Appearance and Reality
One of the decisions that every good story teller has to make is: when to tell the story’s secret. Every story has a secret, and the spinner of tales must decide whether to let the hearers know about the secret early in the story – or whether to surprise them at the end. Mystery writers often hold back the secret until the last chapter – or even the last page of the last chapter – keeping us all in suspense.
There are other stories, however, in which the story teller reveals the secret at the beginning of the story. We know the secret even before some of the characters do, and we watch them gradually discover the hidden truth that we already know.
For instance, take this story: In Princeton, New Jersey, there is a legendary tale about the well-known scientist Albert Einstein. It seems that he was walking in front of a local hotel one day when he was mistaken for a bell boy, by a wealthy woman who arrived in a luxury sedan. She ordered him to carry her luggage into the hotel, and according to the story, Einstein did so, received a small tip, and then continued on to his office to ponder the mysteries of the universe. True or not, the story is delightful, because we know from the beginning a secret that the wealthy woman does not know … that the strange-looking, ruffled little man, was the most celebrated intellect of his time. Some stories gain their power from our knowing the story’s secret from the very beginning!
Well, the Gospel of St. Mark is just such a story. The secret of Mark’s gospel is the identity of Jesus Christ. In the very first sentence of the gospel story, Mark lifts the veil and lets us know the secret when he says that this is “… the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus is the Son of God, that’s the secret, and just in case we miss it, this hidden truth is confirmed again for us in the story’s very first episode. Notice that the book of Mark does not begin with the genealogy, nor does it begin with the story of Jesus’ birth … it begins with the secret: Jesus is the Son of God … and then it confirms this statement when Jesus, coming up out of the waters of baptism, sees the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove from the heavens. The heavens are torn apart like a piece of cloth, and from them comes the voice of God revealing, you guessed it, the secret: “You are my son, the beloved one, with you I am well pleased.”
Now, in Mark’s Gospel, only Jesus sees the Spirit; only Jesus hears the voice. This is, in the words of one commentator “a secret epiphany” or “a secret disclosure of the divine.”
So, God knows the secret. Jesus knows the secret. And, because Mark has let us in on it, we know the secret, too. Jesus is the Son of God.
And now we watch with amazement as the story unfolds, because almost no one else seems to be able to discover the secret. The authorities mistake him for a troublemaker; the people confuse him with the prophet Elijah, among others; even his disciples are blind to the full truth of who he is.
The thing is, you see, he doesn’t look like the Son of God. Like the genius Einstein dragging the heavy luggage of the wealthy woman up the steps of the hotel, Jesus does not look like who he really is. That’s part of the reason the secret remains hidden.
And why doesn’t Jesus look like the Son of God? Because he suffers, and that seems unlikely in God’s own son. Jesus is the suffering Son of God, and that is a hard secret to learn – and even more difficult to accept.
One time, the disciples came extremely near to discovering the secret. When Jesus asked: “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter stepped forward to answer, “You are the Christ.”
Does Peter know the secret? No, because when Jesus began to tell them the whole secret, that he faced suffering, rejection, and death, Peter rebuked him. Peter doesn’t really understand the secret that Jesus is the suffering Son of God, and that is a difficult secret to accept!
That’s why Mark tells us the secret in the beginning. He wants us to know that Jesus is the Son of God when all breaks loose on Golgotha. Now, no reasonable person, who takes one look at this Galilean dragging the luggage of the world’s scorn up the steps of Calvary would say, “This is the Son of God.” But, Mark wants us to remember the secret. When the most devout people of his day spit in his face and call him a blasphemer, Mark wants us to remember the secret. When the Roman soldiers turned his trial into a party, dressing him in a blanket and a crown of thorns, holding their sides with cruel laughter as they knelt before him in mock respect, Mark wants you and me to remember the secret. When they drove the spikes into his flesh and taunted him to come down from the cross, Mark wants us to remember the secret.
And there at the end, with the sky darkened, the air filled with Jesus’ last words, and the temple curtain torn in two, Mark wants us to remember that earlier day – when the skies, like the temple curtain, were also torn in two and a voice spoke from heaven. Yes, Mark wants us to hear the centurion at the foot of the cross confessing the secret we have known from the very beginning, that “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Appearance and reality – that’s the meaning of Mark’s secret. The one who appeared to be rejected is in reality the one in whom God is well-pleased. The one who appeared to be deserted by all is in reality the beloved Son. The one who appeared incapable in death is the one in whose power all shall live. That’s the secret revealed in the baptism of Jesus, and it is the secret in which all Christians share through their own baptism.
Appearance and reality. In the baptism of Jesus the secret of his identity is revealed and nothing, not even the spit and nails of Golgotha can take that reality away. In our own baptism, the secret of our identity is revealed, “we are children of God. We count!” and nothing can take that reality away! No, not even the spit and nails of our own personal Golgotha’s, not even the spit and nails of the Christian Day of Epiphany when the event took place in Washington. God knows that Jesus suffered … we suffer, too. But in spite of that, our baptism is a sign of divine favor … a sign of God’s grace upon our lives, a stamp of approval … a sign that we have surfaced in God’s Kingdom.
And, yes, in our own baptism, the secret is out at the very beginning, the truth is known at the inception. For in baptism God says: “You are my beloved child. In you I delight!”
And so we ask: “How do we live out the secret of our baptism?
I suggest that we do it – one day at a time and I quote an unknown author as a suggestion that may help each one of us to experience the secret of our baptism. It reads like this:
JUST FOR TODAY – I will live through the next 12 hours and not try to tackle all of life’s problems at once.
JUST FOR TODAY – I will improve my mind. I will learn something useful. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.
JUST FOR TODAY – I will be agreeable. I will look my best, speak in a well-modulated voice, be courteous and considerate.
JUST FOR TODAY – I will not find fault with friend, relative or colleague. I will not try to change or improve anyone but myself.
JUST FOR TODAY – I will have a program. I might not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two enemies – the enemy of hurry and the enemy of indecision.
JUST FOR TODAY – I will do a good turn and keep it a secret. If anyone finds out it won’t count.
JUST FOR TODAY – I will do two things I don’t want to do, just for the exercise.
And finally, JUST FOR TODAY – I will believe in my baptism. Therefore, I will give my best to the world and feel confident that the world will give its best to me. These things I will do because I am God’s child.
Yes, these are some of the ways in which we witness to our baptism – to the fact that we are children of God. For we have received the energy of Jesus wherever we may be, whatever we may be doing, and whether we are known or unknown.
Yes, in our baptism, the secret is known. Baptism for us, like the baptism of Jesus, marks us forever. Baptism makes us members of the body of Christ, joined to each other … it makes us family.
Because of this, we can claim that promise, live that blessing, and be God’s people – even in the midst of a pandemic and especially in a world, and in a country, that are in dire need of God’s presence and peace.