“Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest and desire that which thou dost promise.”
I want you to imagine yourself, for a little bit, as a new convert to Christianity in ancient Rome. Perhaps you were a common Roman citizen who had grown up in pagan Rome as most people, with very little money but some personal possessions that perhaps had been passed down to you. You lived in a large apartment building with the rest of your family, and since the rickety apartment housed your family with grandparents and perhaps some extended family, you lived most of the day out on the streets of Rome. The magnificent public buildings, statues, and temples gave you an opportunity to take part in free theater shows, public debates, races and games, and grand feasts when the Emperor fed the common people lavish meals as well as simple handouts such as daily bread and cornmeal. One day you heard a man speaking, like they often would on a small stone pedestal, about something quite amazing and strange–a promise about eternal life. You realize that this man is part of a small group you had heard rumors about–some really strange but some good about this group’s way of life. They called themselves Christians because they followed a man who claimed to be Christ, a messiah, who had risen from the dead in order to save the world from death. Intrigued, you start talking to some of the members of this group and a couple of things stand out to you: first, they are not obsessed with power and even think that humility and caring for the sick and poor are a good thing. You also see these same people healing the sick, but not by sending them to the temple of Asclepius, but rather praying over them in the name of Jesus, the man they claim to be God Almighty. Their way of life, the miracles you witness, and the incredible teachings of Jesus, though, are so amazing that you decide to become one of them. It takes two to three years of classes and strict training, however, before you are baptized and during those years you learn the full story and identity of Jesus. Then on Easter, four years after you first heard a Christian preaching in the streets of Rome, you are finally baptized and able to receive the Eucharist. You now have a new identity and live off of new food and drink. As a new convert you listen to the Holy Scriptures as much as possible as you desire to live in this new identity, but it is not easy. Your family has been very suspicious of these new friends from the beginning. The Roman government from time to time sends out edicts to arrest Christians, and still all the pleasures of Rome are present and all the temples dedicated to the numerous deities still stand.
When James wrote his Epistle, he had Christians like this in mind, a Christian joining a small church amidst a bustling, pagan, and distracted world. We know from the ancient lectionaries and missals, that these readings (James, and John 16) had been appointed for the 4th and 5th Sundays after Easter for over 1600 years, and probably much longer than that. They were chosen because these readings would be so helpful to the newly baptized Christians at Easter.
You can still hear James’ sense of urgency and weightiness when he writes to the young Christian churches. In the first half of the chapter, James is focusing on the proper disposition needed for hearing and receiving the Word of God at baptism. Next week we will read the second half of the chapter, where James highlights the good deeds that should follow baptism. James’ sense of urgency comes from experienced knowledge of the sundry and manifold changes of the world. Only the engrafted Word, the Word that was planted in you at baptism, can save your soul, and so you must let that Word grow by putting away the abundance of malice (superfluity of naughtiness) and any other weed that might strive to take over.
One must, therefore, approach one’s baptism or one’s salvation with humility, but also intentionality. Humility to express thankfulness for this great gift and intentionality to live out the salvation. This is the result of our baptism, our unity with God, which the Gospel explains so well.
The Gospel shows the purpose of our baptisms in a Trinitarian light. We are baptized into Christ so that He may bring us to His Father. As in John 14: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” When Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus then responds, albeit a bit perplexed at Philip’s misunderstanding: “[Jhn 14:9-11 KJV] Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou [then], Shew us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I [am] in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake.” When we are joined to Jesus, then, we are truly joined to the Father as well because there is union between the Father and the Son.
Today is the feast day of St. Athanasius, and I have to add a quote from him who fought so hard to defend the unity of the Father and Son and the Holy Ghost. He writes: “”[Since human beings sought God in creation and things perceptible], the lover of human beings and the common savior of all, takes to himself a body and dwells as a human among humans and draws to himself the perceptible sense of all human beings, so that those who think that God is in things corporeal might, from what the Lord wrought through the actions of the body, know the truth and through him might consider the Father”
Even more, in John 16, Jesus explains to his disciples how when he is gone back to the Father, they will still be unified because the Holy Spirit will be given to them: “[Jhn 16:14-15 KJV] [The Holy Spirit] shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew [it] unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew [it] unto you.” Again, as we are unified to Jesus, we are unified into the very life of the Trinity so that we may, like Jesus, worship the Father perfectly through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is needed so that the Church might be led into this way of truth.
At every Mass, during the prayer for the whole state of Christ’s church, we still pray to God, “beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord.” That is the Holy Spirit, of course–the Spirit who guides us in all truth, unites us with our Lord, and brings peace to the Body. As members of the Church, though, this prayer can also be taken personally, since the Spirit works in each and every one of us to fix our hearts upon Christ himself. We no longer live in ancient Rome, and many of our ways of life and liturgies are different, but we still deal with the sundry and manifold changes of the world–we still must live out our lives in earnest dedication. May we always remember our own baptisms, the vows that we took or were taken for us then to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, believe the articles of the Christian faith, and keep God’s holy will and commandments. This is how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, we can pray knowing that the Holy Spirit will work to accomplish these ends. And so we pray with the Collect that the Spirit may guide us to “love the thing which thou commandest and desire that which thou dost promise.”
Today we celebrate the great life and witness of St. Mark the Evangelist. According to Eusebius, who wrote a history of the Church in the early 4th century, Mark knew St. Peter, evidence of which comes from Holy Scripture, and spent time with him traveling and in Rome when he wrote down Peter’s sermons and teachings as he composed his Gospel. After Peter’s martyrdom, Mark fled to Alexandria where he founded a parish and was the first Bishop of Alexandria. He is depicted in icons and church art as a winged lion, and you can see that on our icon of All Saints to the left of Jesus’ feet as one of the four Gospel authors.
It seems strange, then, that the Gospel given for us today in order to celebrate St. Mark, does not even come from his own Gospel, but from John’s! Nor is there any mention of Mark in the Epistle! So why is the lectionary set up this way, and what are the appointed readings trying to tell us? I hope to show that the readings represent Mark himself: first because as a Bishop he was an ambassador of Christ and a source of unity for the church and second as an author of a Gospel, he is a source of correct doctrine so that we may follow the life of Christ and not be carried away by false doctrines.
Let us turn to the epistle first. This passage comes in the middle of Ephesians 4, and jumps right in the middle of St. Paul’s longer discourse on the unity of the Church. The community in Ephesus is having a hard time getting along, and so Paul urges them to act in accordance to the reality in which they live. After he urges them to live in unity, he reminds them of the truth that the Body of Christ is a unity. [Eph 4:4-6 KJV] “[There is] one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who [is] above all, and through all, and in you all.” The Church is not an individualistic reality but a reality in which all the individuals are bound together in one body by one baptism, believing in one faith, and consecrated for one God.
But within this unity, there is a multiplicity of vocations. Here, Paul investigates the nature of a Body, by looking at Christ’s action. “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.” Because Christ descended to earth as a man, and then ascended, he transformed human nature. Our translation makes it seem as if his ascension fills the whole universe as pouring water into a pan fills the whole pan, but that is not what the Greek is getting across here. The word for fills here, πληρόω, is the term usually translated as fulfill. Christ’s incarnation and ascension fulfills the mission of God to redeem His people–His grace now perfects human nature!
One way in which Christ continues to perfect humanity is by giving gifts. As St. Paul says: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.” The enemy has been defeated and Christ gave gifts to men so that they may participate in His unity, in His Body, or as St. Paul says: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” So, for those ends, he gave gifts to the Body: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. This list developed into the threefold order of Bishops, Priests, and deacons. It still amazes me that the gifts are people! Men that God has chosen to help edify the Church, continue the ministry of reconciliation, and urge people towards holiness.
St. Mark, as I said before, was a bishop, one of these special gifts from God. And as a bishop, he was a gift from God to continue the unity of the Body of Christ. A feast day like this helps us remember the importance of St. Mark and also of all our bishops who are our source of unity. IT just so happens that St. Mark’s feast day falls right before Ascension because these weeks are all about Christ instituting the Apostles as His church. In the three weeks prior to the feast of the Ascension, the lectionary gives us three separate times when Christ tells His disciples that He will be leaving so that the Holy Spirit might come and fill the Apostles. Christ gives the Apostles the Holy Spirit so that they might continue his work in the Church, and St. Mark is our great reminder today of this fact.
But ST. Paul does not stop there–the purpose of the Church is for all to enter this same fulness and worship God. He continues: “[Eph 4:13 KJV] Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:” Later in the epistle he concludes: “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, [even] Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”
Notice that the fullness is Christ’s fullness. It is a unity within Our Lord which is ever present and yet ever growing in time. So we are prompted by St. Paul to live in love which unites the whole body. This is our principle of moral action–that we act in love towards God and man not for our own sake but for the sake of the Body. Our union in that Body spurs us to increase and pass along this charity so that our lives look like the head of the Body, Christ Himself. As Jesus says in the Gospel: “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.” Our union encourages us to follow the commandments.
And yet there is also the chance of walking away from this fulness, to be deceived and lost. St. Paul knows this danger, and one of the reasons of Christ’s gifts is to keep us from these dangers: “[Eph 4:14 KJV] That we [henceforth] be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, [and] cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” Deception in doctrine leads us away from the Body of Christ, and so we must take great care to never lose sight of Christ and his teachings. St. Mark provides us with one of the great ways to avoid these errors, his Gospel. Our icon shows the role of the Gospels in revealing Christ to us. The four Gospel writers in the icon are situated on four corners of the image of Christ. It is as if they hold the vision of Christ there in the middle, and this is true since the Gospels reveal to us the nature and person of Our Lord. On this feast day, let us give thanks for God’s great gift to us in St. Mark who gives us a vision Christ. If you have never read Mark’s whole Gospel in one sitting, I encourage you to do so. It will vividly present to you the exciting and dramatic life of Christ so that you may come to know Him more. We have not read any of his Gospel today, but I hope you see now how our readings today present the necessity of St. Mark–both as a bishop and therefore Christ’s appointed source of unity for the Body and as the author of Christ’s life that will keep us from erroneous doctrine and inspire us to continue to live in the Body of Christ in all charity.