Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

St Mark
April 27, 2010, 9:06 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 25th April 2010

As well as being the fourth Sunday of Eastertide, this is St Mark’s day. There are several occurrences of the name Mark in the New Testament, but Mark or Marcus was a common Roman name, so I am probably taking a bit of a risk in assuming they all refer to the same person. However, I am prepared to take that risk, and make that assumption!

In Acts 12, according to Luke, when Peter is miraculously freed from prison, he goes to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark. At the end of the chapter, Barnabas and Saul take John, whose other name was Mark, with them to Antioch. He goes with them on their missionary journey to Cyprus and Asia Minor, but leaves them at Perga and returns to Jerusalem. No reason is given for this, but later on, when Paul wants to re-visit the communities they had founded, and Barnabas wants to take John called Mark, Paul refuses to have him, on the ground that he had let them down previously. Luke tells us that there was a sharp contention over the issue, which ended with Barnabas and Mark going to Cyprus, and Paul going to Cilicia with Silas.

In Colossians 4.10, a Mark who is the cousin of Barnabas is referred to in passing, and he seems to be with Paul, probably in Ephesus. He gets another name-check in Philemon, written about the same time. In the second letter to Timothy Mark is sent for, and said to be very useful in serving Paul. Finally, outside the Lukan and Pauline writings, there is a Mark in the first letter of Peter, referred to as “my son Mark”.

Not a lot to go on, then. John Mark seems to have been a young follower of Jesus, living in Jerusalem, whose mother’s house was a regular meeting place for Christians. Peter went there as an obvious “safe house” after his escape. If Mark was related to Barnabas, who we are told was a Levite, it is likely that Mark too belonged to a Levitical family, closely bound up with the worship of the Temple. But since he had a Greek or Roman name as well as the Hebrew Johanan, and a cousin who had lived in Cyprus, his family would seem to have been at ease with Gentile contact. Probably not members of the Pharisee party, then.

It is pointless to speculate why Mark left Paul and Barnabas to return home. Was he homesick? Had he received news of some family emergency? Was he (as a Levite) uncomfortable with some aspects of Paul’s teaching about the Law? We have no way of telling. What is certain is that Paul did not approve of his departure, and thought it reflected badly on him- so badly, that even when his colleague and friend Barnabas pleaded with him, he was adamant in refusing to give Mark a second chance. Luke is quite discreet, but as elsewhere when Paul had sharp altercations with colleagues, and was very sure that he was in the right- well, I cannot but have a sneaking suspicion that my great Patron may not necessarily have been wholly right.

At any rate, at some point there must have been a reconciliation. Mark seems to have been with Paul again at Ephesus, the place from which it is thought Paul wrote to the Colossians and to Philemon, and the place to which it is thought the letter to Timothy was sent. It may be, then, that Mark settled for some while in Ephesus, assisting first Paul and later Timothy.

The connection with Peter is more tenuous and yet even more interesting. Clearly, Peter and Mark are likely to have known one another in Jerusalem, since it was to Mark’s mother’s house that Peter went. If Paul wrote to Timothy from Rome (as seems likely), and asked him to bring Mark with him from Ephesus, this may explain Mark’s presence in the Capital, from which it is thought Peter’s letter was sent. So yes, there is no obvious impossibility that all the Marks in the New Testament are one and the same.

But all this would be, I think, of marginal interest were it not for the fact that to Mark is attributed the authorship of the second Gospel (probably in fact the first to be written). The Gospel itself is silent on the point; but it seems to me from considering the Gospel itself that it comes from a source close to the Apostle Peter. Again and again the story seems to be told from his perspective, rather than just about him. This is consistent with the very ancient tradition, going back to a time maybe only a generation after the Gospel was written, that its author was closely associated with Peter.

Does any of this matter? Since the Gospels are our principal resources for what we know and believe about Jesus, it does help to have at least plausible evidence that they stem from people who at least knew the people who had been with Jesus. We claim to be an Apostolic church, founded on the first-hand testimony of the Apostles. Those hostile to the Church would like to persuade us that there is an unbridgeable gap between Jesus himself and the first written accounts of him that we possess. But the evidence we have suggests that both Mark and Luke were writing within ten years of the deaths of Peter and Paul, if not even earlier. Luke surely mentions Mark in Acts because he was a person well-known to the Church, a person whose work Luke himself incorporated into his own Gospel.

There are many who would claim to be Christians, but who are quite agnostic about, for instance, the Resurrection and the Deity of Christ. Some would say that the early Christians (Paul is usually singled out as the chief culprit) turned the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus. by “the religion of Jesus” they mean some kind of vague philanthropism, where everyone behaves nicely to everyone else; a philosophy of life which would be just as true if Jesus himself had never existed. That is not what Mark says in his Gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ, for Mark, is first that Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited Emissary of God to his people. You cannot get much more “about Jesus” than that. The first part of the Gospel is in essence how the disciples were brought to the point of recognising that, in the testimony of Peter. The second part of the Gospel is how these same disciples were brought to the even more difficult recognition that suffering and death were an integral part of the Messiah’s mission: that the mission was, in essence, nothing less than meeting death head on, its most terrible form, and overcoming it.

At the close of MarkGospel, the angel tells the women: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here.” That is the third part of the Gospel, the part that is still going on. “Tell Peter and his disciples that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” That is what Mark (whether or not he is the same man Luke tells us about or not) believed. That Jesus had died and was risen; that Peter and others had seen him risen; and that this was the good news that had to be preached to all the world. He who believes- believes, that is to say, that Jesus is the Risen Lord, our Master and friend- and who by baptism enters the community of the Church: that is the person who will be saved from all the perils and dangers of this world. Whoever does not believe will be condemned. The word used is a strong one. It implies judgement, and a Judge. What we are judged on is not our behaviour as such, but our attitude to Christ, which is our attitude to God himself. What we do to one another counts, because (as we are told elsewhere) what we do to the least of Christ’s and our brothers and sisters, we do to him. It counts because it reveals our fundamental attitude to Christ and the Father.

The Mark we celebrate today, then, is the Mark of the Gospel, the Evangelist, the hander-on of the Good News. I think it highly likely that he is the same as the John Mark who as a boy met Peter in his mother’s house, and who travelled for a while with Paul and Barnabas. But these biographical details are of little importance compared with the treasure he gave us, the Gospel. It is not the messenger that matters; it is the Message. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.


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