I will never forget my first preaching experience at St. Mark’s in Berkeley, California when I was a seminarian. If you’ve never been to St. Mark’s, it sits on the corner of Cal Berkeley campus, which is near the seminary I attended. So there are not only “regular” people who attend there, but also seminary and university professors. In the back of the church is this beautiful 600 year old pipe organ, and the organist was amazing! In order to get to the altar area, you had to climb about 7 or so steps, and then to get to the pulpit, you had to climb another 5 steps. For the congregation, this meant they could see the preacher, no matter where they sat. For the preacher, it meant they could see everyone in the congregation…and what they were doing. Some folks balanced their checkbooks, did cross word puzzles, disciplined their children…others actually listened to the sermon, which was terrifying for a seminarian! I will never forget that the first Sunday I got to preach there, my liturgics professor was sitting on the front row. And he would let you know pretty quickly if he was interested in your sermon…he would either look at you and pay attention, or drop his head down. So this first sermon had a lot riding on it. And the topic was huge! The priest told me to prepare a sermon that addressed the gospel (which I now forget what it was that day), the fact that it was Mother’s Day, the celebration of the Feast of St. Julian, and the annual church hat day. Needless to say, my professor was not impressed with my sermon, and studied the floor the entire time.
I tell you this not so that you’ll feel sorry for me or question in the back of your mind what sort of visual cues you give me when I stand up here each week, but rather to let you know that this Sunday I also have a challenge in preaching…today we celebrate the Feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist, our patron saint, and we have the gospel reading from John on Jesus giving the new commandment to love one another. Let me begin by thanking you for NOT making this the annual church hat day.
So who was St. Mark?
Mark the Evangelist is traditionally known as the author of the Gospel of Mark. He was among the Seventy Disciples that Jesus commissioned to spread the Gospel. Historically, he is considered the founder of the Church of Alexandria.
According to Hippolytus, the great church historian from Rome, when Jesus explained that his flesh was "real food" and his blood was "real drink", many disciples left him, including Mark. He was later restored to faith by the apostle Peter; he then became Peter’s interpreter, wrote the Gospel of Mark, founded the church of Africa, and became the bishop of Alexandria.
According to Eusebius, another church historian, Herod Agrippa I in his first year of reign over the whole Judea (AD 41) killed James the son of Zebedee and arrested Peter, planning to kill him after the Passover. According to the Book of Acts, Peter was saved miraculously by angels, and escaped out of the realm of Herod. Peter then went to Antioch, then through Asia Minor and arrived in Rome in the second year of Emperor Claudius (AD 42). Somewhere on the way, Peter picked up Mark and took him as travelling companion and interpreter. Mark the Evangelist wrote down the sermons of Peter, thus composing the Gospel according to Mark before he left for Alexandria in the third year of Claudius (43).
In AD 49, about 19 years after the Ascension of Jesus, Mark traveled to Alexandria and founded the Church of Alexandria. He became the first bishop of Alexandria and he is honored as the founder of Christianity in Africa.
It is believed that on the night when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane Mark had followed him there and the Temple guards saw him, he ran away and dropped his loincloth. It also believes that Mark the Evangelist is the one who hosted the disciples in his house after the death of Jesus, into whose house the resurrected Jesus Christ came (John 20), and into whose house the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost.
Mark is also believed to be one of the servants at the Marriage at Cana who poured out the water that Jesus turned to wine, but these traditions have no solid proof either from the New Testament or from Church history.
His feast day is celebrated on April 25, and his symbol is the Winged lion.
Today’s Gospel is the giving of the New Commandment to love one another. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’ve thought about the experience of Mark. First he’s among the Seventy Disciples who are commissioned by Jesus to go out and tell the Good News, to tell of God’s grace, forgiveness and love, and then it is presumed that he stops being a Jesus follower because he couldn’t understand the idea of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus. Later on, according to historians, Peter catches up with him and before the end of his life, Mark is the head of the Church in Alexandria, Egypt. And in this story of Mark, we see the real application of what Jesus was talking about when he told his disciples to love one another. Mark could have easily been written off as a bad disciple when he left the company of Jesus followers, but through Peter’s extension of love, he was brought back into fellowship, and went on to become a great figure in the church.
Today’s Gospel also makes me think of our own community known as St. Mark’s. Many of us from time to time, have stepped away in some form or fashion, only to be brought back in by the love that someone has extended us. And if I were going to brag about St. Mark’s to anyone, it would be that we are a church that truly loves each other…we are known for our hospitality to visitors and one another, and we are known for our outreach and service in the community…all of these things are done out of a place of love. And it is this love, which calls us in word and deed, to be disciples and evangelists of the Good News of Jesus.
So here we are, the feast day of our patron saint, Mark, with a gospel to love one another as Jesus loves us. May we continue to grow in that love and fellowship with one another. May we continue to serve one another from a place of true charity and love. May we love one another as companions on the journey.
What does it mean to be a “Christian”? Is it about prayer and worship? Is it about creeds and doctrines? Is it about accepting Trinitarian formulas like Father-Son-Holy Spirit? Is it about being “saved”?
But somehow, these feel like intellectual exercises. If we looked up the word “Christian” we’d find that a “Christian” is is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament. "Christian" derives from the Koine Greek word Christ, a translation of the Biblical Hebrew term Messiah.
Central to the Christian faith is the gospel, the teaching that humans have hope for salvation through the message and work of Jesus, and particularly, his atoning death on the cross and resurrection. Christians also believe Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. Most Christians believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, a description of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This includes the vast majority of churches in Christianity, although a minority are Non-trinitarians.
The term "Christian" is also used adjectivally to describe anything associated with Christianity, or in a proverbial sense "all that is noble, and good, and Christ-like." It is also used as a label to identify people who associate with the cultural aspects of Christianity, irrespective of personal religious beliefs or practices.
See, doesn’t that sound like an intellectual definition?
What this definition doesn’t explain is why. Why do we call ourselves “Christian”? Sure we could turn back to this definition, but let’s get out of our heads knowledge for a minute, and move into our heart knowledge.
In this Sunday’s gospel (John 10:22-30), there are some Jews asking Jesus to tell them plainly who he is. There are two ways to understand this question. The traditional way that scholars have approached this question is that these Jews who are asking are hostile towards Jesus and they are annoyed at his claims to be the Son of God. And sure, we can go that route, but it gets us into difficult territory of believing that there are only *some* who are worthy to be included in the Kingdom of God. It’s this kind of theology that has been unfortunately used to make Christians into anti-Semites and oppressors of other cultures, traditions and peoples. So let’s not take the “traditional” route.
Another way of looking at this request of Jesus to plainly explain who he is, is to imagine those Jewish questioners as curious and filled with suspense. Perhaps they have heard about Jesus’ miracles and healings. Perhaps they have heard about the way he invites the oppressed and the marginalized to share a meal. These stories about Jesus may have evoked a sense of wonder and curiosity…who is this Jesus of Nazareth?
And while they have heard the stories, they still do not believe. According to Jesus, they aren’t one of his sheep.
So let’s take a moment to think about who Jesus’ sheep are. Last Sunday, when Jesus met Peter and the other disciples on the lakeshore for breakfast, Jesus told Peter to tend and feed his sheep. I’ve been thinking a lot about that because we know that the idea of “sheep” is a metaphor for Jesus followers. But let’s think about it literally for a moment.
Anytime we see artistic images of Jesus with sheep, he has that very sweet, caring face, and the sheep are always clean, white fluffy and docile creatures. But any farmer will tell you, most animals are rarely that clean and docile…they roll around in dirt, they do whatever they want and generally mill about. Their days are spent eating, sleeping, walking and pooping. So our ideas of sheep are a little off. But sheep under the care of a shepherd start to know their shepherd. They recognize his or her voice, and they know that this is a safe and secure person to be with…the shepherd will not jeopardize the sheep. However, this bond doesn’t happen overnight…it takes time. And sheep don’t recognize their shepherd because of rational, intellectual development…or a long definition found on Wikipedia…sheep recognize their shepherd because of experience.
So when Jesus commands Peter to tend and feed his sheep, he’s asking Peter to take on an important responsibility. He’s asking Peter to be with the sheep (the followers of Jesus) in the midst of the dirt, the milling about, and the daily living. And he’s asking Peter to establish relationship with them so that they recognize that love, safety and security that only God can provide. In other words, it’s not glamorous work, but hard work that requires patience and compassion…it requires that the disciples *be* with and among the followers.
So back to the request of the Jews for Jesus to tell them plainly who he is. These Jews are asking for Jesus to define his mission and ministry in terms of rational, intellectual practice. Perhaps they’re looking for a job title even. But instead, Jesus invites them to experience his mission and ministry. Telling them who he is—the Son of God—hasn’t worked in the past, but maybe if they become one of his followers, one of his sheep, they will experience who he is.
Here’s another way of thinking about it.
I love the band Pink Floyd. Love, love, love. And when I was in college, I got a chance to see Pink Floyd in concert. In my mind, that concert is still incredibly vivid. I remember the car ride in my 1979 Chevette with my friends, the crowd at the NC State Stadium where the concert was held, the smells, the sights, the feeling of the heat from the pyrotechnics, holding up a cigarette lighter during “Comfortably Numb”…all that. Now no matter how much I relate this experience to you, it’s my experience. You could even go home now and look up Pink Floyd on the computer, download some of their songs, watch their videos on YouTube and become experts in the history of Pink Floyd. We could even become the Pink Floyd congregation and start singing their songs instead of hymns…although that might get a bit weird.
My point is this…you can “know” about Pink Floyd or you can *know* Pink Floyd. One is an intellectual exercise and one is an experiential exercise.
And perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at. You can ask him to plainly tell you who he is—the Son of God—or you can experience him…in the dirt, in the milling about and in daily living. Neither answer is wrong, but one is in the head and one is in the heart. One requires intellectual knowing, while the other invites us into intimacy and relationship.
So are we curious when we ask Jesus who he is and what he’s about? Are we ready to be sheep?
I have to say that I am very grateful for the disciple Peter. I know that Peter gets a bad rap as the guy who denies Jesus during his trial, but I think there’s a lot we can learn from Peter’s idea of discipleship, and that’s what I’m grateful for.
If you think back to the lives of the disciples prior to the crucifixion, Peter is a pretty average guy, but he’s a very excitable disciple. Peter is a fisherman, which we’re reminded of in this gospel account from John. Peter’s first experience with Jesus is on the lakeshore when Jesus calls him to be a “fisher of people”. During his time with Jesus, he attempted to walk on water, but failed when his faith faltered. When Jesus asked him “who do you say I am” he answers without hesitation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. And then when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the last supper, Peter doesn’t really understand what’s happening, and so he says “not only my feet but my hands and head also”.
In all these accounts, Peter is pretty ordinary. We like to think of him as the disciple who just doesn’t get it, but in reality, I think he’s a reflection of who we are. Like Peter, we have been called to be “fishers of people”, to walk on water and to recognize Christ in the world. Sometimes we can, but sometimes we come up short and miss the chances to explore our faith.
During the pre-crucifixion trial, Peter gets painted by the gospel writers as the disciple who denied Jesus. Three times Peter is asked if he knows who Jesus is and three times he says “no”. He is acting out of a place of fear instead of faith. He’s afraid of the hostile situation that is happening around him, and maybe that if he confesses knowing Jesus that he too will be arrested. Perhaps for Peter, it’s easier to be perceived as a bystander than confess his faith in the Son of the living God. And once again, Peter serves as a reflection to us…sometimes it is easier to be silent than to confess our faith and claim our identity as disciples.
But here’s where I find hope and gratefulness in Peter. In Sunday’s gospel, we have Peter and the beloved disciple fishing once again…and along comes the resurrected Jesus. After some conversation about where to place the fishing nets, and an abundance of a catch, Jesus and Peter spend some time by the fire eating breakfast. And in this intimate scene of the two disciples and Jesus by the fire, having their breakfast, Jesus asks Peter “do you love me”. Three times Jesus asks this of Peter, and three times Peter responds “you know I love you”.
So there’s a couple of interesting things about this little dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The asking and responding three times recalls Peter’s denial when asked three times. But what I find more interesting is the word “love”. If you were to look back to the Greek text, when Jesus asks Peter “do you love me” the word used is “agape” which implies an unconditional love. When Peter responds “you know I love you” the word used is “philia” which implies brotherly love.
So why do I find that so interesting? First, because Jesus is asking Peter “do you love me unconditionally” and Peter responds with “I love you kindly”. As much as we want to think that we can love Jesus as much as he loves us, the truth is unconditional love is bigger than we can imagine, and so we love as much as we can…and Peter is modeling that for us in his response. The other reason I find this dialogue between Jesus and Peter, and the difference in the understanding of the word “love” so interesting is because each time Jesus asks and Peter responds, Jesus call Peter to ministry… “feed my sheep”. I think this is important to note because it reminds us that no matter how much love we have for Jesus, be it brotherly or sisterly love, or unconditional love, Jesus accepts our love and commands us to use that love to care for others. In other words, we don’t have to be perfect to be disciples.
The Bible is full of unlikely evangelists, prophets and disciples. Throughout the Old Testament, God often called the most unlikely folks to be messengers of grace…a Hebrew raised as an Egyptian, an old man with a barren wife, the last in a long line of sons, a widowed woman, and a prostitute…all people who were flawed or imperfect in some way. And throughout the New Testament, Jesus also calls the most unlikely folks to be disciples and evangelists…fishermen, tax collectors, a woman who had been possessed...all ordinary folks who were flawed or imperfect in some way. And yet, because of unconditional love, these people were met in their life journeys and transformed. Because of God’s grace, their “philia” love was enough for mission and ministry.
So yes, Peter often gets a bad rap for being a denier of Jesus and a clueless disciple, but I am so grateful for his life and ministry. It is because of Peter that I am reminded that I don’t have to be perfect to do God’s work. It is because of Peter’s failure to walk on water that I am reminded that if I at least try, God will be there to support me. Jesus meets me where I am in my journey and still invites me into ministry.
My hope is that all of us can say “you know I love you” and answer Jesus’ call to feed his sheep.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.