More than the sum of our parts
The following sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on April 29, 2018. It was the Fifth Sunday of Easter, but also fell on the Sunday immediately following April 25, St. Mark’s Day and our patronal feast. The day’s propers were for Easter 5, but we celebrated St. Mark in this homily, the prayers, and in the celebratory parish barbecue afterwards.
Collect: Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Many of you may know the story of St. Mark already, but for those who don’t, I just want to give you a few highlights. He doesn’t appear explicitly in any of the gospels, and he’s not one of the Twelve Disciples. But he was certainly among the others who followed Jesus. The Gospel that bears his name contains a tantalizing little clue: during the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is betrayed, there’s a weird little half verse that some scholars think reveal Mark himself. It occurs in no other Gospel, and it’s just the sort of unique clue that seems it could contain some bit of autobiographical detail: there’s a young man who runs away when Jesus is betrayed, who’s wearing only a linen cloth — his pajamas basically — and when he runs, the cloth catches on a tree and he escapes naked. A weird detail! Which makes some think, here’s Mark himself appearing in the scene. Or perhaps he wasn’t there in fact, but like the artist Michelangelo including a small self portrait in his fresco of the Last Judgement, maybe this is Mark’s way of simply assuming a little humility.
At any rate, the book of Acts and several of Paul’s epistles mention Mark, and we can piece together a little more. Somehow he ends up at Antioch, and gets sent out with Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. But he and Paul have a falling out, and Barnabas takes him on alone. Eventually he and Paul reconcile, and Mark goes to Rome — where he falls in with the apostle Peter, and learns from him. Some scholars even think Mark effectively served as both muse and scribe for Peter’s remembrances of Jesus, making his Gospel as much Peter’s as Mark’s. This would partly explain why it appeals so much to an action-oriented, even hotheaded personality like Peter’s.
Peter and Paul are both martyred in Rome, but Mark escapes, and by church tradition ends up in Alexandria, where he founded the church there and became the first Patriarch of that ancient, important see. Martyrdom finally catches up with Mark in Egypt, and he faces the same death as his teachers Peter and Paul, late in his life. For centuries his remains were venerated in Alexandria, but for the last few hundred years they have resided at San Marco in Venice. You can still visit him today if you go there.
Mark is an odd saint in that in art he is depicted both as a young man, and as an old man: in icons, the Christian East often depicts him as the wise and stately, gray-headed Patriarch of Alexandria, dressed in Episcopal regalia. But the Christian West often as the young, energetic Gospel author and student of Peter, Barnabas, and Paul.
Like I said at Wednesday’s midday service, both pictures are probably true, a good reminder that in God, individuals, and the church as a whole, are always more than the sum of their parts at any given moment in time. Though he could not have known it then, the young man who ran away naked from the scene of Jesus betrayal and arrest was the great founding Patriarch of Alexandria. The wise, stately martyr was the same man who had fallen out with Paul.
The Church contains within itself both the ignominy of its many sins and the glory of its final redemption; just as this parish contains within itself both the history of good and ill as well as the seeds of all its potential in the glory of God; just as you and I bear all the inherited inclinations and temptations of our families and forebears, as well as the incalculable splendor of the full, mature image of God in which we were made and to which we are continually being drawn by the Holy Spirit.
That’s an enormous comfort, helping us to weather the challenges and pains of the present. But it’s also an enormous challenge, preventing us from ever being too satisfied, keeping us always on tiptoes striving to catch a glimpse of what’s next, dependent on forgiveness and on renewal, looking finally for the completed vision coming just up over the horizon; while in the meantime we work to be ready for when it finally appears.
Yes the church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment. But how? Why? Because as persons baptized into the mystical body of Christ, we live first and foremost in him — and he exists from before the foundation of the world, and unto the fulfillment of all things. His perspective is the one into which we are adopted ourselves. As we carry on in our lives in this world, his is the mercy, the love, and the joy that we strive to imitate — and in so doing, we join in our own small way in the continuing work of reconciling all persons to God and to one another, revealing the unity-in-difference which God’s love continually creates.
Jesus’ perspective is the perspective in which we too live and move and have purpose. As we celebrate today both the fifth Sunday of Easter and our own patronal feast, we come face to face again with the work we are called to do: with St. Mark himself, to grow continually more mature in the life we are given to live: to take stock of where we have been, to note where we have fallen short, and to be encouraged always by the hope that is in us: the hope of sins forgiven, of life victorious over the grave, and of the fulfillment of God-given potential.
Meanwhile, we rejoice that we are always more than the sum of our parts, that we are supported by a patron saint who was more than the sum of his parts, and that together we bear witness to a joy that is greater than we can see at any given moment, into which one day we will finally be called to step fully.
We are not alone in celebrating today. There are countless parishes, cathedrals, and institutions dedicated to St. Mark all around the world, and they all celebrate with us: from San Marco in Venice to the Egyptian Coptic Church, to South America, Indonesia, and even Siberia, all are celebrating this week. We enjoy a special kinship with them and with all who celebrate St. Mark: a saint who bears witness over a long lifetime to the possibility of growth and learning, forgiveness, hard work, wisdom, and sacrifice.
Together we celebrate St. Mark’s example and ask his prayers for us. But even more we celebrate a God who makes room for human growth and development, who calls us always further into the person, the church, the creation we were intended to be. By God’s grace and St. Mark’s help, may we do just that.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.