the promise of new life, is being told through the betrayal and the cross. Resurrection life is found in the life of the suffering servant who embodied the incredible love of a God, a love that would go to the ends of the earth in order to declare our identity as a beloved and cherished child of God.

 

The Betrayal
In these latter chapters of Mark we find the plot thickens and the pace quickens, and in the opening of chapter 14 Jesus’ predictions of the suffering, death and resurrection are now beginning to come to fruition. Mark uses the contrasting picture of a growing crowd of followers and the growing hostility of his opposers (as Jesus stands before Pilate, Pilate assumes the crowd will save Him, but the opposition instead chases the crowd away) to accentuate the gravity of what is about to happen. But as we encounter the plot to kill Jesus, Mark also offers us a rather stark picture of personal betrayal,  shaped by two of Jesus’ closest followers- Judas and Peter. Mark uses theses two stories to reveal an important truth- that all of this happening according to the “the fulfillment of scripture”:

“As it is written”, Judas will betray him (14:21).

“As it is written”, Peter will betray him (14:26-31)

And as we enter the garden and we find Jesus finally being arrested, his words ring true and clear- “let the scriptures be fulfilled.” 

Unfortunately, following these words we find out that “they all left him and fled”. This is the picture Mark leaves us with on this first “Good Friday”. It is dark. It is lonely. It is no wonder “they began to be sorrowful” (14:19). The road that Jesus is on, the Way in which we are being called to follow, feels incredibly difficult and lonely, and in-fact, it is a road that no one seems willing to follow now that the Cross is being made visible. In Mark 14:27, Jesus describes it as a scattering, a picture of chaos and disunity.

 

And yet in these same words we also find something incredibly hopeful. When Jesus offers Peter’s eventual betrayal as an image of this “scattering”, He is reaching back into the story of Zechariah (Zech. 13:7). He connects the cross to the story of Israel and the exile. But the powerful truth about this story is that, in this same passage God is also up to something good. We find He is in the business of purifying and restoring His people. He is working to bring them back and to unify them once again according to a greater vision for them and for the world. And now we find that this unifying picture, this gathering of His people, is the work of Jesus and the Cross.

 

As Jesus says to Peter in chapter 14, even in the midst of the scattering he can hold on to the hope that Jesus will be raised up, and that He will go before Him to Galilee. He offers Peter a picture of the covenantal promise of God to gather and bring freedom to all the nations of the world.

 

This is the hope that we find in the cross as the “fulfillment of scripture”, and there is perhaps no greater picture of this hope than the Passover itself, which now becomes the chosen setting of Jesus’ predicted death and resurrection.

 

The Passover

“Discussions of Jesus’ last Passover have tended to focus narrowly on the words he reportedly said at the Last Supper. These are important… But it is the larger context that makes all the difference. “
– Wright, page 171 (The Day the Revolution Began)

 

What matters… is that Jesus chose Passover to do what had to be done and indeed to suffer what had to be suffered. This alone already tells us that he had in mind a highly dramatic and story-laden climax to his public career; this, it seems, was how he believed Israel’s God would become king.”
– Wright, page 180 (The Day the Revolution Began)

 

If the whole temple scene of Mark 11:12-18 brings us back to Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh (as Wright goes on to suggest), the Passover itself pushes us straight into the heart of the slavery and exile itself. And the point here is two fold. The exile persists as a picture of a people longing to be freed but never being truly freed, both from their oppressors and from their own idolatry. By setting the cross in the event of the Passover, Jesus declares that there is hope, there is freedom still to be found.

As Wright wonderfully points out, what follows the exodus, what is at the heart of the exodus, is the building of the tabernacle. This is the defining moment of this story. A place where God will dwell within the world and amongst His people. It is a precursor of the temple that is soon to be built, and after all this talk of and time spent in the temple in Mark chapter 11-13, Jesus now uses the Passover itself to explain the significance of what is about to happen- on the cross Jesus is erecting a new tabernacle, a new temple, one that will signify the presence of God dwelling in their midst once again. It is a story of a God who is calling His people back from the scattering once and for all. In a story where exile has led to exile, and the promise of their exodus feels frustratingly incomplete and broken all these years later, Jesus now points to the Cross and His resurrection as the means by which God will usher in the promised new Kingdom that they have been waiting for.

 

As Jesus stands in the shadow of the cross, it is the promise of resurrection that becomes the light that creates the shadow. This is the Way He must travel and the Way we are called to follow, but we must not lose sight of the fact that this is the Way into the coming Kingdom, into the light. The Kingdom of God in Mark is a Kingdom that is being built on the person and ministry of Jesus, with stones that cannot be overthrown. It is being built on the example of a servant who is giving up his life in order to bring the new Kingdom, the restored creation to all nations and all people who can now see and hear the truth about who truly are as a part of this restored creation- beloved and cherished children of God.

 

 

The New Kingdom

“Are you the King of the Jews”
-Mark 15:2

Who are you? Who am I? Who is this?

These are the questions that have been following Jesus throughout His ministry. These are the questions that now follow Jesus to the cross. These become the questions of the court and trial themselves, and as readers these are the questions that Mark continues to see as the most important for us to ask. Who is Jesus, and what did He come to do? And it is here that the truth, the plot twist that Mark lets his readers in on during his earlier chapters, now catches up with his characters. In this case, namely a centurion who finds himself taken aback by the reality of what is unfolding right in front of him:

“Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)

Not simply the son of David, but the son of David’s Lord.

And it is in this place, in the shadow of the cross, and in the light of the coming resurrection, that Israel finds its new King- a King for the world, a ruler for the coming Kingdom of God that is being built in the here and the now. And in the centre of this kingdom a new temple is being built, a temple in which the curtain has been torn and the presence of God is being made visible. This new temple is to be the hope for the world, the true expression of God with us and for us.

A Hope Found In Unlikely Places
The cross itself remains the most shocking part of this story. As the story is placed firmly in its Jewish context, it is this idea of a suffering Lord and a single resurrection happening in the middle of history (as Wright puts it) that shook up the Messianic expectation that informed it. And as we enter into this Easter weekend, it is this same idea that looks to shake up our own expectations.

And here is the great realization that comes with seeing Jesus hanging on the cross- the Gospel is a hope for the world and the fulfillment of a promise made to the exiled community of God’s people, but it is also intimately concerned with our own story, with us- Jew or Gentile. And to help us to see this more clearly, Mark offers us some intimate portraits of individuals who emerge at this point in his narrative from the most unlikely of places:

 Joseph:

Joseph of Artimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God…” 15:43

This is such an interesting story. Joseph seems to come out of nowhere to play a significant role in the Passion narrative. Mark wants us, as readers, to be aware that it was this man named Joseph, whom Matthew describes as a rich man and whom both authors describe as respected member of the Jewish council, who was the first one to approach Jesus in the aftermath of His death, choosing to go out of his way to get Jesus off the cross and to give Him a proper burial.

What is fascinating about this story is this little bit of information that Mark provides us about Joseph’s motivation- He was a respected member of Council “who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God”.

 

There are a few standing theories about who this Joseph was, but the one that captures my attention the most is connected to Matthew’s description of him being a “rich man”. I wonder whether this was the same “rich young man” that we meet in Mark 10:17-31, the one who came to Jesus and went away disheartened. I also remain curious whether this is the same “young man” who we see following Jesus in Mark 14:51-52 before slipping off into the shadows. The inclusion of the detail of the linen cloth, which resurfaces in the story of Joseph, is at the very least curious.

 

But here is why I like this theory, even if there is no way to know if it is actually true. That this rich young man continued to look, to pursue, to seek Jesus and the coming Kingdom is a rather amazing thought to consider. That Jesus used this rich young man to make a point about how difficult it is, how impossible it would be, to enter the Kingdom of God on our own efforts, on our terms, and then to find Mark using this same man to show just how far God’s love will actually reach, is compelling to me, especially as I ponder what the Cross means in my own life. As Jesus said in response to the rich man’s sorrow, “but with God, nothing is impossible”. In the midst of the sorrow that surround the cross, and even when things feel absolutely hopeless in my own life, and when I feel caught in my own seemingly endless struggle with idolatry, it is on the Cross that we discover a hope that knows no boundaries.

 

The Anointing of Jesus- the leper and the woman
Likewise, sandwiched between the plot to kill and the plan to betray Jesus is another hopeful story- the story of Jesus being anointed in Bethany by a woman who is seeking Jesus out (14:3-9).

 

This story is notoriously hard to navigate, as it finds itself caught between competing versions within the subsequent Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). In three of the Gospels at least (Matthew and Mark remain closely hued), the story is nuanced in slightly different but important ways, with each author using it to serve the purpose of their unique narrative.

 

Now, of course, I don’t have answers as to how these differing accounts piece together. Maybe they are representative of two existing stories, or maybe they are all retelling the same story. But the fact that the story persists in the way that it does, and the fact that each author has found something unique to pull from it as they each consider Jesus and the truth of the Cross, actually makes this story (for me) all the more powerful and significant and integral. After all, as both Mark and Matthew record, “truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

 

So, in the context of his Gospel, how does Mark remember this story? Where do I find hope as a reader in a story that is seemingly blanketed by such a sense of hopelessness?

 

I find hope in three aspects of this story in Mark. First, I find hope in the house of Simon the leper. Here Mark shares in the spirit of Luke’s account, reminding us of how the Gospel works to reshape our understanding of who belongs and who doesn’t belong in the Kingdom of God. In the moments leading up to His death, the woman in this story seeks Jesus out and finds Him in the house of a social outcast, a leper. Her story reminds us that, at the cross, belonging in the family of God knows no boundaries. For Mark, the Cross is the ultimate expression of Jesus Himself and the ministry God has been building all along, which is a hope for the world and a Kingdom for all nations. And here, in this story, Jesus extends this invitation to belong in this Kingdom, to embrace our identity as a beloved Child of God, into the most unlikely of places.

 

Secondly, in the story of Jesus’ anointing, in the seemingly unexpected context of Simon “the leper’s” house, I also find hope in the idea that the anointing itself completes the picture of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and His being declared King finds its royal anointing in such a humble context is a testament to the nature of the Cross itself. We cannot miss this in the flurry of kingship and kingdom language that covers his Passion narrative.  This is where we are able to understand the way in which the Cross is working to reach into our own unlikely places.

 

And finally, I find hope in Jesus’ response to this anointing and the woman’s apparent courage (to enter the house of an outcast, a stranger, in order to find Jesus on the Way). He says, the Gospel “will be proclaimed in the whole world”.

 

While the memory of what she has done here seems to have lived on in the reality of its inclusion in four different Gospel narratives, it is this truth that stands even taller. The Gospel will persist into all the world. The promise of God will be completed in the light of the resurrection narrative. There is hope in the darkness, hope in the exile, hope in even the smallest most forgotten places of our broken world. These are the places that the Cross seeks to align itself with as it proclaims, along with the centurion, that Jesus truly is the Son of God, the King of the Jews, and the saviour of the world.

 

And how amazing it is that Jesus invites us as a community of God’s children, accepted and loved without condition, to drink this same cup, the new cup of his suffering and sacrifice that now shapes us, restores us, heals us and feeds us. It is by sharing in this cup, by remembering the way in which Jesus and the Cross is making us new every day, that we find unity in the midst of the scattering.

So, may God call me, and each of us, back to the Cross this Easter season as He continues to build His Kingdom for the sake of the world, a Kingdom that is weaving each of our stories into a single picture of the love of God for all the world.

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