The theme that struck me when reading about Jesus and the disciples for today is how humans are disposed to be self-impressed and how easily we forget the central role of God in our lives.
The Sunday before last Mark told the story of Jesus at home in his hometown and finding himself with limited authority and barely any power to heal. The people who had known him growing up could not set what they had known about him as a child so that they could see God at work.
Leaving Nazareth, Jesus went to surrounding towns and villages to heal and to teach. He also sent the disciples out. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics… So 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.”
In the Gospel story today, the apostles have gone out and have been doing what Jesus asked them to do. Mark recounts: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.”
This strikes me as such an incredibly human thing for the apostles to do. They did not say, “Master, God made us able to perform miracles. We were astounded to see so many people healed by the miraculous power you gave us!” Instead, they told him all that they had done and taught as if it was by their own power that they did the mighty deeds. They were so impressed with what they had done, Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
Jesus knew the best thing for them to do was to withdraw from the world and from thinking about their proclamations and the demons they cast out as they anointed people with oil and cured them. In what I take to be a relatively short period of time, they forgot that God was at work and they had only to make themselves available for it to be done through them.
This tendency for us is to be self-impressed. We have to watch ourselves so that we don’t end up loving the way we said a prayer – rather than loving The One to whom we pray.
Humans build obstacles to seeing God at work in their lives. Throughout Holy Scripture it is attested that people became so consumed with the way that they worshiped, that they forgot the reason they were worshiping in the first place.
Our example from Hebrew Scripture tells of King David getting all mixed up about who it is who provides. Here, David wants to build a house for God. Through the prophet Nathan, God reminds David that it is not he who provides for God, but that God is the one who provides for people. To Nathan God says, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?”
In correcting the upside-down way David is thinking, God establishes the covenant with David saying, “Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.”
David, though just returning from battle, has forgotten that it is God who has brought the victory, not David, not the troops. God is the one who is in charge. David got mixed up the same way the apostles got confused about their own role in proclaiming the Gospel and curing the sick. Humility before God is required.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he reminds them that they have made laws which have caused division in the human family, forgetting that it is God who is The Creator of the human family. Non-Jews despised Jews for rejecting the religion of the state (the many pagan gods), and Jews chose to divorce themselves from non-Jews for rejecting their God. The circumcised and un-circumcised were partitioned by a wall they erected between themselves and others.
In his letter, Paul is explaining that Jesus came into the world to reunite the divided. He was providing the miraculous and unimagined possibility that hostile groups could be joined into one. As much of the New Testament attests, this experience of the early church was one of the most profound gifts and surprises of new life in Christ.
The irony of our time is that battles are still being fought between groups who think their rivals are evil – instead of looking for common ground. Some Christians condemn others as not “Christian” enough, and denominations themselves seem to be coming apart at the seams.
People who are busy building walls and making divisions are like so many in Scripture – they have focused on the law rather than on God who established it and Christ who abolished it. We get the way of relationship with God by concentrating on what we humans do and not on what God does.
Referring to the miraculous abolition of Apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa believes that God’s hand undid what human hands had done.
Archbishop Tutu wrote:
“God saw our brokenness and sought to extricate us from it – but only with our cooperation. God will not cajole or bully us, but wants to woo us for our own sakes. We might say that the Bible is the story of God’s attempt to … bring us back to our intended condition of relatedness. God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to God. God sent Jesus who would fling out his harms on the cross as if to embrace us. God wants to draw us back into an intimate relationship and so bring to unity all that has become disunited. This was God’s intention from the beginning. And each of us is called to be an ally of God in this work of justice and reconciliation.”
Rather than building walls that separate us and keep us safe, the images in the letter to the Ephesians urge us not to focus on ourselves, but to let ourselves be built into a temple where God can dwell. “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
We are to forget about being impressed with what we’ve done, or thinking about what we can do for God. Our focus is to be upon The One who provides all good things for us, Christ the cornerstone. In him we are no longer divided, but one.