The Missing Middle
“Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate”
Mark 6:1-13, Acts 4:5-13, Psalm 36:5-9
Each Sunday throughout much of Christendom, The Apostles’ Creed is recited by millions of congregations. The creed is a strange document. It is an unbalanced document. 11 of the 18 lines are devoted to Jesus, whereas only 2 lines to God the Father and only 1 to God the Holy Spirit. So it is obvious that the creed is a statement about Jesus first and foremost. (The same is true of the Nicene Creed with 21 of its 34 lines focused on our Lord Jesus!)
But once we are past that oddity, another one awaits us. In the Apostle’s creed the birth of our Lord gets 2 lines, and his death, resurrection and ascension get 6 more lines, but there is not one word about his life as Jesus of Nazareth. We leapfrog from his birth to his death without stopping. The same is true of the Nicene Creed. There is no mention of the life he lived!
The creeds are silent about His grace-filled life, silent about the teachings, about the miracles, about his great compassion for all he met. Not a word about his calling of apostles. It is all passed over without a word. Strange!
But maybe not. There was almost no controversy about those things in the early church. The controversies of the first 3 centuries were questions about his incarnation, his divine nature, about his origins, about the Trinity, and then about the meaning of his death and resurrection. There was little debate about the way he lived life.
It is also very interesting, however, to remember that the very first writings we have in the New Testament, also ignored the life of Jesus. From Paul’s writings we learn almost nothing about Jesus except he was “born of a woman” and died and rose again. In fact to one of his congregations he says, “I determined not to know any thing but Christ and him crucified.”
When we read the letters of James and Jude and Peter and John again we draw a blank. Is this a conspiracy of silence? I don’t think so.
Mark’s Understanding: A Model for Living our own lives
For the first 30 plus years the 12 apostles were alive and able to tell those details where ever they went. But in the time of the persecution of the church by Nero, the apostles were scattered or killed, and there was a need to write down a record of the witness of those early Apostles so the story could be passed on. It appears that St. Mark was the first to pick up his pen, and puts on paper the story of the life of Jesus.
His version is also strange. It skips over the first 30 years of the life of Jesus, because he too believed the death & resurrection was the crucial thing. In fact his Gospel has been called, “a Passion Narrative with a long introduction.” But Mark had another purpose in mind for filling in what was absent in the Epistles.
Mark’s Gospel has been called a “Persecution Gospel”. When he writes about 65 AD Peter has recently been crucified upside down, and Paul has been beheaded. Nero rules the Roman Empire and is attempting to decimate the Christian church that he has made the scapegoat for the burning of Rome. Mark is concerned about the church because in this terrible time many are tempted to defect from Christ and play it safe. He writes his book to give guidance from the life and death of Jesus, to help the church with the great face the question, “how shall we face life and how shall we face death as Christians?”
The church during its first generation depended upon using the Old Testament and its heroes as models for the Christian life. Abraham, Moses, David & Daniel loomed large. These stories helped give guidance to the faith of the early Christian community.
But in their recent history another life had been lived out that Mark wants to be the replacement model. Abraham lived by faith, but our Lord was faithful unto death. The courage of Daniel was remarkable, but not equal to the courage of the Christ who faced death for us.
So Mark begins his story with the Baptism of Jesus, for that is where we start our own journey as disciples of Christ. We are to play “follow the leader”, and that begins with baptism. Then Mark moves us quickly to the temptation of Jesus, for we too will face it. Then he takes us to the choosing of disciples, and we get to be included for we are also chosen to follow Jesus wherever he goes, even through suffering, death and resurrection.
Jesus is the template for our living. His teachings are our instructions for living out our lives. His compassion is also to be the motive of our actions. It is Mark’s gospel that gives emphasis on how flawed the early disciples were, not only at the beginning but all the way through his story. Mark lets us know of the repeated clumsiness of the early followers, for we too will be unwise time beyond counting and yet we are stilled called to follow in his steps. The rich young rulers, the religioso of the day, will not want to follow, but those who feel their own frailty will be glad to try.
So why is the Missing Middle so important for today? It is saying to us, that we need Jesus who died and rose for us to be our Savior, but we also need the Jesus who lived life among us to be the guide as to how we should live life. Because of 4 gospels we can take seriously the question, “What would Jesus do” in our circumstances.
The Portrait of Humanity.
Eugene Peterson says, for the Christian church, “Jesus is the dictionary by which we define our words.” When we ask what does it mean to be truly human, Jesus is the answer. If we ask what does it mean to be a good person, Jesus is the answer. If we ask, how shall we face suffering, Jesus is the answer. He is the model by which we measure our attitudes and actions. It is why Jesus says to us all, “Follow me.”
A question was raised some time ago that I thought fascinating. The question was “Is a photograph more accurate than a painted portrait?” The quick answer is “The photograph of course!” But upon deeper reflection we realize that the portrait is more accurate if it is faithfully done. The camera may catch me at one moment in time. (Like when I first get out of bed in the morning and notice the little hair I have sticks out in all directions like Bozo the clown. It is a true photograph, but it is not me in normal mode. ) The photograph can only capture me in that specific moment, and also catch me only in my physical-ness. It catches me as I am at that moment, and where I am at that moment. But a painter gets a chance to do a time exposure, and paints into the portrait the kind of person I have become by creating background, clothing, something in my hand, something in my eye, that reveals the essential me. My character, my values, my vocation.
If Jesus had come as a full-grown man and immediately headed for the cross, we would have had a snapshot of him. A photograph. A still shot. But the writers of the 4 gospels paint us a picture where we see Jesus moving through history for 30 years. They give us a time exposure to give us a full-orbed view of this man. We know from this time exposure what Jesus was like before he died for us. And we are to be like him!
The Portrait of God.
But as the church moved down the years it came to understand that Jesus was not only the best human being they had ever encountered, and wanted to be like him, but that also he was God Himself in human flesh. God himself had come to live among us and live a life similar to the kind of life we live, and die a death terribly similar to ours. For if Jesus is the dictionary by which we define our words, then the church is right when it insists that Jesus is the best way to define God.
This same time-exposure gave us a chance to get a picture of what God was really like. They had snapshots of God in their minds, but when Jesus lived his life along side ours we got the chance to see God up close and personal.
Recently I spent some time with three Christian friends who have recently become interested in Zen Buddhism. They are interested in trying to find the connection between all religions. They say to me, the other religions will not accept Jesus as the unifying center, but will accept God as the unifying principle. If we make God “big enough and wide enough” then all religions can find common ground. Sounds good!
I too would like to find a way to stop us from fussing and feuding with one another. But it seems that the God my friends are interested in is big and fuzzy like the clouds, where different people can see whatever they choose to see.
But the Christian church reminds us that most of the time those images distort what God is like, for we tend to create a picture of God made according to our preferences or fears. The church, however, has said that if you want to know what God is really like, let him be defined in terms of Jesus of Nazareth. John’s Gospel says it this way, “No one has understood what God is like, but Jesus who comes from the very heart of the Father fully reveals him.”
So in conclusion, this Missing Middle between the birth and death of Jesus gives us two perspectives. Here I repeat myself:
We get the best portrait we shall ever get of what God is essentially like! “If you have seen me” says Jesus “You have seen the Father!”
And at the same time Jesus is the best portrait of what a Christian is supposed to look like and live like.