Tuesday, April 25 – Peter Skewes-Cox

This sermon was preached for the Feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist by senior Peter Skewes-Cox. The readings for this sermon are Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 2, Ephesians 4:7-8,11-16, and Mark 16:15-20.

Today we celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Tradition holds that the author of Mark’s Gospel is the same person as Mark of 2 Timothy, Mark called “my son” by the author of 1 Peter, John Mark of the Acts of the Apostles and Mark, cousin of Barnabas in Colossians and Philemon. The Church of Alexandria in Egypt reveres Mark as the founder and first bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and so Mark is remembered as the founder of Christianity in Africa. By tradition, Mark was martyred in 68 by pagans celebrating the feast of Serapis, the god of Alexandria. Mark was buried under the church he founded, although the Venetians stole much of his remains in 828 and took them to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Today, St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria is said to stand on the site of the original church founded by Mark which served as the historical seat of the Pope of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

st. mark's
St. Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo, Egypt

In Alexandria on Palm Sunday this year, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate of St. Mark’s Cathedral, killing 17 and injuring 48.

In our readings today, Second Isaiah tells us of the arrival of the messenger who brings good news of peace and salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns, your Lord comforts his people, for he has redeemed Jerusalem.” The Psalmist writes of those who set themselves against the Lord and his Anointed, telling us what the Lord said to his Messiah: “You are my Son; this day have I begotten you. Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance and the ends of the earth for your possession.” The author of Ephesians summarizes Christ’s gifts to us: “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

How do we, sitting here today, in this seminary chapel in Berkeley, make some sense of all this? We listen to these readings in light of the story told in Mark’s Gospel, a story first told 2000 years ago. And as we hear this story again in this place, new Christian martyrs are made half way round the world in the place where the evangelist brought Christianity to Africa. For those of us here today, only partway through our Christian journeys, there is clearly more of our own stories that are yet to be told.

Our Gospel reading for today offers us several clues about how to think about our work here. Mark’s Gospel is thought to originally end at verse 16:8, with an empty tomb and the words to the women of a young man dressed in white who said, “Jesus has been raised, he is not here. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.” The story ends. No post-resurrection appearances, no final words from Jesus.

Scholars speculate that Mark’s Gospel having been written first, the later evangelists found its ending incomplete and so they each wrote a longer ending, as we find today in Matthew, Luke and John. The longer ending for Mark’s Gospel that we heard today was perhaps written early in the second century, borrowing from the other Gospels to give Mark’s Gospel its own proper ending, and introducing some unique elements. Jesus makes a post-resurrection appearance to the eleven and sends them into the world to proclaim the good news, and then he is taken up to heaven. And the disciples went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere while the Lord worked with them.

As we sit here, 10 days after the Resurrection, we contemplate what is to come for each of us. Graduation in 4 weeks for some of us, graduation in one or two years for others of us, and some further years of ministry in this place for those who work here. All of us may have a sense that our stories are more like the original ending of Mark’s Gospel. What does it mean? How will the good news of an empty tomb change my life? The meaning of our stories cannot be reckoned until the stories have an end. An end that is still before us, as we sit here, contemplating an empty tomb, literally open-ended.

There are more clues in the longer ending about how we should carry out the work Jesus has given us. The longer ending makes explicit what is only implicit in the original ending. The good news of the empty tomb gives us the power to carry on Christ’s work in the world. The writers of the longer ending picked up signs of the working of the good news from the other Gospels: exorcisms, speaking in new tongues and laying of hands on the sick. All positive signs of the divine. But they added two more signs without New Testament parallels: handling snakes and drinking poison. The good news of the empty tomb gives us the power as workers of the divine to also physically handle the demonic.

Handling snakes and drinking poison comes in two ways. For many of us, our challenges to work with the demonic begin with our own personal transformation. We are empowered to be healers of others, even as we recognize that we are wounded healers, as we struggle with our battles with personal demons. We are empowered to love others even while we are having trouble loving ourselves. We are empowered to model a relationship with a living God for others, even while our own relationships are dying. We are empowered to open ourselves to the indwelling Spirit who heightens our knowledge of the Holy that surrounds us even as we struggle to stay sober, to stay away from everything that dulls our perceptions, our emotions, our pain.

Even as we do our own work of personal transformation day by day, we respond to the call for social transformation, to handle the snakes and drink the poison that threaten our common life together on this planet. The good news of the empty tomb gives us the power to confront the demons of climate change and threats to the sustainability of life on earth. To survive the toxic brew of racism and sexism, enforced gender identities and religious intolerance. To confront the demon of thinking that our material lives are governed by scarcity, not abundance. To survive the toxic brew that would keep us from welcoming immigrants and refugees as our brothers and sisters.

Sometimes we pay the ultimate price for doing this work.

On Palm Sunday, Naseem Faheem, a guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, redirected the suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Faheem was likely the first to die in the blast, as he saved the lives of dozens inside the church. A few days later, on Egyptian national television, the country watched an interview with his wife who said: “I’m not angry at the one who did this, I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’”  The headlines summarized the response: Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable.[1]

One observer commented: “The families of the martyrs are promoting a worldview that is 180 degrees contrary to that of the terrorists. The great majority of Egyptians now carry deep respect for the Copts, who are viewed as patriotic people of faith.”

A local Bishop summarized the message of hope for Egypt: “When people see this attitude from Christians and the church, they ask themselves, ‘What kind of power is this?’ But with this witness we must also declare the message of Christ, which we are fulfilling—literally.” He said, “We may not see the response immediately. But we will in the near future.”

The story in Egypt is open-ended. The longer ending has not yet been written.

As we sit here today in this seminary chapel in Berkeley, we contemplate the work we are all called to do. To speak in new tongues, to heal the sick. And to handle snakes and to drink poisons and yet carry on.

Today we remember the life and witness of St. Mark, as evangelist and martyr.

And we remember Naseem Faheem, whose life and witness also makes him evangelist and martyr.

Amen.

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/april-web-only/forgiveness-muslims-moved-coptic-christians-egypt-isis.html

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