Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. In their lifetime, they did amazing things travelling to the ends of the Roman Empire, where they preached, gathered believers and established congregations. Although the term “apostle” is generally the title only given to Jesus’ 12 disciples, there are actually 12 other men who are referred to as apostles in the New Testament, including: Paul, Barnabas, James the Lord’s Brother, Apollos, Mark, Timothy and Luke. This morning, I would like to explore the life of one of these second-string apostles, the Evangelist, St. Mark.
Life is all about second chances. That is the heart of the gospel. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult of Jesus teachings to teach, practice and embrace. We’re apt to say, I believe in second chances, I just don’t think everyone deserves them. Or we might joke, “You know why Jesus didn’t give Judas a second chance? Because Jesus didn’t want to be double crossed.” Perhaps, deep down, you would have wished for a second chance in your life, simply because you recognize now that the time wasn’t ready for you the first time around.
In the Book of Acts, we read the story of two of the early church’s most important apostles whose friendship was challenged by the issue of second chances. “After some days Paul said to Barnabas, Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark, (who incidentally was his nephew.) But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
Without the encouragement of Barnabas, what would have happened to Mark? Perhaps, the Gospel according to St. Mark, might never have seen the light of day. And surprisingly, without the encouragement of Barnabas, what would have become of the Apostle Paul? It was Barnabas who welcomed him into the company of the apostles in Jerusalem and invited him to join him on the first missionary journey. Yes, Barnabas recognized the potential in his friend Paul and his nephew Mark, and he encouraged both of them with a second chance. Everyone makes mistakes at some point. And when someone decides to forgive you and gives you another chance, you should grab it with both hands because you might not get a third one. And when someone is seeking a second chance, you better help them find the way forward.
According to Egyptian Coptic Christian tradition, Mark, or John Mark as he is often referred to in scripture, was born along the coast of North Africa in Cyrene, in 12 AD, in present day Libya. His father, who died in Mark’s childhood was named Aristopolus, and his mother’s name was Mary. They were Greek-speaking, Hellenized Jews who were a part of a large Jewish diaspora living around the Mediterranean Sea. They were wealthy merchants with important personal connections to other Jewish families, including the Apostle Barnabas on Cyprus, and the Apostle Peter in the Galilee, who was married to a cousin of Mark’s father. After their properties were attacked in Cyrene by Berbers, the family immigrated to Jerusalem. This was during the early years of Jesus ministry. At an impressionable youth, Mark visited Peter’s home in the Galilee, and it was from Peter, Mark learned of Jesus’ teachings.
In scripture, John’s mother Mary is the one mentioned as the owner of the Upper Room, where the disciples celebrated the Last Supper with Jesus, and where they continued to gather in the years after Jesus’s ascension and Pentecost. Mark notes both secretly, and rather discretely, that he may have been present with the disciples at the last supper with Jesus. He writes, “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” Most scholars believe that the young man serving at the table and following him as a disciple was Mark himself. In the Book of Acts, after the martyrdom of James and the arrest of Peter, we are drawn to the place again. We read that when the Peter escaped certain death in prison, “He came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.” Peter eventually escaped the city and travelled to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas had been working to establish a church.
Many Christians scattered at that time as well and Mark too found himself in Antioch. Perhaps in the home of his uncle Barnabas. According to tradition he travelled his way across Asia Minor to Rome together with the Apostle Peter serving as his interpreter and dictating his memories, sermons and teachings. Later legends recall tales of Mark preaching in northeastern Italy around modern day Venice, and portray a dream in which Mark was shipwrecked in the Venice lagoon, and an angel came to him and said, “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here thy body will rest.” For Venetians, 800 years later, these words seemed to mean that the saint should find rest, devotion, and honor in that place. After spending time in Rome with Peter, Mark made his first journey to Alexandria, Egypt. Eventually, he returned to Antioch.
When the Church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas as it first missionaries, Barnabas invited his nephew Mark to accompany them. There were aspects of the life of Jesus that Mark knew better than his older traveling companions, and his ties to Peter, the apostles, and the church in Jerusalem made him a significant figure on the journey. Traveling together, Mark witnessed firsthand how Jews and God-fearing Gentiles alike were embracing Jesus as the Messiah. But it also seemed that Mark was alarmed and taking issue with the decisions and interpretation of scripture that Paul made. Perhaps he felt his mentor Peter would not approve. Gentiles were becoming Christian without becoming Jewish first and following Jewish practices. For whatever reason, when Mark reached the sea, he abandoned Paul and Barnabas, and returned to his family in Jerusalem. After the two apostles completed their journey across Turkey, they travelled to Judea to offer their reports and a collection to the Council of Jerusalem. There the church leaders led by Jesus’ brother James the Wise debated and eventually affirmed Paul’s actions among the Gentiles in spite of the protests of the traditional Jewish believers. The Council also commissioned them for a second missionary journey, which is where the struggle over Mark’s role arose and where Paul and Barnabas parted ways.. Paul considered Mark to be a traitor for abandoning them on their first mission, while Barnabas still considered him his family and worthy of a second chance. Together, Mark and Barnabas travelled to Cyprus.
After a time on Cyprus, Mark travelled on to Egypt to begin the work of establishing the church. It was a daunting challenge. Alexandria was the cultural capital of the ancient world. Its famous School was the center of science and philosophy with a library filled with hundreds of thousands of books. The population of Alexandria consisted of Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Romans, Ethiopians, Nubians and other races. The religions Mark encountered were just as numerous. There were the old Pharaonic gods under Ra, the Greek gods under their supreme god Zeus, the Romans gods under Jupiter. The Jewish community was diverse as well, and some having just fled in the diaspora from Jerusalem, called themselves Christian. Mark stood alone to face all these religions and philosophies.
According to tradition he entered Alexandria with a torn sandal, so he went to a cobbler named Anianus, to repair it. While Anianus was holding the needle, it went through his finger and he screamed from pain and said, “O’ the One God”. Mark took some mud and spat on it and put it on his wound, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ, Son of God, heal this hand.” And it was healed. Ananias immediately became Mark’s first follower. The church in Alexandria quickly took hold and expanded to other cities in Egypt. Mark founded a Theological School to stand against the school for the pagans and to combat their ideas. With the tremendous success and achievement for the Christian faith in Egypt, the pagan followers were agitated and planned to kill Mark. His followers, however, advised him to leave Egypt for a while for the safety of the church. In agreement, he then ordained Anianus to be the Bishop of Alexandria.
After hearing of the death of Peter and Paul in Rome, Mark decided to return to Alexandria. He knew the danger he would face especially among the pagan believers. On April 25th, 68 AD, the feast of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, with its major Temple in Alexandria, coincided with the Easter. A multitude of pagan believers attacked the church and forced their way in. They seized Mark, bound him with a thick rope, and dragged him through the streets. The next morning, the pagans prepared to bind Mark and burn his body. They gathered firewood and built a pyre, but a severe storm blew in, and heavy rains fell. The pagans became frightened and fled in fear. Mark’s body was placed in a secret tomb in the church in Alexandria where it remained until the 9th century.
Over the course of the next centuries, religions rose and fell. By the 8th century, political leaders around Alexandria had converted to Islam and many historic churches were being turned into mosques. In 828 A.D. with the increased importance of relics for commerce and prestige, as well as the legends of Mark visiting Veneto, two Italian sailors arranged to steal the body of St. Mark and to transfer it to Venice. Mark’s relics were loaded aboard ship, concealed in wicker baskets and the protected by cabbage leaves and pork. On passing the Moslem customs barrier the two Venetian sailors reported their goods with the fateful words “kanzir, kanzir” or pig. Tradition holds, that St. Mark’s head remained in Alexandria, while Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice was built to house his remaining relics.
How different the life of St. Mark might have been if Barnabas had not been there encouraging Mark with a second chance. Paul would himself one day write of Mark in his pastoral letter to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me in ministry.” A reluctant Paul grew to share the same love for Mark as the apostle Peter who knew him since his childhood. In his epistle, he wrote from Rome, “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark.” The story of John Mark teaches us that second chances can make all the difference. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.