One of the things we all seem to do as Christians is to collate the stories of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. We have four gospels, each reflecting a very different character. But when it comes to the big festivals we tend to merge all the stories into one – unless, that is, we are very specifically following one gospel writer. So, for example, one of the most popular services of Good Friday is built around the Seven Words from the Cross: an amalgam of the seven different sentences Jesus is supposed to have said on the cross, from all four gospels. In reality, Luke has three of the sentences, John has three quite different ones, and Matthew and Mark have their own sentence – which they share.
For the last few weeks I have been preparing to co-lead our Holy Week retreat at Launde Abbey. We decided to walk with Jesus through his last week and because Mark is the gospel writer who really delineates this week, day by day, even telling us the time of the day sometimes, we decided to go with Mark’s gospel. But because this is the year of Luke the Reading of the Palms and the Passion reading in the Eucharist today were Luke’s story.
What struck me more than anything was how vividly Luke Passion narrative came alive because I have been steeping myself in Mark. We do ourselves a dis-service when we tangle up the gospels in our services. Weight is lost. Drive is lost; because the effect of running the stories together dilutes the passion (small p) of the gospel writers who all knew what they wanted to draw out from Jesus’ time on earth. They were all writing for different audiences – but still audiences with whom we find we have much in common today, because some things never change – and they wrote of the Jesus who had changed their lives from their perspective, and my goodness, how Jesus empowered them and how their love for him comes out in their stories when we get to know them and their unique point of view.
So Mark is all about Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as opposed to the corrupt powers of state and religion that dominated and subjugated the people of his time. Jesus is human, passionate and confrontational of the corrupt authorities. His call to his disciples is to participate in his work, to walk in his way, to bring in the kingdom. His cry from the cross is one of utter human desolation and failure. Luke’s Jesus is tender, vulnerable, the servant king who calls his disciples into the same sense of service and humility. Luke’s Jesus speaks words of forgiveness (twice) from the cross and at the end lets go of his life in utter trust to his Father. John and Matthew’s Jesus is different again.
Different as they are, these four gospel do not detract from each other. It is much more as if four people were talking about someone very important to them and a situation they all knew this person to have been in and we hear the same story different variations. It is as if one story throws light on another which rather than detracting brings more depth to the whole. We do not have to be afraid that different sentences appear in different gospels. Together they make up so much more than a whole.