A Theology of Walking

Certain writers have particular styles.  People can try to mimic greatness but true genius is evident in the work of a craftswoman at first glance.  If you were to come across a flea market in northern Michigan and find a manuscript about a young man in World War I and spot those short, declarative sentences there would be no doubt:  you’re looking at something written by Ernest Hemingway.   No one weaves dialogue with stories of decaying southern families like William Faulkner.  Whether it’s how one uses punctuation or the other misspells words in order to convey the physicality of language; each writer has a unique way of saying this is who I am and this is the story I am about to tell.

That’s how I want you think about the Gospels.   Each of the four people we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are unique and yet interdependent.  One book cannot exist without the other but each one has something different to say about Jesus’ life and ministry.  However, everything begins with Mark.

We are beginning this year working our way through Mark’s gospel.  Mark is the first, the oldest, the benchmark, and the one on which Matthew, Luke, and John relied when checking their facts.  Written about 20-25 years after the Easter events; it’s the next best thing to having a tweet or a Facebook post.  It’s a window worth opening and looking in on.

Here’s what I’ll say about Matthew, Luke, and John:  they are better writers than Mark.  You know how they open their stories, don’t you?  Matthew and Luke both have Christmas stories.  Matthew’s got that long genealogy but he’s the one with the actual wise men, Mary and Joseph, and the Herod’s genocide of the children.  Luke is Luke. That’s the traditional Christmas story we read year after year.  Everybody knows Matthew and Luke.  John’s the poet, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.”  It’s beautiful retelling of the incarnation that leads up to Jesus meeting John the Baptist.

What about Mark?  It’s like the Big Bang.  One minute there’s nothing and the next moment, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  It happens that fast.  There’s no Christmas story, no angels, no shepherds, wise men, Joseph, Mary, stables, donkeys, Herod, or anything.  It’s almost as if Mark never went to Sunday School.  The first words of the gospel are spoken by John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah, announcing Jesus’ imminent arrival.

John says he (Jesus) is coming (ultimately to be baptized).  Coming where?  Here, he is physically walking up to us.  Mark’s Jesus is God made flesh, without the Greek metaphysical poetic introduction provided by John.   In an instant, Jesus is here.  Jesus happens.   From moment one, there is an urgency to Mark’s message.  Mark wants to do one thing:  introduce the world to Jesus and his message. It’s not important who he’s related to, where he was born, or who brought him presents after he was born.  What matters most:  this is Jesus and you need to listen to what he has to say.

Dr. Martin Luther King used to talk about the “fierce urgency of now”.  That’s Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Most of us are not prepared for Jesus to show up unannounced with little notice.   Sure we complain about ads for Christmas coming earlier each year but that’s one way we keep Jesus at arm’s length; we are keeping Jesus at a safe distance.  Jesus is the inanimate infant, easily put away after pageants and Nativity scenes.

This is different.  John and Jesus stride into our comfort zones, without much warning, to proclaim that God’s kingdom is happening in the here and now.  That sense of suddenness ought to stir us from our spiritual complacency in the same way the cold has shocked our physical bodies all week long.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus (the Good News) appears all at once, fully grown, bearded (I’m guessing), and ready to go but that doesn’t mean Jesus arrives out of nowhere.  Jesus walked from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River.

Using modern roads, it’s about a nine and a half hour walk of nearly 30 miles.  On ancient roads, with bandits and wearing sandals, I’d double the travel time.  Verse 9 tells us a story we’ve never read.  The walk from Nazareth to Jordan might be the prologue, the back story, the set up we’ve been waiting to here.  You may have never met three Wise Men, a virgin who had a baby, or the angel Gabriel.  I’m willing to bet you’ve taken a walk to clear your head, sort out future, and have a chat with God.  I think we underestimate the walk in preparing Jesus for his baptism and beginning to be the Good News.

Even the shortest walk can put things into perspective.  A brief stroll offers innumerable benefits to the body.  However, I’m not talking about our cardiovascular health.  When we walk, we are compelled to pay attention to the world around us.  If we don’t, we’ll end up flat on our face. Home, work, and the computer are momentarily forgotten while you place one foot in front of the other and navigate the path, curb, sidewalk, trail, beach, and people around you.  The journey and what it takes to move becomes our mind’s priority.  In that sense, walking has the ability to suspend our physical routine and grant a measure of spiritual freedom.   Walking provides an opportunity to disconnect from inertias of fatigue, neglect, and complexity that await our inevitable return.   This is true for the loop walker on Lighthouse Road or the Appalachian Trail Hiker.

Is it any wonder that hours of walking precede Jesus’ baptism?  Because walking, spiritually and theologically, sounds like a warm up act for how Jesus (and John) wants us to understand baptism.  What does it mean to walk into (and from) our baptism?

Baptism is about being on a lifelong walk with God.  Baptism means: in a powerful symbolic way (using water) and a spiritual way (using words) and embodied way (your life) you’re disconnected from destructive inertia some people call “sin”.  After Baptism, it’s impossible to tell where you begin and Jesus ends.  Baptism isn’t something you do or decide.  In Baptism, Jesus has overwhelmed your life to such a degree that when you fall back into destructive routines or reconnect with unhealthy spiritual apathy; Jesus isn’t going to walk out on you.

We’ve come face to face with Jesus.

Do we accept who is standing before us?  The obvious distractions that might get in the way of us hearing or seeing an unfiltered Jesus have been removed; it’s us and him.  For that, we give thanks to Mark!  Baptism, like walking, like our faith, requires our presence.  Find your shoes, coats, and gloves! Let us pass from inside to outside.  All it takes to begin this journey with Jesus is to place one foot in front of the other.  We remember our baptism one step at a time.

Richard Bryant