Sermon: St Mark
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
St Mark: 26 April 09: pm: The Very Revd Frank Nelson
- Psalm 45
- Ezekiel 1: 4 - 14
- 2 Timothy 4: 1 - 11
As all good Anglicans know the reader in church usually ends the reading with some appropriate words: Here ends the lesson; This is the word of the Lord. A sixteen year old girl reading St Mark’s account of the betrayal and arrest of Jesus continued into the next paragraph, which reads: A certain young man was following Jesus, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. (Mark 14: 51) The reader completed her task with a confident but, on this occasion, perhaps less than judicious, “Thanks be to God.” As Mark is the only Gospel writer to mention this incident it is usually assumed that the young man was Mark himself.
Tonight we commemorate St Mark – Evangelist, Gospel writer, companion and friend of St Peter and St Paul. Apart from the odd references to Mark, sometimes called John Mark, such as we heard in tonight’s 2nd reading, we know precious little about him. He was not one of the Twelve Disciples – yet seems to have been closely associated with the Twelve. Tradition has it that Mark’s Gospel was dictated by Peter. Some think that it was to Mark’s home that Jesus and the disciples retired for what came to be called the Last Supper. We simply don’t know.
What we can say is that Mark was likely one of those many people in the early church who were around Jesus and the first Apostles. In that sense he is a key witness to the events of those early days. While not himself one of the leaders, he reminds us that the church is made up not only of leaders, the well-known, the big names. If you like, we can think of Mark as one of the support crew – one of those people so vital in any organization – those who turn up week after week, who quietly get on with work that needs doing, who offer to help the leaders. Their names are seldom written on monuments or appear in the minutes of important meetings.
Yet somehow St Mark has come to be associated as one of the pillars of the Church – principally because his name is attached to one of the Gospels. That it is the shortest of the four is neither here nor there. Mark is generally thought to have been the first of the written accounts of the life and times of Jesus – at least of those that have survived and been included in the Canon of the New Testament. Mark’s is an action account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Some have called it the story of the Passion of Jesus, with an introduction. Certainly he wastes no time with such peripheral stories as the birth of Jesus as do Matthew and Luke. For Mark, it is straight into things: chapter 1 verse 1 reads: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. You could not be clearer than that. From the very beginning, the identity of the chief character in his story is clearly identified.
Yet strangely, it is Mark, more than the other Gospel writers, who is fascinated by the question of Jesus’ identity. Time and again the characters ask: Who is Jesus? There have been theses written about what is called the ‘hidden messiah-ship’ of Jesus – largely because those closest to him, the disciples and their companions, apparently have no idea as to who Jesus might really be. There is the brief flash of inspiration on the part of Peter, midway through the Gospel, when Peter blurts out: You are the Messiah (Mark 8: 29); but almost immediately that is countered by Jesus’ harsh words to Peter: Get behind me Satan! It is left to an outsider, the Gentile soldier at the foot of the cross who, at the point of Jesus’ death says: Truly this man was God’s Son. (Mark 15: 39)
There are no nice resurrection appearances in Mark’s Gospel. Three women go early to the tomb, to be met by the sight of the stone rolled away, and a young white-clothed man who tells them not to be afraid, but to go to Peter and the others with a message. The Gospel ends abruptly with the words, ‘they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ (Mark 16:8) Later editors have attempted to soften this ending and there are two alternative endings usually included.
If you look closely at the Dossal curtain hanging behind the altar, you will see that one of the bottom four pictures is the head of a lion. The others are the heads of a man, an ox and an eagle. These four come initially from that very strange reading we heard from the prophet Ezekiel – with its four living creatures covered in eyes and wings. They reappear in the Book of Revelation, and have become linked to the four Gospel writers in Christian iconography. Matthew is depicted by a human likeness; Mark by the lion; Luke a bull and John an eagle. Each is an evangelist, a Gospel writer. Each has been included in the formal structure, the Canon, of the New Testament, for each offers a particular view-point of Jesus. If you like, each reflects a slightly different take on the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Why four Gospels, why not just one? In its wisdom, and guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church decided that one account was simply not enough. One would be inadequate to carry a message of such importance – the message of eternal life in Christ, to paraphrase both St John and St Paul. In the early turbulent centuries, as the Church defined itself against the Jewish religion, and sought to agree on a common belief, those Gospels which could claim some sort of direct apostolic contact found themselves included. As Matthew and John are both named among the Twelve there seems never to have been any question about them. Luke, while not one of the twelve, had the backing of the name of St Paul. Mark came to be associated with St Peter. There are several other Gospels which were not included in the New Testament – among them a number of second century documents which people like Dan Brown of da Vinci code fame have used as inspiration for their novels.
Today the Gospels are a yardstick of our belief. When, as St Paul suggests, we are tempted to get itchy ears which take us off after other doctrines and teachings, the Gospels keep us anchored in the good news of Jesus Christ – which is not to say there is no room for debate or even controversy. The Gospels keep us focused on Jesus portrayed by St Matthew as the Messiah, by St Luke as the universal Saviour, by St John as the Word of God and, if we are to accept the words of the Roman soldier overseeing the execution of Jesus, in Mark Jesus is the Son of God.
One of the Collects for St Mark in our New Zealand Prayer Book reads thus: When new fashions, new ideas, new fears, burst on us, unchanging God, grant us then to know with Mark the evangelist, that Christ is risen and the Gospel stands.
May it be so.