4th February 2018 - Hugh Perry
Isaiah 40: 21-31
Rather than dwell on the devastation of exile in Babylon, this section of Isaiah we are reading from focuses on the joy of returning home.
It talks about Israel’s sentence in exile being completed.
The suggestion was that it was sin that caused the exile but now they are returning home because they have done their time.
From an historical perspective they were taken into exile after being conquered by a more powerful and aggressive imperial power. They were allowed to return home because there was a change in the Persian’s colonial policy that saw a better return on investment by having Israel’s leadership gathering revenue for the empire off their own people rather than serving as slaves in Babylon.
However from a faith story perspective Yahweh the creator is in control and uses these nations to work out the divine purpose
Mark 1, 29-39
This Gospel reading follows straight on from last week’s reading and is part of the introduction to the healing miracles.
The construction of this opening chapter in Mark begins with a statement of intent, ‘The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.
Then there is the introduction of John the Baptist followed by the baptism of Jesus.
Everything in Mark’s Gospel happens immediately or as soon as depending on what the translator chooses. So immediately after his baptism Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit and faces temptation.
With the arrest of John the Baptist Jesus begins his ministry by collecting disciples.
That brings us up to last week where they went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. There Jesus is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit that he casts out.
That passage is also the beginning of a section on healing that builds on the Synagogue exorcism and continues the theme of Jesus’ authority.
We finished last week with Jesus’ fame spreading and today’s reading is linked to that passage with an ‘As soon as’ or an ‘immediately’, depending on your translation.
Our passage from Mark tells us that as soon as Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue they entered the house of Simon and Andrew. That’s all very reasonable. If we went to Church in a town we were visiting with someone from that town we might well go round to that person’s place when the service was finished. There have also been times when I had an out of town guest preacher at church and they come home with Raewyn and I for lunch. It is the way things are done and they are always done this way.
It is also understandable that when Jesus and the disciples got to the house of Simon and Andrew and found Simon’s mother in law with a fever that Jesus healed her.
If Jesus didn’t have a reputation for healing people before the earlier incident at the synagogue then the people of Capernaum certainly knew about his healing ability afterwards. Therefore there would have been an expectation that he would heal Simon’s mother in law. There was certainly excitement about Jesus’ healing ability from everybody else in town.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. (Mark 1:32)
We are told the whole city gathered around the door and Jesus cured many who were sick and cast out demons.
Next morning before dark Jesus went to a secluded place and prayed.
The disciples looked for him and I could just imagine their panic. Everybody was looking for Jesus and the disciples wanted him to get back to them.
But as Bill loader writes, Jesus knew what he was about and never lost sight of it. Jesus’ time of prayer, according to Loader, was ‘best management practice’, a time to focus on the ‘big picture.’
Jesus’ task was to get people to understand what the reign of God could mean for them. It would have been easy for Jesus to meet all their needs but Jesus’ mission was to encourage people to meet their own needs. So when his disciples arrive he suggests that they move on to the neighbouring towns.
I can imagine both Jesus and the disciples being swallowed up with the excitement described in our reading. What had happened was successful and their adrenalin would have been pumping. So Jesus goes away and prays, allows his system to quieten down and seeks out where the Spirit is leading him. Then the disciples join him and I can imagine them filled with both enthusiasm and anxiety. There were more people wanting to see Jesus and the disciples did not want to lose the momentum. Jesus probably suggested they are all quiet for a moment and reflect on what they are called to achieve. Then he suggests it is time to move on.
I can picture them standing there because at the time Raewyn and I go for a walk in the morning gangs of workmen are often arriving on site. They zoom up in their trucks, get out and then just stand together for a while. We asked them once if they were having a prayer meeting and one bloke laughed and said ‘Na, union meeting.’ Sometimes someone arrives with a clipboard and they huddle together over it for a while. Then leap into their respective machines and shatter the silence of the early morning.
Our best guess is that they are not only doing the normal human greeting ritual but also confirming their objectives for the day.
I can see Jesus’ early discussion with his disciples the same way, a time to focus on what really is their mission and avoiding getting sidetracked by excitement.
The tension between mission, popularity and structure is something to think about as we reflect on 21 years as a cooperating parish.
Looking back on parishes forming union and cooperative ventures I think there was a lot of excitement about the possibility of a different way of being church. There was an assumption that if we took away the differences between denominations then more people would come to church. Somehow the structure seemed to become the focus and there was perception that a new structure would attract people to join the church.
People were filled with excitement for what could be achieved by a new structure when perhaps we should have been exploring why we were church.
In his book Sunday Best Peter Lineham quotes a time when the denominations believed that if they built churches wherever there were populations then people would come to church. I suspect that co-operating ventures were part of a new assumption that believed that people who attended church would travel to do so. Therefore a number of co-operating parishes were formed from two or more nonviable parishes joining together in the hope of creating a new vibrant parish.
Sadly what happened was the new parish settled down to become the size and viability of the weakest of the joining parishes.
That happened for a number of reasons, one being the loyalty people had for their building and were offended because their building was discarded. People also left because their loyalty was to a local group of people and if the church was no longer local then that loyalty no longer existed. Both those occurred when we moved to one site.
Another factor was actually highlighted by the growth of co-operating parishes and that was the lack of denominational loyalty but that has been a strength of co-operating parishes. However it also meant that people felt free to worship in another church nearer to their home if forming a cooperating church closed their local church.
Nevertheless cooperating churches are an important part of the history of the New Zealand church and Peter Lineham stresses that importance in the subtitle of his book. How the church shaped New Zealand and New Zealand shaped the church.
As we celebrate our anniversary we can certainly be proud of being part of that process. We can also be proud of the direction we have chosen as a mission focused neighbourhood church.
Just as Jesus took time to pray and refocus on the real meaning of his mission, our journey, both by our choice, and forced upon us, has been filled with reflection and mission planning. That prayer and planning has brought us clarity about who we are and where we are going.
In all the church growth material I have ever read it never seems to occur to any of the authors that not everybody wants to go to church, or sees the need to do so. Peter Lineman makes the point that many of the people who migrated here in the colonial period were not regular church attenders and certainly did not intend to become so in their new home.
Jesus’ disciples had answered his call to proclaim the kingdom of God and saw the crowds attracted to Jesus as an example of spectacular growth. But the mission was about more than growth. So before Jesus got swept away in a wave of popularity he took time to reflect and pray, time to look at what was the core business of his mission. The previous day had proved his popularity as a healer but his call was not just to be a centre of alternative medicine in Capernaum. Jesus’ call involved healing but above all it was about calling others to be part of a movement that healed the human condition by living for others. The reason for being a disciple of Jesus was not so much to be part of a popular movement but to lean to spread the idea of a caring cooperating way of being human that was divinely inspired. Jesus’ movement was not just about healing the human condition it was also about being connected to God.
Being connected to God is one of the reasons we come to worship and one of the tasks of any church is to provide that opportunity to worship. But as many of our pioneer ancestors would have told us, New Zealand geography offers plenty of opportunity to worship. In fact Jesus went to a deserted place to pray. Furthermore one of the beliefs of a reformed faith is that we all have direct access to God without a priest as an intermediary. Clearly this section of healing miracles in Mark informs us that healing is important. But the fact that Jesus is called by prayer to move on indicates that we must be more than that.
Jesus’ meditation called him to move on, to spread his message and that is the call to those of us who would be part of a church.
We come together because being together supports the mission we are each called to in our own neighbourhoods. There are activities that proclaim the gospel that are easier to do together. Coming to church is not our mission but being part of the church enables our mission. Likewise the goal of mission is not to bring people to church but to heal our community. To remain viable in our mission is nothing to do with our structure. Remaining viable is about attracting people who want to be part of the church’s mission and that involves having a mission that people want to be part of.
As a cooperating parish we have joined the wider church’s story of transforming our society and being transformed by our society.
Celebrating twenty one years as a cooperating parish is a time to pause and pray with the Christ within each of us and open ourselves to the future journey the Spirit calls us to.