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Mark 6:1-12
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached by The Reverend Canon Dr. David Anderson at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Oakville, on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 7, 2024.

I speak to you in the name God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Over the three Sundays ending today, St. Mark the Evangelist has been preaching us a sermon about the kingdom of Jesus and the nature of Jesus’ kingship. We have heard about the nature of Jesus’ kingship—which is to say the ‘what’ of his royal rule. We have learned about the source of his authority, or the ‘why’ of his kingship. And we have learned something about the qualities that direct and shape his exercise of that authority, the ‘how.’

Today’s reading from Mark brings all of these together, answering a question that seems some cannot answer, ‘Who is Jesus?’ The consternation of Jesus’ neighbours is all because they are unable to comprehend Jesus’ identity as a king. They can’t understand why he speaks the way he does. It all has to do with the fact that thy cannot appreciate the source of his authority. Jesus teaches in his hometown synagogue among people who have known him his whole life. “Astounded” at his teaching, they ask,

Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? … Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, are not his sisters here with us? (vv. 2b-3a)

The source of Jesus’ authority, the thing that he has in perfect abundance is the very thing that his neighbours lack: faith. The neighbours understand that what they are witnessing in Jesus is the work of the kingdom of God. They have exclaimed, “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” (v. 2a). But they fail to come to the conclusion that is so obvious to Mark and which Mark wants us to learn, that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, the one in whom the kingdom of God has drawn near.

Jesus’ neighbours do not believe because they find it incredible that the one whose origins they know should be able to do all of these astonishing things. Their unbelief becomes an active problem as it misleads them into conclude that Jesus’ unique relationship with God is actually a danger to what they already confidently believe. There is this theme in Mark who shows us time and time again that faith that moves beyond the ‘normal’ expectations of people is quite rare. We are all of us bound by our social expectations. Faith that seeks to challenge those expectations is difficult to come by.

How is Jesus king? In the second vignette in today’s reading, Jesus calls his disciples together and sends them out in pairs to share in his own mission of healing and teaching. In doing so, Mark tells us that Jesus gives them “authority over unclean spirits” (v. 7). Jesus is confidently sharing his authority with those who he has chosen—and who, in order to receive that authority have to have faith of their own—a faith that Jesus’ neighbours lacked.

There is a theology of discipleship here. Faith in Jesus comes with a certain authority, not as a reward for having faith, but as part of the responsibility of having received the gift of faith. Jesus shares his authority with those who share with him in his faith. We respond to the gift of faith by accepting the authority we share with Jesus and we take up the responsibility to proclaim, to heal, and to claim victory over evil.

As Jesus sends out the Twelve to the surrounding villages to heal and preach, he also instructed them how to respond to the rejection that they will also encounter. The first vignette in this morning’s reading has signalled that there will be rejection.

I know that one of the things that sometimes inhibits today’s Christians from sharing their faith is a fear of rejection. Some Christian congregations because of that make a sharp distinction between what they call ‘outreach’ on one hand, and ‘evangelism’ on the other. It is a distinction between words and deeds. I often hear people cite a quotation which is falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, which says, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” That quote and the policy is recommends builds on a false dichotomy between words and deeds. I have no doubt that St. Francis would urge us to preach the gospel with deeds, but I am equally sure he would also insist on the necessity of words as well. Many of us, however, will gravitate towards the deeds, because we have anxiety about the words.

It is clear, is it not, that both Jesus ministry and that of the Twelve to ‘the villages” was a unitary mission of both words and deeds, healing and proclamation. To be sure, in order to strike the right balance between words and deeds we need to be sensitive to the context in which we find ourselves. For example, you may remember the terrible tsunami that struck south Asia on the day after Christmas in 2004. Relief poured in to devastated areas from around the world. A few years after this disaster I became friends with Ranjith, a Sri Lankan scientist and expert in organic farming. Ranjith led the effort in restoring soils that had been destroyed because of the incursion of seawater in what had been valuable agricultural land vital for the local economies and food security. Ranjith told me about some of the aid that came into his community from North America. Farmers could receive aid if they attended the new church plants that were being organized by American so-called ‘Evangelical’ churches. I was interested to learn from Ranjith that it was not so much the local Buddhist and Muslim population who were troubled by these practices as it was the leaders of the local Christian churches. The deeds and words of these Evangelical Christians were actually serving to undermine the ministry and mission of the local indigenous church. When Ranjith immigrated to Canada he joined our church in Hamilton, partly because he was grateful for the support received from Canadian Anglicans through the PWRDF. Canadians and the PWRDF proclaimed the gospel with deeds, and so supported the local indigenous Christian church to proclaim the words.

This week I came across another excellent story that illustrates the balance between ‘doing’ and ‘speaking.’ It was the story of a Vietnam War veteran who was invited to give a convocation address at an American university. Honorary degrees were awarded and the various recipients mad the requisite speeches. For the most part these droned on with the graduating class not paying much attention. But there was one moment when the students listened carefully. The veteran came to the microphone. He was likely the least educated person on the platform. He had not finished his university education, but instead enlisted in the army where he later became a helicopter pilot. I read that this veteran, Hugh Thompson, was on March 16, 1968 flying a routine patrol when he happened to fly over the village of Mai Lai just as American troops, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, were slaughtering dozens of unarmed villagers—old men, women, and children. Hundreds were killed and there were worse atrocities which I will not describe. Thompson disrupted this war crime by setting his helicopter down between the civilians remaining and the troops, ordering his tail gunner to train the helicopter’s guns on the American soldiers and ordering the same soldiers to stop killing the villagers. Hugh Thompson saved dozens of people and was, at the time, almost court-martialled for his trouble. It took the US Army thirteen years to acknowledge that the atrocity took place and to award Thompson a medal for these actions.

As Thompson told his story at the convocation, the rowdy students listened so intently you could hear a pin drop. And then Thompson spoke about his Christian faith with simple words. He said that he had been taught as a child to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The students were amazed by his simple testimony: words of Jesus, words learned in Sunday School, words heard in worship, words of Christian testimony. Apparently the students responded by leaping to their feet and giving Thompson a standing ovation. Thompson’s words had weight because he had so obviously lived out their truth in a dramatic way. The fact is that the church today will not be heard if what we do does not match up with what we say about our faith.

Another present-day reality that these stories speak to is our anxiety about evangelism and the potential for rejection that sharing the good news of God risks. I don’t know many people in the Anglican tradition who would describe themselves as confident in sharing their faith. Many of us are justifiably concerned about coercive or emotionally manipulative methods of evangelism. Talking about God outside the walls of church makes many people nervous. Some of us are so nervous, we are not even sure we can talk about God in church! We don’t want to seem pushy or to offend and we are not sure that we have the right words. Many of us would rather engage in almost any other topic. We would rather talk of any other taboo topic such as sex, the size of our salaries, or anything other than what we believe about God.

But these stories insist that, despite the potential for rejection (or embarrassment, or anxiety), telling the truth of our story of faith (with words) is part of what Jesus calls disciples to do. Part of our reticence is connected with our anxiety about the connection between words and deeds. None of us what to be guilty of hypocrisy. But the fact is that none of us have to claim to be any more than what we are. We do not pretend to perfection. We are, all of us, forgiven sinners. As we tell our stories of faith, those stories naturally include our questions and our doubts. We are called to do nothing more than to tell our humble truth.

It also needs to be said that good evangelism is not about trying to win people ‘over to our side.’ It is not our goal even to ‘grow the church.’ Indeed, our evangelism should only include an invitation to come to church where that is appropriate, which is to say that it is not always appropriate. Our goal in evangelism is simply to tell others about the God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ. This is an action we undertake in love, not competition or anxiety. We don’t need polished words, sophisticated theology, or fine-tuned arguments to speak about faith. We simply speak the truth of our experience in love, from the heart, in our own words, without shame.

As Jesus sent out the Twelve he told them to persist in their work. They were not held responsible for the fruit of their labour in terms of other people’s response to their ministry; they were responsible only for their own faithfulness. We join in Jesus’ mission with words and deeds and the assurance that is enough, because after all it is Jesus’ mission, God’s kingdom, and the Spirit is at work.