St George and St Mark

Sermon at St James Colwall – Easter 4 – 25 April 2021

To listen to the recording (of all but the first sentence) of the sermon as you read:

If we were given a clean sheet of paper and asked to write down some suggestions for a patron saint of England, I’m not sure that many of us would have put St George on the short list. St George’s life is mainly hidden in history.

Nevertheless we celebrated St George as our patron saint on Friday, April 23rd, the day when he was martyred. Edward III chose George as our patron saint when he founded the Order of the Garter of St George in 1348 because he was a fellow soldier and admired his courage to face martyrdom for his faith.

We are fairly sure that George was the son of Christian parents who lived in Cappadocia, which is now modern Turkey. He joined the Roman army and found himself caught up in the vicious persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian. He had presumably seen many of his fellow Christians tortured and killed for their faith. So when he was told to renounce his belief in Christ and to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods, he could not go against his conscience. He was beheaded on April 23, 303 and his tomb is in Lod, just north of Tel Aviv in modern day Israel, and revered by Jews and Muslims today.

The legend of George saving a princess by slaying a dragon only appeared in the 12th century, so we can discount that story.

You can argue all you like about the Christian faith but arguments don’t get very far because Christianity is caught not taught. In other words it is the commitment and quality of a Christian’s life that really matters – a faith that makes a difference and martyrdom was the ultimate example of this. One Christian scholar writing in the 3rd century said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. From Jesus death and resurrection to Stephen and some of the apostles including Peter and Paul, the blood of the martyrs lifted and inspired the Church in those early years. The conviction, faith and blood of St George are part of that legacy.

But George is not the only saint we remember this weekend. The other one is St Mark. Today April 25th is St Mark’s day. Mark, the patron saint of Venice and probably the first bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, gave us the first gospel to be written down, recording the details of Jesus life. Mark’s gospel is the core of the other three gospels and tradition has it that he was the interpreter of Peter. Certainly, Peter features fully in Mark’s account as an impetuous character, who is covered in guilt when he denies Jesus. So Mark wanted to ensure that the details were fully recorded for generations after him and wrote down the story of our salvation. He may well have been the young man, who watched the arrest of Jesus and fled away naked when he was nearly caught and also the cousin of Barnabas travelling with Barnabas and Paul on their missionary journeys. Mark probably finished his days in Egypt as the leading Christian in Alexandria.

The importance of St Mark cannot be overstated. He gave us the story that is so vital to us today. Whilst Jesus disciples were alive and able to recount the events of Jesus life, death and resurrection there was no problem in keeping the facts alive but as they died or were killed it was urgent that there was a written record and Mark came to the rescue, writing over 40 years after Jesus’ death. Thank the Lord for St Mark. Without his story we would not have been able to understand the blood of the martyrs. Without his basic account, all sorts of fantastic legends and fanciful stories could have flourished so that the true details would have been thoroughly hidden.

So these two saints, St Mark and St George, celebrated this weekend, point us to two central aspects of our faith. Mark gave us the essential story, the facts of the life and death of Jesus and the empty tomb. George is an example of the supreme commitment of Christian martyrs through the ages.

We have to ask ourselves where we fit in here. How important is the story of our salvation through Christ to us in our personal lives and how far does it show in our commitment and our willingness to sacrifice ourselves?