The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s117g12   Sunday 5  5/2/2012

Let us go on to the neighbouring towns ..   Mark 1.38

I remember, I suppose that it was about 1990, as I was preparing to move to another parish, thinking how much I had learned during the 6 years I had been there.   I could look back and see how my preaching had changed, how my perceptions had matured in those 6 years.   And I can recall thinking – I wonder if there is actually anything more to learn!   Well, I can assure you, there was – and there still is!   The main reason I continue this internet sermon ministry is because of what I continue to learn.   The discipline of reading the lessons in the context of life and ministry and preparing words to say is how my faith is nurtured and how it grows.  

And as I read this passage from the gospel I reflect that the disciples had a job to keep up with Jesus.   There was no suggestion that the disciples ever had to suggest somewhere else they needed to go; Jesus was already on his way.   Indeed of course, he was to take them to distinctly uncomfortable places, like Jerusalem, Gethsemane and Golgotha, places they would have much preferred to avoid.

We read that Jesus made a big impression in Capernaum where he preached in the synagogue and where Simon and the others lived.   So many people came to be healed and even early the next morning people were searching for him; no doubt others wanted healing too, and reassurance.   They wanted Jesus to stay; it was too good to be true to let him go elsewhere.   These days we would have suggested to Jesus that he stay; we would call it consolidating the gains they had made - perhaps to elect a ‘follow-up’ committee or at least a pastoral care team.   But, no, Jesus is already up and ready to leave.   There were other people to visit.   Later he sends the disciples off by themselves (Mark 6) such is the urgency of visiting.   It seems less important who does the visiting than that people are visited.   It also doesn’t appear that results are important either - otherwise Jesus may well have stayed longer, to heal more people.   And Jesus didn’t find a welcome in some places he went, because of course some thought he was proclaiming a Jewish agenda.   Jesus warned the disciples that they too might not always be welcomed and for probably the same reason.

One of my regular reads is Anglicans Online and this last week they had a lovely passage with these words used by acquaintances about another parish church: ‘Oh, they're snake-belly Low Church. (knowing sneer).   They've never gotten over the departure of old Dr Pennypulpit who was there for 45 years.   All they believe in is social work.   There's nothing there for women — they have a boys choir.   Everybody there is rich.   They don't even have a good coffee hour.‘   When the author actually went to the church, he (or she) found a lovely accepting community which they have made their own.

In an Opinion page in our local press entitled: ‘Religion and racism in US primary’ Chris Trotter notes:‘one American historian, David Goldfield .. writes of the United States in the middle of the 19th century: "Evangelical Christianity's influence was everywhere in the political arena, in discussions about the West, about Roman Catholics, and especially about slavery.   What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude, and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints."’

I once wryly concluded that everyone in the Anglican Church knows that we have to change to survive, and everyone accepts this.   It is just that everyone knows that it is someone else who needs to do the changing!  :-)  

In all of these examples the common theme is that people have arrived at a destination, and that the task is for others to come to the same place.   But as I said, following Jesus meant never arriving at a final destination, it means struggling to keep up, and being taken to other places and to visit other people.   And because there is no final destination, there are no boundaries.   There are always others to visit, others to bless.   And we only follow, which means that we take Jesus nowhere where he hasn’t already been.   Our task is to recognise that the risen Christ has already touched others, even though their ways of expressing that touch is entirely different from how we would describe it.

As I type this, it happens to be the feast of the conversion of St Paul, and his famous conversion occurred as he was on his way to persecute others in the name of God.   And the risen Christ stopped him in his tracks.   Persecuting others was precisely the opposite of what he had to do.   He was certainly to go to other people, but he was to go and bless others and be blessed by them.   And it is not hard to see that some people continue to be persecuted in the name of God – like gay and lesbian persons.

I have often thought that I have a fabulous job, being paid to regularly reflect on my faith publicly, which is the thing that makes me grow spiritually.   Yet this is denied the ordinary person in the pew; they are to learn by being silent and listening.  But those of us who have the task of preaching publicly, as all teachers know, that it is when one has to teach something that one really gets to learn what the subject is all about.   And it is when we have to do this on a regular basis that we become aware of exactly how provisional our understandings are. 

It is fabulous that we can read gentle criticism of the church such as we get in Anglicans Online.   It is equally important to be able to read a secular historian’s view of religion in the US in the 19th century, and recognise that it is replicated all too often in places closer physically and time-wise to us.   It is good news that we don’t have to have all the answers, that we can learn and grow, and it is wonderful that we do this growing through meeting other people: the biblical authors, the church fathers, parents and siblings, people of faith and of no faith, and that we can honour them all by listening to them.  There is always a neighbouring town with people to be blessed and who can bless us too.   The church fighting for its own preservation, endlessly trying to stay the same, in the vain hope that everyone will beat a path to their door, is not following Jesus who calls us as individuals indeed, but more importantly as a church, to go out to others, to bless and be blessed, honouring them by listening to them, not by preaching at them.   The church that has the complete truth, with nothing to learn from secular society, has stopped following Jesus.

Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"