Change is not always something imposed on me from the outside – a change in where I live or who I live with or how I earn a living for example. It can be even tougher to deal with an internal change – a sudden change in my picture of myself, who I am, or what my future holds. I will be talking today about Mark, a young man we meet in the pages of the New Testament who suddenly, and irrevocably, lost his vision of his identity and his future, and replaced it with – what?
At the time of our readings from Acts, John Mark was an educated young man from a respectable and well-to-do Jewish family. His mother, Mary, owned a large home in Jerusalem - roomy enough for “many” Christians to gather in for prayer (Acts 12.12). And his cousin Barnabas was a wealthy landowner and a Levite. He had a latin name (Marcus) as well as a Jewish one (Johanan), so was perhaps equally at home in the Jewish and gentile cultures of his day. It seems likely that in his youth he was associated with the circle of Jesus’ followers. If indeed he was the young man who fled naked from the mob in Gethsemene (Mark 14.51) then he witnessed the terrible events of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.
Paul’s First Journey
We find him a few years later in the flourishing church at Antioch, having been collected from Jerusalem by Paul and Barnabas, clearly singled out for great things. When the Holy Spirit calls the two apostles to set out on their first evangelistic foray into the Eastern Mediterranean, without hesitation they choose Mark “to assist them”. We can only guess at the qualities which led to him being selected by the great men: his education perhaps, or his inter-cultural ease, or his youthful enthusiasm?
All goes well at first. They have a torrid time in Cyprus, confronting both black magic and Roman power, before they turn their eyes to bigger prizes and set sail for mainland Asia Minor.
And it’s here that Mark turns out to be a big disappointment, to himself probably as much as anyone else. He decides to go back home. We can only guess at his reasons. Was he shocked and a little scared by the dramatic events on Cyprus? Was Paul proving difficult to live with day-in day-out? Was he just homesick? Or could you put a more simple, ugly label on his behaviour – cowardice? He was given this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he thought he had the enthusiasm and energy and courage for it, but when it came to it – he gave up.
A personal aside
It’s painful for me to think about Mark’s story, because it reflects my own. Aged twenty I was a medical student at Oxford University. I’d just been offered a place at Cambridge to do my clinical degree. A vision of a golden life lay before me, within my grasp. And for reasons which with hindsight now seem stupid or cowardly, I gave up. I’ve often bitterly regretted that foolish decision of my youth. A wonderful opportunity which seemed to drop so easily into my hands, turned out to be strictly a one-off – once lost, impossible to recover.
God of Second Chances
But God is the God of second chances, right?
Barnabas seems to think so. He and Paul are back in Antioch, planning their second journey back to Asia Minor, visiting the churches they planted on their first trip, and perhaps planting a few more. Barnabas tells cousin Mark not to feel sad, he’ll have a word with Paul. After all, Paul’s a great believer in God’s grace - he’s sure to give Mark a second chance. Hope swells in Mark’s heart.
But it turns out Paul is also a great believer in assembling a reliable team, and as far as he’s concerned Mark is tainted with unreliability. He’s not willing to take the risk.
Even worse, this leads to a “sharp disagreement”. Now Mark has dragged Barnabas into his failure. Thanks to Mark, Paul and Barnabas will never work together again.
This is the crunch point, where Mark has to face the fact that he is not and never will be the great evangelist that he dreamed he would. And his future will not be what he imagined and dreamed of – sharing the apostle Paul’s great adventure, taking the gospel, in the face of terrifying opposition, across the Roman Empire to Rome itself. That identity, and that future, could have been, but now – thanks to Mark’s loss of nerve - never will be. Nobody else did this to him, he did it to himself. And God is not going to make everything all right and produce a second chance for him.
Yes, he goes off to Cyprus with Barnabas and does some useful work. But it’s definitely small time, not big time. It’s not storming the Empire with Paul.
A corporate aside
I’m sure I don’t need to labour the resonance between this point in Mark’s story, and the point we find ourselves at in Wood Green Mennonite Church’s story. We had a vision of our identity and future that has been shaken. We had a picture of our future stretching decades ahead, of ourselves in a warm ongoing relationship with the London Mennonite Centre and that wonderful house on Shepherd’s Hill. And a sense of our own identity as a church that was both enabled and constrained by that relationship. That has all gone now, and we are left wondering: what is our identity and future now?
So with this in mind, let’s go back to Mark, eating his heart out over his lost opportunities....
....something else happens.
It often does.
Years later we find Mark, now well into his middle years, in Rome, and – what a surprise this is! - reconciled with Paul. Paul is in prison, and Mark is one of his inner circle, one of only three Jewish friends standing alongside him in his trouble. Mark, says Paul, has “been a comfort to me”(Col 4.11) and “is very useful to me” (2 Tim 4.11), and is the apostle’s trusted messenger, running errands for him to places like Colossae. Paul, maybe humbled a little by his experience of imprisonment, has come to see that Mark has some value after all.
In Rome Mark is also highly valued by Peter, who regards him as “my son” (1 Pet 5.13). And through this association, Mark finds himself engaged in a new task that he probably never imagined in his enthusiastic youth. Irenaeus tells us that “after their departure [ie the deaths of Paul and Peter] Mark, Peter’s disciple, has himself delivered to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching”. So Mark becomes the writer of his gospel, a gloriously immediate, exciting and memorable piece of storytelling which belongs with the great works of world literature, and has arguably done more to acquant people with Jesus down the centuries than even the apostle Paul ever did.
So Mark turned out to be an evangelist after all.
I take two things from this. Firstly: we don’t always value our own talents, we value much more highly the things that we find difficult, the skills that we struggle to acquire. My son Gavin has a gift for drawing, always has. From a young age he has been able to draw a lifelike representation of pretty much anything you can place before him. But he’s never done anything with it – my guess is that it comes so easily to him he hardly thinks of it as a talent at all. And I wonder if Mark was the same – thanks to his privileged background he was always able to write, and write well. But in his youthful idealism he didn’t want to be a writer, he wanted to be the missionary church planter – a vocation that, as it turned out, he was not so well suited for. Writing seemed too easy to be exciting. Even so, it turned out to be his life’s work, the thing he was born for.
Secondly: Mark did not retreat into middle-aged cynicism. I guess most of us have met people like this, who talk with world-weary irony of their own youthful idealism. Maybe I am sometimes tempted to talk like that myself. But Mark’s gospel, written in his fifties or even his sixties, is a young man’s book, and his Jesus is every inch the idealistic young man, rushing hastily from one confrontation with evil to another, not a minute to lose, burning with the urgency of his mission. Despite the bitter disappointments that life, or more accurately Mark himself, had dealt out to him, Mark never abandoned his youthful love for Jesus and enthusiasm to serve him. May I be able to say the same of myself. Amen.