Mark 13.5-13, Acts 15: 35-41
“You will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them… For it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13. 9, 13b)
Walk into any of the big high street stores these days, and you will invariably be asked if you have an ‘advantage’ or ‘reward’ card. When these first appeared they were called ‘loyalty cards’. But in many stores, that name was abandoned, perhaps because it got uncomfortably close to reminding us about what is actually going on in such transactions.
The aim of store cards is to offer a (usually rather modest) financial incentive for you to keep on coming back to a particular shop or brand. But bound up with this kind of consumer loyalty, inscribed on graven tablets of plastic, are many other presumed disloyalties. You will forsake other stores, you will switch, you will shop around and you will be tempted by short-term deals. You will, in effect, embark on a life of permanent commercial renegotiation. And so will they. “The Store giveth and the Store taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Store!”
By contrast, a Christian patronal festival suggests a rather different set of loyalties. The churches honouring their connection to St Mark the Evangelist today are mostly not doing so because anyone present now got to choose who would be their celebrity role model. At least, in the historic Christian denominations, the dedication was settled years ago, sometimes on grounds other than those we moderns would chose of our own volition.
Similarly, the author of the Gospel of Mark, and the disciple of that name who, according to Acts 15.38, was rejected as a companion of Paul (and who may or may not be the same person, the scholars remind us) did not impress himself upon us through democratic agreement, but by the altogether more mysterious workings and apparel of the Holy Spirit, so the story goes. This is the same Spirit of God whose function, so John Wesley once delightfully put it, is “to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed” – which includes all of us, one way or another.
The first thing to notice about Christian loyalty, therefore, is that we do not choose it. It chooses us. Or, more specifically, God chooses us – but not in the way that our choices often work, exalting whatever is influential and whoever is ‘deserving’ above the less favoured.
Indeed, one of the delights of Mark’s Gospel, taken as a whole, is that those who think of themselves as ‘insiders’ to Jesus’ mission and ministry are hopelessly out of touch. When Jesus challenges the religious authorities, telling them by his words and his acts of healing that God is not impressed with their attempts to decide who is good, clean and acceptable, the core disciple group do not understand what is going on. Jesus’ purposes seem opaque to them (partly consciously, so the ‘messianic secret’ theme suggests). They are often caught on the hop – no more so than during the agony of Gethsemane and Jesus’ impending trial for sedition. Indeed, Mark’s final word on them is that they are bewildered and afraid in the shadow of the cross.
So much for the ones who might regard themselves as having, in some sense, chosen Jesus for themselves; his ‘loyalists’. But there are others in the Gospel of Mark who, while perhaps not having much more of a clue about what is going on at a head level, have a strong sense that this Jesus is both God’s person and their person, unworthy though they are always being told by others they are. They are called the ochlos, the crowd.
They are anonymous. Many are living outside the approval of the official religious system. But in Mark’s account they are always where the action is and Jesus’ particular concern is for them. Their loyalty grows out of his loyalty to them, a loyalty which goes somewhat against the grain of the Temple system, it seems, and reflects a different understanding of who they are, who God is, and how the world is being turned upside down – as the uninvited suddenly find themselves included and those who presume upon their own religious purity find themselves under threat.
The disturbing message of the ‘little apocalypse’ in chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel gives an indication of where this is all going. It prefigures the world-shattering destruction of Herod's Temple by the forces of the Roman general Titus in the year AD 70. This is an economic, political and religious disaster all rolled into one. The second temple in Jerusalem was a centre of both spiritual and temporal power and indeed, the collusion and collision of the two. The money traders whom Jesus famously confronts (Mark 11.14.16) have insinuated themselves into the very courts from which the unclean, the impure and the suspect – the common crowd – are excluded. The tribulation of Mark 13 can in some senses be read as a judgement on this arrangement, but since it is also a triumph of empire, it creates a new kind of deadly threat to those Jesus calls into his emerging community of the last, the lost and the least.
Now scene-shift a few years. We are in Jerusalem again. But this time the nascent Christian communities, those who are interpreting their faith in the light of a life-changing encounter with Jesus, are gathering to discuss the most divisive ecclesiastical issue of all. Is it necessary to be circumcised, to be ritually loyal to the inherited tradition, in order to be part of the community of the risen Christ? That is certainly what a narrow interpretation of scripture might require. But Paul, the reluctant radical, recognises that Christ’s order of revolutionary grace demands more than a closed reading ofwhat the Law can offer.
So what is claimed as the first council of the church ends up with a classic creative fudge and a recognition of the integrity of two culturally adaptive missions. However, as we might note from the identity-wars currently going on within Anglicanism and other traditions, which are also part of a disagreement about purity and group identity, those minutes from Acts 15 are still in dispute!
Meanwhile, the disciple John Mark, who in tradition is associated not just with Mark the Evangelist but with the first bishop of Alexandra (and indeed its first pope, according to the Copts), is caught up in a disagreement between two leaders: Barnabas, whose cousin he is, and Paul. There is difference, yes. But it held together in bonds of peace which neither ‘own’, because that peace is Christ’s, not ours. That is what seems to have been largely forgotten by some factions in today’s ‘Anglican wars’.
What we learn from all this is that love of God in Christ is both constant and surprising in its loyalty to us wayward human beings, including those of us who style ourselves followers and yet are found both confused and divided. So whereas, within the dominant political and religious institutions, people frequently model themselves on the ‘loyalty card’ of the system (while neglecting to remain loyal to those pushed to the margins), in the way, life and truth to which Jesus invites us, this process is reversed.
So it is that Mark’s Jesus claims that the Sabbath is made for people, not the other way around (2.27). The day of rest is about freedom. It enables us not just to recuperate but also to gain some regular critical distance from the all-encompassing demands of commerce. However, when the Holy Day it is used to deny people access to healing and is manipulated by the religious few over the masses, the ochlos, direct action is needed. Loyalty to the true purpose of the Sabbath may involve breaking the letter of the law to uphold its spirit. Temple bread is bread for the hungry, says Jesus, and attending to the sick is what holiness is all about.
I am drawing on Mark and other Gospel accounts here, but also reinforcing one of St Paul’s key themes (Romans 7. 6, 14; 8.4; 2 Corinthians 3.6; Galatians 3.2, 5; 5.18) about the primacy of the Spirit’s calling, discerned in the Body. This is not a liberal evasion that leads us astray from Christ, something Mark 13. 5-6 warns us against. Far from it. It is a redefinition of our traditional understanding of loyalty in the direction of a renewed understanding that goes to the heart of who Jesus is and what he changes for us.
For the new community that we are called to be in Christ, creates bonds that go well beyond the limits of family, kinship, tribe, race and nation. Indeed, today’s Gospel chillingly warns us that in times of injustice and upheaval, such ties may have to be put aside. Almost half of Mark’s Gospel attends to the outcome of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to confront the powers that be. He warns his followers of what will come: “You will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them… [and] it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.”
In the light of all this, you may well conclude that whoever chose to name your church after St Mark wasn’t necessarily doing you a straightforward favour! * But this is how it is for the Christian community. The Gospel is Good News indeed. The power of love, not the love of power is what is decisive, the death and resurrection of Christ tells us. But to refuse the ruler’s loyalty card can be a dangerous business. That is why we need each other, a formation in prayer and the sustenance of this Eucharistic feast to keep us loyal to God’s unending promise.
* This is an address given at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Broomhill, Sheffield, on Sunday 26 April 2009, following a conference at the Centre for Radical Christianity (www.stmarkscrc.co.uk) there.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.