January 31, 2016
The First Circuit Riders
Chapter 6 of Mark begins with an abbreviated version of a story we know better in its expanded form found in Luke chapter 4. Jesus has returned to his hometown, and because word has gotten back to them about his teaching and healing ministry in other parts of Galilee, he’s invited to teach in the synagogue. Luke tells us what he’s teaching about—the assigned reading for that day was from the 60th chapter of Isaiah—but Mark isn’t interested in the content of his teaching as much as in the reaction of his fellow Nazarenes.
At first, they are amazed at his teaching, and about the miracles he has done in other places. But that wears off quickly, and then they are scandalized. “Isn’t this Jesus the builder, Mary’s son, the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Don’t we also know his sisters? Who does he think he is? He’s gotten above his breeding—forgot where he came from! How dare he come in here and start acting like he’s better than we are! We’ve known him since he was in diapers!”
Jesus was amazed by their lack of faith, it says. I’d guess it made him sad, too. These were the people who raised him, boys and girls he’d grown up with and their parents, his teachers, people he’d known and loved—and who had loved him—his entire life. But they cannot see past the slot he’s supposed to fit into in their neat picture of The Way Things Are. He’s a builder; he belongs in the shop where his father taught him how to cut and shape wood and stone. He walked away from that, and when he returns and doesn’t step right back into the slot he belongs in, his beloved townsfolk turn on him, and he leaves, appalled and sad.
I wonder what his disciples thought. They weren’t, as far as we know, from Nazareth; it’s pretty clear from the text that Simon Peter and his family, at least, lived in Capernaum. Maybe Jesus had told them on the way about some of the people they would meet in Nazareth, the people who had been important to him as he grew up there. I’m sure they expected him to receive a warm welcome, not to have the Nazarenes turn their backs on him. If Jesus couldn’t do any better than this, in his own hometown filled with people who knew and loved him, they had to have wondered what hope there would be, when it came time for them to go out on their own to teach and heal—and that time came very soon, perhaps sooner than they had anticipated it would.
They do a little bit of traveling together, and then Jesus calls the Twelve together and sends them out. As Jesus has demonstrated his authority over unclean spirits and his authority to teach and heal, he gives that same authority to the apostles as he sends them out. He tells them to travel light—only the clothes on their backs, the shoes on their feet, and a staff in their hands, no money, no sack lunch, nothing. They are to be entirely dependent on the hospitality of the people in the towns they visit. Not taking a bag or carrying money with them means, hopefully, that they won’t give in to the temptation to do miracles for profit. Staying in the first house that welcomes them means they don’t spend the whole trip shopping around for the softest beds or the best meals.
But Jesus prepares them for the reality that they will not have success in every place they visit—no doubt the trip to Nazareth was still fresh in their minds at this point. If a place doesn’t welcome you, he told them, then as you leave, shake the dust off your feet—put the whole place and the whole experience behind you, and move on.
Evidently they did have a fair amount of success, because they attracted quite a bit of attention. People knew they were Jesus’ disciples, and that they were acting on his authority. Word eventually made it all the way to Herod Antipas, in his capital city of Tiberias—which he had built on top of a burial ground, rendering the whole city unclean to the Jews he was supposed to be governing. As he and his people tried to figure out who this Jesus character was, his guilty conscience flashed back to how he had put an end to Jesus’ predecessor, John the Baptist.
Perhaps you remember that, back in the first chapter of Mark, John baptized Jesus, then Jesus went out to the wilderness to be tempted; and then the thing that evidently set Jesus’ own ministry into motion was John’s arrest. Here we find out why he was arrested: he had told Herod exactly what he thought—and, consequently, what God thought—about his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. This had upset Herod, or perhaps more importantly, Herodias, to the point that they had him thrown into prison. But Herod was fascinated by this man who had come from nowhere to speak truth to power, and he spent quite a lot of time talking with John.
Herodias wasn’t fascinated, and kept her eyes open for a chance to get rid of John once and for all. The chance came at Herod’s birthday party, when his stepdaughter so mesmerized him with her dancing that he swore an oath before all of his guests to give her whatever she asked—an oath he could not rescind once the girl, egged on by her mother, asked for John’s head on a platter.
Putting this flashback here serves a couple of purposes. First, we see how powerful people often respond to God’s truth when they find it threatening to their power and their way of life. That’s a generality; but more specifically, this attention they draw, and the reminder of John’s fate, cast a shadow on the Twelve and their mission in the towns of Galilee. They taught many people, perhaps brought Jesus more followers; they healed and cast out demons, so their mission appears to have been successful. But success as it’s measured in the Kingdom of God isn’t always met with admiration in this world.
John the Baptist, speaking God’s truth to Herod, got a beheading for his reward. Jesus, teaching in his hometown, was rejected by his own ones. The Twelve had been told going in that they wouldn’t always be received or listened to.
And yet we, in 21st-century America, are so easily discouraged. I’ve heard of churches where a new person, a newly-settled pastor, will suggest some kind of program or event or activity, and be immediately shut down with, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Or—worse yet—someone will have an idea, try it, and have it fail, and then the church will never allow them to try anything again, ever.
In today’s world, the church is no longer the center of community life. People don’t flock here every time the doors are open, no matter how good our publicity is. There are a lot of people in the world today, quite honestly, who do not see the point of coming through our doors for anything, ever. We remember—whether or not it’s accurate, it’s how we remember it—the days of full churches, of total respect for Christian values in the public square, of stores closed so people didn’t have to work on Sundays, ever, and they could all devote Sundays to church and church activities. And when we look around and realize that isn’t how it is anymore, we’re discouraged. And when we read the polls and discover that a substantial number of people who don’t go to church think we Christians are anti-intellectual, judgmental bigots, we wonder if anything we do for the sake of our faith makes any difference at all.
This is when we need to go back to this text and see what we can learn about our own journeys of ministry on which Jesus has sent us. Jesus didn’t tell the Twelve they would always meet resounding success—but he gave them a way forward when they didn’t. Shake the dust off your feet; leave the past in the past, and move on. The story of John the Baptist reminds us that when we are speaking God’s words and doing God’s work, we may find ourselves in trouble.
But you know, while this story is presented as a flashback at this point in the Gospel, it’s entirely possible that the disciples already knew what had happened to John. Did they assume something like that would never happen to them? Or did they go anyway, trusting in God, and in Jesus, even though they knew their mission could be dangerous?
In the case of those original Twelve, given how often they failed to understand what Jesus was saying and doing, they probably just didn’t think anything would happen to them. But the people who first read or heard Mark’s Gospel did understand. They knew about Jesus’ rejection and death. They were living in the midst of a frightening and difficult time, a time when the full weight of Rome came down on the rebellious Jews, and Christians got caught up in the mix. The Jews of their day objected to their calling Jesus the Messiah; the Romans objected to their refusal to worship the Emperor.
We Christians in this country, even though we may have lost our dominant position in our culture, have no idea just how dangerous being a Christian can be. I think this may be the reason we’re so discouraged at the slightest setback.
Mark’s community knew—as Christians in Iraq, Syria, and many other places around the world know today—that following Jesus can quite literally mean being persecuted, thrown into prison, tortured, and killed. Mark’s community and many of our brothers and sisters today, trying to follow Jesus even when it’s dangerous, knew the truth of our text today.
We aren’t going to be successful every time we share the Gospel with someone. Some of us may find ourselves rejected by those who love us, when we seek to follow Jesus in ways that take us out of the roles assigned us by our communities or our families. We may follow him into places and activities that do place us in real physical danger. Or we may just follow him in ways that mean we don’t amass the wealth and power that we might otherwise have gained.
But what we learn from this text is that we’re called to be faithful, not safe or even successful in the way the world around us measures success. And when we have faithfully done Jesus’ work for another week, we return to his presence, tell him what we have done, and accept his gift of restoration and nourishment, here at his Table, and are strengthened so we can continue to follow him tomorrow, and through the week.
 The Greek word is tekton, which does not strictly mean “carpenter.”
 This is a gross oversimplification; the relationships between Jews and Christians, and between Christians and Rome, was much more complex, shifted over time, and was different in different geographical areas.