Mark 6:1-13, 30-44
I’m really enjoying this series of readings where we get to hear a largish chunk of the gospel read at a single sitting. Every week, as I’ve been reading the text in preparation, something has emerged that I haven’t seen when I’ve read the stories in isolation, as we tend to do.
Not that there is anything wrong with taking the stories each on their own merits; there are things we learn like that. But I’m really enjoying the fresh perspectives that the juxtaposition of stories gives us.
The sending of the twelve on their first missionary endeavour, for instance.
Now I’ve always loved this story – the way that Jesus doesn’t wait until the disciples are ready, doesn’t wait until they understand, doesn’t wait until near the end of his ministry to pass on the baton; but instead, early on in the piece, he’s teaching them not just with his words and his example; he’s teaching them by setting them practical homework. Take what you’ve learned so far, he says to them, and go and share it! Tell others what you’ve seen and heard!
And I’m sure that there is a message here that we’ve heard before but really need to hear again: that part of the life of being a disciple is that we are sent to tell others. The twelve didn’t have to have all the answers, and nor do we. The twelve didn’t have to have experience, special training, evangelistic conferences: they just had to go and tell others what they had seen and heard.
The core of Christian evangelism is not apologetics; it is our own story of our own encounter of Jesus, with the invitation – “taste and see that the Lord is good”. Or, as D.T. Niles put it, it is “one beggar telling another where he found bread”.
There is a whole sermon in there, in the way the twelve (and later the seventy two) were sent. And there’s another whole sermon in the fact that they were not sent alone, but in pairs; pairs who were safer, who could keep each other honest, who could encourage each other when things went badly, who could talk the events of each day over and reflect upon them. There’s a whole sermon in the fact that the Christian faith is very rarely a solo endeavour, that we are sent as we are called, in community with one another.
There are a whole load of sermons about mission in this gospel reading today. But I want to read it today through a different lens; not about mission, but about hospitality…
The story starts with Jesus being rejected. In his home town he preaches the same good news that has been welcomed in many other places, but here, amongst those who know him, he proves the adage that familiarity breeds contempt. Or perhaps something else is at work here. They say “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, brother of James and Joses and so on.”
Notice something odd about that? They name him as the son of Mary; not of Joseph. Odd, when society placed so much emphasis on the male line of descent.
This is sometimes taken as an indication that Joseph was dead; but the death of a father never stopped a child being named as “bar Joseph”.
Perhaps this instead reflects the lifelong stigma hanging over Jesus’ birth; that everyone who could count knew that he was born less than nine months after Joseph and Mary were wed.
“How could this man, with no legitimate father, possibly be a prophet, a voice from God?”
For whatever reason, they reject him. And then in the very next passage, Jesus sends his disciples out to carry the word to all the villages around. And he gives them this baffling instruction: take nothing with you except your staff, your shoes, and the clothes on your back. No money, no bag, not even food.
What’s this all about then? Why were the disciples sent out unequipped?
Now I’ve often heard it said that the point Jesus was making was that they needed to be dependant upon God; that they needed to learn that they could trust God to provide for them – “trust in the Lord and lean not on your own bank balance” as it were.
And I’m sure there is truth in that. But I think it’s truth that is filtered through a rather different lens. That is, that Jesus was not trying to teach the disciples to depend on God as he was forcing them to rely on the hospitality of those to whom they were sent.
Go, and when you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Place yourself upon the hospitality of others, into the hands of others.
Jesus refused to let the disciples go and preach from a position of independence, or of power. He insisted that they preach the good news from a place of being dependant upon those to whom they preached.
And there is something of the incarnation here – an echo, if you like, of the Christmas story, of the very life of Jesus. Who did not consider his position of power, his equality with God as something to be used, but emptied himself, became dependant upon those that he came to save.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not at it’s greatest and truest and most powerful when it is spoken from a position of authority, from a position of privilege, from a position of wealth, from a position within the system.
Look around the world. The gospel is not spreading like wildfire in places where preachers have stipends and manses, where Churches have tax status, where Christian prayer is part of school and government.
The gospel is spreading where Indian preachers swim across Himalayan rivers to pastor their congregations in Tibet. Where the small Christian minority in Indonesia offers unconditional service to their Muslim brothers and sisters. Where the Chinese underground Church has for years preached the good news in the face of persecution.
Jesus, sending his disciples out with nothing, said to them: in this conversation, you will not be the host. You will be the guest. Your food to eat, your right to speak, will be that which is given to you by your host. If they do not welcome you, then leave, go elsewhere, find someone who will.
And there is a simple practical twist to this: those who will welcome you, those who will offer you hospitality; they are the ones most likely to hear your words.
And so they go; and later in the chapter they return, and Jesus takes them to a deserted place, to debrief, I guess. But they are swamped by a crowd, and Jesus takes the theme of hospitality one step further; his followers have gone and placed themselves at the mercy of the hospitality of others; now the crowd – including, perhaps, many of those who had hosted the disciples in their travels, and had followed them back to the source, to see and hear Jesus for themselves; now the crowd comes and places itself at the mercy of the hospitality of Jesus, the hospitality of God.
And we come full circle. Jesus, rejected by his own, his disciples, dependant as guest upon the largess of their hosts; now the crowd comes as guests to the hospitality of Jesus.
And all are fed.
Because God is their host.
It’s an echo of that meal that we share today, as we gather at the table where God is our host, and all are welcome.
But as we gather, I wonder where we find ourselves in this net of hospitality?
Do we have the courage to do as Jesus bid the twelve? To place ourselves not in a position of power, but at the mercy of others, of those who are not of our community of faith?
To believe the words of the apostle, that it is in our weakness, and not our strength, that God most powerfully works?
And to do so because we can hold in our minds at all times the hospitality of God held out to us, symbolised in this meal that we share together as the people of God?
I wonder what we might look like if we did…