Saturday, July 21, 2012

Today's Gospel: Work, Renewal, Rest & Compassion

“Debriefing” is the modern word for it. Having been sent out to perform a task we report back to the boss, the team leader, or the group itself, about how things have gone. We share our highs and lows, and learn from the experiences of each other. In today’s Gospel (Mark 6:30-34) the Twelve have returned from their mission to the towns and villages of Galilee, and they gather with Jesus to talk about their experiences.


Last Sunday we saw that Jesus had sent them out with very little in the way of resources - no food, no luggage and no money - just a staff, their sandals and the clothes they were wearing, to preach the Gospel and heal the sick. Now, you and I believe in mission and evangelism. And we support it. But imagine going somewhere today without even a credit card, mobile phone, the food we prefer, or a change of clothing! In all honesty, could we make that kind of response to Jesus? 

And yet, I have met people from different Christian traditions who have done just that, and I have been inspired by them. I have also read the stories of men and women of different cultures down through the centuries, who have made the most outrageous sacrifices - and suffered enormous misunderstanding from family and friends - in order to say “yes” to the Lord’s call to serve him. Like St Paul, they might have finished up “poor”, but along the way they made many rich (2 Corinthians 6:10)

Given how little of the faith the disciples had grasped at this time, the really surprising thing is that they did what Jesus said to do and then returned! This is where today’s Gospel begins. It is here, in fact, that St Mark calls the Twelve “apostles” for the first time. 

In the New Testament an “apostolos” is “one who is sent out” or commissioned by Jesus to act on his behalf - with the authority of sacrificial love and servant-leadership - to proclaim the Gospel, to heal broken, wounded and suffering lives, and to be foundational in the ministry of his new community of love, the Church. The ministry of the apostles enables our lives and parishes to be anchored in Jesus. 

That’s why Jesus said to the Twelve: “he who receives you receives me” (Matthew 10:40). He also said, “as the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21), and shared with them his anointing by the Holy Spirit. That’s why the first history of the Church is called “The Acts of the Apostles.” (It might just as well have been called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit”.) We know that the ministry Jesus gave these men “will continue to the end of time, since the Gospel they handed on is the lasting source of all life for the Church . . . the apostles took care to appoint successors.” (Vatican II Lumen Gentium 20; cf. Matthew 28:20) . . . and “the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church. . .” (Vatican II Lumen Gentium 20) 

One aspect of this is the way the catholic “family of churches” insists on continuing “in the apostles’ . . . fellowship” (Acts 2:42), not least through the sacrament of ordination.


Jesus heard the report of the first apostles and then said to them, “Come away to a lonely (i.e. “deserted”) place and rest a while.” 

We all need that, don’t we? Little bits of time away from the pressures and demands of everyday life – and even ministry - are important if we are to restore and replenish our reserves, spiritually, psychologically, and physically. We know that Jesus frequently took time away for rest and renewal. Sometimes he got up earlier in the morning than anyone else just to be with the Father, as the old hymn says, “in the silence of eternity, interpreted by love.” The Gospels give us glimpses of his prayer life. How can we survive without following his example? 

Yet, it’s not prayer alone. Jesus knew it was important for the apostles to rest and regain the energy they needed to prevent their lives and ministries growing stale. 

In an age which values above all else “effectiveness”, “performance” and “productivity” (with the emphasis much more on doing than on being), we can so easily become the kind of compulsive activists who forget the original purpose of our sphere of work. Don’t tell me that doesn’t happen in the Church! So we need to take on board the principle in today’s Gospel and hear Jesus challenging us “to rest awhile.” Without regular times of renewal and refreshing we are in danger of collapsing on the inside. When this happens we are not much use to Jesus or those to whom we are sent. So, we should obviously find a little time each day to be alone in nourishing prayer, (for clergy, in addition to the Daily Office); but we should also learn to establish for ourselves an underlying rhythm of work, renewal and rest. 


However, the irony for those who would make “getting away from it all” the only absolute in today’s Gospel is that the need to do so on that particular occasion was well and truly trumped by the compassion that surged in the heart of Jesus. When he and the apostles arrived at the “deserted place” for their rest, they found a large crowd waiting for them – five thousand men plus the women and children (Mark 6:34). Can’t you imagine how weary they felt just looking at the expectant crowd! 

And yet, when Jesus “went ashore . . . [and] saw a great throng . . . he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

“Compassion” literally means “with passion, empathy, mercy, pity.” Not just feeling sorry, but being inwardly driven to help. So, exhausted as he was on this occasion, Jesus proceeded to teach the people, and he fed them. 

Most clergy I know really do love their people. But I must say that some inadvertently create the opposite impression when the pew sheet, the church notice board, the web site and the recorded message on the telephone all make such a big deal about what day is “the Vicar’s day off.” In my recent travels I saw a pew sheet where that was the first and most prominent announcement – and the only one in bold type. How odd! In spite of the fact that the priest of that parish really is kind and compassionate, he fell into one of the traps of the modern bureaucratised, “professional” Church. I’ve already said how important it is to have a rhythm of work, renewal and rest. If we live in a vicarage next to the church this might mean clearing off for the whole day once a week, using technology creatively for those who make contact to feel loved and welcomed . . . NOT the kind of pompous message a priest friend of mine recorded on his voice mail which momentarily made even me feel guilty for ringing on that particular day! 

The other thing, of course, is that if we are like Jesus there will be times when God has us just in the right place at the right time on our “day off” to respond with real compassion to someone in need. Having the kind of empathy that drives us to help when, strictly speaking, we are not “on duty” or even dressed in black, is a little sign to ourselves that we are still real Christians following Jesus, and not just “professional clergy”!


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