Mark Grows Up (Acts 15:36-40)

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Those familiar with the history of the Church, my beloved in Christ, are aware that we Antiochian Christians have had our disagreements from time to time. In fact, it’s one of our strong points; sad to say, one of our weaknesses. For when we are weak, then we are strong. At least, that’s the way I would rationalize it. But the Antiochians, from the very beginning, have been notoriously contentious. It probably has something to do with the fact that it was a clash of cultures within the city itself, of Semitic and Greek. I’m suspecting that that’s the ancient root of it. It’s a source of immense amusement to me since I’ve joined this Archdiocese more than two decades ago how much the Archdiocese likes to stress we are the heirs of the great Syriac Fathers. If one could go back and actually read what the Syriac Fathers actually said about the other Antiochians, I’m not sure… [Laughter] When Aphrahat, for example, speaks about the heresies of those Westerners, he’s talking about the Greeks at Antioch. [Laughter] But I find that quite amusing, that we sort of take the whole thing in. We forget that these people were fighting with one another for centuries.

Indeed, to follow the history of controversy at Antioch would be an adequate way to study the history of Antiochian Christianity. An early example of an argument at Antioch, found in the Acts of the Apostles, includes St. Mark, whose feast we venerate today. You just heard the subdeacon read this a few minutes ago, but I may read it for you again.

Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark, but Paul insisted that they should not take with them him who had departed from them in Pamphylia and not gone with them to the work.

Now the circumstances of that disagreement between Paul and Barnabas are well-known. After their mission to Cyprus in chapter 13, the young Mark evidently became discouraged and probably homesick. So he abandoned the party of Paul and Barnabas and returned to his mother. It’s interesting how that’s listed: it’s chapter 13, verse 13, pins you in on it. His departure did not sit well with St. Paul to whom Mark must have seemed something of a wimp and a mommy’s boy. That’s as bad as dropping out of seminary after a month because you’re homesick.

Paul considered young Mark hardly suited for the rough work of the ministry, and so they had at Antioch in the reading we had this morning the first diocesan meeting of the vocation board, and they were split. This is the background for the present instance of which the author of Acts, St. Luke, says of Paul and Barnabas: “Then the contention between them became so sharp that they parted one from another.” Now, the Greek word for “contention” in this text is paroxysmos, a paroxysm. That is to say, this was no mild disagreement. There was a genuine loss of temper. They fought between themselves as only two Jews can do.

Now by way of honoring this morning the memory of St. Mark, I want to reflect with you about this incident, with a view to discerning, if we can, what it tells us about life in Christ, life in the Church. Let’s talk this morning of progress, of pragmatism, and of providence. Let’s begin with progress.

Our earliest story about St. Mark is found in his gospel, where he describes what he was doing on the night that Jesus was arrested in the garden. He was hardly more than a boy at the time. Here’s what he says of himself, because he’s really the only one who could tell us this story.

Now a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body.

I got the picture of somebody who got up in the middle of the night, wraps something around himself and went out. This is in the garden of Gethsemane.

And the young men laid hold on him.

Those are the men who came to arrest Jesus.

The young men laid hold on him, and he left, abandoning the linen cloth, and he fled from them, naked.

And there’s where Mark first appears as a character in Church history. You can only make progress after that. [Laughter]

He describes himself as a young man, hardly more than a boy, and what was he doing that night in the garden of Gethsemane? He was eavesdropping. He was spying. The reason I find this so intriguing is it reminds me of myself at exactly that age. It always appeared to me that the really interesting things happened after I was sent to bed. [Laughter] So I didn’t go to sleep. I lay there and figured out, tried to figure out, what’s going on that they don’t want me to know about. And I took to getting up in the middle of the night, because I could hear the adults downstairs talking. And I would go over to a landing on the steps, abscond myself in the shadows, and listen. On one or two times—not more than that, because it led to severe punishments—I actually sneaked out of the house and went to someone else’s house! [Laughter] —where I thought something interesting might be happening.

This is what little boys do. I don’t know if little girls do this. I have never noticed it, but at least at that age I didn’t notice that there were girls. Boys, little boys, like to spy on things. If that were not the case, literature would not be full of it. Just staying within the Acts of the Apostles, how does Paul find out, in the Acts of the Apostles, that there is a plot against him? His little nephew overheard a conversation, and he comes and warns Paul. It’s all in the Acts of the Apostles. I have this picture in my mind: Where did he hear that conversation?

My suspicion is he was in an apple barrel, with Jim Hawkins, overhearing a conversation initiated by Long John Silver. I have my impression that he was almost like a character out of C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, who I recall was hiding behind a divan of some sort and listening to what’s going on, the plot. I think of poor Tom Sawyer, sneaking back into the house of Aunt Polly in the evening and hiding—I can’t remember where he was hiding, but he was hiding in the house—and he’s listening to them talk about his recent funeral. I think of young Jack who climbed up the beanstalk and hid himself in the castle of the giant. Literature is full of this theme.

In short, boys like to watch and listen from some secret place, and this is how Mark first appears. He’s hiding behind an olive tree, almost naked, in the garden of Gethsemane in the middle of the night, watching what’s going on. That is to say, boys appreciate the merits of espionage. Actually, I’ve learned, at least from my daughter, that girls can be taught to appreciate that as well. This is how Mark first appears: hiding in the garden of Gethsemane at night, when his mother thought he was safely at home in bed.

With respect to his mother, we know that her name was Mary, and she was a close relative, perhaps a sister, of the Apostle Barnabas. Her home in Jerusalem was a place where the Christians met at worship. We see that from Acts 12. In fact, we even know the name of her serving-maid; her name was Rhoda or Rose. There is a very interesting story about her in Acts 12. In fact, if you want wonderful literature, you need not go very far beyond the book of Acts.

Mark grew up in that home, and when we first meet him, he had not grown up very much. A few years later, his uncle, Barnabas, determined to take him on the first missionary expedition that set forth from Antioch to Cyprus. That is to say, young Mark was included in the original group of Antiochian missionaries. Antioch had been sending out missionaries from the very beginning, and this parish is one of the fruits of a mission sent from Antioch. Humanly speaking, it was probably not a wise decision for Mark to go. I say “humanly speaking”: he was too young, and he missed the comforts of home.

St. Paul’s description of the life of a foreign missionary. You ready?

In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren, in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.

Well, after a few weeks of this, young Mark decided he had had quite enough, and he decided to go back home to mama. That, however, was not the end of the story. It took a few years, but Mark did eventually grow up. Rejected at first by Paul, Mark traveled with Barnabas. Nonetheless, we soon find him once again in the company of Paul. Eventually Paul thought better of it. Even after his reconciliation with Paul, apparently Mark’s reputation had been damaged among the Pauline churches. This would explain why Paul, even several years later, felt it necessary to tell the Colossians:

Aristarchus, my prisoner, greets you, along with Mark, the kinsman of Barnabas, about whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him.

Why did he need to tell the Colossians that?

In the example of Mark, my brothers and sisters, we discern an important fact about Christian progress. It is compatible with the experience of disappointment, and even the experience of disapproval. Young Mark was deemed unworthy of the ministry, by no less an authority than St. Paul the Apostle. He was surely humiliated by his poor showing on that first missionary journey. He certainly felt like a failure, and the Apostle Paul, whom he respected and whose approval he certainly craved, treated him like a failure. And yet, Mark’s ministry in the Church had just begun. After that initial setback, he grew from strength to strength. I’ve speculated what would have happened to Mark if Paul and Barnabas had not split up, but that’s for point two.

It is instructive that St. Paul very favorably mentioned Mark within the last lines that we have from his pen, in 2 Timothy. Here’s what he tells Timothy, writing at the very end of his life.

Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for the ministry.

And this verse also explains how Mark got to Rome. We find him there with St. Peter shortly afterwards. In his first epistle, St. Peter refers to Mark as “my son.” Following Peter’s martyrdom, Mark went to Alexandria in Egypt, becoming the first bishop of that city. When he arrived at Alexandria, he was carrying a copy of a small work that he had composed while he was still back at Rome. We know it as the Gospel according to Mark. Such, my brothers and sisters, is the course of Christian progress.

Virtually all progress is dialectical, which is a way of saying there are setbacks. We do not make progress except by friction, do we? If it were not for the principle of friction, I could not walk. If the earth always gave into me, I would make no progress at all.

Second this morning, let us speak of pragmatism. It comes from the Greek word pragma which means an effect of something, an act, a deed. That Greek is the root of the Latin practica, [from] which we get so many words in English.

When Paul and Barnabas found themselves in a hopeless conflict over Mark’s future in the ministry, they were very angry—paroxysmos is the word used—but apparently anger did not prevail. I’m presuming it went for a few days. I don’t know. I’ve seen Jews fight with one another. It’s a fearful thing to watch. But it took a few days. But they began to think constructively. That was important: they began to think constructively. I think the modern word—I’m not particularly fond of it, but I think the expression is “think outside the box.” In other words, just take the lines of where we’re in and draw them out a little further and get a different perspective on it. It’s important to do that. I think the male penchant for constantly dissecting angles has something to do with it. Just draw the line out somewhere else. Split that angle, see what we get. Extend the line. Increase the perspective. One can’t really do that if he’s all worked up with passions like anger.

Paul and Barnabas divided the mission field between two teams. One of them suggested: Really, we’re mad at one another; is there really any reason we should continue to travel together? And the other one said: By Jove, I think you have it. St. Luke tells us this morning—I quote again from the reading:

They parted from one another, and so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed.

If you look at the map, reading that verse, you see all they did was simply split the field. They went in two different directions, rather like Abraham and Lot. It was the sensible thing to do. In other words, they made an adjustment on the basis of a new problem.

There’s a certain type of Christian, an idealist, who would resist this practical solution to a problem. I can easily imagine some monastic writer insisting that Paul and Barnabas should have stayed together because it would have made both of them holier by testing one another’s patience. I have no problem picturing that at all. Such a one would find their breaking up an offense against Christian charity, about which the psalmist says, “It is good and pleasant for the brethren to dwell in unity.” If the brethren, however, are not just being anointed with the oil but squeezing it in one another’s eyes, it may be time to look for something practical to do.

The decision of these two apostles was dictated on pragmatic grounds, very much the way, as we read last week, the Church had earlier settled the problem of the neglected widows. That was an earlier controversy. The Church had to deal with this problem. They created a new ministry, about which the Lord had told them nothing. They just created a new ministry to deal with this problem.

In both cases, the apostles made certain practical adjustments in the ministry, never forgetting that the mission of the Church is a practical affair. There is a job to be done. There’s a certain kind of Christian who is so interested in holding onto the Faith—a conservative: he wants to conserve it—that it does not get shared, because he’s not thinking beyond his own experience. He’s not using his creative imagination. A church that does that is a church without ideas.

Pragmatism, as a term, has a bad press. For some people, it means the abandonment on theory, the abandonment of thought. One thinks of American pragmatic philosophy, associated with men like Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. I don’t mean pragmatism as a school of philosophy, although I’m not sure we’ve actually gained enough… I think we’ve gained plenty from Dewey. I would like if they would get Peirce’s works actually published; very few of them are, but I like what has been published.

The proclamation of the Gospel is a pragmatic thing. Pragmatism must be a quality of the Christian mission. The proclamation of the Gospel is a practical business. It has often been the case that this all-important work has been advanced by imaginative adjustments in the means. There’s a certain kind of Christian who regards such adjustments as infidelity. Such a person is prepared to die for every last single canon and every last rubric. He majors in the minors, forgetting that we Christians have a task to accomplish in this world. In short, the proclamation of the Gospel must be a very pragmatic enterprise.

Here in the United States of America, the Orthodox Church is meeting a situation that it has never met before. The idea that we can do this without using our heads is crazy. We must think imaginatively about how to get this job done.

And finally, my beloved, let us speak of providence. Indeed, the mystery of divine providence is what is most obvious in the life and ministry of St. Mark. When Paul and Barnabas had their famous disagreement about the merits of Mark, holy Scripture does not blame either man. Events were to prove that St. Paul was wrong in his assessment of Mark, but there was no clear way of knowing that at the time. Often we have to act in darkness, but we have to act. We almost never have all the light we need, but we must go forward.

As for Paul himself, he eventually demonstrated a willingness to change his mind about Mark. Paul was open to learning as time went on, and the Lord blessed the ministries of everyone concerned. In fact, the pragmatic compromise of Barnabas and Paul was incorporated into God’s providential plan for everyone concerned. The ministries of Barnabas and Mark founded the great Church of Cyprus, the home of saints to the present day. As for Paul, he went on to establish churches all over the Greek mainland, which he had never done until he and Barnabas had parted from one another.

The friction associated with the early ministry of Mark proved to be nothing more than the physical resistance necessary to the act of walking. If the earth always gave way when we stepped upon it, progress would be impossible. The difference between a stepping-stone and a stumbling-block is how we think about it. Most of the failures, I believe, of the Church in recent times have been failures of imagination, not failures of courage but failures of imagination. A great and distinguishing feature of the God of the Gospel is his penchant for bringing good out of bad situations. We see him doing this all through the sacred Scriptures: bringing good out of bad situations. As Joseph told his brothers, “You meant it for harm; God meant it for good.”

The paroxysmos between Paul and Barnabas was certainly a bad situation. It turned out, however, to be entirely good for the Gospel. Indeed, looking back on that scene, it was hardly more than a historical blip.