July 5, 2015, Sixth Sunday After Pentecost, RCL Year B

“HE MARVELED, BECAUSE OF THEIR UNBELIEF”

 A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN

Lections:  Psalm 48; 2 Cor 12:2-10; Mark 6: 1-13

The Bristol 4th of July Parade goes right past our house, so we usually have a party; friends from neighboring towns come by and set up their lawn chairs, put out an amazing assortment of cakes and fruits and finger foods, and I serve coffee in the kitchen, until everyone walks back from the outhouse race downtown and the first fire trucks make their way up the street. We have a full house of family from out of town, and it’s all a joy. And as our bishop reminds us in his July letter, Independence Day offers us the opportunity to ask God for the strength and courage to practice, “… liberty and justice for all” every day in our individual lives, in our churches, and throughout the New England Conference, our nation and the world.

This prayerful response to the secular calendar and its celebrations necessarily resembles parallel play rather than engagement, for a society and culture that boasts of strength and independence is a society and culture characterized by unbelief.  In today’s epistle reading, Paul tells the Corinthians to boast not in strength, but in weakness, because it is only when we acknowledge our weakness and our total dependence on God that the grace of Christ can sustain us.  Our hope rests soundly on the cross, the antithesis of power in strength.  

The United Methodist General Conference affirms the importance – especially in our sanctuary worship – of conceptualizing time in relation to the Church Year and its Calendar, and giving our distinctive celebrations as Christians precedence over Special Days such as July 4th.  We are now in the longer of two periods of Calendar time the church calls Ordinary Time.  The shorter period is the season of Sundays between Epiphany and Lent, and these are designated as ‘Sundays After Epiphany.” The longer period falls after Pentecost and continues until Advent and is usually designated as ‘Sundays After Pentecost.’  Today is the sixth Sunday after Pentecost.  Some Methodist Churches call this season Kingdomtide, because of its emphasis on Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.

Today’s Gospel reading has two parts; the first narrates the rejection of Jesus by his countrymen at Nazareth, and the second records the sending forth of the twelve Apostles.  Both accounts are best understood as Kingdom teachings.

Mark 6 picks up as Jesus leaves Capernaum, where he has healed a woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years; in the press of the crowd following him, as he is on his way to the house of Jairus, she touches the hem of his garment, and through her faith, she is freed from her suffering. Meanwhile, the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus dies, and Jesus continues on his way (as Luke will tell us) “knowing that she was dead.”  Jesus says to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”  When they get to the house of Jairus, the mourners who are already there laugh at Jesus to scorn him.  Jesus has them put out, goes to where the girl lies, and speaks to the child, saying, “Little girl, get up!”  And she does!

Here we are shown the essence of the Gospel:  Jesus can raise the dead to life!  All the dead:  every person who has died, every person who is dying, and every person who will die; Jesus can raise the dead to life!

Look what happens, though, when Jesus comes to his hometown, Nazareth.  His countrymen are offended by his call to “repent” and “believe the gospel.” They remember Jesus as no one special, a carpenter, Mary’s son.  Justin Martyr (100–165), a 2nd century Christian philosopher, says, “For he wrought, while among men, the ordinary works of a carpenter, to wit, ploughs and yokes.”[1] The Nazarenes are scandalized that this same Jesus now announces, “time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  They know his brothers and sisters, and they think it out of place for a common person like him to teach as he does in the synagogue.  They have heard about the “mighty works done by his hands” in Capernaum, and believe, for a while, but fall away.  Consequently, Jesus can do nothing for them, ”contrary to his will,” as St. Gregory of Nazianzus notes[2], and as the 8th-century Theophylact observes, “not because He was powerless, but because they were faithless.”[3]  Indeed, Jesus “marveled, because of their unbelief.”

Jesus has come to Nazareth as a rabbi accompanied by his disciples, who he is training.  In response to this lack of faith in his hometown, he takes his teachings elsewhere.  Matthew says, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and disease among the people” (9:35).  The twelve Apostles are sent out to increase the reach of his ministry and gain the practical experience necessary to make them “fishers of men.”  They travel “two by two” because Jewish law requires the testimony of two witnesses to establish truthfulness.  They act as delegates of Jesus; the authority they exercise is his.

Their commission lasts for only a short while, for they will soon return to Jesus, so the charge to take “nothing for their journey except a staff” and minimal clothing is meant as part of their training, rather than a permanent instruction.  The idea is for the Apostles to experience what it is like to trust God for provision of their needs. Nevertheless, these harsh instructions remain a guide for the ministry of proclamation “that people should repent” and a reminder of its continuing urgency.  When confronted by unbelief, the Apostles are to “leave that place and shake the dust off” their feet “as a testimony against” the unbelievers.   For a Jew, even the dust from the territory of unbelievers was defiling.

The Good News that is the Gospel is always shared in the context of a world with competing messages, and those who reject the Gospel ‘answer for themselves.’  This is what judgment means:  to answer for oneself.  Instead, when we put our trust in Christ, it is Christ who answers for us.  It is his power, the power of the Kingdom of God, which the apostles work with in their three-fold ministry: 1) preaching repentance, i.e. turning away from false claims on your being, 2) driving out demons, and 3) healing the sick.  Mark is not shy about explaining evil as demon possession. Healing, making a broken person whole, saving the person, are all ways of talking about raising the dead to life.   When we turn away from false claims on our being, the unbelief that appeals to our strength and sense of security, we are loosed from the power of evil, and God takes advantage of his opportunity.  “My grace is sufficient for you,” Jesus says, “for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Unbelievers today often argue that Biblical times are so remote from modern life as to be unrecognizable; ironically, they are correct, but not for the reasons they suppose.  John Calvin remarks in his commentaries that the oil the Apostles used when healing represents “the grace of the Spirit” and was “a temporary seal of the doctrine of the Gospel.”  In other words, it was expedient, for Mark describes a ministry that takes place in a time of violent spiritual warfare. The evil people have seen and done since the death of Christ is but a shadow of its former strength; evil today is a remnant, like the bands of stragglers left behind the armies of the vanquished.  Jesus defeated evil and conquered death once and for all at ‘The Place of the Skull’ known as Golgotha on a rocky hillside near Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.  This is why at Easter we sing, “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the graves bestowing life.”  The Kingdom has been established, and it is our home – here, in the Church – as well as our future inheritance, in eternal life.

The church has its existence in the tension between the present reality of the Kingdom and the not-yet reality of the Kingdom. “If it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons,” Jesus says in Matthew, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28).  But the full consummation of the Kingdom, the end of every vestige of evil, remains, we can confidently say, “what we hope for” and the “assurance about what we do not see.”  This is faith (Heb 11:1).

Today, in our Communion service, we confirm our faith; we also re-enact conversion in the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus.  We repent of all that we do relying on our own strength and desire for security, and the opportunities for evil that these make possible, and we entrust our whole being to God, affirming our servitude, and vowing to rely on his strength, rather than on ours.  We promise to accomplish his will and make known His glory; we hear that our sins are forgiven; and we are welcomed as sons and daughters into his kingdom. Through our weakness, and in the majesty of the divine power of Jesus, we receive his Grace, and the promise of eternal life.   The Church has traditionally described Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist, as a ‘foretaste’ of the Kingdom.  Let us then listen for the hymns of angels!  Jesus instituted this celebration for the church, and for each of us individually, so that we might look “backward in remembrance and forward in expectation to the banquet of the fulfilled Kingdom.”[4]  May the church put aside once and for all the temptation of unbelief, and join, with angels, archangels, and all the voices of heaven, in the eternal praise and glory of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit!  Amen.

[1] Quoted in Henry Alford, New Testament for English Readers, Vol 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprinted 1983), 238.

[2] Fourth Theological Oration, 10.  B#7, p. 183, in Joanna Manley, The Bible and the Holy Fathers ( Menlo Park:  Monastery books, 1990), 351.

[3] Theophylact, The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark (House Springs: Missouri, Chrysostom Press, 1997), 50.

[4] Jerome Kodell, The Eucharist in the New Testament (Collegeville, Louisiana:  The Liturgical Press, 1991), 116.

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