It has been said that the preacher’s job is to help the congregation enter the strange world of the Bible. If we really pay attention to the text, the story of Jesus sending his disciples out as penniless beggars is one of the strangest. Listen to the story again.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Casting out demons and performing miracles of healing. Walking from town to town as penniless beggars. What do these things have to do with us? If that’s what being a disciple is all about, who among us is truly a disciple of Jesus Christ?
My assumption is that Mark intends us to read this text literally, that Jesus and his disciples cast out evil spirits and miraculously healed the sick, or at least they believed they did. I don’t think that Mark is simply talking about compassion for the sick and the marginalized. I don’t think he is talking about mental illness or medical care. I think he’s talking about exorcisms and miracles.
For us, this is strange indeed.
I didn’t always think that way. I used to want to explain Jesus’ strange deeds in terms of natural phenomena or conditions that anyone can understand. I wanted to see myself in the story, and I didn’t know anyone possessed by a demon, much less anyone who ever cast one out. All the talk of unclean spirits and miracles seemed like a relic of a by-gone era. There was a German scholar named Rudolf Bultmann who early in the last century talked about the need to demythologize the Bible, and that made sense to me.
Over time, I changed my mind. The more I came to understand the story of Jesus, the more I came to see that the exorcisms and miracles were integral to the story. I have come to believe that we need to take the gospel narratives on their own terms. It is still a strange story, but we need to listen to what it has to say.
And what about this strange packing list?
Before every mission, military leaders provide soldiers with a list of exactly what they need to bring with them, right down to how many pairs of socks and underwear they need. Before the mission begins, the soldiers lay out their equipment on the ground so that their leaders can insure that they have everything they are supposed to have. Most soldiers deploy with hundreds of pounds of personal and organizational clothing and equipment to make sure they are prepared for every contingency.
Jesus gave his disciples an equally explicit packing list, but there was much less on it. Take a staff and wear sandals. But don’t take any food. Don’t take any money. Don’t take any extra clothes. Don’t take anything else at all.
Again, strange indeed.
Hospitality, Honor and the Kingdom of God
There are some things that you need to know to understand this story.
First, Jesus and his disciples were not the only wandering preachers and miracle workers in the ancient world. It was, for some people, a way of making a living. Travel from town to town, give a great speech, do a few magic tricks. It was all very entertaining, and there were people willing to pay.
Jesus wants to make it very clear that neither he nor his disciples were doing this for personal gain. “Don’t take a bag,” Jesus said. That’s what the traveling preachers, teachers and miracle workers used to collect their offerings. The only thing that Jesus and his disciples accepted for themselves was their daily bread.
(Here are a couple of big words for those who like them. Teachers who wander from place to place are “peripatetic.” Those who live in absolute poverty and depend on kindness of strangers are “mendicant.”)
Second, you need to understand the ancient practice of hospitality for travelers. There were no Holiday Inns along the road in which to sleep. There were no McDonald’s restaurants on every corner at which to eat. When you traveled, you stayed with family members if possible. And if that wasn’t possible, you stayed with strangers. People were expected to provide food, lodging and other provisions for travelers passing through communities. Jesus’ disciples depended on this ancient practice of hospitality as they moved from town to town.
But there was a catch. To eat with someone, and to offer them hospitality, was the deepest form of intimacy. If a person would bring dishonor on you, your family or your community, you were not supposed to eat with them or offer them shelter. Today, we call that “shunning,” and it is still practiced in some parts of the world.
(It would seem to me that in contemporary American society, both sides in the culture war practice their own form of shaming and shunning.)
The unwritten code of honor was – and is – very powerful. Several years ago I spoke with a Jordanian officer about the importance of honor in parts of the middle-east. If you dishonored your family or your village, he said, basically every door in town would be locked for you. No one in the village would employ you or care for you or defend you from harm. You would not be welcome in any home. You might even be killed with impunity.
Jesus was quite a controversial character. He made many claims for himself, and his ministry undermined the authority of those in power. He greatly unsettled the community. Even some members of his own family said that he was mad.
Whenever Jesus or his disciples came to town, the question was this: would people welcome them with hospitality? Would they accept Jesus’ message and offer him and his followers a bed and breakfast, or would they turn their backs and lock their doors? Might they even become hostile or violent with these blasphemers?
Jesus and his disciples took a great risk as they traveled from town to town. At the very least, they risked going without food or shelter. They risked hunger and fatigue and exposure to the elements. In some cases, they risked their lives.
The people who welcomed Jesus and his disciples took a risk, too. If a town turned against Jesus, it might turn against those who offered him hospitality as well.
To welcome Jesus and his disciples was to welcome the message he brought: to welcome good news of kingdom, to recognize the unique opportunity for repentance and restoration, to accept that Jesus was doing what he said he was doing and to affirm that God really stood behind his words and deeds. To turn Jesus and his disciples away was to treat them as lunatics, liars or enemies of God.
But what would the neighbors say if you welcomed Jesus and his motley crew into your home and broke bread with them?
That’s the background behind the story in Mark 6, and I think it’s very interesting. But what is the gospel message? What is the good news? What does this story mean for us?
The Gospel of Costly Grace and Kingdom Power
There is quite a contrast in this story between the power displayed in miraculous healings and exorcisms and the vulnerability displayed in life without money, bread, bag, clothing or place to live. It is in these two contrasting elements that I think we hear God’s message to all generations. Mark 6:6-13 is about power and grace.
Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand. God is going to fix the world that he created. Every power of evil will be disarmed and the wicked will have to answer for what they have done. All of God’s people will in live in perfect peace and justice with one another. The poor and lowly will be lifted up. Everyone will live securely in the land God gave them, without fear of hunger or disease or violence or oppression or death. All of God’s promises will come to pass. People will finally be able to enjoy the goodness and wonder of God’s creation, the way God intended it to be from the very beginning of creation.
That’s a great dream, but what evidence is there that such a day is coming? Jesus’ own powerful deeds are the evidence. When Jesus cast out demons, it was a sign of their coming doom. When he healed the sick, it was a foretaste of perfect health in the kingdom of God. When he fed the 5000, it was a sneak preview of heaven’s kingdom where there is no hunger. When he calmed the storm, it was a sign that nature will no longer threaten humankind. When he cleansed unclean lepers, it was a sign that everything separating humans from their creator will be overcome. When he raised the dead, it was an indicator that God’s power will overcome even death itself. And when he reconciled penitent thieves and prostitutes to God, it was a sign that God’s saving power can reach anyone and everyone.
The fact that Jesus empowered those who followed him from village to village to do these same things is also a sign. Those who belong to Christ will not only inherit the kingdom he announced, but participate with him in bestowing its blessings.
Thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, God called a man named Abraham, promised to bless him and through him, to bless the entire world. In time, Abraham’s descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. Now, in the ministry of Jesus, the twelve disciples stand in as representatives of a renewed and restored Israel.
God is going to save the world that he created through the people of Israel, just as he promised Abraham. God’s great power to save is visible in the story of Jesus and his disciples, but it is not a story of power alone. There is something else at work.
God humbles himself and endures suffering to save us. Do you remember Paul, in Romans 8, thinking of worst things he could imagine:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (Romans 8:35)
These things are exactly what Jesus and the disciples endured on the roads and among the villages of Galilee for our salvation: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword.
Jesus’ vulnerability and lowliness and sacrificial way of life – and that of his disciples – is a sign of God’s costly self-giving, his self-abasement, his willingness to suffer and be abused for our sake. Our salvation comes at a great price.
Costly, self-giving love and world-transforming power. That’s what we see in the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry. That’s also what we see in the story of the disciples’ journeys among the villages of Galilee. Where else do we see these things in the story of Jesus?
We see them most of all, of course, in the culminating events of Jesus’ life – in his crucifixion and resurrection. We see Jesus vulnerability, suffering, lowliness and costly love in his death on the cross. We see the power of the coming age in Jesus’ resurrection. Paul calls the resurrection a down payment on the age to come.
This is the good news: Jesus gave himself for us and God raised him from the dead, all to bring God’s dealings with Israel throughout the ages to their completion in the kingdom of God.
What do we do with this story? That depends in part on where we see ourselves in it. Are we more like Jesus’ traveling disciples, or are we more like the people of the towns and villages they visited?
Recipients of the Gospel
In one respect, we are in the same position as the people who lived in Galilee. Like them, Jesus has come into our lives. We’ve heard the story of his power and his love. So how will we respond?
The people of the villages which Jesus and his disciples visited either welcomed them and offered them hospitality, or turned their backs, locked their doors and ran them out of town as quickly as possible. Jesus believed that God’s final judgment rested on how the people of Galilee received Jesus and his disciples.
How are we to respond?
The people of Jerusalem asked that question on the day of Pentecost after Peter preached the story of God’s grace and power in Jesus. Peter replied:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off —for all whom the Lord our God will call. (Luke 2:38-39)
As a result, Luke reports that:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Luke 2:42-47)
Since Jesus rose from the dead and God poured out his Holy Spirit, the gospel calls for a slightly different response, one that includes repentance, baptism into Jesus’ name, receiving the teaching of the church, fellowship with the saints and the worship of God in Christ. Whereas the townspeople of Galilee welcomed Jesus and his disciples by providing them with food and drink, Jesus now invites us to his table, where he feeds us with his body and blood.
The means have changed since the day that the disciples walked into town with nothing but the shirts on their backs, but the response is the same. God has shown us how to welcome Jesus into our lives, and our place in his kingdom depends on it.
Disciples of Jesus
In another respect, we are part of the community that began with twelve. We are the spiritual heirs of Peter and Andrew, James and John, and all the rest. Like them, we are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are followers of the rabbi from Nazareth.
But there has been a change in mission since Jesus died and rose again. The mission of Christ’s disciples is no longer to walk as penniless beggars from town to town in order to cast out demons and perform miracles of healing. The first disciples participated in Jesus’ redemptive acts of suffering and kingdom power for the sake of our salvation. Now, our mission is to proclaim to the world what Christ has already done. We proclaim the good news and baptize and share the Lord’s table and build communities of faith.
And we experience the power of God in a different way. Men and women come to faith in the crucified and risen Christ. They are filled with hope and they live in love. The new creation becomes visible in the lives of individual Christians and in Christian communities.
For most of us, God’s call is going to look pretty ordinary. Jesus calls most of us to belong to him in the midst of raising a family, getting an education, working a job, and so forth.
Even in the gospel stories, we find that Jesus encountered very many people whom he did not call to join his itinerant band of disciples. Most stayed at home, not because they were less faithful than the traveling disciples, but because Jesus’ required something different from them.
That makes sense, when you think about it. If everyone in Galilee and Judea had accepted Jesus’ message and then followed him on the road, who would have stayed to fish and farm and perform all the other mundane tasks that existence in this world requires?
Later, in the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul, we see that some Christians traveled throughout the world to proclaim the message of Jesus and plant new congregations. Most, however, lived more settled lives in towns and cities. They worshipped God and loved their brother and sisters in Christ. These stay-at-home Christians were just as much a part of the Christian movement as the go-on-the-road Christians. The settled church became the power-projection platform and sustaining base (to borrow some language from military institutions) for the itinerant church.
Why is the church living differently than the first disciples did? Why aren’t all Christians walking from town to town, without baggage or money, performing miraculous deeds, hoping for a meal, a bed and a welcoming ear? The answer is not simply, “It’s not practical.” If that’s what Christ still demands, that’s what we should be doing. The answer, rather, has to do with the unique place of Jesus’ earthly ministry in the salvation of humankind and the redemption of the world.
Jesus did not come just to show us how to live; he came to accomplish our salvation. That salvation culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
In the cross and empty grave, the scripture has been fulfilled. The disciples who followed Jesus from town to town (and who went forth in his name) were part of that unique era of fulfillment. The exceptional rules by which they and their master lived arose from the exceptional purpose of Jesus’ life and death.
As Jesus announced to his disciples on the night before his death, the promises of God are now fulfilled. The rules that applied in the days of fulfillment no longer apply in the days of witness. The mission is now in a new phase and requires new rules.
Our job today is to witness to salvation in Christ, not to help Jesus effect salvation. Our job today is to tell the story of the power and grace that was in Jesus, and the promise that holds out for us.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore the example of Jesus’ life. The story of Jesus’ earthly life is the one great shining moment in history that shows us who we are and what we were meant to be. The “greatest story ever told” judges us where we fall short and draws us to become more than we are.
While Jesus walked on this earth, his disciples lived faithfully by abandoning the institutions of this world. Today, we are called to live faithfully largely within the context of everyday life. As Christians wait for Christ’s appearing – and the arrival of the promised age – we live in a world where fields must be farmed and lakes fished, where taxes must be collected and institutions built and managed. For our work in this world, we need purses and luggage and, according to Jesus in Luke 22, sometimes even swords.
The gospel authors told us these stories about Jesus and his disciples not first of all so that we can imitate what they did, but first of all so that we can know and give thanks for what God did for us.
The fact that Jesus his disciples cast out demons and healed the sick, and that Jesus calmed storms, fed the hungry and raised the dead are signs of hope for our world. They are a promise of a coming day when evil, sickness, hunger, poverty and death are no more.
The fact that Jesus and his disciples submitted themselves to suffer hunger, poverty, abuse and martyrdom are signs of the depths of God’s love for us. For the sake of our salvation, God goes to the extreme, pays whatever price is necessary, suffers whatever must be suffered.
Thanks be to God.