Most people, I think, don’t step far enough back from a “close up” view of the Scriptures in their daily Bible reading. I know that is my tendency. It is so easy to become myopic and only read a few verses, thinking the present story is all we need to attend to. The word they use for this in seminary is “pericope,” a greek word from rhetoric, which literally means a “cutting out.” A pericope is a set of verses that forms one coherent unit or thought, thus forming a short passage suitable for public reading.
The Lectionary for today includes Mark 1:29-40, and is made up principally of two pericopes, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and the cleansing of a leper. But if we step back and look at the sweep of the whole of Mark 1 and ask the question where is Mark really headed in this opening to his Gospel, we see some very interesting things.
First, Mark is establishing as quickly as he can the outline of the story, almost like we might prepare the outline of a school paper today:
A. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (vs 1)
1. John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (vs 4)
2. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (vs. 9)
3. The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (vs. 12)
The beginning of the gospel, then, is preparation through prophecy (the example being John), preparation through history (where Jesus came from), and preparation through intimacy (the 40 day fast in the wilderness).
B. After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying (vs. 14)
1. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (vs. 15)
2. “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (vs. 16)
3. “Be silent, and come out of him!” (vs. 25)
4. “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (vs. 38)
5. “I will; be clean.” (vs. 41)
6. “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (vs. 44)
This next section establishes Jesus (1) as Prophet, Priest, and King, (2) as Rabbi, (3) as having authority over demons, (4) as preacher, (5) as having authority over disease, and (6) as fulfilling the Law.
What can we learn from looking at these early pericopes? We learn to trust Christ immediately (a favorite word of Mark’s). Luke summarizes the purpose of a Gospel in Acts 1 when he says, “In the first book (the Gospel of Luke)…I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up.”
Mark does not mince words. Are you prepared to receive the One who was prepared? Are you ready to live the reality that Jesus is your Prophet, Priest, King, Rabbi, Deliverer, Preacher, Healer, Law-giver? The “beginning of the gospel” does not leave open to us the possibility of a casual faith. You can’t say that you are a Christian if your faith boils down to a few well-chosen pericopes about a baby in a manger, about Jesus doing good things, and then (skipping the horror of a political assassination) scenes of an impotent angelic being stepping out of a cave, all lit up with rays of ethereal light. That is not the beginning of the gospel.
Either Jesus is all of that: Prophet, Priest, King, Rabbi, Deliverer, Preacher, Healer, and Law-giver with full authority over you, or he is none of it. You must decide. Which will you have? The beginning of the Gospel, or a few pretty stories?