Saturday, April 24, 2010

Saint Mark Evangelist

(For a sermon on the Third Sunday after Easter, click here)

Eph. 4:7-16
John 15:1-11

On St. Mark's Day we would expect something from the Book of Acts, or the line from II Timothy 4:11, "Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry." And, we would expect that the Gospel reading come from the Gospel of Mark. But, instead the Scriptures we are given seem not to be about Mark directly. And, yet, in her wisdom the Church has set up a sermon for any preacher who sees it already written for him.

The Scriptures we are given tell us that we need Christ, and that without Him we have no power to do anything acceptable to God. Without Christ we fail, and cannot bring forth good (as God considers good), just as a branch cut off from the vine cannot bring forth fruit, being severed from the source of its life. It withers and dies.

We see that abiding in Christ means that we have His words abiding in us. And, his words are not merely the things he said as he walked the earth. In this same long discourse in the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit, the other Comforter (the other paraklētos), whom Jesus also calls the Spirit of truth, who will lead the Apostles into all truth after he, Christ, is taken from them. And, as we know from words in this same long discourse, Christ identifies the Father's word as the Truth, and himself as the Truth.

Christ's words, that must abide in us if we are to abide in him, include everything spoken, as well, by the Father and made known by the Holy Spirit; for Jesus Christ's words are the truth as He himself is the Truth. His words were spoken by the prophets centuries before he came into the world as the Son of the virgin mother in the fullness of human nature as the Word made flesh. Moses spoke the words of Christ, as did David in the Psalms, as did Isaiah in his oracles, as did all the prophets who prepared the way for him, up to and including John the Baptist. After his ascension and pouring out of the Holy Spirit, his words continued to come to the Church through the Apostles and Prophets, and it is Christ's words we hear in the Epistles of St. Paul and other Apostles. It is also Christ's words preserved by the Church and passed on to every new generation of Christians.

We are warned that any of us who do not abide in his words, will be like a branch that is cut off and withers. Such a person will not bring forth fruit, but be be cut off from the source of our life and unable to please God, or to know him, or to live forever. To be cut off from the Vine is to be dead while we live, and not to enter into the joy of which Christ speaks in this passage from the Gospel. Not to keep and not to abide in the words he spoke through the Apostles, who were moved by His Holy Spirit, is to be left to the cruel mercies of every wind of doctrine that blows, terrible winds of a storm, words that deceive and destroy. And, we see it today even in churches (as they are called) that have not stayed within the truth of Christ's words, which have thrown off his yoke, which have rejected the doctrine He imparted to his bride the Church through his Apostles, and through those today who speak his word faithfully to govern and feed his flock.

So, we come to John Mark. Here was a man whose name we know from the Book of Acts as I have stated it, John Mark. That is, his Hebrew name was Jonah (John) and he had a Roman name, Marcus (Mark). This is still practiced by Jewish people today, to have a name in Gentile society and also a Hebrew name. It means that Jonah Marcus was from a family of the Diaspora.

What we see of Mark, as a young man, is the picture of fear. It is not the picture of godly fear, but of the kind of timid fear that, St. Paul tells us, does not come from the Holy Spirit. So the Apostle wrote to St. Timothy: "Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (II Ti. 1:6,7)

When we first see Mark, as seems more than evident, he is afraid. Like Peter who would deny Christ on that night of terror, Mark fled from the scene. As Jesus stood firmly in Gethsemane like a rock, the picture of a man who was not afraid, the perfect hero facing death with determination, he stood alone. So we read in the fourteenth chapter of Mark's Gospel, and it reads as a confession made by an older man who tells on himself with acquired humility.

"And they all forsook him, and fled. And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked." Mark 14: 50-52)

Mark tells on himself, confessing his fear and the shame of that fear. But, like the other disciples who were on the outer circle (not of the twelve Apostles, but in the band of disciples nonetheless, of which there were about five hundred), he was one of the eyewitnesses to the fact that Christ had risen; and Mark remained in the Church. We read of his presence in the early church in the twelfth chapter of Acts. Eventually, he traveled with Paul and Barnabas. "And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark." (Acts 12:25)

But, he was still afraid. So we see in the fifteenth chapter:

"Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do. And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. 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." (Acts 15:35-39)

Paul saw that Mark had left the dangerous and difficult missionary work once before, and did not think it wise to take him again at that time. Barnabas did. Paul went out with letters of recommendation from the Church at Antioch, and the scriptures do not give this same affirmation to Barnabas and John Mark at that time.

Now, I am not suggesting that John Mark had failed to abide in Christ in the ultimate sense. He was not cut off, not left to the harsh winds that blow outside of Christ's Church. But, in his early life we do not see him bringing forth fruit. On some level, he resisted the Holy Spirit, enough to give in at least to fear. For that reason he gave up. But, like Peter, who had denied Christ all those years earlier, but who strengthened his brethren after he was converted from his own fear to deeper faith than ever before, the story of John Mark does not end bitterly.

So, we come to that last chapter St. Paul ever wrote, the fourth and final chapter in his Second Epistle to Timothy.

"Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me: For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry. And Tychicus have I sent to Ephesus. The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: Of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words. At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. Salute Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus abode at Corinth: but Trophimus have I left at Miletum sick. Do thy diligence to come before winter. Eubulus greeteth thee, and Pudens, and Linus, and Claudia, and all the brethren." (II Tim. 4:9-21)

In his old age St. Paul was reconciled fully to Barnabas and Mark, or more likely, they to him. The old fears no longer stopped John Mark from facing all the dangers and fulfilling his ministry. St. Paul, writing from his prison, knowing he would soon offer up his own life as a martyr, now commended both Barnabas and Mark. This is not the story of Paul wising up and seeing he was wrong, but (as the Church has seen it), it is the story of John Mark having the grace to overcome his fears, grace that could have come only through the Holy Spirit, through Mark learning to abide in Christ and to have Christ's words abide in him.

Paul tells of those who had abandoned him, so that he needed Timothy to bring him a cloak before Winter. Like Christ in the garden that night all those years before, Paul stood alone facing death. But, among those he now commended for their fruitful ministry, he praises Mark, the man who many years before had also abandoned him in a time of danger and hardship, but who now was converted.

What, if by anything you are not abiding in Christ, stops you from abiding in Christ and having his words abide in you? Is it love of this present world, the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for ungodly things? Is it ungodly and timid fear? Whatever it is, cast it from you, and do not be cut off from the Vine, from the source of your life. Remain in Him and have His words abiding in you.

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