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Mark my words…

January 10, 2017

There are some things which would have remained unknown but for the person involved telling someone else; and often things in our lives can make a really big impression on us, but there is no way others would know about it unless we were to tell them. For example, I will never forget what my mother said to me on my wedding day. That morning, in a private, one-to-one conversation, she said, “I’ll never worry about you and Catherine, because you two are so much like me and your father.” (She was proved right, I think.) I remember that. I can picture her sitting there now.

And then there was the time when I was a police officer over in Kings Heath. It was Boxing Day. And it was snowing. And one of our middle-aged police officers had died unexpectedly during the night. I was a young sergeant, and I went with the Chief Inspector to visit the family. And I was tremendously moved and struck by what he did, and the way he did it; and I thought, ‘If ever I am in that situation and I am the person in charge, that is what I will do.’ I learnt from him by seeing what he did. (And that is indeed what happened later on in my career… a sad necessity).

Why do I mention these things? Well, it just so happens that this week we are having reading from the gospel of Mark. All the gospels contain stories like that – where people who have actually spoken to Jesus recount the conversation, and we know what Jesus said, word for word. This is tremendous testimony, evidence, witness, to the truth of the gospels. And this is what happens in Mark’s gospel a lot of the time.

I like Mark’s gospel. It was the first gospel to be written (although it comes second in the list of gospels in our tradition). It’s a very short gospel. When I have people who know nothing about Christianity, and I have to guide them towards becoming Christians because they want to convert, I use the Gospel of Mark. I give them a small paperback copy of Mark and say, ‘Here you are, here is something to read.’ That is what many of the early converts to Christianity did. It’s a really good read.

It was written by a man called Mark. But here’s something that’s a bit of Catholic trivia. Mark is not his Christian name, it’s his surname. It’s like calling something I have written ‘Rogerson’, not ‘Philip’. Mark is his surname. Interestingly, his first name was John. John Mark. According to Tradition he had a nickname ‘Colobodactulus Mark’ – that means ‘stubby fingered Mark’. You can picture that – he turns into a real person with a nickname. Fantastic!

And it is said that sometimes (not all the time) Mark acted as an interpreter for Saint Peter when Saint Peter was preaching. So tomorrow’s gospel, which is the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being cured of illness in the house opposite the synagogue we heard about this morning – how does Mark know that story? He knows that story from ‘the horse’s mouth’ – Peter could remember the incident. Peter could remember it distinctly: it was an amazing moment of miracle that happened. Peter remembered it, and he told the crowds that story, and Mark translated that story for him. Mark knew the script, and then he wrote it down. This does not mean that Mark’s Gospel is ‘The Gospel according to Saint Peter’ because there are other things in it, but Mark did work for Saint Peter and he did hear the stories directly. And he would have talked, no doubt, to Peter about Jesus. So Mark had a close relationship with Peter, and thereby with Jesus.

There are references to Mark in the Scriptures: he worked with Saint Paul; he fell out with Saint Paul – they had an argument and split up (ha! There’s nothing new in the Church. It is not unknown for people to disagree – although thankfully Paul and Mark came together again later.) It is said that Mark may have been the young man who was there when Jesus was arrested, who ran off completely naked when they tore his clothes off him trying to catch him.

Mark is a good gospel because it is very short. There are Latin words in there that suggest it was being written for the Christians in Rome. The content and circumstances suggest it was written after Peter had died. Again, that would make sense: if you know stories from someone you would want to write them down quick before you forget. We think Mark wrote it before 70AD, because it does not make any reference at all to the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem.

Mark’s Gospel appeals to the Roman way of thinking. The other gospels have a lot of references to the Jewish Scriptures and the Prophets. There is only one reference to the Olds Testament Prophets in the Gospel of Mark (and that is in verse 2, a reference to Isaiah), otherwise, nothing – it is all sheer good commonsense – the way Romans would do it. It was not written to convince Jews with lots of Jewish historical, theological and philosophical references. Mark is simply a practical guide to being a Christian and living the Christian life.

It is action-packed. The word ‘immediately’ appears in Mark’s gospel forty times. It’s a page-turner. It’s like Eastenders. The drums go at the cliff-hanging end, and you want to turn over and find out what happens next. And that actually happened to me when I was instructing Chuan, a Chinese guy who came to me as a ‘blank canvas’ in terms of Christianity. I was running through the Gospel of Mark with him, and after a week he came back. I said, ‘How’s it going?’ He said, ‘It’s going very well, but we are looking forward to hearing the next installment for what happens next – because I have been telling the family and they want to know!’

Mark is that sort of book. So if you come across someone who needs an introduction to Christianity, Mark is your man!

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