Following a spate of recent scandals and moral failures involving church leaders, Dr John Andrews considers the possibility of restoration by looking at the biblical example of John Mark
In recent months we have witnessed the moral failure, resignation or removal of high profile Christian leaders.
It is right that in such moments we seek to discern how and why such things happened, so that we as the Church can learn, love and grow. However, we must be careful not to move from judging a situation, (which scripture encourages us to do), to judgementalism, which has the power to infect and destroy everyone it touches.
It is easy to throw stones at the one who has failed, but the challenge to recover, restore and repurpose is at the heart of the good news and should be the hallmark of the Christian community.
With only nine direct references to John Mark in the New Testament it would be easy to dismiss his story as a minor biographical insertion. Scattered across five books of the New Testament (Acts, Colossians, 2 Timothy, Philemon and 1 Peter), John Mark is afforded more words in the biblical text than most of the core twelve disciples of Jesus, yet many have missed the golden thread of this dramatic story, allowing it to be nudged and relegated to the fringe of the grand narrative of the growth and expansion of the early church.
These few verses tell the story of a young man who though chosen and privileged, deserted his post and his friends, was rejected by Paul, rescued by Barnabas, adopted by Peter and restored to usefulness. The ‘boy’ who ran away eventually became the first Bishop of Alexandria, dying a horrific martyr’s death in service of Jesus. The young man with the ‘stump fingers’ became Peter’s scribe and penned the first gospel which bears his name. The apprentice rejected by Paul as ‘unfit’ was welcomed in by the Church and ultimately honoured by Paul as ‘useful’. But all this was possible because of the attitude and action of one man: “Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus.” (Acts 15:39).
Barnabas could not have known that his simple act of taking John Mark with him would not only change his cousin’s life, but would help change the world. Looking on, no one could have imagined what the unfit deserter would become, and that the bruised boy leaving for Cyprus with Barnabas would one day become a shepherd to the broken and an author of a book that would enrich and transform the lives of billions of people. All Barnabas did was offer him a second chance.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus came full of ‘grace and truth’, and that although the law came through Moses, ‘grace and truth’ came through Jesus Christ. Grace and truth sit together in constant tension in the ministry of Jesus, for in grace we have the offer of the ‘Lord’s undeserved favour’, while in truth we see ‘reality as the Lord defines it’. These two ideas are therefore on a collision course unless they can be wisely and skilfully managed.
Grace and truth sit together in constant tension in the ministry of Jesus
There are many examples of Jesus holding the grace and truth tension within the Gospel of John, but one of my favourites is in John 8:1-11 in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. When she was presented to Jesus in the temple there seemed no way out for the guilty woman. Truth, according to Moses said that she should die (along with the man she committed adultery with…where was he by the way?). During this encounter Jesus never once refuted this truth, careful not to contradict Moses, especially in the temple, but he rather famously offered grace: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
In the absence of a specific accuser, Jesus invited someone in the group to step up, who felt worthy and righteous enough to begin the stoning process. This was a risky strategy indeed, for there may well have been a self-righteous zealot in the crowd who was willing to pick up a stone. But no one did. Thus without in any way contradicting truth, Jesus appealed to grace. He was not minimising the seriousness of her actions but he was challenging the only option being offered to solve her sinful behaviour. Note how Jesus concluded the story after all her accusers had left the scene in verse 11: “Then neither do I condemn you (grace)… go now and leave your life of sin (truth).”
Jesus won the person and the argument without condoning the sin or abandoning the truth, and as a result the woman received a much needed second chance.
As we listen to Paul and Barnabas argue over John Mark, we hear the clash of grace and truth. Paul led with the truth, ‘John Mark deserted them.’ However, his truth based conclusion was that he was unfit to carry on. Barnabas argued from grace, ‘John Mark deserted them.’ However, his grace based conclusion was that his failure was not terminal and he should be given a second chance. Ironically both men were right and depending on how we see the world will determine whether we side with Paul’s conclusion or Barnabas’. Paul saw John Mark as he had been, while Barnabas saw what he could be. Truth said ‘cut him loose’ while grace said ‘cut him slack’. Barnabas could not refute the facts of the case (truth) but he questioned that rejection was the only option on the table (grace).
Truth said ‘cut him loose’ while grace said ‘cut him slack’
For the follower of Jesus, grace and truth abides as a tension to be managed, not only in how we present the message of Jesus to those who do not yet believe, but how we appropriate our behaviour to those already within the community of faith. The management of this tension is never easy, demanding both a sensitivity and compassion for the context, while maintaining security and clarity in our convictions. Grace wants to win the person while truth is determined to win the argument, but without wisdom’s guidance it is possible to lose both.
“Barnabas took Mark…”
Just as Barnabas had believed in Saul enough to look for, find and bring him back to Antioch (Acts 11:25-30), he demonstrated his belief in John Mark by taking hold of him, fighting for him and investing in him. The second chance that he had extended to Saul while in Tarsus is offered to John Mark in Antioch in the hope that the potential he saw in his relative would one day be fully realised.
On arriving in Cyprus, Barnabas and John Mark disappear as players in the narrative of the book of Acts, but in the silence, the ordinary, the routine and the unnoticed moments, Barnabas invested, discipled, encouraged and trained John Mark, enabling him to grow as a follower of Jesus, a servant of the Church and an influencer of the good news.
Barnabas put out a hand and John Mark seized it and through the belief, influence and investment of this wonderful man, he was lifted to safety and to a life of opportunity and possibility, becoming his other-help.
The next time you read the Gospel of Mark, think of the man who jumped into the water and saved the author from drowning. Though Mark wrote the words, through the offer of a second chance, Barnabas made them possible!
Barnabas, on behalf of every follower of Jesus, I thank you. There truly is a second chance.