Sermon, 1 May 2022, the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist -Tessa Lang

Welcome to our patronal festival of St Mark the Evangelist, with First of
May greetings to all. Perhaps you also enjoyed Radio 4’s broadcast of
the Magdalen Choir singing an Old English air from the vantage point of
the college’s historic tower. Across the land and often from a town’s
highest point (such as St. Catherine’s Hill in Winchester), similar
celebrations of hope and renewal will be taking place today and
tomorrow.

Let us hold onto this image of joy and gratitude on the day we honour
St Mark, particularly as we consider two passages that contain some
mighty discouraging words.

Firstly, from Acts 15: v 39
And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed
asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed
unto Cyprus…
And
From the pen of St Mark 13: v 5
And Jesus answering them began to say, Take heed lest any man
deceive you…
v 9
…take heed to yourselves…
v 13
…ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall
endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

“We’ve got trouble, my friends” Professor Harold Hill sings to the good
people of River City in The Music Man (other theatrical productions are
available). Though tuneful, it is a common-or-garden deception, a slight
example of Jesus’ warning in his Olivet Discourse as set out by Mark in
chapter 13. That’s because everyday deceptions and false claims
damage our shared society, particularly when weaponised by the truly
evil.

The Discourse remains as disturbing and relevant as it was on the 11th
of Nisan AD 33, when anxious apostles gazed across the Kidron Valley
at the incomparable golden Temple of Jerusalem…whilst their beloved
master pondered the soon-to-be-accomplished events of crucifixion,
resurrection, and deployment of a fledgling church.

For we do have trouble, don’t we? All kinds of claims and remedies
and preposterous assertions are touted for power and profit; terrible
conflicts and escalation of war clog our news; climate change disasters
multiply. How are we to navigate a fallen world in faith and arrive at
salvation?

Enter John Mark, who appears in the Bible as the son of Mary Mark in
Acts 12. Peter turns up at her front door following an angel-enabled
escape from Herod’s prison; inside, many believers were gathered to
pray. From this report, we glean that Mark’s mother made her
apparently large and staffed home available as a church and refuge; this
puts Mark squarely within apostolic and earliest Christian circles, most
likely involving contact with Jesus. Tradition has it that her home was
the location for the Last Supper. Her teenage son, Mark, could well
have been the man with the water jug who escorts two trusted apostles
to the Upper Room; after all, they would be able to recognise each
other. Later that momentous night, it is widely agreed that he was the
unnamed young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest.

Mary Mark also appears on our high altar reredos with her son as a
young boy who carries one of his attributes – a volume representing his
future Gospel, dedicated often with the Pax Tibi angelic greeting the
Evangelist received on a stop in Venice.

It is the shortest and the first of the written gospels, and its narrative
form sets a pattern for the gospels that follow. Mark begins with
assertion of authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God as
written by the prophets, now proclaimed by his messenger, John,
crying in the wilderness and preaching the baptism of repentance.
Jesus appears as an adult reporting for his baptism, to receive the Spirit
of God from above before fasting and temptation in the desert – a lot of
territory is covered in the first 13 verses!

Next Mark moves on to the active public ministry of Jesus. Extensive
use of time words (now, then, when) and rapid succession of actions
move through his ministry in earth-time to explanation of what lies on
the other side of ascension… when the end-days progress like birth
pains delivering the Second Coming in God’s own undisclosed and
sovereign time. In between Jesus’ acknowledgment as the Son of God
at his baptism and his ascension, Mark emphasises the Passion,
devoting 6 of his 16 chapters to chronicling the event, which he
foreshadows from chapter 8. The first gospel-writer incudes nothing
more or nothing less than required for full commitment to radical
spiritual transformation.

Fundamental to this earliest gospel is the relationship between Mark
and Peter, which sits at its heart. In chapter 1, Peter is mentioned twice,
and in the final chapter 16, within the first 8 verses that are undisputedly
Marcan, the women are exhorted to “go tell the disciples and Peter”;
this placement of mentions is called an “inclusio”, a classical device to
indicate the source of the contents as the person named at the
beginning and the end. In between, Peter is mentioned more times
than any other disciple, not least because Mark joined in the work of
spreading the gospel throughout Asia Minor and on to Rome. In his
first epistle during these years of setting up and mentoring churches,
Peter writes of Mark as his son. Tradition has it that during earlier times
in Jerusalem, Peter acted as a spiritual godfather to the young man,
encouraging him to continue and complete his studies of useful
languages and of law. In this way, Mark became Peter’s Boswell, a
scribe and recorder of the apostle’s eyewitness accounts of Jesus in
words and in deeds. Testimony of early church voices such as Papias,
Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian universally assert Mark’s Gospel
provides an accurate account of Peter’s teaching, which Luke in turn
relies upon in his later gospel.

As we learn in our first reading, not all of Mark’s relationships within the
early church flourished. In Acts we learn he had set sail with Paul
accompanied by his cousin Barnabas on the first missionary expedition,
serving as an “attendant”. But at Perga, in Pamphylia, (present day
Turkey), he went AWOL and returned to Jerusalem, no doubt to the
care and comfort afforded at his mother’s house. The text does not
speak to specifics; perhaps Mark had fallen ill and realised that being
on the road with Paul was not a prescription for recovery, perhaps he
was just homesick. Or both. We are uncertain of Mark’s age although
he was most likely born up to 15 years after Jesus was; clearly, he is
the junior partner-in-training. As such Paul could not forgive his
dereliction of duty, so much so that when Barnabas approached him a
considerable time later to propose that Mark be given a second chance,
the senior disciple flatly refused.

Thanks to his cousin, Barnabas, Mark’s career as evangelist continued
to develop through ministry in Cyprus. Tradition has it that the Mark
family, though Jewish and most likely Levite, had roots in Cyprus
although Mark was born in the city of Cyrene, north Africa (modern day
Libya) before his parents decided to return to Judea when he was a
child. At the start of his work, he evidently preferred preaching to fellow
Jews in Jerusalem or ministering in the Cyprus of his extended family.
The full fruition of Mark’s evangelism, however, would be throughout
North Africa, the cities of the Pentapolis including Cyrene and Carthage,
and finally, Alexandria. For our patron saint is particularly revered in the
Coptic Orthodox church as the founder of Christianity in Africa, the first
Bishop of Alexandria, and most holy martyr of the faith. There is a
treasure trove of stories about Mark, as well as attributed theological
writings arising from this time that form a central part of the Copt
tradition.

With an Aramaic name meaning “son of comfort”, Barnabas gets my
vote for enabling a second chance for a young man ideally positioned
by his age and connection to apostolic teachings, education and
literacy, family wealth and relations, devout and supportive mother, a
serious mind, and a constitutional sense of urgency, to lead the early
and rapid expansion of the gospel into an established church. In
Mark’s case, a regrettable rupture between believers was eventually
reconciled and redeemed, when the now experienced evangelist spent
time with Paul, then imprisoned in Rome, as a “fellow-worker” given the
high Pauline accolade of being “useful to me”. Surely a lesson in
conflict management, and for avoidance of splintering of focus and
efforts when confronted with the task of “publishing the gospel among
all nations”.

The life of our patronal saint and Christian hero is beautifully depicted in
the stained-glass window above his dedicated altar on the south aisle
of our church. Created by the distinguished English artist John
Hayward, its luminous composition tells the evangelist’s story from
boyhood to martyrdom (including lushly red wounds), accompanied by
the person and spirit of his mentors, primarily Peter. Completing the
window is an image of his leonine Live Creature. Although our window
is vintage early 1960’s, it reminds me of the 800-year-old Miracle
Windows from Canterbury Cathedral…their vivid colour, evocation of
extraordinary encounters and undeniable reverence. At St Mark’s, we
possess the cherry on top in the form of the dove of the Holy Spirit, an
abiding memorial for the late and much-loved Anne Griffiths. A second
lion takes a central position above the high altar, so we have an
aesthetic representation of Mark’s faith when confronting two lions in
the wilderness with prayer…and living to tell the tale, as Copt tradition
relates… or perhaps the lions also represent the Baptist roaring to
prepare the way of the Lord. When you have trouble, two lions are
better than one!

A final touchstone for our St Mark experience today is the icon sent in
glorious colour with the weekly email of service. Here is a powerful
depiction of a young Mediterranean man, in robes of passionate red,
ablaze with mission and inspiration, swathed in the deep blue of
eternity. His companion the Lion acts as subdeacon, holding the
gospel for the reader – both us and Mark himself. He sits where his
mystical lion’s wings would be the active principle in proclaiming the
gospel. Now his words have wings because they are received from the
Holy Ghost, very God of very God, all powerful, unknown by us,
emerging from its cloud of glory.

We are fortunate indeed to have St Mark’s life and spiritual journey so
vividly displayed for us as an example of how to take heed and endure
unto the end. This is the mission of the Marcan gospel expressed in the
very fabric of our church, where together as companions and fellow
workers, we can help others and ourselves along the way. And in the
closing lines of a poem William found in the church archives circa 1967:

“Give us your faith that we may not turn back
But go on in God’s service to life’s end.”
Amen.

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