Saturday, April 24, 2010

St Mark's Day: Do we worship St Mark??

Mark 13: 5-13 and Ephesians 4: 7-16

Today we celebrate St Mark's Day - which makes this our Patronal Festival.  Some Christians from other traditions are often a little puzzled as to why Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians tend to name their churches after saints.  The Roman Catholic church's most famous building is of course St Peter's in Rome.  The Orthodox have St Basil's in Moscow.  We Anglicans also have famous cathedrals with patron saints, like St Paul's.  The most famous St Mark's is probably the great basilica in Venice - with its magnificent bell tower that stands over the St Mark's Piazza.  But to Methodists, Baptists, Free Church people, Charismatics and many others - this naming of churches after a person is rather puzzling.

So why do we do this?  After all, we are the church of Jesus Christ aren't we?  Are we worshipping St Mark instead of Jesus?  Well, of course not!  Mark is only a patron - and example of a life that was transformed by faith - which we are encouraged to follow.

NOTE:  The following section (in light grey) was not in fact was rather too long for the time I had available!  However, I've included it here as background information about the practice of praying to saints.

Let's start with this word 'patron'.  What is a patron?  In the times when nations were ruled by Kings and Emperors, a patron was someone you knew who had the ear of the King.  Perhaps you wanted a special favour - maybe a reduction in your taxes, or a judgement in some dispute that you were having with a neighbour. But security was high around your King.  Only a few people could actually get close to the King - and you were not one of the lucky few.  So you would ask your patron to raise your case with the King on your behalf.

The idea of patron saints is linked to that idea.  It comes from an earlier time, and an earlier understanding about how heaven was constructed.  Ancient peoples read the biblical descriptions of heaven as a sort of court...and began to take them literally.  Heaven was seen in the popular mind as being a spiritual version of the kind of courts which existed on earth.  

Consider one of the open verses of the book of Job, for example.  Job is believed to be probably the very oldest book of the bible.  In verse 6 of chapter one we read, "One day, the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them".  Presenting yourself before a great ruler was exactly what happened in an earthly court.  Consider the famous opening of Isaiah's vision of God in the Temple, from Isaiah Chapter 6:  "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and his train filled the temple".  

(That doesn't mean that God had a giant train means - for example - the kind of train that brides have trailing behind them, or that monarchs have as they walk through Westminster Abbey to their coronation.)

So in the popular mind, a thought began to arise:  "how can I, a humble farmer or peasant hope to have my prayers heard by God in the heavenly court?  After all, I wouldn't be able to get near my earthly King.  Why on earth should I be able to get anywhere near God Almighty?"  From that thought - that instinctive humility of most of the world - arose the idea of a patron saint.  The logic was inescapable.  If earthly Kings had special advisers and friends at court, who could act as patrons for ordinary people - surely God would do the same?  Now who would these special advisers and friends be?  Well, of course, they would be people who had lived the holiest lives.  They would be the people whom the church had declared to be Saints.  And perhaps Angels too.

And so, people began to pray to particular saints - especially those whose life stories suggested that they would be sympathetic to the cause of the person who was praying. Jesus had taught that his followers were his body - and so the lives of particular saints reflected aspects of Jesus back to those still on earth.  

Fishermen began to pray to St James - because he had been a fisherman.  Mothers prayed to Mary - because she was a mother herself, and the mother of the Lord in his earthly incarnation.  Carpenters and artisans prayed to St Joseph - Jesus' earthly father.  If you were sick, you might pray to St Luke - because he was a physician.  And so on. Essentially the prayers all said the same thing...though dressed up in posh language.  "Oh Saint so-and-so.  You understand better than anyone else the problems I'm having - because you had the same problem when you were alive.  Please would you speak to the Lord for me...and ask him to sort out my problem".

Praying to saints has never been about worshipping those saints themselves - at least not officially.  The Church has always taught that a prayer to a saint is always no more than asking a saint to be your patron in the Court of Heaven - to add their prayers to yours in the hope that God will answer them.  Some people who converted from religions with lots of Gods often preferred to pray to saints...and sometimes confused the saints with God.  But officially - that has never been permitted.  The church does not permit the worship of saints...only prayers to them.

This is partly about an understanding that we who are alive on Earth are part of a much larger body of Christians who are also alive in heaven.  The 'church militant here below' is united through prayer and praise with what is called the 'church triumphant' in heaven.  By remembering, and asking the help of prominent Christians who have died, we are, in fact, acknowledging that Christ has defeated death - and that this existence on earth is just a small part of our eternal destiny as children of God.  Those who have died are anything but fact they are closer to God than we are...more alive, more energised by the Spirit of God then we could imagine.

Our modern understanding of saints, at least in the protestant tradition, has somewhat shifted.  We are perhaps less inclined to think of God as sitting on a literal throne - but rather to embrace him as the 'Father' that Jesus described God to be.  We know, because Jesus taught us this, that we can pray directly to God - to 'Our Father in heaven'.  But there is still much of value in the old tradition of engaging with the saints of the past.

(NOTE: The sermon as preached resumed from here)

I could go on rather more about this topic - because I do find it rather interesting!  We could think about why certain saints are more popular than others. We could talk about the attitude of different branches of the church to the whole practice.  We could discuss the Orthodox practice of prayer to icons...but enough is probably enough!  Perhaps these are ideas we could explore in our forthcoming study-evenings about prayer.

Let's instead ask ourselves about St Mark.  After all, he was chosen for us, by our forebears, to be our patron in this parish.  What was in the mind of our forefathers when they chose St Mark to be the new church in the new town of North End?  Why St Mark?  Why a Lion as an emblem?

St Mark - or St John Marcus as he was known - was the author of St Mark's Gospel.  He is first mentioned in Chapter 12 of the Acts of the Apostles, where he is identified as a travelling companion of St Paul.  Later, according to church tradition, he became a disciple of St Peter when Peter was in Rome.  It has always been believed that Mark was essentially Peter's biographer - and that his Gospel is a writing down of stories about Jesus that were told by Peter.

Mark was a rather controversial figure.  He was the centre of quite a debate between Paul and Barnabus, leading to Paul and Barnabus separating and going in different directions in the work of the Gospel.  Later, according to tradition, Mark made a real pain of himself in the city of Alexandria - where his constant preaching and insistence that the citizens of Alexandria should turn away from their Greek gods led to him being martyred.  According to one of a number of traditions, he was attached to a horse and dragged through the streets until dead - but not before he had founded what is today called the Coptic Orthodox Church.  St Mark's bones - his 'relics' are said to reside in St Mark's Church in Venice.

Mark's traditional emblem, as you will know only too well, is a Lion.  I have to tell you that Emily was particularly excited to learn that when we first came to St Mark's - being somewhat of a Lion King fan!  A winged Lion was chosen for St Mark because his Gospel speaks most eloquently of the royal divinity of Christ...and the lion has always been seen as a royal figure.  It is also said that the Lion was chosen because Mark's Gospel uniquely begins with the story of John the Baptist, who, like a distant lion was described as the voice crying the in the wilderness.

So what are the themes which emerge about our patron from these stories?

First of all, I'd say, Mark was obviously a thinker.  He thought deeply about Jesus, and about what it meant to be his follower.  He clearly thought long and hard about what Peter had taught him about Jesus, before writing it down in his Gospel.  Sometimes that thinking got him into trouble - and he ended up being the cause of one of the first splits in the church - between Paul and Barnabus.  And that is always a danger when people start to use their God given minds to try to understand the ways of God.  The history of the church, and all its splits, is essentially a history of ideas.  People who use their minds will often find themselves at odds with people who prefer to approach God at a more instinctive level - or who are willing to simply accept what they've been taught, without thinking about it.

There is not a lot we can do about that.  We are encouraged, by the First Commandment of Jesus, to worship God with all our mind, as well as our body and our souls.  It is sad that some people are not prepared to do the hard work of thinking about God.  It's especially sad when we look around North End and see that for many people, thinking about who they might vote to be the next Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz is about as far as intellectual pursuit goes!  God has given us the wonderful instrument of a brain...Mark, our patron, encourages us by his example to use it.

Secondly, Mark was obviously an evangelist.  The word 'evangelist' stems from a Greek word meaning 'good news'.  Mark passionately told people what God had accomplished through Jesus.  He was passionate enough to write a whole book about it - his Gospel.  He was passionate enough to spend months and years travelling around the known world to tell people about it.  He was so passionate about it, that he ended up being silenced by the people of Alexandria who killed him - but he also succeeded in founding a church which still exists in very much the form that he founded it.

Again, this is a message for us.  Our Gospel reading this morning contained those warning words from Jesus, that "all men will hate you because of me" (Mark: 13:13). Telling people what they don't want to hear is never popular.  Did you hear the story in the news of the three people who had imprisoned and repeatedly beaten a man with mental health problems?  Their 'home video' showing them repeatedly hitting their victim, Michael Gilbert was simply horrific.  Theirs was an extreme example of what happens to people who cut themselves off from the love of God.

But many people cut themselves off from God in much less dramatic ways.  Some worship money, and greedily accumulate all they can...forgetting that they can't take it with them to the 'heavenly court'.  Some live in ways that refuse to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with those who have done them wrong...and end up perpetuating feuds and even wars which ruin the lives of millions.  To all such people, and even for the simply lazy, the Gospel is a challenge - often a deeply unwelcome challenge.  The Gospel is good news to those who are being saved.  To others, its a nuisance and even a threat.

The last quality of St Mark which tends to shine through is his tenacity.  Here is a man who, once he had been convinced of the resurrection of Christ, dedicated his entire life to the service of Christ.  He kept on - travelling the length and breadth of his world - writing, teaching, preaching, goading, establishing the good news about Jesus wherever he went.

Mark's example encourages us to do the same.  The Church which names him as our patron in the 'heavenly court' can do no less.  Church, for us, is never about simply spending a couple of hours together on a Sunday - and then forgetting all about God for the rest of the week.  The Church of St Mark is the place where the people of God come together to celebrate what God is doing in our lives, to lift our eyes up from the day to day for a short while, to enjoy the fellowship of other people who have the same love for God.    But the Church of St Mark is more...its the place where we think about our faith, as St Mark did. In Paul's words, from our second reading, our task is to "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of Christ".  Then, Paul goes on, "we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ."   (Eph 4: 13-15)

And finally, following Mark's example,  the Church of St Mark is the place from which we go forth with the same tenacity of our patron.  To quote Winston Churchill - whose metaphor can so easily be turned to the task of the Gospel..."we will never surrender".  We will never surrender to the mediocrity of a consumer society.  We will never surrender to the lies of capitalism, or the false promises of communism.  We will never stop declaring that the Kingdom of God is the only way of living which offers any real hope to humanity.  Like roaring lions in the desert wilderness, we will keep on speaking of the value of love, forgiveness, generosity and charity.  We will keep on telling the story of the Lord who died for us, but rose again so that we might know that all eternity waits for us.

For, as Mark would undoubtedly have declared:  Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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