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Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Published 16 July 2012

Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley Sunday 8 July 2012

Lessons - Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-13

Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honour, except in
his own country.'
(Mark 6:4)

Jesus has just performed three spectacular miracles: a deranged man is
calmed; a dead girl is revived; a chronically ill woman is cured. Against
all expectations three people who are thought to be beyond hope are
healed. The crowds are astonished, the recipients overjoyed.

As we hear these stories it is hard to believe that anybody could fail to
see the presence of God in these extraordinary actions. It comes as a
surprise then to learn that Jesus is not accepted even by his own
townsfolk.

It does not make sense until we realise how unsettled we are by unexpected
experiences that do not fit into our familiar patterns of thought. The
people of Jesus' town were no different. They were looking for a prophet
who would bring the Kingdom of God on earth. Jewish suffering would end,
oppressors would be vanquished and truth and goodness would reign on
earth! Jesus did not fit their image of a liberator. He was one of them!

'Their very familiarity with him is a hindrance to knowing him truly, for
it makes it (harder) for them to see through the veil of his
ordinariness.' (CEB Cranfield, The Gospel according to St Mark, p193.)
Their rejection is typical of what often happens. 'A prophet is not
without honour except in his own country. (v4)' Familiarity breeds
contempt.

Their rejection has Jesus 'shaking his head in disbelief' (v6). But it
does not shake his resolve! He continues to touch people with words and
actions. He cures the ills of 'a few sick people' (v5).

He is not fazed by the doubters. He does not try to justify himself. He
simply gets on with his divine mission: 'calling' 12 disciples and
'sending' them out under his authority to overcome 'demonic forces' (v7)
and 'unclean spirits' (v13) that afflict peoples' lives. They are to
declare the word of hope: that God's mercy and justice has come among them
in his ministry as the sign to all humanity of the beginning of the end of
everything that dehumanises life.

What we have here is a magnificent but unsettling picture of the church of
Christ at mission! This is no ordinary mission. At the 'team meeting' a
strange 'mission statement' is laid out. They are not told to maintain the
property and finances of local synagogues but to travel light and accept
hospitality from strangers. No five-star accommodation or business suits -
just the bare necessities to sustain them. If the locals are not inclined
to listen they are to move on.

Many groups follow this advice literally. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses
still spread their message in twos. 'Faith' missions have a simple life-
style and rely on God to provide food, lodging and money. Although these
instructions cannot be transplanted from the Israel of Jesus' day to every
social and cultural situation, they have been a driving force behind the
astonishing spread of Christianity around the globe - not least today in
parts of Africa, Asia and South America where terrible suffering,
persecution, affliction and death bedevil the lives of so many people

This episode teaches us much about the Church's missionary vocation. Here
we find the pattern of authentic 'mission in Christ's way' (Bishop
Newbigin):
* the urgency of preaching, teaching and healing;
* the shared nature of our calling;
* the prospect of rejection;
* the lack of concern about results.

* Disciples are not to settle down, but to look for new opportunities to
speak and act. However, we are not to go with the latest 'public
relations' techniques to obtain 'market advantage' over competitors or
'curry favour' with audiences. We are sent with Jesus' authority to
announce that God's reign over sin, affliction and death on earth has
begun. This is not a Church that has settled in for a comfortable life but
a body of people that is on the move, engaging with people and communities
that have not yet heard this word of hope.

As they go, disciples 'must declare the unpalatable word of repentance
(v12) - a word which every person hates, but needs to hear' (W Clarnette,
The Year of Mark p35). The Gospel is not preached if it gives false
comfort or does not expose the dark forces ('unclean spirits') that
dehumanise our life-together.

* Disciples do not 'go it alone'. Together we are called by Christ to 'a
closer walk with God' (as the choir sang) that is bracing, risky,
unsettling and often unpopular. Indeed, apart from being called into
community with the One who embodies the love of God and the true humanity
for which we have been created, we could not undertake this task.
Evangelism belongs to the whole church as, together, we declare the Gospel
of mercy and hope.

Disciples do not go with a sense of superiority - as sometimes has been
the case. We must learn that, no matter how vital it is that we use our
insights and abilities to spread the word of hope, it does not depend on
us. We must 'repent' of pride or despair. Paul puts it well when, after
describing some extraordinary visions that he and others had experienced,
he does not ask us to look at his power. Instead he says that 'God's grace
is sufficient for me, God's power is made perfect in weakness' (2
Corinthians 12:9).

In speaking of 'weakness' he is not glorifying the awful attitude that
justifies doing nothing bold. He is speaking of strength in the midst of
suffering, persecution and affliction that wins its way in the world
without becoming victim to the arrogant power that the world craves.

* Disciples, like the Psalmist (123) and Jesus, must count on contempt,
not only in places like the Sudan, Kenya and the like where Christians are
repressed, but in Western countries like ours where truth, goodness and
mercy are often trampled under foot. Jesus is more realistic than we are.
There is no guarantee of numerical success or public approval. Often the
word will be unwelcome.

* This does not mean we should take rejection too seriously. We should
simply 'shake the dust off our feet in protest' (v11) and move on. We must
not waste time pleading with the stubborn. Simply speak the truth, heal
affliction, promote mercy and justice and let God take care of the
results! Disciples are not to rely on the power of personality to get
results but on the power of the crucified Christ (as Paul says) to stiffen
our resolve against strident opposition - without being anxious about our
success or failure. The outcome is not up to us! We have more than enough
to do in being a community of faith, hope and love.

How hard it is for us to hear this! We live in settled church communities.
We see the success and popularity of evangelicals and progressives who use
public relations tools to promote themselves. We wish that we could
benefit from their use. We want to see results.

Against this, Mark urges us to see that the Word wins its own way in the
world. Here and there people are changed, healed or forgiven! Injustice is
exposed! Human dignity is restored! The Church is simply called to be a
community concerned that the world be humanised in the image of Christ!
There is to be no compulsion, arm-twisting or histrionics. Success does
not come by tapping into what people want. We are to speak, encourage,
stand firm and move on.

The message makes its own way in the world. Bishop Newbigin puts it
splendidly:

'Success in the sense of growth in the number of committed Christians
is not in our hands. It is the work of God the Holy Spirit to call
men and women to faith in Jesus, and the Spirit does so in ways that
are often mysterious and beyond any possibility of manipulation or
even of comprehension by us. What is required of us is faithfulness
in word and deed, at whatever cost; faithfulness in action for truth,
for justice, for mercy, for compassion; faithfulness in speaking the
name of Jesus when the time is right, bearing witness, by explicit
word as occasion arises, to God whose we are and whom we serve. There
are situations where the deed is easy and word is costly. Whether in
word or in deed, what is required in every situation is that we be
faithful to him . . . ' (Mission in Christ's Way p14).

We are called to be true to the Lord who was rejected and crucified
without honour and been raised to honour by the God of life.

So we should relax because the success of Christ's mission does not depend
on us. But also we should be more urgent in our preaching, teaching and
healing ministry. So many folk have not heard the word of hope. Our
enthusiasm for Christ should grow as our desire to calculate our success
or failure decreases.

In seeking to be true to God's mission in our day, the question is whether
the figure of Christ has become too familiar in our churches and society.
Have we become too settled to re-ignite the pioneering spirit of earlier
times? Will evangelists in places like Africa, Asia and South America have
to 'shake the dust off their feet' because we in the Western Church have
treated Christ with 'familiarity that breeds contempt'?

Whatever is the future shape of the Church's mission, we are called to be
a community of people who live in hope and with courage. Because the One
who embodied the presence of God was rejected and crucified by clerics,
politicians, ordinary folk and disciples yet triumphed over the powers of
evil, we can be confident to proclaim God's goodness and grace, and work
for mercy, truth and justice while letting God take care of the results.

May it not be said of us that Jesus is without honour among his own people
- that familiarity with him has bred contempt. And may we be unsettled by
the 'all-sufficient grace of God' to proclaim in word and deed the One in
whom hope for our strife-torn world has been uniquely and superbly
embodied.

---------------

Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church,
Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of
Confessing Congregations within the UCA.

 

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