Sermon, 30 April 2023 With Notes: Take Heed – Living in the Light of Christ’s Return – Tessa Lang

St Mark 13:5 And Jesus answering them began to say, “Take heed lest
any man deceive you…:10 And the gospel must first be published
among all nations … :13 And 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.”

Welcome to a theological portmanteau on the last day of April, when we
celebrate our patronal festival, the feast of St Mark the Evangelist. It is
also the 4th of 6 Sundays of Eastertide, inviting us to bask in the wonder
and welcome relief of the resurrection, and this year only – to anticipate
the imminent 6th May Coronation of King Charles III. Given such a
dazzling array, there is no time to waste.

How action-packed, how like St. Mark, who writes in active voice,
largely in present perfect tense, and employs the Greek word for
‘immediately’ at least 40 times in 16 fast-paced chapters, the shortest
of all the gospels. The work is also now acknowledged as the first and
earliest account of Jesus’ life, ministry, passion, and resurrection.
Though a seed-bed for St. Matthew (26 chapters) and St. Luke (24
chapters), Mark’s gospel is in high contrast to St. John (21 chapters)
where a highly structured theology informs the report of “the disciple
that Jesus loved.” Mark’s episodic narrative strings together a selection
of miracles, signs, and parables with over a third of the book focused
on his last week of life on earth. Its chronology is vague (lots of “ands”
“afters” “in those days”); its original ending may leave the reader on a
cliff edge, longing for more.

There is something about Mark that conjures art-based comparisons –
last year a Broadway musical involving a scheme to build morale and
resistance to temptation and this year, perhaps a film that depicts a
behind-the-scenes look at someone and something the film-maker
loves very much, and wants his audience to understand, as well – Mark
as the mature Spielberg or Sam Mendes perhaps.

He enters apostolic history as John Mark, appearing in the Bible as the
son of Mary Mark, a wealthy Hebrew widow of a Roman citizen (Coptic
records name him as Aristopolus Marcus) late of Cyrene in North Africa.
We meet this cosmopolitan and devout lady in a dramatic incident in
Acts 12, when Peter turns up at her front door in Jerusalem following an
angel-enabled escape from Herod’s prison; inside, many believers were
gathered to pray. The servant who answers the door leaves the fugitive
outside whilst she relays his arrival! Fortunately, Peter gains safe entry
in good time.

From this report, we understand that Mark’s mother made her evidently
large and staffed house available as a church and refuge; this puts Mark
squarely within apostolic and earliest Christian circles, most likely
involving contact with Jesus and developing a student/disciple/paternal
relationship with Peter. His home is the probable location for the Last
Supper and a teenage Mark most likely the man with a water jug who
escorts Jesus’ two trusted apostles to the Upper Room to begin
Passover preparations. Later that momentous night, he appears as an
unnamed young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest
when his robe was lost in the scuffle.

As you would expect, more than one image of our patronal saint is
available at St Marks, and each reflects a different aspect of his work
and character. Taken together, they instruct us in his life and theology
in a typically Marcan fashion – vivid, compelling, committed to his
stated mission to convey “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
in emphatic style.

These accessible works of art do more than bring us into the presence
of our patronal saint; they form a gateway to other symbolic realms
present in our worship for today. You will find this expressed in the
words of special prayers compiled from a rich seam of previous Orders
of Service for the Coronation by Rev. Joanna to bless replica regalia
crafted by the children of St Mark’s. As symbols of service, advocacy,
and power, they represent the crown jewels bestowed upon the new
sovereign once he has taken the oath to uphold the law and the people,
been anointed with holy oil, and consecrated king. The form and
meaning of this treasure dates to Edgar, crowned the first Anglo-Saxon
king of Britain in 959, and also acknowledged by the Welsh and
Scottish kings. Sadly, the original items did not survive the upheaval of
the 17th century English Revolution, save for the anointing spoon. The
rest of today’s regalia dates from the Restoration of the monarchy.

Read or listen carefully to the prayers to appreciate their significance:
the Orb is set under the cross to remind the anointed king that he and
all the world are subject to God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ; the
Sceptre represents kingly power to be used with justice and mercy for
the welfare of all; the crown signifies royal majesty through God’s grace.
As Canon Charles Gore once observed, Anglican theology is best
revealed in its spoken prayer, which aspires to order and connect this
earthly kingdom to a higher realm. Enthroned between the two is the
sovereign, sworn guardian of the nations and its laws, a defender of
faith, and a reflection of God’s plan and peace to the extent of his or her
princely virtues. That is the structural position of kingship, the pattern
for beginnings and endings throughout history, a point of intersection
between time and divinity. Inhabiting the role is a very particular
individual, who can only be alive in the shared present moment that
daily challenges those of faith, of any faith, and those of none.

Let us too start with the present familiar. Behold, the figure of Mary
Mark appears on the high altar reredos with her son depicted as a
young boy who carries one of his attributes like a schoolbook, a fitting
tribute to the Christian education Mark received from his mother. The
volume represents his future Gospel, often lettered with the Pax Tibi
(Peace be with you Mark my Evangelist in full translation.) This angelic
greeting of his relics upon safe arrival from Alexandria to Venice in the
11th century demonstrates that the Evangelist was on the move in the
name of Christ, even after death.

In the centre of the stained glass rose acting as a glorious giant halo for
the ascended Christ high atop the reredos is the head of the Lion of St
Mark; his customary wings are not visible, but his green colour is
striking and perhaps invokes the hue of a Venetian lagoon. It may also
image Mark’s apocalyptic perspective of radical evil received at Peter’s
knee, as stated in 1st Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your
adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he
may devour”. It is a cosmic battlefield out there, and Mark is all about
preparing and strengthening Christian troops. Visually, if Mark is
depicted with red robes, holding a red-bound book and sometimes with
red hair, then green must represent the opposite force. To Mark’s
passion and mission, evil matches its demonstrable ability to renew
itself in human behaviour and events; it is evergreen in a fallen world.

John Hayward’s design above the All-Saints chapel visualises Mark
being taught by Peter, whose curiously enlarged mouth speaks to
Mark’s disproportionate ear. Peter’s disciple takes the message to
defend the faith and the faithful to heart, and it becomes central in his
ministry and gospel. Scholars and historians from the 1st century to
contemporary theologians acknowledge Mark’s Gospel is an accurate
record of Peter’s teaching, pulsing with the lifeblood of direct testimony,
a collection of episodes in an “oral tradition” serving the needs of the
church of the day. Its pre-eminent position superseding Matthew was
not generally agreed until well into the 19th century; now 20th century
theologians such as Professor Morna Hooker assert a considered
theological backbone hides in plain sight: Jesus does not just
announce the coming of the Kingdom, he brings it as irrevocably as an
old wineskin will burst if new wine is added. The new covenant with the
living triune God is a total gamechanger, available immediately!

On the eve of St Mark’s liturgical feast day, we were treated to a live
performance of his gospel, set in Rome shortly after the trauma of
Peter’s crucifixion, under ongoing threat of violent persecution. It is
devised as a two-hander, with an anxious and grieving Mark dictating to
a Roman scribe-for-hire just doing his job until words of Jesus Christ
begin to sink in, working a transformation to conversion. Time is of the
essence. Fledgling Christians drawn from non-Jewish communities
were beset by false prophets and deceivers from within and statesponsored
oppression from without. Their continued existence
demanded a gospel to show them how to live in truth and light until
Jesus returns to usher in kingdom come. As the evangelist sifts
through his memories, the selection process favours forthright accounts
of Jesus in action, showing not telling how the Son of God delivers
redemption and new life with authority and supernatural mastery as
incarnation of the triune God.

He intentionally avoids extensive reference to Old Testament tradition
with its legalistic approach; it is for the other gospel writers to see to
that, although Mark personally had full access to Jesus in his aspect of
Hebrew Christ or Messiah as son of a Jewish mother and one of the
first battalion of 72 apostles post-crucifixion, accompanied by his older
cousin and evangelism-mentor Barnabas. He served St. Peter as
disciple, scribe, and gospel writer, and later, was also of service to St
Paul although it took many years to recover Paul’s confidence after
Mark went AWOL, returning to the comfort zone of his Jerusalem base.
Mark knew first-hand about the pain of failure and the value of second
chances and family support when “enduring until the end”.

That is some pedigree. What sort life did Mark make of it?

Let’s apply Marcan method and view for ourselves in another John
Hayward window, found above the St Mark’s Altar on the south wall of
our church. It is crowned with a golden image of St Mark’s lion, wings
present and folded, a lion gone over fully to the light! Beneath him are
two sections, like tablets, starting on the left with the distinctive
architecture of his North African birthplace and childhood in Jerusalem,
faint outlines of a presiding maternal figure and a running boy who has
lost his clothes. Instruction during youth with St. Peter takes centre
stage (note the way Hayward identifies Mark with red hair, boy and
man, and ultimately, with red wounds). Later, he ministers to the apostle
when he stayed in Mamartine Prison awaiting gruesome crucifixion.
This vignette also puts us in mind of Mark’s subsequent work for St
Paul, incarcerated for the second and final time in the same grim prison
prior to execution during the persecutions of Nero. (A Roman citizen,
Paul would not have been crucified.) The right-hand section depicts the
winding path of evangelism, followed by a sacred ministry as leader in
the early church and first bishop of Alexandria, ending in a gruesome
martyr’s death after two days of public torture.

Perhaps on subsequent Patronal Feasts, I can paint St Mark’s gospel’s
theological portrait … from its blockbuster first 13 verses of prologue
that take us from Jesus’ sudden eruption into history by the Jordan to
temptation in the wilderness…its 22 miracles and signs, 10 parables of
which 3 are unique…the ministry and passion in Jerusalem…abiding
themes and structure. For now, I will fast forward to its end, chapter 16:
1 – 8, where the original manuscript ends in the empty tomb.

The stone has been rolled away by the time the women arrive, the body
has vanished and, in its place, sits an angel who confirms that Jesus of
Nazareth has indeed risen. In the penultimate verse he says: “But go
your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into
Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.”

Direct, brief, just the facts, ma’m. You’re good to go. Then the final
verse tolls, the human reaction to the horror, grief and awe experienced
over barely 3 days when only the women remained on the scene as
witness and to minister as best they could. They could not yet do
anything for they were afraid. Here is the very essence of human
suffering: to possess good news and dazzling prospects yet struggle to
connect with them. For the experience of connection marks both the
point of departure and the finish line. Mark dramatises this principle; it
shapes the coronation ceremony and T S Eliot expresses it this way:

Little Gidding, Part V. from T S Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

In a few days’ time, the machinery and memory of church and state
meets at that point, the core of our most profound heritage, where we
find one who is neither English nor British but a Palestinian infant from a
young migrant family displaced by political oppression; in adult life, he
was condemned as a convicted criminal and put to death — Jesus of
Nazareth.

Today, and on Coronation Day, we can celebrate our fellowship in the
Church of England. We claim what we can love about this heritage. Let
us rejoice, always confessing our sins. Let us abide with the king of all
who calls us to love one another as he loves us and be fruitful to the
glory of God. Long may our beginnings and endings connect us through
his grace.

Alleluia. Amen. And God Save the King.

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