The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau for the divine service on the occasion of St Mark, Evangelist, in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel on 25 April 2019. The text is Mark 16:9-20.
Reclining with Jesus
It’s nice to sit down and put your feet up after a long day at work. To recline. That is a bit like what happened after Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He sat down. Jesus sat down at the right hand of the father, He reclined, after completing the hardest work in the history of creation: the salvation of the world. It was finished, meaning all was complete, all was and is fulfilled, the labour was over.
Reclining is a position of security, peace, rest, calm, and confidence. Anxious people do not recline, they are jumpy; worried people do not recline, they pace back and forth. But not Jesus. And He still rules from that seated position, which is good news, for it means that in Him, we have nothing to be anxious about in our Christian work and labour, and the Holy Pastoral Ministry that some of us practise and for which others are being prepared: teaching and preaching the Holy Word and administering the Holy sacrament. Can we find a clearer Gospel text to describe the purpose of the holy pastoral office (and the raison d’être of our seminaries)? “The great commission”: proclaiming the message of salvation and the forgiveness of sins earned for us by the labours of our Lord; what wonderful news. But the disciples did not always find joy in the message and mandate that they were given. They weren’t used to reclining. Well, perhaps they were. They were rebuked for the wrong kind of reclining: the lack of faith kind. The kind in our text, while reclining at table, rebuked by Jesus for their disbelief.; or the kind on that first Maundy Thursday and the hours and days that followed: reclining in despair, like the tired feeling after you’ve run out of energy, ideas, hope; or the kind that our seminarian spoke about yesterday: behind locked doors in the Upper Room in fear and despair. The anxiety and worry overwhelms you, and then overcomes you, and you give up and give in. sometimes falling into depression as worst case. Like when we sulk into our dark places. They, us, should have known better.
They would become preachers of the Good News after all! But they needed to be preached to first. And these pastors, had great difficulty believing those who had first preached to them! They doubted the resurrection and were rightfully rebuked for their lack of faith. Yet though rebuked, Jesus was still committed to them, and He equips them with His Message and promise. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, of peace, happiness, salvation”.
St Mark, whom we honour this day, brought these good tidings throughout the known world of the time. He was missionary to Africa and founder of, what know today as the Coptic orthodox. He is depicted as a winged lion, a symbol of power, not because of his own internal strength, but because of the powerful word that he spoke: the message that Christ is crucified and risen for the forgiveness of the sins of the world; “I know that my redeemer lives!” For through him the Gospel roared like a lion as it soared throughout the known world, causing its enemies to crumble under the sound of its victorious song.
Now when learning to preach, seminarians are taught to preach first to themselves, a good habit for every pastor no matter how experienced he may be. In determining how effective their sermons are, pastors listen to their own sermons before delivering them. The ones that strike and touch our own hearts first often deliver the most powerful roars in moving the hearts of all subsequent hearers. Yet sometimes using ourselves as Guinea pigs, a means to an end, instead of treating ourselves as actual hearers (the first hearers of the words of the Holy Spirit as they are being formulated in our own mouths), is a bad idea. For we don’t realize how our sermons have fallen upon our own deaf ears; how we have deprived ourselves of the joy and comfort that our Lord Jesus offers to the flock, including the proclaimer! Brothers, our own sermons are good news for us too! As pastors, and future pastors and deacons, we despair over the state of synod, or lack of finances, or church closures; we encourage our people with words of hope: “don’t worry! God is in control.” Yet while saying all the right things, offering the correct Bible answers to the tough questions that others ask, we have a hard time applying them to ourselves. We simply disbelieve.
The women who proclaimed the resurrection to the disciples were filled with joy, but their Christian attitude didn’t really rub off on them, at first, while lacking trust in their Lord’s Word. Yet things didn’t remain that way. These same disciples snapped out of it, and began to follow Jesus once again, with a joy that surpasses all human understanding. A joy that was theirs even in the midst of trial, persecution and their own martyrdoms. The word is, after all, powerful. Like the roar of a lion, it cannot be ignored. Even the earplugs of doubt are no match for the work of God’s Spirit. As soon as the Lord speaks through His holy Word, we are once again restored to faith, equipped for service, like those first disciples. Signs and wonders accompany our ministries too. Demons are still cast out, new tongues still proclaim the Gospel, laying on of hands on the sick and their restoration to new life and healing, whether here on earth or there in heaven – healing — still goes on today. Through the miracles of holy baptism, holy absolution, pastoral visitations and the holy eucharist the winged lion continues to fly among us and within the Holy Church (no matter how fragile and desperate she may appear at times).
So take courage. St Mark’s roaring message is the same one that has been handed on to you, for your feet to carry; soon to be soaring from your mouths in the application of Law and Gospel in congregations and other missionary settings. And, so, as much as ministry may not feel like it at times, and the message may seem like it is getting old, it is always a joyful proclamation. The Gospel is the power of God. And so, it always merits a reclination. Not the kind in despair and tiredness, the disciple kind in a state of faithlessness, but the Jesus kind: reclining in peace and joy: it IS finished. Reclining and listening, reclining and resting. Reclining in confessing and praying and preaching.
Now don’t get me wrong, St Mark was a busy man, with all those missionary endeavours, and then the exhaustion that accompanies the persecution and the suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Tradition holds that St Mark was martyred in Alexandria after two days of his body being pulled apart by horses. Martyrdom is anything but restful. And yet still, reclining in spirit; reclining in the one who was crucified for us all. For only a faith that reclines in Christ could endure such hardships: only Christ’s power, not our own. And now in both soul and body, St Mark reclines. In fact, if the catchword today is “mindfulness”, a “new age” peace in your heart through meditation, etc., “Christian mindfulness” is reclining with a peace that surpasses all HUMAN understanding in awe and mediation of the most holy and blessed cross. God was at work using the life of St Mark, suffering and all, ruling from a place of reclination: no worry, no anxiety, no doubt. And the same holds for our Church today, and your life right now.
The disciples may have been in no mood for reclining when they first heard about what Christian ministry entailed. Christian discipleship would take the shape of its master: a cruciform. Jesus scolds them for their disbelief. Yet he continues to instruct them. They recline with him, and eats with them. In fact, it is in the very eating with him, and the conversing with him, that they are prepared for this blessed fate. So, too, a place awaits you at His Supper table where your conversation with God consists of prayer and hearing His Word. Because Jesus reclines, so do you, at a table spread with a sumptuous feast; with a place set for you, amongst St Mark and all the apostles, evangelists and martyrs, of the most heavenly of food and the soothing of wine: Our Lord Jesus’ Body and Blood of comfort, rest and peace.