I don’t know whether you all have been following the Gospel of Mark this summer -- ? Jesus has begun his ministry: teaching, preaching, and healing in both Jewish and Gentile worlds – and he has most especially amazed and astonished people with his powers of healing. He has healed a man possessed by a demon, healed a woman of twelve years of bleeding, returned a young girl – the daughter of Jairus – to life; he has even healed the weather, stilling a storm from a boat and bringing a sense of peace to his disciples. In today’s passage, as so often happens in Mark, we have two stories of Jesus’ ministry placed side-by-side – juxtaposed so that we might understand each of them more clearly. One is a story of return, and the other a story of departure, and both of them should be unsettling to us, Jesus’s disciples of the 21st century.
In the first of today’ stories, Jesus returns to his hometown synagogue and begins to teach. And people are very surprised! They know him as the boy and young man who’s grown up among them, not as the preacher and teacher of learning and authority. We all know how this happens, right? It’s a common enough experience: a child grows up among us, goes away, and returns as a doctor, or a concert pianist, or a high school teacher – and we aren’t quite sure what to think. We realize that this person moves and speaks with knowledge and authority – and yet, how can that be? She was playing on the schoolyard swing set just last week! We were teaching him to kick a soccer ball just the other day! We know these feelings of surprise; we are astounded, just as the people of Jesus’s hometown were by him. And so we understand what’s happening with their reaction.
And then – the mood in the synagogue begins to shift. Skepticism and anger begin to emerge; Jesus is questioned, and insulted. How could Jesus have wisdom to share? He’s just the kid from around the corner; how dare he think that he can come in here and begin to reinterpret God’s teachings for us? And Jesus finds that in the face of their doubt and hostility, there’s little that he can do. He does better where people have not known him before, where they are able to accept his gifts of healing for what they are, unburdened by memories of his youthful innocence and growth.
And so Jesus continues on his way, continues with his teaching, and then he makes a dramatic decision. He determines that it’s time to commission his disciples to do as he does, and so he sends them out, in pairs, two by two, and gives them authority to heal and to preach the gospel of repentance. And he warns them that they can expect much of the same thing that he himself has just experienced – he tells them to go, but he also gives them instructions as to what they are to do if they experience rejection. They are to leave, shaking the dust from their feet. We know from later rabbinic tradition that this was a Jewish practice upon a return to the homeland from Gentile lands, a symbolic way of marking the transition from a foreign place to one’s own sacred space. The journey of the apostles – those who are sent out, for that’s what the word apostle means – the journey itself is a form of sacred space.
And how are they to approach this sacred journey itself? With great simplicity. Jesus tells them that they are “to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” They are to stay in the homes of others. They are, in others words, to travel in complete vulnerability, to travel in a way that makes them dependent upon the good will and hospitality of others – even though, as Jesus himself has just experienced, they are as likely to encounter hostility as good will, to encounter rejection instead of acceptance. The power with which he has endowed them means that they will travel with unseen strengths, and the apparent helplessness with which they travel means that those strengths may go unrecognized by those most in need of the healing power of their touch and the saving power of their words.
Later, in the second letter to the Corinthians, which we also heard this morning, Paul will remind us of one of the essential paradoxes of Christianity: that out of weakness is born strength. But these folks in first century Palestine do not yet understand that paradox.
The people who hear Jesus preach see only the young boy of an insignificant family whom they knew when he was, so they thought, nobody – they do not recognize in the weakness of ordinary poverty and family circumstances the greatest strength in the universe.
The disciples are ordered to go in weakness, and they are also warned that they can expect reject and to prepare to respond accordingly; people will not recognize in their simple appearance and demeanor the presence of the strength and power of God.
But the disciples are not sent out entirely powerless. Jesus does not send them out to brave the world alone. He sends them out two by two, as companions and partners to one another.
Jesus is aware of the challenges of the journey, and his commissioning of the disciples is a reminder that we are not meant to walk our path alone. It seems to me that there are three possible reasons behind Jesus’s instructions, reasons that apply to us as well, in the journey that we make together, and in the ways we reflect the presence of Jesus to one another.
The first one is the obvious one: it’s generally much easier to bear the ordinary physical challenges and hazards of a journey together with a companion. Solitude certainly has its value, but most of us, when venturing into new and strange territory and going among people we don’t know, would rather do so with a friend. If there’s any heaving lifting to be done, two can accomplish it more easily than one, and two are generally safer on dangerous roads than someone traveling solo is.
The second reason may not be as obvious, but it’s likely to have been critical to Jesus. The disciples need one another so that they can consult and discern together. Methodist pastor and artist Jan Richardson points out that Jesus would have been aware of the challenges of the road—including the decisions it requires—and sent the disciples out by twos as a reminder that we are not meant to discern our path alone. Jesus knows that such discernment can be complicated; it calls us, after all, to perform such feats as sorting through the possibilities, asking what we really want our lives to be like, and dealing with those occasions when the decision about staying or going is not ours alone. In his wisdom, Jesus gives us one another as we search for those places where we can offer our gifts. And in this particular situation, as he urged his disciples to go forth to teach and heal, Jesus must have known that they would encounter situations new to them and need one another’s counsel and friendship.
Finally, don’t you think it likely that Jesus wants the disciples to have companions with whom to pray? The work to which they’ve been called is going to require them to develop gifts of insight and compassion, gifts most gracefully developed in tandem with others – gifts which require the presence of others so that they may grow into fullness, through prayer, through attentiveness to both the needs of this world and the desires of God.
So the disciples are sent out, vulnerable and dependent indeed, but not entirely so – because they have one another. And what does that mean? Think about it: How is Jesus most often present to us? Through other people, right? And it’s through one another that the disciples know that Jesus is present to them: sharing their labors, guiding their decisions, and praying with them. The disciples are sent out in total simplicity, to present Christ to others, and they themselves are strengthened by the presence of Christ in their companionship to one another.
The apostle Paul affirms that in weakness lies strength; the strength and power of Christ will be made manifest in the disarming simplicity of the disciples’ approach. They carry no books, no symbols of ministry, no medical bags, no first-century versions of laptops and smart phones. Their simplicity demonstrates that their power to teach and exorcise and heal comes only from Jesus.
And their mutual companionship will support them – in the trials of the road, in their opportunity to discern together and to pray together – and, most importantly, as a sign of the ultimate companionship of the Christ who transfers power and authority to them.
They are sent out accompanied by Jesus! -- as manifested through others – through each other.
When we are invited into Christ’s mission – whether to share Christ’s healing powers with others, or to teach them about his grace-filled love for us whether to provide a meal or shelter, or the quiet presence needed when someone is in trouble or pain – when we are invited into Christ’s mission, we are, like the disciples, invited to share that experience with our friends in Christ.
When we help one another, when we share the journey together, we offer his presence as well – to our fellow companions and to those to whom we seek to offer the good news, whether in our words or by our actions.
And when we put all else aside – all of the clothing and equipment and other forms of security with which we like to surround ourselves -- and go into the world on behalf of Jesus accompanied by him in the form of one another, when we put all else aside to follow his call and share his care and teaching with others – it is then that we demonstrate the strength found in weakness – it is then that we share the power of God’s great love for all. Amen.