Ending Pending (Mark 16:8-20)

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There’s a fascinating conundrum at the end of Mark’s Gospel. It is that there are at least three alternatives on offer. Most Bibles carry notice of these three, and some scholars suggest even more possibilities. But why is that? The reason that I’d like to highlight -and the reason that I used the word “fascinating”- is that the oldest ending is undoubtedly v8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Now it is easy to see, with a little study, that this is a satisfying and a rewarding ending, but it is as difficult and as challenging (and as messy) as life itself.

We see something of the same ambiguity in Matthew’s resurrection narrative in Mtt 28:17: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”If Mark offers a choice between fear and service (with the ending at v8), Matthew sees a choice between worship and doubt.

So, avoiding this conundrum, with the challenge of its existential realism, my Bible has this footnote: “Some manuscripts have the following ending between verses 8 and 9, and one manuscript has it after verse 8 (omitting verses 9-20): ‘Then they quickly reported all these instructions to those around Peter. After this, Jesus himself also sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.'”

This certainly softens the impact of the idea of saying nothing because you were afraid! As does the third, longer ending, to an extent. Here it is:

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

12 Afterwards, Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. 13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.”

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”

The longer ending contains a realistic account of the totally believable struggle to believe. Mary Magdalene reports the resurrection, but they the disciples dismiss it. The Emmaus pair return and are cold-shouldered. Jesus appears and chides them for their “stubborn refusal to believe.” The last few verses collate accounts that are familiar to us from the other Gospels and from Acts. They tidy up loose ends, incorporate features of early church life, and provide the rationale for evangelism and mission.

But for Mark, I believe, it’s important to consider that “the ending is pending.” Mark leaves an ending that forces a choice that the reader (and the would-be disciple) must make: “Having heard the account, how do you choose? How do you vote? Here is my testimony of Jesus – what do you make of it?” That’s the real ending.

It is not a matter of intellectual curiosity that must be satisfied, but of existential choice that must be made.

It recalls to me the powerful words of John 7:17: “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”



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Trauma and Ecstasy – Mark’s Resurrection (Mark 16:1-8)

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“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene,who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1-8)

If this is, as most scholars believe, the very first account of the resurrection of Jesus, then it’s important to pay close attention. First, we see the same trio of women who stood by the cross. We realise that that anointing for which there was no time before Sabbath is now to take place.

And surely we are to reference another anointing -in the house of Simon the leper ( in Mark 14:3-11)- when a woman poured expensive perfume over Jesus. In the face of criticism over her extravagance, Jesus replied: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying” (Mk 14:8).

The kingly anointing connects another strand of thought in Mark’s narrative: it reminds us that Jesus is king, in fact, he is that very “King of the Jews,” just as Pilate asked (Mk 15:2, 9, 12), and just as the soldiers taunted (Mk 15:18). The ironic sign reading “The King of the Jews” (15:26) is now seen as plain truth, and the final act of scorn is validated:  “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32).

So the faithful trio make their way to perform this, the saddest of all duties, prosaically discussing the logistics of just how to do it. There is an insuperable obstacle in the shape of the large stone door (Mk 16:3), but in the event, “When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back” (Mk 16:4).

Through the use of the historic present, we are led into the action, into the tomb: “And entering the tomb, they see a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they are amazed.” (Mk 16:5). That last word suggests being startled, like a deer in the headlights, or awe-struck, like a small child on a cliff-edge. Fear and wonder in one gasp.

Who is this young man? Many make the connecting link with that other “young man” who fled naked at Gethsemane. If that is the correct understanding, then what Mark has done is contrast two unnamed young men, one just before and the other just after the resurrection.

The contrast highlights the transformation of perspective that the resurrection effects.

The young man at the arrest is afraid and flees in panic. His character is riven with fear. One might expect in the contrast, then , a movement from fear to faith, or to peace. Instead the surprising contrast is from from fear to service. The young man at the tomb might still be afraid, but somehow Jesus’ resurrection has turned him away from his inner fear and has re-orientated him to see the needs of others.

Their astonishment (or amazement or fear) is rebuked: “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified… He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” This is the heart of the Gospel. But immediately, it becomes a call to action: “Go, tell.” The joint imperatives convey immediacy. Go back to Galilee, and “there you will see him, just as he told you.“The summons refers back to Mk 14:28: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.

And this is Mark’s word to us. We receive the commission to go and tell, at the same time as understanding all too well the temptation to become “Trembling and bewildered…” and to say  “nothing to anyone, because [we are] afraid.” The words are even stronger in Greek: tromos (trauma) and ecstasis (ecstasy).  Trauma and ecstasy had seized them. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark’s Gospel ends in silence and Jesus never appears.

Mark’s story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood. Those three women didn’t see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn’t hear Jesus call their names. Neither have we. They weren’t invited to touch his wounded hands. We haven’t touched Jesus’ hands either. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters. The narrative is left for us, the readers, to complete.

“…the silence of the last disciple characters surviving in the narrative bring the readers and hearers to their own thresholds of faith, to the limit of words to speak the unspeakable … and to the limit of human experience to trust Who or What is beyond death … In the silence, the narrative still calls the disciples of the next generation to speak for themselves, and bring the gospel into dialogue with their lives.” (Joan L. Mitchell)

How will we tell this story? Will we leave space for those whose stories are different from ours? Will we insist that we alone are right and others are wrong? Will we invite them or coerce them? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome stand beside us today. In their silence they remind us that the life of faith is shaped by trauma and ecstasy, trembling and amazement. The silence at the end of Mark’s gospel is always waiting to be filled in by people of every generation, waiting now for you and for me.

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Preparation Day (Mark 15:42-47)

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“It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.” (Mark 15: 42-47)

There is a swift parade of personnel: Joseph of Arimathea, Pilate, the centurion, Joseph again, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joseph.

The disciples are notably absent.

The burial scene concludes the passion narrative. The coming of the Sabbath at sundown adds urgency to the action, for the burial cannot take place on the day of rest. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council who presumably was an exception to Mark’s earlier sweeping statements (in 14:55, 64), asks for the body of Jesus.

It is odd that Jesus is dead after only six or seven hours on the cross. Victims of crucifixion sometimes survived for days, eventually succumbing to exposure, blood loss, dehydration, or asphyxiation. But when the centurion confirms Jesus’ death, Joseph tends to the body.

The presence of women, especially Mary Magdalene, is noted at both the cross (15:40-41) and the burial (Mk 15:47). Apart from Joseph, -and possibly the centurion- the women are the only sympathetic characters mentioned by Mark at this point. They will reappear at the tomb after the Sabbath. But for now, this horrific and violent episode draws to a close with Jesus’ corpse lying on a stone slab.

Someone said “Mark’s passion story is less an argument to be understood, and more a theological poem to ponder.” We hear and feel afresh that those who claim to follow Jesus are capable of betrayal; we are educated about the paranoid violence of human power-plays; we are warned about the dangers of self-interest among the professionally religious.

But most of all we are intrigued and drawn by the Man who risks all and surrenders all  to that new way of being that he called the Kingdom of God. He refuses to budge, and refuse to quit.  If such risk is met by abandonment (Mark 15:34), then all is lost; but if by vindication (Mark 15:39), then all is gained.

The passion narrative is not a doctrine to be dissected, but a drama to be experienced and explored again and again by those who would dare conform their own lives to the courageous, winsome, and faithful identity it discloses.

And there, in this desperate hour, the Gospels present us not with hopelessness, but with a display of quiet loyalty, when Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate to obtain and bury the body of Jesus during those long hours between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

It was a courageous act of obedience. To associate yourself with a convicted criminal was risky — hence the abandonment of all Jesus’s other disciples (Mark 14:50), and Peter’s denials (Mark 14:68, 70, 71). Others had already been seized for showing too much interest (Mark 14:51). Hence Mark 15:43 says that Joseph “took courage and went to Pilate” to make the request for Jesus’s body.

Moreover, Joseph and Nicodemus (whom John’s account includes) had a lot to lose. They were both highly ranked Pharisees — members of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish ruling council. Mark describes Joseph as “a respected member of the council” (Mark 15:43). Matthew adds that he was wealthy (Matthew 27:57).

Second, this was a cheerless act. Wealthy, educated men like Nicodemus and Joseph generally did not do menial labour like burying dead bodies. This was a messy, smelly affair left for the servants, not respected members of the Sandhedrin.

Matthew records that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57). Luke calls him “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50) who did not approve of Jesus’s crucifixion and “was looking for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51). Nicodemus’s behaviour is portrayed positively as well since his initial conversation with Jesus in John 3 (John 7:50–51; 19:39).

So, these men loved Jesus. Imagine therefore the weight of grief they felt as they handled his lifeless body.

Third, this act was costly. Luke 23:53 mentions it was a tomb “where no one had ever yet been laid.” To cut a new tomb was expensive, as was providing the linen cloths and spices. In fact, John’s account tells us that Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39), which was an incredible sum of money.

Jesus’s burial is an important part of the gospel story. The Apostles’ Creed recounts that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried.” In an important summary of the gospel, Paul recounts that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

God honoured the loyalty and sacrifice of these men by having them play a critical role in the gospel narrative. As Saturday was dawning (Luke 23:54), it would have been easy for them to think that their life was over. They had spent their money and lost much of their status. Their future did not look particularly bright in that moment. But through this very act, God prepared the conditions for the turning point of all history.

God took what seemed like a dismal ending and turned it into a glorious beginning.

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“Some women were watching…” (Mark 15:40-41)

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“Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” (Mark 15: 40-41)

It is only a superficial reading that finds this of little account, or that sees the women in a secondary or subservient role. The truth is rather the opposite.

Once again, the verbs tell the story. The women “followed him… [and] cared for him.” These words speak of discipleship and devotion. In fact, when you consider the implications of the second verb, it means that three years of ministry depended upon their support.

And what of that word “watching“? Isn’t that precisely what Jesus commanded his (male) disciples to do, with a singular lack of success? So rather than the women stepping up at the point of  male failure (as some have read this), the text supports the idea that their discipleship has been consistent and compassionate. Indeed, within the week, it will be the women who carry the first news of the resurrection and whose faith, once again, will outstrip that of their male counterparts.

Earlier in his Gospel, Luke had mentioned “certain women” who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry travels. In Luke 8:1-3, he makes Mark’s point, that women  provided for Jesus out of their own resources. Luke identifies three of the women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, and Susanna—but adds (in verse 3) that there were “many other” (heterai pollai) women in this group.  

“Many” women were dedicated followers of Jesus during his ministry on earth. Some of these women seem to have been independent of fathers and husbands, and some were independently wealthy. These women left the relative comfort of their homes, travelled in rough conditions, and seemingly disregarded cultural conventions in order to faithfully follow and serve their Lord. There is little doubt that Jesus welcomed these women and valued their ministry, including their later ministry of being his witnesses to the people of Israel and beyond (Acts 13:30-31).

The women who followed Jesus were his disciples. This fact is not always clear in the Gospels, but it is spelt out in Mark 3:31-35.

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.

Kenneth Bailey comments on this text.

“In our Middle Eastern cultural context, a speaker who gestures to a crowd of men can say, ‘Here are my brother,and uncle and cousin’. He cannot say, ‘Here are my brother, and sister, and mother’. The text specifically affirms that Jesus is gesturing to ‘his disciples’ whom he addresses with male and female terms. This communicates to the reader that the disciples before him were composed of men and women.”

On another occasion, Mary of Bethany sat at the feet of Jesus, taking the position of a disciple learning from their rabbi. Mary was behaving just as a male disciple would behave, and Jesus clearly approved (Luke 10:42). Near the end of his Gospel, John records Mary Magdalene calling Jesus “Rabboni”, which is Aramaic for “my master-teacher” (John 20:16). Mary Magdalene was not just a patron of Jesus, she was his disciple.

And so, we must pay attention to the implications of Mark’s text. “Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.”  How many is “many”? Does that mean 10, 20, 30 or more? Did the women outnumber the men? We know of the Twelve being sent out on mission, but what of the Seventy? Were they all men, too? 

The people of God have been blessed and often sustained by the courageous faithfulness of godly women. While the men who were closest to Jesus betrayed, denied, and abandoned him, the women were different. They followed him as he passed through the streets going to Golgotha, were present at the Cross, met him at the empty tomb, and were present in the upper room at Pentecost. Let’s never underestimate or devalue the importance of godly women. Jesus never did!

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“He saw how he died…” (Mark 15:34-39)

Crucifixion, 1930 by Pablo Picasso

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Mark paints the picture of the death of Jesus with a strange combination of tiny vignettes between the frame of  “A loud voice…[and] a loud cry.”

He shrieks out with the pain of loss: “Why did you let this happen?” The words, familiar from the synagogue service, are given in Hebrew.

It’s always poignant to hear the sound of things that Jesus actually said.

But though these words are familiar, they are not heard distinctly. Why is that? On one level, we may note that the man was dying in pain, gasping for breath and that articulation was not a priority.

On another level, it reminds us that Jesus died surrounded by pagans who didn’t speak Hebrew, and even those who did misunderstood him the more.

It was, after all, a pagan who said: “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

On yet another level, the reference to Elijah may be a final taunt. From the vantage points of Jesus the Messiah and of the Gospel of Mark, Elijah had already come. John the Baptist was the Elijah who was to precede the Messiah. Those in power had John murdered; now they were doing the same with Jesus. Those who are at the Cross to mock the Lord Jesus misunderstand what he said. They simply turn Jesus’ words into another way to mock, belittle, and humiliate him more.

The thought recalls Bonhoeffer’s heartfelt reflection:

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies.”

And the curtain is torn, “from top to bottom.” Amidst all the misunderstanding and ugliness, Mark makes a statement of access and possibility. As Jesus dies, the institution of separation between man and God also dies.

Is it the curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies or the curtain that separated the outer court from the temple proper? The Greek term used by Mark, “katapetasma,” is ambiguous. Either way, the basic symbolism of a disruption at the nation’s place of worship is clear.

But what does it mean?

Primarily, given the context, it suggests that time is up. As abruptly as the darkness has fallen, judgement has come. And it is a judgment on the temple itself, and on the religious ideology that has failed to recognise its own Messiah. In this sense, it pictures the end of the old covenant (as described in Hebrews 8-10) and opens up the way to the new.

But also, the curtain being torn is a symbol of Jesus opening the way, and providing “a new and living way” through his own death.

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

The ambiguity persists and the sense of possible misunderstanding lingers. And yet the final dénouement is given of who Jesus really was not by an insider to the covenant but by the worst possible outsider – a Roman soldier.

The “insiders” mock and misunderstand. The Gentiles watch and get the point.

The Romans believed that Caesar was the son of God and to say otherwise was treason. Inscribed on that Roman coin (in Mark 12:17) was the phrase “Tiberius Caesar, the divine son of the divine Augustus.” The claim to be “Son of God” offended both Jew and Roman. And so the declaration comes against the odds of likelihood, as the Centurion “saw how he died.”  The phrase  could mean that he was impressed with Jesus’s dignity and self-possession, or by the comparison with those crucified with him, or with the circumstances of darkness… there are several possibilities here. But Mark’s point must be that while everyone else around him–the disciples and the religious elites– all seem to not understand who Jesus was, the centurion did.

Yet, there was something different about Jesus’ death than all the others that changes this hard man.  The only person a loyal Roman would ever call “Son of God” was Caesar–but this man gave the title to Jesus. It’s so unlikely that the centurion would proclaim Jesus as the Son of God especially having witnessed Jesus dying such a humiliating and gruesome death. After all, why should any of us believe in Jesus?

And yet he did. It’s an important marker – a climax – in the whole Gospel narrative.

“God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and
powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the
revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way
of seeing the world is turned upside down… all values are transformed… God
refuses to play games of power and prestige on human terms.” (Richard B. Hays)

We are invited to see the best in the midst of the worst. We are invited to look through the Centurion’s eyes and see what he saw.



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Darkness at Noon (Mark 15:33-34)

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“At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

The physical darkness is paralleled by a spiritual darkness. Both are metaphors of each other. I recall a comment made on the Hebrew text of Isaiah 61:1 as referring to a double darkness (” blind and in the darkness of the dungeon” and perhaps there is something of that flavour here. The darkness echoes Exodus 10:22; Jeremiah 15:9; Joel 2:10; and Amos 8:9, where the darkness clearly symbolises divine judgement.

Morna Hooker concluded: “The darkness at midday symbolises the judgement that comes upon the land of Israel with the rejection of Israel’s king.”

The word “judgement” may not completely fit Mark’s picture, however, and it may be more appropriate to think of judgement as the inevitable consequence of human sinfulness rather than a penalty imposed upon sinners.

But there is one aspect of judgement that is unquestionable: the physical and spiritual darkness is laid upon the man  Jesus who endures that judgement on our behalf. Gunton put it this way: “He goes, as man, where we cannot go, under the judgement, and so comes perfected into the presence of God. But it is grace because he does so as God and as our representative, so that he enables us to go there after him. “

And for the journey to be complete, the humiliation has to be total. And this entails abandonment.When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is registering the absence of God.

This is a citation of Psalm 22 which matches others in the same chapter. Some suggest that Jesus was quoting the opening line of the psalm as a way of referencing a movement from pain to praise, and through tragedy to triumph. Calvin dismissed this, seeing the cry of dereliction as part of Christ’s descent into hell. He argued that when “we see that Christ was so cast down as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ there can be little doubt that his words were clearly drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart.”

But why? Why did Jesus experience such a sense of abandonment? He did not die with the calm detachment of Socrates, but with an overwhelming sense of loss. The intimacy of a life with the Father was suddenly taken away and it was unbearable. This desolation was the cup that he asked to be taken from him at Gethsemane.

As a ‘blasphemer’, Jesus was rejected by the guardians of his people’s law. As a ‘rebel’ he was crucified by the Romans. But finally, and most profoundly, he died as one rejected by his God and Father. In the theological context of his life this is the most important dimension. It is this alone which distinguishes his cross from the many crosses of forgotten and nameless persons in world history.

According to Moltmann, “godlessness and godforsakenness are two sides of the same event. The heathen turn the glory of the invisible God into a picture-like corruptible being—‘and God surrenders them to the lusts of their heart’ (Rom. 1:24,26, 28). Judgement lies in the fact that God delivers men up to the corruption which they themselves have chosen and abandons them in their forsakenness.”

From this perspective the godforsakenness of the dying Jesus is no mistake or accident, but is the occasion when the Son of God stands in the place of godless people and willingly accepts the godforsakenness which is God’s judgement upon sin.

Moltmann’s The Crucified God underlines the significance of the cry of dereliction. The stakes are high here because “to deny the absolute loneliness of Christ’s experience on the cross is, implicitly, to suggest that Christ cannot really be with us in our moments of absolute loneliness. For only a Christ who has experienced the darkest valley of the shadow of death can truly walk with us through our dark and forsaken valleys.”

William Placher helpfully sums up this dimension of the cross as solidarity, for it reveals how Christ stands in “solidarity with us even in the worst of our suffering and sins.” For the cross represents the culmination of the incarnation: divinity fully united with humanity . . .Therefore nothing that can happen to us—no pain, no humiliation, no journey into a far country or even into the valley of the shadow of death—can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

The cross shows that in Christ God is with us, no matter what. Even when we doubt or disbelieve or think ourselves completely cut off from God, Christ has been there before us.

What is being suggested here is not some subjective view of atonement whereby the cross atones by exerting its moral influence over us. Something definitive and objective happened when the God-Man entered into solidarity with sinful humanity through incarnation and crucifixion. It is God’s gracious initiative which transforms the human situation and makes human response possible.

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“Come down from the cross and save yourself…” (Mark 15:21-32)

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A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus,was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the Jews.

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!”31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.”

Having spent some years teaching English Literature, I’ve come to find the comparison between Mark’s style and that of Ernest Hemingway quite illuminating. Both use simple and natural language, and this has the effect of directness, clarity and freshness. Both choose common, concrete, specific  words and seldom use adjectives and abstract nouns. Both avoid complicated syntax and opt for short sentences with very specific details.

But it’s a mistake to think  -with either writer- that simplicity infers a lack of subtlety. It means rather the opposite.

The narrative of the crucifixion is a case in point. Since there are so few details, those mentioned are heightened in intensity. There’s no “setting the scene” or extraneous additions at all. It is as bleak and stark as the story it tells.

Mark gives  us a solemn litany of verbs.

“They forced …they brought… they offered …they crucified him… they cast lots …they crucified him… they crucified…”  It’s like the pounding of the hammer that drove the nails, eloquent in its simplicity.

It’s like the percussion section of an orchestra of humiliation.

Jesus is flogged and ridiculed by the soldiers (Mark 15:15, 17—20). He is beaten so badly that Simon of Cyrene has to be press-ganged to help carry the cross beam (v21). The condemned man’s clothes become prizes in a dice-game and, in a sneer of childish abuse, a placard proclaiming the dying Jesus as the King of the Jews is nailed to the cross. Even those crucified alongside Jesus join in the cat-calling (v32).

This note of rejection is also sounded on both occasions when Jesus is offered something to drink. Craig Evans sees the soldiers’ offer of wine mixed with myrrh as another act of mockery (v23), an interpretation supported by Luke’s account (Luke 23:36–37). Hence, Jesus’ refusal to drink is not so much that he wants to keep a clear head for the testing time ahead, but that “he refuses to participate in the mockery.” Hurtado similarly suggests that the intention of those who offered Jesus sour wine (v36) “was to keep him alive for a while longer, but simply for cruel sport.” Far from letting him die in peace, Jesus’ opponents appear to take every opportunity to add insult to injury.

But behind the stark words, something else is happening. Simon of Cyrene’s sons are named – which suggests that both were known in the early church. Indeed, -though nothing is proven- both names crop up in the credit-lists of Paul’s letters. It’s a tiny reminder of the “I was there” quality of Mark’s immediacy. And if these were known to the early church, then the presence of their father on the scene has already become a point of honour and triumph rather than defeat and degradation.

So here we have the first proto-disciple literally following Jesus’s command to carry his cross.

And second, we are forced to notice the sign. Even if the words “King of the Jews” are intended as a (rather feeble and unpleasant) joke, are they not also true? Even if the purple robe and crown of thorns are meant to ridicule, do they not also reinforce? John’s dialogue is much more explicit: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Mark leaves us to infer and ponder the ambiguity. This is the kingdom come in power, and here is the king, but it is a kingdom expressed in weakness and a king racked in pain.

And third, we are summoned to attend to the dialogue: “He saved others… but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

We hear the sneer, of course, but a deeper theology is on offer. That is that the only way that it is possible for others to be saved is that Jesus does not save himself. That’s the paradox. And if he does “come down now from the cross” then he has nothing to offer that is worth seeing, or believing.

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