Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

What the Disciples Didn’t Know (Jul-Aug 2005)

Filed under: — @ 7:02 pm and

by Charme Robarts
July – August, 2005

Mark starts his book with news that is unknown to the characters who play out his story, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is privileged information known only to the supernatural characters, and now to us, the readers. We hover above, omniscient, in the know. We watch as the disciples and the crowds and the religious leaders encounter Jesus.

When Good News is Disorienting

The people don’t know that what is happening is good news, gospel. The tidings they are hearing (and seeing) disrupt their understanding. They see a lame man get up, pick up his mat and go home. They hear the same man pronounced “forgiven.” We watch this story unfold on the page forgetting to imagine the details of the crowded room with parts of the ceiling suddenly falling. What is the home owner thinking and feeling? What about the sister who gets hit on the head by the falling debris?

Then suddenly the real shock, Jesus says to the person on the mat, “your sins are forgiven.” Do you ever wonder what the guys lowering him through roof thought? We wanted him to walk—why are you talking about sins being forgiven? But then maybe, under the close scrutiny of the teachers of the law, everyone felt that sickness and sin went together.

We get to know what the teachers of the law are thinking as Mark looks into the camera as if in a documentary as says, “Jesus knew what they were thinking—who can forgive sins but God alone?”

If you are sitting in a room with falling debris and a stretcher coming through the gaping hole, a crippled man aboard, what are you thinking? And then when Jesus pronounces the man’s sins are forgiven, what goes through your head? Worse (or better?), Jesus know your thoughts and asks out loud, “why are you thinking that?”

Mark tells this story in a way that separates the teachers and their cynicism from the crowds who are amazed and praising God, and as readers we may tend to immediately align our selves with the good guys. But what if we imagined that scenario more and pulled it off the one-dimensional flannelgraph board to try to relate to the sights, sounds, and feelings? What would it be like to be in that room? Might we have been skeptical? Even if we had been amazed as the crowds were—was it enough to be amazed?

When Mark gives an early summary statement of Jesus’ preaching, it is “repent and believe the good news.” As we watch the drama unfold we see disciples, crowds, religious leaders and enemies encountering the good news of Jesus himself and of his preaching. We watch some of them latch on quickly, though they soon begin to scratch their heads and say “who is this man?” Some of them, the religion teachers, stand cross-armed and grim, simply reject Jesus out of hand. They have a certain control over people with their “knowledge” of God and this power is threatened with someone going around forgiving people of their sins. Still others find their place in the crowds enjoying the free meals Jesus provides then perhaps showing up later in the mob that shouts for his death. The good news doesn’t seem to take hold easily. If that is true, how can we expect to believe it just by reading over the story?

Behind the Scenes

The characters in Mark’s book are in the dark about who Jesus is and what it all means, but they are also unaware of a cosmic event that Jesus experiences alone when the Spirit sends him out to the desert. Mark begins this section with this:

Jesus was baptized by John…as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open…and a voice said “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”

God speaks his love and affirmation for his son made flesh. The mystery of God in the flesh is still just that even to readers in the know. But God’s declaration is carefully placed, as Immediately, the Spirit sent him to the desert where he was … tempted.”

It is important that the section opens as it does with God’s passionate declaration of love and approval since Satan is essentially going to call that into question. In Mark’s telling of the story, we get no details of the temptation, except for the cryptic mention of wild animals. From that we imagine a dangerous place, but still with angels nearby. We wish for more details and we remember that Matthew reveals Satan’s wily insinuation that it must just be too bad that Jesus is stuck in his fleshly body with hunger pains. Too bad he must limit himself to manhood instead of superhero so that jumping off the temple would be out of the question– even if it might muster quite a following. Too bad Jesus, are you sure you want to be a man?

But Mark just states it succinctly, “he was tempted by Satan.” We are left wondering who won. As Mark unfolds his story of Jesus casting out demons and calming the terrors of the storm, we start to figure it out. The characters in the story however are in the dark about that initial struggle that signaled the ultimate victory Jesus would win.

The temptation of Jesus is hidden from human sight. Jesus faces his enemy alone in the desert. But the significance of this clashing of the kingdom of God and kingdom of Satan is not diminished by our not seeing. Binding Satan as he did, Jesus began his work of saving the world by refusing the offer to change the Divine plan that a God-man would bring redemption. This God-man would bring back together what Adam and Eve tore apart in their encounter with Satan. Satan’s question to them had been, “wouldn’t you like to be like God?” His question to Jesus was “don’t you wish you weren’t a man?” In the first case Satan succeeded in his deception, in the second he was trumped.

Jesus victory in the desert sets the tone of conflict in Mark. Jesus is in conflict with the notions of both the religious and the disciples. The religious leaders conflict with Jesus is forthright and unwavering—they even will his death at the end of the story—which ironically aligns them with the Father and the Son. But Jesus’ conflict with the disciples is more tentative. They are both loyal and disloyal, believing and unbelieving, enlightened and unenlightened. They are bold and yet fearful, obedient, yet petty. The disciples represent us, even we who have the privileged insider information of the first verse.

Jesus’ victory over Satan, his obedience to God instead of to Satan’s enticing offer was done in our stead just as his death was in our stead. Jesus’ victory cast him headlong toward the cross where he would ultimately refuse Satan’s easy way out. His willingness to take the Via Dolorosa put him in conflict with Peter too, who, again represents all who follow hoping it can somehow be without suffering. Peter didn’t know that Jesus’ suffering would demonstrate to heaven and earth that God has come near to his people.

Not knowing who Jesus is, the players in the story try to fit him into their own molds. His enemies say he is possessed by Beelzebub. His family thinks he has lost his mind. The Pharisees want him to pick a side in their reductionist argument about divorce. The disciples want him to support their prejudices of who is “one of us” and who is not.

Looking on and in the know about the identity of Jesus, I am struck by how much in common we still have with the people who first met him. Aren’t we still sometimes skeptical about the forgiveness of sins? Don’t we sometimes wonder if he cares if we drown on the seas of our lives? Don’t we spend too much time thinking that we are somehow the greatest?

It is the crucible of these questions that draw us to the end of the story where we like those early followers can see and our unbelief can be helped. The God- Man having endured the sorrow in the Garden and the mocking and shaming in the streets and the Praetorium, finally endures the physical pain and being forsaken by God. As Jesus hangs on the cross, a lone Gentile centurion exclaims, “surely this man was the Son of God.” What did he see and know that gave him that knowledge? Perhaps the centurion now stands for all of us who believe this disorienting story of suffering and death that somehow brings God down to us.

Believing it does not mean that we become any more perfect than the disciples were or that we can completely digest just how this affects our salvation. But believing it draws us deeper into the story so that we lean in closer to join the disciples who were willing to ask Jesus the meaning of a parable they didn’t get. Belief compels us to follow Jesus as the fishermen did when he called their names. Belief gives us courage stay near the cross when others have fled. And belief takes us to the door of the tomb again and again so we can be reminded that “He has risen and gone ahead of you, just as he said.”

So, we take heart. We don’t just read the story we try to ingest it. We cry out, “help my unbelief.” And He steps forward, hand extended. New Wineskins

Charme Robarts Charme Robarts serves as Involvement Minister of Skillman Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas. She is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and earned a masters in Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University. She is a board member of Zambia Mission; New Friends New Life, an organization helping women leave sexually oriented businesses; Mission Alive, a church planting group; GAL328, a group promoting gender justice in Churches of Christ. She is married to Dwight Robarts and has four adult children.

E-mail [Charme Robarts]

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