April 25, 2021
Reflection – St. Mark, or Why We Are All Evangelists
I am a historian. Unashamedly so. I am curious by nature and I always like to approach things by investigating their origin. This is always my starting point to Biblical studies; examining the historical perspective first. Who is the speaker? Who is the audience? What is the context of the interaction, and what does it say to how we should encounter God?
Today is celebrated as the Feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist, traditionally celebrated as the author of the Gospel that bears his name, the Gospel that scholars widely agree today is the oldest of all four Gospels although it appears as the second one in the New Testament. It’s fitting that we are able to celebrate our service today, on this Fourth Sunday in the Season of Easter as we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord; for this is, after all, Mark’s year. This is Year B in our Liturgical Calendar, which means that we will delve deeper into this particular Gospel over the course of this year, sharing in the Evangelist’s witnessing of the life of Jesus.
Who was Mark? Like many of the early figures in the history of the Church there is not much hard, literary evidence that can tell us definitively who he was. Depending upon the sources or tradition you rely on, he could be one or even three separate persons, which makes him somewhat shadowy of a figure. Tradition states that he was a companion at some point of Peter; that at some point he began to write down the account of Jesus’ life that would become the basis of the Gospel that today bears his name; that he was sent with Barnabas to act as a missionary in Cyprus and other areas; that he founded the Church in Alexandria in Egypt and was later martyred there. As fascinating as all this may be, however, we need today to consider one important aspect of his life that gave him the title that is most commonly associated with his name: Evangelism. For Mark is, after all, known as Mark the Evangelist.
An Evangelist. Who, or what exactly, is an evangelist? Over the years as I delved deeper into the Bible and I studied and learned more about my faith there were certain terms and words that I initially struggled with. This was one of them, until I realized that I was conflating the words ‘EVANGELISM’ and ‘EVANGELIST’ with its cousin ‘EVANGELICAL’ … a totally different word that, without going off track and into too much detail is, for me personally, a word or term that has been tainted, sullied, and demeaned. However, let’s circle back:- so who is an ‘evangelist?’ An evangelist is, first and foremost, a WITNESS to the life of Jesus. They are meant to preach the word of the Gospel, thereby sharing the message and teachings of Jesus, and evangelism, the noun, is therefore the act of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. (As an aside, from its original Greek and Latin word, we also get the word ‘Angel’, or Messenger of Good News.)
This act of evangelism or witnessing is intertwined with our everyday duties as Christians under the Great Commission as given us by our Lord: to preach the Good News to all about the Kingdom, and to call upon others to become disciples. Indeed, the Great Commission requires us ALL to be evangelists to our faith. Seen in this light virtually all stories and readings from the Bible are about evangelism. Our first reading, of Peter’s confrontation with the Sanhedrin, is a powerful example of witnessing. Here we have the foremost disciple and leader of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension proclaiming before the authority of the council the power and nature of Jesus. Peter’s witness is even more powerful bearing in mind that he himself was a firsthand witness to all the things he stated. The reading from the First Letter of John goes in a slightly different direction but here John implores us to implement physical action and not mere thought, and by doing so we live in the Father and thereby become part of the Kingdom just as He likewise dwells in us. This is also a powerful act of witnessing, of evangelism. Finally, the reading from John’s Gospel closes the circle by giving us an insight into Jesus as the Good Shepherd and his love for us all as His sheep. By the mention of the sheep that do not belong to the flock that He must also bring into the flock, the writer of the Gospel indirectly introduces us to the Great Commission and challenges us to do what the Master requires us to do. (Second aside:- the writers of the four Gospels are also commonly known as the Four Evangelists.)
But what does evangelism, or witnessing look like to us today, right now, in 2021, where we sit? My personal experience in my early years of my walk in Faith used to be mixed with a bit of Imposter’s Syndrome. I have never, ever invited anyone to come to Church, or gone out to recruit people to Church, or been part of a Bible study for the purpose of converting anybody. In my early days of a Christian, being exposed to other denominations and churches who rely heavily on such methods, I thought that this was the one of the yardsticks upon which a Christian was measured. As I matured in my walk in Faith, however, two things began to shape and inform my view: one of the Rules of St. Francis, and Paul’s teachings in Ephesians. “Preach the Gospel everyday, and if necessary, use words” is wrongly attributed to Francis, but part of the Rule DOES state that “let all the Brothers preach by their deeds.” Your actions, in other words, can speak as loudly, if not more loudly, than words. Paul’s writing in the Letter to the Ephesians stated that “the gifts He gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” In other words, we all have very unique gifts that equip us to witness in our own unique ways.
What is an evangelist? They take many forms, as myriad and unique as grains of sand on a shore. An evangelist can witness or share in many different ways.