“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Mark 1:1
Saint Mark begins his account of the Good News of Jesus with a reminder as to whom it is about – it is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God; the Good News is about a person.
It is a reminder that would be worth repeating not just at church services, but at church meetings, at synods and conferences, at every encounter with people outside the church and at every opportunity in the media – the Good News is about a person, it is about Jesus. If we always remembered that our faith was not about belonging to an organization, nor about being part of a tradition, nor conforming to a particular ethos, but was about our relationship with Jesus, it would make us different as Christians.
“The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is what we are about, or it is what we are meant to be about. How much of what happens in the life of the church is about that Good News? How much of what happens in the life of the church is just about the church itself? How often do we as Christians spend our time trying to keep the church going and neglect the Good News? People will sometimes talk about the decline of the church as if without the church there would be no Good News, as if the Gospel depended on the church. We know it is the other way around; that the church depends upon the Good News and that where the Good News is put first, then the church will grow.
Saint Mark begins with a reminder.
Reminded whom the Good News is about, we are challenged to repentance.
We read in Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verses 4-5, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”. Jewish people used baptism as a sign of washing away their past and beginning anew; it was a sign of repentance, of a desire to get rid of the impurities of one’s former life and begin anew. The people who went to the Jordan to be baptized by John were responding to his proclaiming a baptism of repentance.
Baptism was not something undertaken once and for all, but rather was something that might be repeated if the penitent person felt it was necessary. It was sometimes a but even that baptism was sought by those whose repentance was less than heartfelt. John the Baptist expresses anger at those who come seeking baptism, but have not changed in their hearts or their lives. In Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verses 7-8, John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that repentance should bring visible change, that it should be clear in their lives, he says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.
The word John the Baptist uses there for “repentance” is the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia), it is a word used by Jesus himself later in Saint Mark Chapter 1, where, in Verse 15, Jesus declares, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Translated literally into English, “metanoia” means “after one’s mind”; it means that after we have thought, or we have said, or we have done something wrong, we think back on it and we say “sorry”.
Reminded of whom the Gospel is about, we respond to him in repentance, and through repentance we find spiritual renewal.
In Verses 7-8, John the Baptist tells the crowds. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” If we are to be people for whom the Good News really is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, then we need the strength of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
It is easy to be like the Pharisees and the Sadducees in Saint Matthew Chapter 3, to be hardhearted and hard-headed; it is easy to hear the Gospel story and remain unchanged by what we hear. Jesus does not compel; those who turned away from him were free to do so. Similarly, the Holy Spirit does not compel, the Spirit will work where hearts are open in welcome. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit, but that baptism depends on our repentance and our response to him.
We may be familiar with Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World: the picture of Jesus standing at the door and knocking, but there being no handle on his side of the door, he can only come in when the door is opened to him. But to open the door is a risky thing to do, it means the Holy Spirit coming into everyday life and, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, that can be something very disturbing, even very frightening. It can cause people to wonder about us. Perhaps it is more comfortable to think of the church as an organisation, as a tradition as an ethos, than to think of ourselves as people through whom the Holy Spirit can work.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, writes Saint Mark in his opening words. He wants us to make no mistake what it is about. We need to be people who are reminded, the whole church needs frequently to be reminded. We need to be people who repent, who recognize our sin, our failure to be the people God would have us to be. We need to be people who are renewed, whose faith comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in each of our lives.