Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sermon for September 6th: John Mark and the God of Second Chances

Have you ever in your life been grateful that someone gave you a second chance? I know I have.

I was a failure in my first full time ministry assignment. I had been trained for two years at the Church Army Training College in Toronto and then posted to a rural parish in the Diocese of Toronto with the job of planting a new congregation in a small town beside a military base. In my own defence, I have to say that church planting theory was only in its infancy in those days, and even the little that was known about how to do it had not been covered in the curriculum of my training course. So I was trying to act as if I knew what I was doing, when in fact I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. It took my employers about ten months to figure out that this wasn’t going anywhere, and pretty soon after that I was out of a job.

Luckily for me, the Church Army didn’t give up on me; instead, they posted me to a little parish in rural Saskatchewan, where I worked in a tiny rural community and two First Nations reserves. I had a wise and patient mentor who gave me the gentle guidance I needed, and the people of the community where Marci and I lived gathered around and supported us, so that in the end they became like family to us. After a few years there, on the strength of my work in the First Nations communities, I was invited to go to the Diocese of the Arctic to work in the community of Aklavik.

Looking back now, after thirty years of full-time ministry, that first rocky year seems like a fairly minor piece of my past, but I know of many other people who have that sort of an experience and never get a second chance; that’s the end of their ministry. I’m grateful that I was given a second chance, and I try to remind myself to give other people second chances as well. And that’s the big story of our Bible character for today, John Mark.

Last week we began a series of sermons on ‘More Bible People You May Not Remember’, and I certainly won’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of John Mark. However, if you read the New Testament you’ve likely read his work from time to time, because he was probably the author of the Second Gospel, which we know as the Gospel according to Mark. Let me tell you his story as we can find it in the pages of the New Testament.

We first meet John Mark in Acts chapter 12 where he is said to be the son of a woman named Mary – one of the many ‘Marys’ in the New Testament! We meet him next at the end of Acts chapter 12 where he is mentioned in connection with Saul and Barnabas. The NRSV translates verses 24-25 as follows:

But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.

However, in the context the words ‘returned to Jerusalem’ don’t make sense; the correct translation is almost certainly ‘returned from Jerusalem’, because in the very next verse we find Saul and Barnabas in Antioch in Syria, not in Jerusalem. This is, in fact, the way most other versions of the Bible translate this passage.

Acts 13 and 14 go on to describe a missionary journey made by Saul and Barnabas, from Antioch in Syria across to the island of Cyprus and then on to the mainland of what is now southern Turkey. Barnabas was one of the early Jerusalem Christians; his name was actually Joseph, but the early Christians gave him the nickname ‘Barnabas’; which means ‘son of encouragement’, and when we read about how he mentored and encouraged younger Christians, we can understand why. He is also mentioned in Colossians 4:10 where Paul says that John Mark was his cousin. Saul had been a persecutor of the early Church, but had later become a Christian himself, and Barnabas had been his mentor. He is better known to us by his Roman name of Paul.

So we read at the beginning of Acts 13 of how the Holy Spirit guided the Antioch Christians to set aside Saul and Barnabas for a special missionary work. The believers prayed and laid hands on these two and then sent them off. Verses 4-5 take up the story:

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them.

What exactly does it mean that he was their ‘assistant’? The Greek word is used in a couple of other places in the New Testament; in Luke 4:20 it means the instructor in the synagogue school, and in Luke 1:2 it is used to refer to the ‘servants of the Word’ who handed down the gospel traditions from earliest Christian times. In other writings of the time it is used of people who handle documents and transmit them to others. So perhaps John Mark was acting as a sort of combination teacher and travel secretary for Saul and Barnabas. Perhaps, indeed, he was a sort of an apprentice missionary, travelling along with them to learn the trade, as it were. This would be very much in keeping with the sort of person Barnabas was; he loved to mentor younger Christians.

But in this case the arrangement didn’t go well. This is what verse 13 has to say:

Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem.

Why did he leave? Some have suggested that John Mark may have been uncomfortable with the fact that Paul, who had been mentored by Barnabas, was gradually taking over the leadership from the older man. Others have suggested that he might have been afraid of the hardships ahead as the mission team crossed the Taurus Mountains into central Turkey.

The truth is, of course, that we don’t know the answer. However, we do know one thing: Paul saw John Mark’s departure as a desertion, and he was not willing to forgive the young man. A couple of chapters later Barnabas and Paul are contemplating another journey; here’s how the end of Acts 15 describes what happened:

After some time Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing’. Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord (vv. 36-41).

We can only begin to guess how traumatic this split was for both Paul and Barnabas. Obviously, this sort of a breakup wasn’t caused by something insignificant, and in fact in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we get hints that Luke, the author of Acts, isn’t telling us the whole story; that there might have been some theological disagreements between the two friends as well. Still, they both obviously felt very strongly about the issue of John Mark, with Paul determined not to take someone who might end up deserting them again, and Barnabas, the son of encouragement, determined to give his young cousin a second chance.

That’s the last we hear of John Mark in Acts, and it’s a sad parting indeed. But in the New Testament letters we get some hints that this was not the end of the story. The letter to the Colossians was written toward the end of Paul’s life, when he was in prison, probably in Rome. In Colossians 4:10 Paul gives these instructions to the Christians in Colossae: ‘Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions – if he comes to you, welcome him’. At the same time Paul wrote a letter to his friend Philemon who lived in Colossae, and in verses 23-24 he says, ‘Epahpras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow-workers’. So here is a hint that there’s been a reconciliation between Paul and Mark; the younger man is no longer a deserter but a ‘fellow-worker’ for the gospel. And in his second letter to Timothy, which is probably even later, Paul instructs Timothy to go and find Mark and bring him to him, ‘for he is useful in my ministry’ (2 Timothy 4:11).

But Mark is also referred to in one of the letters of Peter; in 1 Peter 5:13 the old apostle refers to Mark as his ‘son’, and Mark joins Peter in sending greetings to the readers of the letter. There was obviously a close attachment between Peter and Mark, and this is borne out by later Christian tradition. A Christian writer called Papias, who lived in the early second century, has this to say about John Mark:

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.

This is Papias’ account of the origins of our Gospel of Mark; according to him, it consists mainly of Mark’s recollections of the preaching of the apostle Peter. We might suspect that the actual story of the writing of Mark’s gospel is a bit more complicated than that, but there’s no reason to doubt the basic thrust of what Papias is saying.

The story of Mark is a powerful one for us, and in conclusion I want to take you back for a moment to that time when his life and ministry hung in the balance, when Paul and Barnabas were preparing to set out on another missionary journey. Paul had given up on John Mark, but Barnabas had not; Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if Barnabas had not been there? I suspect John Mark would have gone home to Jerusalem and spent the rest of his life in the circle of family and friends where he had been raised. It’s unlikely that his close association with the apostle Peter would have formed, and it’s even less likely that he would have taken on the task of writing down Peter’s story of Jesus. In other words, if it weren’t for Barnabas, we might not have the Gospel of Mark in our New Testament today.

I once heard a story about when Thomas Edison was working to invent the light bulb. When he had finished the design work, the story is that it took a whole team of people working for twenty-four hours just to put one light bulb together. Apparently when it was finished Edison gave the light bulb to a young boy to carry upstairs, and the young fellow dropped it. That was the end of that light bulb! So Edison’s team got to work again, worked for another twenty four hours and produced a second light bulb. You might think that Edison would have chosen someone different to carry the finished product upstairs, but he didn’t; he gave it to that same boy. He gave him a second chance.

Perhaps you are conscious of failure in your life, and perhaps you’re asking yourself if you’re all out of chances. Apparently not; apparently God is the God of second chances. God is a God of grace, a Bible word that means love you don’t have to earn by perfect performance; love that’s poured out on you as a free gift, not because you’ve earned it but because it’s the nature of God to love extravagantly. Our baptismal covenant asks us, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Because God is the God of second chances, we can reply, “I will, with God’s help”.

But there’s more to it than that. Because God is the God of second chances, we also are called to be people who offer others second chances – and third, and fourth, and on and on. God has poured out his grace and love on us; we’re called to pour out that same grace and love on others. We’re called to be like Barnabas, the son of encouragement, and like Thomas Edison who was determined not to let that boy go through the rest of his life thinking he was a failure because he’d dropped the first electric light bulb. And remember – a lot could be riding on how we treat other people when they fail. Barnabas was not to know that his young cousin was a future author of a New Testament gospel; he just gave him a second chance because that was the sort of guy he was, but today, two thousand years later, you and I are still being blessed because of what Barnabas did. So, as we have been forgiven and given another chance by God, let’s pray for God’s grace to help us forgive and give others that same second chance. And who knows what might happen as a result?

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