Saturday, July 4, 2009

Communal Breathing

Mark 6:1-13: Communal Breathing

As you know, I was away last weekend. It's good to be back with you again - although I have to tell you, I had a wonderful time away. I was privileged to conduct the wedding of a young man who, 20-something years ago, was a paige-boy to Clare and me at our own wedding.

It was quite an occasion. The wedding took place in a sleepy little village on the edge of Falmouth harbour. The couple's friends and family were all there - and most of the friends were 'surfer-dudes' of various descriptions. Some of them clearly didn't own a suit for such an occasion - so various forms of dress were on display, including tee-shirts and flip-flops. I particularly enjoyed the pair of flip-flops that one fellow had - because, on the sole, he had a cunning little device that could be used to open beer bottles!

The Bride was famous locally for being somewhat immune to the tirany of the clock. So no-one was particularly surprised that the wedding started nearly 25 minutes late. However, the poor girl was so plainly nervous, that before her grand entrance, in an entrancing dress, she nearly hyperventilated in the churchyard. She just about got her breathing under control before she walked up the aisle - but one could see her making an extra-special effort to breathe as she came. In. Out. In. Out.

It was a wonderful wedding - and an even more wonderful reception. There was a real sense of community in that village, and among those people. There was the kind of community, the kind of mutual care and concern, that one can find in the very best Christian communities.

But as I reflected on the wedding, and especially on the entrance of the Bride, I began to see another parrallel with Christian communities. Watching the bride breathing in, out, in, out, reminded me that belonging to a Christian community has a similar pattern.

Week by week we come together. We come 'in' to our church buildings, and gather around the Lord's Table. But then, at the end of the service, we ask God to 'send us out in the power of his Spirit, to live and work to his praise and glory.' The very last words that the priest says to the congregation are 'Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord', to which the congregation replies 'In the name of Christ, Amen'.

There is, then, a sort of communal breathing which takes place as we gather. A sort of in, out, in, out. We come together, encourage one another, receive spiritual nourishment, and then we go out into the world 'to love and serve the Lord'.

There is a church I've heard about, somewhere in Wales, where there are words written over the church door. They are written on the inside, where they can be read by everyone who leaves the building. They read 'the mission field starts here'. They are startling words for some - especially for those who imagine that coming to church is what being a Christian is all about. But those who are the most startled have forgotten that Jesus first called his disciples to 'come' - but that he then told them to 'go'. "Come and follow me", and then "Go and make disciples". In, out, in, out.

In today's Gospel we see Jesus sending out his disciples for the first time. There's a few things that we might want to notice about this simple story. First, we might want to notice that these disciples are not the experienced, post-resurrection 'super-apostles' who he later sends out to the four corners of the world. This event takes place in the early chapters of Mark's gospel. It takes place before so many events, so much teaching, so much experience has still to be gathered by the Disciples. But that doesn't stop Jesus sending them out.

I think we should take comfort from that fact. Jesus sends out his followers, under his authority, even though they are raw recruits, failing human beings, who often mess things up and get things wrong. He sends them out even though they have not been to bible college, even though they have not been made bishops, even though they are not the preachers in their local congregations. In other words, he sends them out as ordinary, every day, believers...nothing more, nothing less. All that is needed to be sent by Jesus is the simple faith of a child - the simple belief that Jesus's message of healing, love, and a total opposition to evil is the right message for the world to hear.

The second thing we might want to note is the instructions that Jesus gives his followers, as he sends them out. Here are those instructions again, from verse 8: "Take nothing for the journey except a staff - no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town."

There's a lot going on in these instructions - far more than we have time to go into in depth. One obvious conclusion we can draw is that Jesus wanted his followers to rely on God for their provisions throughout their journey. But there is something else too.

Scholars tell us that at the time of Jesus there were a number of wandering philosophers - a group known as the Cynics. The nearest equivilent to the Cynics that we might have encountered would be 'hippies' or 'anarchists'. The Cynics were wandering preachers, influenced by Greek thought, who lived on the edge of society. They tried to encourage people to give up entirely on materialism and government as a way of living. They habitually carried a bag and a staff (which they would sometimes beat people with!) and a bag, but they wore no sandals.

Jesus, on the other hand, specifically says that his disciples may carry a staff, but no bag...and that they should wear sandals. Jesus is perhaps making sure that his disciples, as they wander from town to town, won't merely be dismissed as some of 'those odd Cynics'. He wants people to recognise his disciples as something different, something new, something special.

The question for us is how are we to be recognised as God's people when we leave this place today? That's fairly easy for me. I wear this clerical collar-thing...which some of you insist on calling my 'dog-collar'! I wear it so that the people of this area will see that they have a priest living among them...unlike most of the other professions. I wonder whether you've ever noticed that priests are often the only professionals who still live among the people they serve. Teachers, bank managers, solicitors, the police, even many local shop-keepers - many of them do not live in the places that they work. Their interaction with their community is purely professional...not personal. The church strives to be different. We strive to keep our priests in their recognisable, real signs of the Kingdom of God among those communities.

But what about those of us who don't wear 'dog-collars'? What about me, when I don't wear my collar? Some people choose to wear a lapel badge...perhaps a cross, or a fish symbol. Some people wear tee-shirts, like the one that my daughter sometimes wears, with thought-provoking slogans like "Who would Jesus bomb?". Some people have a fish-symbol, or cross, on the back of their car...though I'm always a bit dubious about that. I find that other car drivers are often so impatient that they will curse all Christians everywhere if I am simply driving at the speed limit! I dread to think what they would say about Christians if I make a mistake, or accidentally cut someone up!

But fish-signs and crosses are all external signs. There are other ways, even more important ways, that we can be recognisable as the people of God in our own community, or workplace. Those ways come down to the way we interact with other people...and the ways that we behave. The challenge for each of us to live, and act, and talk in ways that mark us out as different from other people. We are people who, as we say on our new website, 'have discovered that a spiritual life is a better life'. People around us may begin to think about spiritual things too, when they observe us living in spiritual ways.

Sometimes that might mean that we actively refuse to collude with the world's ways of doing things. It might mean that when we are out for a drink with our non-spiritual friends, we move more quickly than them from the alcoholic drinks to the soft that we maintain our control of our words and actions. It might mean that when our less-spiritual friends start to bitch about their workmates or neighbours, that we refuse to collude in 'character assassination'. Perhaps we might interject a little thought into such conversations? We might say something like "I wonder what so-and-so is going through to make them act like that".

Perhaps when people around us are moaning about the crime on our streets, we might say something like "Yes, but isn't it amazing how we only hear about the bad stuff...actually, for most people, life goes well and God is good". Perhaps when people moan about immigrants coming to steal our jobs, we might say "I wonder how I would feel if I was living in poverty or war...perhaps I would want to seek a better life elsewhere". You see, our task as disciples of Jesus is to be 'salt and light'. Our task is to bring healing to the world, and to to fight evil, cynicism, hatred and negativity where-ever we find it.

Jesus gave his first disciples the authority over evil spirits. I don't know what you believe about evil spirits themselves...I tend to think of them as a metaphor for human evil. But clearly, Jesus gives us the authority, and the power, to undermine evil wherever we encounter it. He calls us preach good news. He calls us to bring healing by our words and by our actions. He calls us to speak of a God who is Lord of a Postive Kingdom.

So, my prayer for each of us today is that as we breathe in the power of God through the rest of this service, we might prepare ourselves to breath God out to our communities, our neighbours, our friends, our work-mates and our families. In, out, in, out.

May you know the power of the Positive Kingdom in every part of your life. May you know the joy of undermining evil whenever you encounter it. May you know the privilege of being sent by Jesus to be salt and light to the world around you. Amen.

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