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.
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.