Mark doesn’t record for us how the disciples reacted when Jesus says to them: Right – that’s enough from me. Now it’s your turn to go off and do some preaching and healing!
We hear right at the beginning of our gospel reading today how, when they get back they gather around Jesus to tell him what they’ve been up to. But what went through their minds when he first told them he was sending them out two by two, with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing and a staff?
I’m not a betting man, but if I were I think I’d be on to a sure thing in betting that their immediate reaction wasn’t: That’s a great idea Jesus, when can we start?
Jesus, as we know, spent a great deal of time talking to and teaching his disciples. But there’s no substitute for actually doing the job. And no matter how much Jesus taught his disciples he knew that the best way for them to learn about the practical aspects of spreading the gospel was to send them out on their own to preach and to heal. And so off they went.
And I bet that when they first went off there was – to put it mildly – a certain degree of reluctance:
Hang on a minute, Jesus, we’re not quite sure about this – don’t we need a lot more teaching from you, first?
Not sure we know what we’re talking about really – aren’t you coming with us? We could do with a bit of support.
What if that healing thing doesn’t work? We’ve never done it before. We’ll look silly if nothing happens!
I know how they felt because it was just like that at the Church Army College. The Church Army Mission Community has always been in favour of throwing you in at the deep end – there’s no question of sinking or swimming, when thrown in at the deep end you soon learn to swim! And the disciples, thrown in at the deep end soon learnt to swim. And like Church Army students being sent off on mission, the disciples never quite knew what they’d get.
When I was training I spent one summer with a mission team in South Wales. One Sunday evening, following good biblical practice, we were all sent off in twos to different churches with the instructions to help the congregations think about mission and how they could be involved – because a key part of any organised mission is not for a team of specialists to roll up and do it all for the local congregations, but to help them engage with mission so when you’ve left they can carry it on.
So it was that Steven, my companion, and I were duly dispatched to a remote village church.
Our brief? To lead, of all things, Book of Common Prayer evensong no less, with the theme of mission. We weren’t expecting a large congregation, but there were more than we’d been led to believe there would be. There were eight in the congregation.
I led the service but it was hard work – a good half of the congregation appeared to have no interest at all in joining in, but just watched. Steven was giving the talk, but he found it really hard to get some response from the small congregation as he tried to get them to think about mission. It was only at the end of the service that we discovered that four of the congregation – half of those there – were German tourists who didn’t speak a word of English.
You never quite knew what would happen on a mission. But in spite of the uncertainty – despite the feelings of panic when being sent out on some completely new missionary task for the first time not knowing what to expect – there was always that tremendous feeling of excitement at the end over everything that you had done and everything that had happened. Though it was also extremely tiring!
The disciples, we are told in our gospel reading, were no different. They found the experience of being sent out by Jesus quite exhilarating. And exhausting.
So, what do we learn from today’s gospel reading?
In a way, a lot of the significance of today’s gospel passage is found in what is not included. We begin with the disciples’ return from the mission on which they had been sent by Jesus, and they tell him everything that had happened. And excitement there had been. As Mark has told us previously: They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
And they may not have known what to expect, they may have gone with a certain amount of trepidation, but when they got back they could hardly contain themselves.
Luke’s account of the return of the disciples from a much larger mission gives some indication of the disciples’ excitement: The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’
And as Mark tells us today, Jesus knows that such experiences take their toll: the disciples need time for rest and refreshment, and to absorb the significance of what has happened: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” he says to them. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
So they set sail across the lake, but as we hear Jesus’ desire to find a deserted place is thwarted, as the crowds follow them round the lake. There is no time to rest. On finding a great crowd there to meet them, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
But there’s no stopping for Jesus – and immediately we hear in our gospel reading how Jesus and the disciples cross back over the lake, and at once the people are back demanding his attention.
There is no time to relax: Jesus is immediately recognised and wherever he goes, into villages, farms or cities, “they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
Well, it seems like it’s all go for Jesus and the disciples. From the minute Jesus sent them off on their mission they don’t get a moment to themselves. Except it’s not quite like that.
We started thinking about going off on mission. And our gospel reading starts today by finishing off the story that we began two weeks ago, the story of the disciples being sent off two by two to preach and heal. But for me, the real significance of today’s gospel isn’t the disciples coming back full of excitement.
As I said earlier, a lot of the significance of today’s gospel passage is found in what is not included. And had you been following it in a Bible, you would have noticed that the Church has decided to miss out a whole chunk – 18 verses – from the middle of our reading. Why? I don’t know. But it’s in in the missing bit that two really important things happen. It’s there that we find the heart of Mark’s message from this bit of his gospel. Two things that happen between crossing the lake and coming back again.
We heard this morning how, having crossed over the lake and been followed by the crowds, Jesus had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
And what happens next, the first thing we didn’t get to hear this morning, is that like any good shepherd he feeds his sheep. He feeds thousands of people with five loaves and two fish. Jesus cares for the bodily needs of his sheep, as well as their spiritual needs.
And then he tells the disciples to go back in the boat without him. And when they’ve set off, he dismisses the crowds and goes up a mountain to pray. And as the disciples row across the lake a wind blows up that makes their rowing hard work. And then Jesus comes walking across the lake. Naturally they’re terrified, but Jesus says: Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. And he calms the wind.
I think it’s unfortunate that it was decided to miss out those two events from our gospel reading this morning.
Read the gospel reading including the bit missing here:
Mark tells us of the return of the disciples from the mission Jesus has sent them on. And we hear of how the work of Jesus never stops, the task of preaching the good news and showing it in action is an ongoing task for us all. Those who first heard Mark’s gospel would have understood the importance of spreading the gospel no matter how tough it felt at times.
But these two stories – feeding thousands with a few loaves and fish, calming the wind and the waves and bringing peace – strangely omitted from the middle of our reading, remind us that in the midst of the ever important task of mission Jesus is always there caring for as a shepherd cares for his sheep. Just as he fed the thousands of people who couldn’t stay away from him, so he feeds us spiritually when we seek him. And just as he calmed the wind and the waves when the disciples were struggling and afraid, so he is able to come and calm our fears: Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid. He gives the disciples his peace.
And combine those two deep and important truths with a third one – the one that ends our gospel reading today. Wherever he went, Mark tells us, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-plavce, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
All who touched it were healed.
If, like the twelve, we will follow Jesus and go where he leads us and where he sends us, we can be sure of three things – this is what Mark is telling us, and this is what I want you to go away with this morning:
Jesus will give us spiritual food
Jesus will give us peace
Jesus will give us healing