A sermon preached for the feast of Mark the Evangelist on Monday 25 April by Canon Dr Robert Titley, Treasurer
Reading Mark 13.5-13
Mark’s gospel (the author of which we celebrate today) hasn’t really been the church’s favourite. For much of its history, the church in the west has most used Matthew in its services; and, even now, if your Sunday service uses the Book of Common Prayer Communion readings, you will hear Mark just twice in the year. And we can see why. All your favourite Jesus moments - no room at the inn, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the lilies of the field - none are in Mark. And what is in Mark is perplexing: the text contains one hundred and fourteen questions - half of which go unanswered - and Jesus himself seems stranger, wilder than in the other gospels.
Even so, this uncongenial gospel is good news of a particular kind for people whose lives are uncongenial. Take tonight’s reading, the dark apocalypse which Jesus offers his disciples. We find similar passages in Matthew and Luke, but in Mark’s case its mood is typical of the whole gospel. There will be congregations around the world reading that passage with us this St Mark’s Day and saying, ‘This is about us’: for our sister churches in South Sudan it may be the words about intercommunal violence and betrayal; for those in Ecuador and Japan, the warnings of earthquakes; and Christians from Pakistan to Egypt fear being handed over to those who wish them harm, and feel hated because of the name of Jesus.
And us? We must not overdramatise ourselves, but we have our lesser trials, such as those moments when you could really do with the Holy Spirt giving you the words to speak. Mark is about us as well, so it’s good that our current scheme of Bible readings for Sundays makes sure we get a good diet of Mark over its three-year cycle.
What might be the effect on a church that reads Mark, learns and inwardly digests him? His gospel sees faith not as a lifestyle option, but a life, so such a church will be attentive to life as it is really lived. Its prayers, for instance, will not speak of ‘those less fortunate than ourselves’, as though churches only contained people having nice lives. As its worshippers read Mark’s pages of clueless disciples and villagers aching for relief from pain or guilt, they will admit their own true needs and be seized of the needs of others.
We have heard one passage of Mark. We have in effect seen another, the gaping tomb in the Easter garden by the pulpit. At the very end of Mark we hear how the body of Jesus was wrapped and laid in a tomb, and early in the morning the women came to embalm it, found the tomb open, the body gone, and a young man saying, ‘He isn’t here: he’s going ahead of you to Galilee.’ They ran away, says Mark, and ‘said nothing to anyone, for they were scared’. And that’s it. No joy. No appearance of the risen Lord. What a way to end a book promising good news. The words come to mind of that gifted and grumpy singer Avril Lavigne:
All this time you were pretending;
So much for my happy ending.
Would the writer mean to end the gospel like that? Surely not, said some early readers of Mark, and added ‘proper’ endings with all your favourite Easter highlights. We know these are later additions - they are not in the earliest manuscripts - so what happened to the real original ending? There are various theories: Mark never finished it; Mark’s original ending was lost (chewed off by mice, perhaps); or perhaps someone removed the last bit to make way for a ‘better’ ending.
There is a further theory about what happened to the original ending: nothing - it’s still there, in our Bibles, as the women run speechless from the tomb. A strange way to end a book of ‘good news’, but the entire book is about people who just don’t know what to do with this good news, or how to handle the Son of God when he comes to town. ‘Who is this?’ everyone keeps asking about Jesus. ‘Don’t you understand?’ Jesus keeps asking his Disciples (they don’t). ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ says Jesus to someone he’s just healed, who then goes on Galilean social media. So - when the young man tells the women to get the news out at last and they run away and don’t say a word - isn’t that the perfect end to a story of God’s grace and human perversity?
Well, I’m still not sure, but our Mark does stop just there and, even if the writer didn’t intend it, God speaks to us through that strange, unsatisfactory ending. It’s like looking at some old, damaged statue and finding a power in it that the intact piece might not have had.
The gospel of Mark tells of the failure of friends, who didn’t understand Jesus in life and didn’t stand by him in death, who didn’t ‘endure to the end’. And the tomb of Jesus is the memorial of that failure. You and I each have such a tomb, that place that stands for whatever it is that has gone wrong for us: betrayals, broken promises, false hopes. You can try to forget that place, or, like the women you can go back there. If you do, there you make a frightening discovery: God has got there first, not to undo the past, but to bring out of it – well, I don’t know. What we want is what American English calls ‘closure’, if not a happy ending then at least a proper one. But the tomb is unclosed; and instead we get another beginning, ‘He is going ahead of you.’
And so he is. Whatever lies ahead, a new chapter of life, or just a new week, we shall meet Jesus there.
He won’t abolish the mess of the past, but he can stop it from enslaving us – because the worst that you have done or suffered is never quite enough to exhaust the creative energies of God.
Mark’s Easter is hard to celebrate: an empty tomb, a crumpled shroud, nothing safe and reassuring to look at. But how could there be? Easter faith is about putting your trust in the God who makes something out of nothing – trusting the God who raises the dead.
Who is this? 1.27, 4.41, 6.2-3
‘Do you not understand?’ Mark 4.12, 6.52, 8.17-21
‘Don’t tell anyone’ Mark 1.44-5