A Sermon for St Mark's Day

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St Mark's Day, St Mark's, Londonderry (Birmingham Diocese), 25.4.2003  (revision of sermon first preached in  1971)         

Today we observe the Feast of St Mark, our patronal festival, which invariably falls within Eastertide. It so happens that St Mark's Day is the only one of the feasts of the evangelists that does. But unlike our other three Gospels, Mark's Gospel is the only one that does not include one or more stories of appearances of the risen Lord. But I think Mark had no intention of including any such stories, although I have no doubt that he knew some. If I am right about what he was trying to do, and why he was doing it, then his leaving out of such stories was, we might even say, a necessary thing to do, as I hope to show you.

Let me begin by telling you a story. Most of this story is true, and possibly all of it -- although part of it is guesswork.

Many, many years ago there was a man whose name was Mark. Mark was a Christian pastor who preached every Sunday to a Christian community about Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, and the difference that he makes, or ought to make, in our lives.

Each week when he prepared his sermon, Mark knew what scriptures were going to be read the following Sunday. There would be two readings from what we call the Old Testament, just as they had been read in the Jewish synagogue. The first reading was a long one of a chapter or more from the Law, that is, from the first five books of our Bible, starting with Genesis and ending with Deuteronomy. Each week the reading began with the next chapter, and it took them three years to read all five books, after which they then started over again. The second reading was from the Prophets; it was a short one of no more than ten verses, and it was chosen to match the first one.

And so, each Sunday they had readings from the Law and the Prophets, and they also sang a hymn or two. But unlike our hymns, most of theirs were psalms, and they may well have done as the Jews apparently did, which was to spread the 150 psalms of the Psalter over three years.

Thus when Mark prepared his sermon, he could draw on the Sunday scriptures of readings from the Law and the Prophets and a psalm.

He could also draw on all that he knew about what Jesus had taught and done. The story of Jesus' passion had been told so many times that there was a standard way of telling that. It had become fairly fixed in form like a child's favourite bedtime story that must every time include exactly the same details, and it was always told at Easter, the Christian Passover. But all the other things that Jesus had said and done were used by Christian preachers and teachers as they saw fit, and probably in no special order.

Now Sunday was approaching, and Mark had his sermon to prepare. He came in after a hard day's work, had his evening meal as the sun was setting, and then lit the wick of his little oil lamp and sat down to think. He thought about the needs and concerns of his congregation: he thought about what Jesus had said and done that might speak to those needs, and he thought about the Sunday scriptures and how they spoke of God's care, God's way and God's promises that had all come to their rich meaning in Jesus. Mark tried to put all three of these into his sermon, and he tried to show that they were all related to each other: Jesus, the scriptures, and the needs of the church. Mark scratched his ideas on a wax writing tablet. When he was done, he wrote out his notes more legibly and permanently on a sheet of papyrus.

Having prepared his sermon, Mark sat back and thought about what was really bothering his congregation and those of other nearby towns as well.

Thirty-five years ago Jesus had been crucified, and then, on the third day, those who had followed him knew, wonder of wonders! that he was no longer dead - as they gathered in his name they knew him to be alive in their midst, raised to life by the power of God, raised to a life which they now shared by the Spirit of God.

But that was thirty-five years ago, and early enthusiasm was very hard to sustain. As Mark knew, it was becoming increasingly hard to feel the liberating joy of Easter in the face of the menacing hostility of some of their neighbours. They did not like the way the Christians were not patriotically keeping all the state pagan festivals. Where was the certainty of Christ's triumphant and victorious resurrection when Christians were increasingly being made the scapegoats for every misfortune that occurred? Only last year the Emperor Nero had blamed a fire in Rome on the Christians, and many of them had been executed in one way or another, including the Apostles Peter and Paul. Where was the certainty of Christ's presence now? Mark remembered how members of his own congregation were saying how much easier it was for those to follow Jesus who had walked and talked with him. But most of those who had done so were dead now, and what was there left?

Mark and his fellow-preachers had spent hours together talking about the problem and how to meet it with their preaching. -- And then, because Mark was the very best preacher they knew, they had asked him to make a preacher's notebook that they might use during the year, a notebook that would give them the basis for matching the scripture lessons with Jesus' ministry and teaching in such a way that the Church would know Jesus' presence now.

Mark decided that he would take the already fixed passion narrative and use all of the rest of his materials in such a way as to lead up to it. He wove his stories and the parables into a narrative that began with John the Baptist and Jesus' baptism and went to the risen Lord's going forth into Galilee with the demand that the disciples go there too. And he interwove motifs and words from the lections of the Law into each section of his story. In fact, he did it twice over, so that, for example, the lessons for the Jewish Passover, Genesis 1 and the 11th and 12th chapters of Exodus, the stories of the Creation and of Passover, lie behind both the Feeding of the 5000 in the desert and also the Last Supper. And he so arranged all his stories and his parables that they kept giving, again and again, a threefold answer to the question: "How can I know Jesus as my living Lord now?"

Mark's answer was so good, so true to the Christian tradition and experience, that many of his fellow-pastors used copies of his preacher's notebook, so many copies spread so far, that even after other gospels were written to meet other situations, Mark's Gospel was too widespread ever to be lost.

What was - and is - Mark's answer to the question of how I can know Jesus as my living Lord now?

Mark's answer is: you will only know Jesus in any sense that really counts as you obey him, following him in the way of the cross, in a three-fold way: the way of self-denial, the way of service to your fellow-disciples, and the way of mission to all people.

In Mark, Jesus speaks of the necessity of the Passion three times. In fact, it is the only thing in the whole of Mark that Jesus is actually said to teach. Each time those who are walking and talking with him misunderstand. Each time Jesus invites them - and all those who would come after them - to enter into a living understanding by entering into the way of the cross: In chapter 8, when Peter at Caesarea Philippi says Jesus is the Christ, he expects Jesus to be a conquering hero, and objects when Jesus says the Son of Man must suffer and be crucified. Jesus then invites each one to deny himself, take up his cross and follow him. Then in chapter 9 when Jesus repeats the necessity of the way of the cross, the disciples again miss the point and discuss who will be the greatest among them. Jesus puts a child in their midst and speaks of receiving little ones in his name. Then in chapter 10, when the sons of Zebedee want to sit by him in his glory, he says the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for all, and he tells them not to lord it over others as the Gentiles do.

So Mark's message to them, and also to us, is you must confess him as God's Son in your relationship with him, your relationship with your fellow-Christians, and in your relationship with all people by moving out with God's mercy and love to all people in the face of everything that others might do.

But those who were with Jesus at the time, who walked and talked with him, Mark presents as having failed all three tests. Judas went to the leaders of all the people and said he would betray Jesus. Next Judas as the betrayer was with the other disciples, the nucleus of the Church, at the Last Supper. And finally Judas came to Jesus face-to-face and betrayed him with a kiss. Then Peter is accosted by the maid, one-to-one, and denies knowing Jesus. She then says to the others standing by that he is a disciple, and he denies again. Then the others say to him, "Truly, you are one of his, for you are a Galilean". And he swears and says, "I do not know this man." The only other time that "truly" and "this man" occur in Mark's Gospel they are on the lips of the centurion at the cross, who confesses to all the world, "Truly, this man was God's Son".

Woven into these three relationships of the one-to-one, the one-to fellow disciples and the one-to all people, is Mark's central witness to who Jesus really is. In chapter 6 Jesus comes to his home town, and the reaction of the people who in human terms might be expected to know him best is (Mk 6.2-3):

"Where did this man get all this? What wisdom is this that has been given to him? How does he do such works of power? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon. Are not all his sisters here with us?" And they took offence at him.

But as the Son of God he is the one who is truly wise, powerful and well-born. He is well-born at his baptism when God says to him one-to-one, "You are my Son the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased" (1.11). He is the wise one at the Transfiguration when God says to the nucleus of the church, "This is my Son, the beloved, hear him" (9.7). And he is the truly powerful one in the cross when the centurion, the representative of Roman might, seeing how he dies, proclaims to the whole wide world, "Truly, this man was God's Son" (15.39).

And the last we hear of Jesus in Mark's Gospel, he is going before the disciples into Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles, Galilee of the nations - and it is there that they will see him.

Mark, I think, might well have been pleased that a Conservative Evangelical theological college a few years ago chose to hang over the Holy Table in their chapel Mark's Easter Day words of the young man in the empty tomb: "He is not here". If we would know the deep and abiding joy of Easter in AD 2003 as Mark knew it in AD 65, we cannot know it just in our own hearts, or in our fellowship: we shall only know it truly as we go forth this morning into Galilee, as we go forth to meet all people and our Lord who will meet us in that meeting.

This is the inspired witness of St Mark for which we have given thanks in today's Collect. It is as challenging and disturbing and joyous as ever it was when Mark first wrote it down by the light of his flickering oil lamp. May we keep faith with him as he has shown faith to us.