Last Sunday our journey through Mark brought us to the book’s most controversial chapter. In Mark 13 Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, a magnificent structure only just rebuilt at massive cost by Herod. The Temple is reckoned to have occupied the space of 35 football pitches, a vast expanse of gold, marble and other expensive materials. For most Jews of Jesus’ time, this was the building that provided a concrete symbol of national pride and hope in God, including the aspiration that one day all the peoples of the world would come to worship Yahweh on Mount Zion.
But Jesus delivers an astonishing, shocking verdict: ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown done.’ He goes on to warn the disciples of the danger of being led astray by false leaders, a probable reference to the Jewish revolutionary movement who took over the Temple in 67AD to further their own agenda, and invited the backlash from Rome which eventually led to the building being razed to the ground by Titus in 70AD.
As Ben Witherington has commented, this chapter is ‘primarily not about the end of the world, but the end of a world – the world of early Judaism as a temple-centred faith.’
By coincidence, I read this week about the impending 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, a document signed by over 470,000 people, pledging opposition to the prospect of Irish Home Rule and a continued determination to remain citizens of the United Kingdom. Controversially, the document wasn’t just signed by individuals but was also supported by the Presbyterian Church, who even suggested amendments to the wording which were accepted by Unionists.
I owe a huge debt to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, in which I grew up and found faith. And we need to be wary when sitting on judgement on people in divided societies, who sometimes make the wrong choices when feeling their very survival is at stake. But it’s hard not to escape the conclusion that this alignment with Unionism was ultimately destructive for the church. Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, my abiding memory of church is of a people with a militant, closed spirituality, a defensiveness which reflected their precarious political situation, a feeling of being unwanted in both London and Dublin. Having made little contribution to peacemaking, this church now has little stake in building the new Northern Ireland which is developing in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
So who are we putting our trust in today, and how will history judge us? I currently hear a number of colleagues in ministry wax lyrical about the opportunities offered to the church by the so-called Big Society. May be it’s understandable that, like the 1912 Presbyterians, we sense how the political situation is developing and feel the need to involve ourselves. But will future generations look back on a period of unprecedented cuts in welfare and budgets which caused great hardship for the most poor and vulnerable in our society, and ask why the church saw government policy as an opportunity to further its own evangelistic agenda?