Saint Mark’s Day


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(April 25) 

O Almighty God, who hast instructed Thy Holy Church with the heavenly doctrine of Thy Evangelist Saint Mark…
Ephesians 4:7-16
John 15:1-11

At the time when this Lectionary was compiled it was believed that Mark was an off-shot of Matthew whereas contemporary scholarship indicates that Matthew is a development of Mark who invented the Gospel format for a Syrian audience in the late 60s or early 70s AD. This explains his few appearances in the Lectionary; his Gospel is not even chosen for today. By tradition Mark: fled naked after Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51-52); lived with his mother in a Christian community ([passage=Acts 12:25); preached with Paul and (possibly) his cousin or uncle Barnabas in Cyprus (Acts 13:5); fell out with Paul (Acts 13:13) and returned to Cyprus with Barnabas (Acts 15:37-39); was reconciled with Paul (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24); and was closely associated with Peter who called him “son” (1 Peter 5:13). These references, however, may refer to different people and they are all contested. He is said to have founded the Diocese of Alexandria and been martyred there in 68 AD. He is Patron Saint of Venice.

I have always thought of Mark as the ancient equivalent of a journalist (cf Monday before Easter) because he always cuts to the heart of an issue, never resting for a moment, even when the narrative becomes more detailed in the chapters on the Passion and death of Jesus. Rowan Williams, in Christ on Trial, likens Mark’s Gospel to a film script and this says much the same thing about his style. Nonetheless, the Collect is absolutely correct, in spite of that stylistic sharpness, in saying that Mark is concerned with doctrine; he begins his Gospel with the clearest possible introductory line: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. thereafter, the fact that he never wastes a word does not mean that he is in any way superficial. His Gospel contains three alternative endings, the first of which leaves the Disciples in a state of fear.

Perhaps his most distinctive narrative feature is his emphasis on the precariousness and secrecy of Jesus’ mission which presents us with considerable problems of interpretation. Precisely why did Jesus want to keep his mighty works secret? There have been a variety of theories, none very convincing, relating to the danger from the authorities, the danger of being misunderstood and the need to prepare the Disciples before launching a full blown mission. Of the three, the last is the most convincing, particularly if we accept that Mark, along with the other Synoptics, seems to indicate that the mission of Jesus only lasted something like a year, as opposed to the Johannine mission that implies two, or even three, years.

It is not easy to see why the two Readings were chosen (other than a specific reference in the Gospel to evangelists) for today and how they relate to each other. The Gospel is perhaps the most elegant passage, echoing Psalm 81, of Jesus’ Maundy Thursday discourse on love which here takes on both a mystical and a practical dimension. As branches of the sacred vine our productivity, the quality of our fruit, depends upon the personal relationship we have in God. To be fruit on a vine is a quintessentially passive metaphor which is why it points so directly to faith; we are totally dependent on the heavenly gardener. Although the Epistle is linked with the gospel through its introductory reference to grace, the passage then goes on to elaborate on the subject of sound doctrine, echoing the Collect, and to the familiar Pauline image of the Church as a human body. This is also the passage which refers to the idea that Jesus descended into the underworld between His death and Resurrection. It is an odd notion except that it is an early attempt to work out how the Crucifixion and Resurrection are supposed to free those who died before these events took place, an issue that had largely been worked out by the time that John was writing his more elevated, even cosmic, account of Jesus. Paul then goes on to sketch the practical purpose of the post Resurrection phase of Jesus’ mission which was the establishment of followers to ensure sound doctrine.

Sound doctrine was the over-riding concern of the 16th Century reformers, as witnessed in the emphasis of the Collect and the choice of the Epistle but perhaps one additional reason why Mark was not particularly popular in the 16th Century was, in spite of the Collect’s perception, the notion that Mark had very little to say on doctrine, in comparison with the authors of our Readings. His simple, straightforward message, that Jesus was the Son of God was not in dispute in the 16th Century; it was taken for granted; it would have been unthinkable to question it; but most theological controversies are not questions of “what?” but “How?”. This is perhaps why the complexity of Paul was far more often invoked in the 16th Century than the simplicity of Mark. Yet today we might want to adopt precisely the opposite strategy: in an age which is not the least bit interested in the doctrinal facility required to deconstruct Paul, our key task is to project a clear, consistent message that cuts through postmodern ambiguities of response.

Mark is the Gospel of mission. If we want to tell people about the meaning of the life of Jesus in a way that they can most readily grasp, it is to Mark that we should most advisedly turn. Styles change through time; and Mark’s time is now.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Does it matter when and for whom Mark wrote his Gospel?
  2. Why do you think Mark emphasised the secrecy of Jesus’ mission?
  3. Consider Mark’s passion narrative (14-15) as a film script
  4. How useful is the metaphor of the vine in John 15 for a contemporary audience?
  5. Does it matter if there is no strong connection between Mark and Venice?

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