Picking out the Tunes: Part One - An Easter Fugue

This blog series for Easter 2022 is taken directly from the sermon I preached at St Pauls Waiheke (New Zealand) on Easter Day this year. It is focused on the gospel of Mark, and the unconventional way Mark presents the good news of resurrection to his people in mid-century Rome. 

Like any sermon, it draws together thoughts and concepts from the miscellany of writers and preachers that I encountered during my preparation. The positive response of those who were there gives me the courage to think my integration of these ideas may be useful to others. I therefore need to acknowledge that here you will find the echoes of, and possibly even whole sentences from, works by N T Wright (Mark for Everyone), Frederick Buechner (Peculiar Treasures) and David Rhoads et al (Mark as Story). I apologise for the lack of detailed acknowledgement; this was after all a sermon used for Christian worship and not in pursuit of academic rigour.

An Easter Fugue

Many years ago – possibly fifty or more – I was at a funeral in St David’s Presbyterian Church in central Auckland. The person who had died was a returned soldier, and the service appropriately honoured his service. During a time of quiet meditation, the organist played a voluntary I had never heard before; he had composed it himself. The main tune was the hymn, The day Thou gavest Lord has ended, referring to the end of the person’s life on earth. But in between the lines of the hymn, which most would have recognised, came the haunting sound of the morning bugle call “Reveille” played here on Anzac (Memorial) Day. It was breath-taking – in between the sad notes of grief and goodbye in the hymn, came the haunting reminder that death is not the end, and that this soldier of Christ was to wake in a new morning.

I recently learned - from Google - that the technical name for such a composition is a fugue, a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated with successive voices in counterpoint, continuously interweaving the parts. I learned this after reading that the gospel of Mark has been described as a choral fugue, with the simple stories intertwined with other tunes pointing back to the history of the Jews, and forward to cross and resurrection. Once I knew what the word meant, I remembered that funeral and that organ piece. 

Of course this notion of counterpoint is very relevant to us this year. In New Zealand  we have had long periods of Covid-related restrictions, hospitalisations and deaths, although there now seems to be some light as we emerge from this particular tunnel. We have had business downturns and job losses, followed by a cost-of-living crisis, but we are also seeing wonderful examples of community connection and remarkable generosity. We are far away from the war in Europe but it does and will affect us, and I’m sure like me you will be hoping for a swift resolution; I have a sunflower on my gatepost to remind me to pray. 

I wanted to try and pick out some of the interwoven tunes in Mark as we considered the marvellous symphony we celebrated together this Easter.  But first we needed to find out something about the Gospel of Mark itself. Its perhaps an odd choice for Easter, because its material on the Resurrection is sparse. But I have fallen in love with this short book as our home group studied it over recent weeks. Let me tell you why.

Nobody knows for sure who wrote the Gospel; the book itself doesn't say. It’s likely was the John Mark who turns up in Acts as a companion of Paul. He was the son of Mary whose home in Jerusalem was used by believers to meet and pray (Acts 12:12). It may be that this John Mark was the person who appears in the scene of Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane, a terrified boy who escapes from the soldiers by leaving his tunic behind. Mark is the only one who reports the incident; perhaps he put it in as a kind of signature. An early historian called Papias says this first-written of the four gospels was written by a friend of Simon Peter’s who got many important details from him when they were together in Rome; John Mark is an obvious candidate. Some scholars think Mark was black. Who knows? In the long run the only things we know are from the book he wrote. 

The writer Frederick Buechner describes Mark as a man in a hurry, out of breath. That’s how it was in Rome in the year 70 CE, and the authorities were out for Christian blood. At any moment, day or night, the believers might be arrested and thrown to the lions or worse;  (in the Easter family service I did not go into the detail we have about Nero setting Christians on fire as torches for his garden parties). And in just 16 chapters, Mark has to leave a lot out too. There's no family tree for Jesus, in fact nothing about how he was born. No angel explaining it ahead of time, no shepherds, no wise men, no star. Nothing about Jesus’ childhood, precious little about his debates with the Pharisees, no Sermon on the Mount and only a few parables. His teaching in general is rushed past hurriedly; the focus is on his deeds.  “Immediately” is one of Mark’s favourite words and he uses it 42 times, much more than other gospels: Immediately he called them,  immediately he entered, immediately the girl got up, immediately the father cried out, immediately the cock crowed. Jesus himself seems to race around scattering miracles like confetti. But the miracles are compelling,  especially the healing ones, and Jesus rushes from one to another. He sweeps into Galilee alive with Spirit-led courage and compassion. 

But then the excitement dies down and there is confusion and disappointment. What kind of Messiah is this? Certainly not the kind that was expected by the Jewish crowds.  He comes to seek, serve and save rather than threaten, swagger and conquer. He avoids publicity. He discourages wild claims. He makes no effort to placate his opponents. Even his closest followers are puzzled and slow to learn. Then he walks deliberately to his death. Who is this Man? 
To Consider: This graphic is clipped from the very succinct yet meaningful overview of Mark published by the Bible Project. How much of this story did you already know? If this material is new to you, you might like to view the whole ten minutes.

To be continued........