“Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is very useful to me for service” (II Timothy 4:11)
What a wonderful word, what an expression of loving kindness: Mark, my greatly appreciated helper, and I wish him here with me.
But I tell you, that’s not the way it was at the beginning. Back then it sounded more like: Forget that guy, he is quite useless.
And now our text from II Timothy: “Get Mark, he is very useful.” So writes Paul to his favourite student Timothy, by now the Bishop shepherding the Christians at Ephesus. The Apostle writes from his imprisonment at Rome, presumably the last of all the letters we know of Paul. Luke the physician, his beloved co-worker, is with him in the imperial capital. At the close of life and toward the end of his ministry he wants to see his closest friends, and so he asks Timothy to come, the man whom he had led to faith, whom he had trained for the ministry and who had accompanied and assisted him on many of his missionary endeavours.
“Get Mark!” That is really surprising—surprising, because going back and remembering what had happened between them in the past, things between Paul and Mark were on quite a different level back then. And I am still wondering why Paul wanted specifically this man to be with him under the present very trying circumstances.
What in fact do we know about Mark, or John Mark, whom the church commemorates as an evangelist this day?
Mark’s story, as we know it from Holy Scripture, begins with him – running naked through holy Jerusalem. Not a very promising beginning. There we meet him as a spoiled, nosy rich kid amidst the events of the passion of Christ. Apparently he had heard that something was afoot with this miracle worker from Nazareth. It was a hot night, so let’s just take a bed sheet, wrap up and see what’s going on. Isn’t that the way it often is: Some people want to know everything—and never get involved in anything.
Well, he got too close for his own comfort. The soldiers wanted no spectators and made a grab for him – the rich kid made a dive for it and just left the soldiers holding his empty linen sheet. What an embarrassment that must have been, sneaking into his mother’s house without his Calvin Klein underwear and not wearing his Dolce & Gabana suit.
That’s chapter one of the biography of St. Mark, who later came to be – again, surprise—Bishop of Alexandria.
Chapter 2. In Acts 12 we are told that Mark’s uncle Barnabas had invited his nephew to accompany him to Antioch. A nice trip, even for a rich kid, and probably a pleasant change from the boring life in Jerusalem. So off he went to company his uncle. The church in Antioch – remember: the place where Christians were first called by that name – the church there, upon the urging of the Holy Spirit, was ready to send Paul and Barnabas into the mission field. Luke writes: “After fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). Note: no work for and in the church can be of lasting spiritual benefit without God’s blessing – this we sometimes tend to forget when we begin to concentrate on methods and programmes and finances; when church officials think “doing it the right way” is the key to membership increase.
So off they went on the first missionary journey, beginning in Cyprus, that beautiful island in the Mediterranean. And what an interesting trip it turned out to be, particularly for young Mark. Paul and Barnabas preached the Gospel all over, rebuked the false prophet Bar-Jesus, met with Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor, and put Elymas the Magician permanently out of work. A wonderful time was had by all.
Chapter 3. Then follows boat trip from Paphos Harbour to what is now southern Turkey. But when they arrived at Perge, and Paul and Barnabas made ready to do some serious walking to continue their Gospel ministry, Mark’s enthusiasm quickly waned. Look at those mountains, the Taurus Range! And there is snow on them there mountain tops! That doesn’t sound anything like ‘Turkish Riviera’, where all those German tourists spend their summer these days. And not even a carriage at their disposal, at best an occasional donkey ride, and long journeys in the heat of the day – no thank you!
John Mark then and there booked a cruise ship back to Palestine and left Uncle Barnabas and Paul to fend for themselves. Mom’s cooking and the pleasure of a luxurious home in one of the nicer suburbs of Jerusalem were apparently more tempting than the hard work of Gospel proclamation among all those heathens.
Meanwhile, the ministry of this first mission team flourished greatly. We read: “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout all the region” (Acts 13:48+49).
Chapter 4. “Let’s make a pastoral visit to all those people who became Christians in the places where we preached the Gospel.” So Luke reports Paul’s intention. After all, Christians, particularly new Christians, need sustenance, maintenance, support and encouragement. They need, as Luther put it: mutuum colloquium et consolatio fratrum – talking with one another and being consoled and encouraged by your fellow Christians.
Don’t forget that. It just will not do to lead people to Christ – and then leave them to fend for themselves. How often does that happen with these mass preacher charlatans on television? Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn fill the local arena, have the people come forward and make a decision for Christ, slap a brochure into their hand, enjoin them to leave a generous offering – and off they go to the next arena. Certainly pastors and congregations are remiss in their principal duty if they fail faithfully, generously and regularly to provide the means of grace for the support and strengthening of the faith of their parishioners; their spiritual survival, in fact their eternal life depends on that.
But back to our story. Barnabas was certainly willing to join in this missionary out
reach again – but he also wanted to take along his nephew Mark again. That’s when Paul said: No dice. Or as Luke puts it: “Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them (τὸν ἀποστάντα) in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:38). Paul is hopping mad – and Barnabas no less. “There arose a sharp contention” – we read – “and they separated” (v. 39). Is that the end of mission work, at least of this mission work? If it is, then it is also the end of the church. Barely begun, and already at an end? So it would seem.
But listen to chapter 5. Paul works with a new colleague, Silas, and they do the important work of visitation, strengthening the faith of those new Christians in the areas where he had worked previously. And Barnabas gives his nephew a chance and continues missionary outreach on Cyprus.
I am reminded of that old story of Joseph in Egypt after he identifies himself to the eleven brothers that had treated him so shabbily: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). Instead of one missionary team and outreach, there were now two. God works in wondrous ways. Many of you have had that experience, others will soon find out.
After all the programmes that synodical policies or district efforts have begun, after all the evangelism workshops that have been held, and after all the outreach methods you have become acquainted with in evangelism courses – how disappointing can be the results when you try to put it all into practice. But on the other hand, how stumbling were your pastoral efforts sometimes, or how unprofessional your words witnessing to Christ may be at times – and then somebody shows up, quite unexpectedly, and says, tell me more, what’s this business of Christianity all about? Tell me more about this Jesus guy. God at times opens doors where after our efforts they seem to have slammed shut. And where God does open them, then we better be ready and willing to go through.
Chapter 6. Let’s go back to Paul’s confinement in Rome towards the end of his ministry. What had happened that he dearly wished Mark to be with him? Had Mark done something to change Paul’s mind? Did he show he is really not such a bad guy? Or did Mark do something so tremendous that the Apostle of the gentiles couldn’t help but be impressed? I frankly don’t know what Mark did or whether he did anything. But I’m convinced that Paul had done something – he had forgiven!
What we all need to know: You cannot be or continue to be a faithful minister of the Gospel without passing on to others what you yourself have received, namely the forgiveness so richly granted by Christ. You cannot reasonably invite sinners under the cross of Christ without you being ready to stand there yourself and have your own sins washed away by the blood of Jesus. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” we frequently pray – they should not be empty words.
Back in Rome, in jail, the old man is pining for Mark’s presence. Paul writes, “He is useful to me in service.” It is helpful to hear the original: “εἰς διακονίαν”. Diaconic service – the many and various practical deeds of mercy that flow out of faith in Christ. No Christian, certainly not the church, can be without them. In fact, these deeds of Christian love are the only way others can recognize you to be one of the Christ-bearers in this world. “What you have done to the least of these my brethren, that you have done to me” – those are the words of Christ at the very end.
Mark had answered the call to such diakonia, to such service, as should each one of us. One of his services, probably the most profitable and lasting for us, was the Jesus-Book he wrote: clear, concise – and not to forget – short. In it you recognize the Saviour in his works; the book paints Christ’s image so clearly that your very heart can learn to see him; and it invites us to everlasting connection with him who gave his life for us – and, of course, for Mark, too, this spoiled brat who seems to have had a habit of fleeing in the face of adversity. In the end he was received back into the favour of the Apostle Paul; the church of Alexandria gratefully received him as their shepherd; and Christ welcomed him as his eternally beloved child – as the Saviour has promised you and me in our baptism. Amen.
God, the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to him be honour and might forever. Amen.