Scriptures: Mark 1-13

His disciples followed him.

With the dramatic stories that happen next, this phrase from Mark 6:1 seems rather innocuous and obvious. Of course Jesus’ disciples followed him. That’s what the disciples do, right? They go where their master goes. They do what he tells them to do. They open themselves to receive and learn from him. They follow.

In this text, they are following Jesus back from a tour of regions around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus has been announcing the coming of God’s kingdom. On this tour, the disciples have seen him rebuke the wind-tossed sea into stillness and cast a Legion of unclean spirits from a possessed man into a herd of swine. Just prior to our stories today, they have witnessed Jesus heal a woman suffering from 12 years of bleeding and raise 12-year-old girl back to life. Thus have the 12 disciples seen Jesus’ kingly authority revealed, bringing order to chaos, freedom from enslavement, and new life out of death.[1] Soon, they will themselves be sent out, in that same authority, to heal, cast out demons, and announce the kingdom.

His disciples followed him.

First, however, the disciples follow Jesus to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath day. And, after all the wonders they have seen, I imagine the last thing the disciples expect is the hometown crowd’s reaction to Jesus. It begins well; the people seem impressed by Jesus’ wisdom and powerful actions: “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

But in the next breath, what appears to be a compliment becomes an insult. Regardless of any powerful deeds, these people know those hands were, up until now, employed in the mundane work of carpentry. Jesus was just a handyman, so how special could he really be?

There’s irony here, as N.T. Wright notes, “Jesus is indeed the one who can fix things, the one who is putting up a building, the one people should go to, to get things sorted out.”[2] But “familiarity breeds contempt,” the saying goes, and even more, it gives the locals the excuse they need to reject any notion of Jesus as Messiah and dismiss his dangerous kingdom teachings.

So this “un-miracle” story ends sadly.[3] Jesus offers a new, transformative reality, but the locals refuse to receive it. It’s not that Jesus’ hands have any less power, but that his neighbors and friends have effectively tied them.  After healing just a few sick folks, Jesus voices the pain he must have felt in this rejection: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown…” And then, amazed at their unbelief, Jesus moves on.

His disciples followed him.

It’s interesting that Mark’s gospel places the story of Jesus sending the Twelve into the villages to minister with “authority over the unclean spirits,” just after an event where Jesus’ authority was rejected.  What is “authority?” One source defines it as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.”[4]

My mind links the word “authority” to the word “authoritarian,” a leadership style which enforces obedience “at the expense of personal freedom.”[5] Authoritarian governments use whatever force necessary to compel submission and conformity to their agenda. This is the kind of leadership Rome exercised over the people of first century Palestine, domination by force of arms and incessant war, celebrated, ironically, as the “Pax Romana,” the peace of Rome.

The peace of God’s kingdom, the authority in which Jesus sends the disciples, is utterly in contrast to such authoritarian regimes. And that, frankly, may be part of what offended Jesus’ hometown crowd. The kingdom Jesus was announcing contradicted the hope of Messiah so many Jews had nursed, the hope for a military leader who would fight Rome’s fire with fire, reclaiming their homeland from the pagans.

Jesus does not and will not compel obedience to his agenda by dominating force. Jesus’ authority comes from God, and God doesn’t force anyone into faith. God, who longs for our responsive love and obedience, allows people the freedom to reject him. In concert with God’s will and ways, Jesus’ authority makes change by way of free acceptance. He announces the kingdom, available to us here and now, and he shows us God’s desire and power for healing and wholeness. Those who freely accept and receive from him find their hearts and lives completely transformed. The eternal kind of life—a life of grace, purpose, courage, and deep love—becomes our everyday reality and spreads out from us to others.

But Jesus knows that for others, his way just seems too contrary to their understandings of prosperity and power on earth. No matter how loudly he speaks, some will not hear; no matter what sign he reveals, some will not see. Jesus grieves our rejection and our lack of faith, but he doesn’t let it slow him down.

And his disciples followed him.

 The Greek word, here translated “follow,” can also mean “imitate.” Disciples not only go where their master goes, but they take on his discipline: training that guides them in imitating the master’s character and deeds, training that shapes them in his likeness.

So, when Jesus sends out the Twelve, the disciples are not only to imitate their master’s powerful words, calling people to changed hearts and minds, fit for God’s kingdom; and they are not only to imitate his powerful sign-acts of exorcism and healing, which show, more powerfully than words, God’s kingdom is present in Jesus Christ. Above all, in the instructions he gives, we see that his disciples are also to imitate with authority rooted in vulnerability.

It’s an urgent mission; the disciples need to move fast and travel widely. They are not to waste time or energy carrying the burdens of self-sufficiency—bags with extra clothing, money, or even bread. If the disciples are not welcomed, they are not to waste time or energy trying to force the issue. Jesus tells them to shake off the dust and move on.

But beyond urgency, these instructions shape a relationship of hospitality. The disciples leave behind “the right equipment and…beautiful sacred objects”[6] we are so often tempted to substitute for faith. “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment,” is how Eugene Petersen puts Jesus’ instructions in the Message.[7]

Showing up in town as vulnerable people, strangers in need of welcome, willing to risk rejection, and accepting their lack of control over others’ reactions: It’s not just that these instructions allow them to be in a home to speak gospel words; it’s that, in and of itself, living out these instructions actually makes the gospel real. The disciples come into a community in vulnerable acceptance, just as Jesus Christ, in whom God comes to dwell with us came as a vulnerable infant, submitting himself to our hospitality, accepting our rejection, giving himself for our redemption.

His disciples followed him.

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes that hospitality is not just the literal act of receiving a stranger into our home, but “a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being” and “…in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.”

Nouwen continues, “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place….Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”[8]

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that God in Jesus Christ offers us this kind of hospitality. When we were far off, God in Christ ran to us with open arms and received us with mercy and grace into his kingdom. Therefore, as Christ’s disciples, we are called to offer such hospitality to others. But in today’s scripture, we see that we do so not merely by welcoming strangers into our fine homes or churches, but by becoming strangers ourselves, allowing others to fulfill our needs, making ourselves vulnerable to the welcome or rejection Jesus himself receives. The paradox is that, in so doing, we become available to share the radical acceptance and the new reality of love we have received in Jesus Christ.

Friends, I know this is not easy or comfortable. It means shedding not only layers of stuff that get between us and others, but layers of cultural assumptions. In and of ourselves, we frankly cannot do it.

But we are disciples sent out in the authority of Jesus Christ, imitating and relying upon his utter faith in God: Nothing will be impossible with God. Friends, it is not easy, but the eternal love and abundant life of God in Jesus Christ is worth whatever discomfort, whatever risk.

So let us, Jesus’ disciples, follow him. Amen, and Alleluia.

[1] http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/07/mission-grounded-in-rejection.html

[2] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 66.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_5_2015

[4] https://www.google.com/search?q=authority+definition&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

[5] Definition from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/authoritarian

[6] Peter W. Marty, quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_5_2015

[7] Eugene Petersen, The Message, Mark 6:8

[8] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, New York: Doubleday, 1975, 67, 72-73.

[9] Gittins, quoted at http://theearthenvessel.blogspot.com/2005/11/insights-from-anthony-gittins.html

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One thought on “Vulnerable Mission: Sermon by Laura, 7.19.15

  1. Thx so much. So great to hear it in person and later read it! A

    Sent from my U.S. Cellular® Smartphone.

    Keith and Laura’s Fabulous Serm

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