Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – bless the bed that I lie on.
I learned this simple child’s bed time prayer from my mother, God bless her, when I was just a toddler. I’ve never forgotten it, and it sprang to mind when I was thinking about St Mark, and what I would say today on his feast day. The prayer names all four evangelists, the four people who wrote the Gospels, through which we learn of Jesus and his teaching. The 2nd Gospel does not say who wrote it, but according to Papias writing around 100AD the name of the author is Mark – Mark the Evangelist.
St Mark’s is the shortest of the four Gospels. Most scholars believe it was the first to be written, perhaps shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD following a Jewish uprising against Rome. Both Matthew and Luke seem to have had his text in front of them when they wrote theirs, since they include many of the same incidents, often in the same words. So we owe special thanks to Mark – without his work so much of Jesus’s life and teaching would be lost to us.
What do we know about Mark? Very little for certain! Two people called Mark are named in the New Testament.
· First there is John Mark who is mentioned several times in the Acts of the Apostles. He is the reason for the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas we heard about in today’s 1st reading (Acts 15: 35-41).
· Second there is Mark the cousin of Barnabas mentioned in some of Paul’s epistles as a companion of Paul’s during his imprisonment in Rome.
These two Marks are traditionally identified with Mark the Evangelist, though not all scholars agree. Mark – Marcus in Latin – was one of the commonest names in the Roman Empire. We simply can’t be certain that these are the same person as the Evangelist.
Our Egyptian Coptic brothers and sisters in Christ have a tradition that Mark was born in Cyrene in Libya and was martyred in Alexandria, where his relics were venerated. In 828 the reputed relics were stolen by two Venetian merchants and taken to Venice. When St Mark’s Basilica was being built in 1063 they couldn’t be found – until, that is, the Saint himself pointed to the place by sticking an arm out of a pillar.
Some of these traditions are doubtful – and some of them downright fanciful – but does that really matter?
Surely, all that really matters is what Mark tells us about Jesus, and how that speaks to us today.
So let us turn to reflect on what Mark tells us in today’s 3rd reading (Mark 13: 5-13). The context is this: Jesus has just foretold the destruction of Herod’s magnificent new Temple in Jerusalem. The disciples Peter, James, John and Andrew take him aside to ask privately, ‘How will we know when this will happen?’ Then Jesus replies in the words we have heard. Both Matthew and Luke have almost exactly the same story in their Gospels – no doubt they both got it from Mark.
Jesus knows his likely fate – to be killed by the authorities as an agitator.
He is sure he will rise again, and that his disciples will continue his saving mission. But he realises it is inevitable that there will be false leaders too who will distort his message. So he begins by warning them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”’ Christians today must still take care to distinguish between imposters and those who really do come in Christ’s name. In today’s 2nd reading (Ephesians 4: 7-16) St Paul suggests a test we can apply: do they equip the community of believers, the church, for the work of ministry as the body of Christ?
Jesus knows that his disciples are worried for the future.
Stories abounded then - as they do now and have always done - about terrible events in different parts of the world. It would be all too easy for his disciples to give up the hope they need to continue his mission. So he reassures them in these words, ‘When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs’ - the start of something new.
Jesus’s words send a shiver down my back, as I think of the frightful news that fills the media – now brought to us in our living rooms on screens as it happens in full colour. But hasn’t it always been like this? My grandparents lived through the horrors of WW1 trench warfare, armed rebellion and internecine civil war. My parents lived through total war in WW2 and survived to bring me into the world. I have contemplated nuclear annihilation during the Cold War and made pathetic plans to protect my family. My children fear dastardly terrorist attacks and are terrified by the prospect of catastrophic climate change.
These fears of ours and people in every age are no more than a sign that the great work of building God’s kingdom is in progress now. All of us who are Jesus’s disciples are called to play their part in it. Christians must not let go of hope for the future.
Jesus’s disciples must proclaim the good news to all people.
But Jesus knows they will meet resistance, and some will face persecution. ‘Beware’, he says, ‘for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.’ Nobody can say that Jesus is other than realistic and brutally honest with his disciples. He understands that religious minorities are often made scapegoats, as the first Christians were. Christians are not being persecuted in Ireland today – but they are in many other places. And not just Christians: other religious minorities are also suffering, among them Muslims.
If this happens to you, says Jesus, ‘do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.’ Jesus recommends to his disciples that when they face interrogation for their faith they should confront their persecutors directly and frankly. Please God this will never happen to me, but it is surely good advice – tell the truth as the Spirit moves you, as there is nothing to be gained by dissembling and lying at a show-trial.
Some will even face betrayal and death for their faith. ‘Brother will betray brother to death’, says Jesus, ‘and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.’ But there are worse things than death for a Christian. Worse than death would be the shame of denying our faith. ‘The one who endures to the end will be saved’, says Jesus. If death is to be our fate we should face it bravely, in the knowledge that through it we enter God’s heavenly kingdom, where we will meet Jesus, who died on the cross to show us how it is done.
Let me finish with a prayer for those persecuted and martyred for their faith:
Loving Father God, your Son Jesus Christ suffered and died for us.
In his resurrection he restores life and peace in all creation.
Comfort, we pray, all victims of persecution and those oppressed by their fellow humans.
Remember in your kingdom those who have died for their faith.
Lead the oppressors towards compassion and give hope to the suffering.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.