The series of commentaries on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity began as blogs in Year C. The theological argument thus developed in consideration of readings featuring the newest gospel (Volume I, The Year of Luke, published January 2013), expanded with the second gospel (Volume II, The Year of Matthew, published October 2013), and concludes with the first and earliest written gospel (Volume III, The Year of Mark, forthcoming October 2014). The accepted order of RCL years was therefore reversed in the series from ABC to CAB, and takes on its own logic in terms of biblical historic time line from latest to earliest. Matthew perforce takes its place in the middle, which is where it rightfully belongs.
Since 1985 with the founding of the Jesus Seminar, the field of research on early Christian origins and the development of the New Testament can be described as “volatile.” Marcus Borg agrees with the consensus that dates John’s gospel in the 90s; he also agrees with a theory gaining acceptance that John predates Luke, which is now thought to date from early second century.1 The ground seemed to be shifting even more at the Westar Institute’s 2013 Fall meeting. The presentation of the report on the Acts Seminar included the suggestion by Joseph B. Tyson2 that while scholars agree that the same person likely wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Acts may have been written before the gospel. Even more dizzying for Christian tradition, the so-called “proto-Luke” known by scholars to have been used by Marcion in the early second century, did not include Luke’s beloved birth stories, and seems to end with the sharing of bread and fish on the road to Emmaus.3 Faith as belief in the historical veracity of the accepted orthodox Christian understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus appears more and more to depend on political and cultural shifting sands. Faith as trust in the value of Jesus’s message to sustainable human life on Planet Earth stands on the rock of human experience with distributive justice-compassion – whether of the Buddha, the Christ, or simple, evolutionary, human empathy.
The writer of Mark’s gospel likely witnessed the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. With the Temple gone, Judaism – exiled again – changed profoundly, and the Jesus movement that got its start within Judaism developed its own spiritual identity. John Shelby Spong suggests the gospel may have been written to replace the traditional Jewish readings that marked the Jewish liturgical year4. That seasonal rhythm has been long lost to Christian practice. The creator of the gospel of Mark, writing for a traumatized community cut off at the roots, would like to take us on a faith journey that reveals and confirms the identity of the Messiah at the end. But the Christian year begins with Advent and birth stories that Mark did not include; and the often foreshortened, moon-determined, liturgical demands of Easter seem not to allow enough time between the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent to get the full metaphor of Mark’s Jesus on the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Much of Mark’s material appears in Matthew and Luke, and those portions are apparently preferred over Mark’s original context. Repetitive stories in Matthew and Luke are also redacted by the creators of the RCL, and passages in any of the gospels that seem“difficult” or raise questions outside accepted orthodoxy are never considered in the RCL three-year cycle. Given the bare bones of Mark’s original, the redactors are compelled by their own rules to turn to the Gospel of John for fully half of Mark’s Year B.
The political, social, spiritual, and economic history of most of the Western world has been defined by the belief articulated in the literal application of John’s gospel to personal and social piety. If Christianity is to survive with any relevance to postmodern, twenty-first century realities, the theology of condemnation and substitutionary atonement associated with the fourth gospel has to be scrapped. Not only is the future of Christianity at stake. This theology threatens the further evolution of human consciousness, and life as humanity has known it thus far on Planet Earth.
The RCL can provide a convenient way to consider the Christian New Testament in light of its Jewish ancestry if done with eyes wide open to the pitfalls of orthodox assumptions from both traditions. As pointed out in the introduction to Volume II, The Year of Matthew, much of the history of the creation of the New Testament may be “old hat” to graduates of liberal Christian seminaries, but lay folk committed to Jesus’s Way must know something of the scholarship that is doing its best to lead Christianity out of the clutches of fundamentalism.
My intrepid editor for the series, George Crossman has the last word: “This approach appears to put limits on God’s power to forgive. You have to enter into the Great Work (of distributive justice-compassion), which includes dealing with personal injustices you yourself have created. God’s mercy has a price tag on it, so to speak. God only works through us, not outside of us. As Bishop Tutu has said “Think of it! God depends on you!” It is a mystery. But it is true. Put another way, orthodoxy promises forgiveness in return for credal belief. Jesus’s message is that righteous action is the essential condition, not belief. Not cheap piety but sacrificial action is the Way. Sounds a bit like Amos.”