Healed to Serve

Listen here.

The disciples have returned from preaching and healing around the villages. In the face of people’s need, they have barely had time to eat, so Jesus invites them to come away to a deserted place and rest awhile. Yet the crowd guesses where they’re going, and meets them there. When Jesus sees the mob, his guts wrench with compassion, and he begins to teach and heal once again … 

If ever there was a passage which speaks directly to the adult members of our congregation, this, surely, is it. We are a congregation of professional carers: advocates and psychologists and counsellors and teachers and their supporters. In our work, rather than aiming for money or status, most of us have accepted some form of apostolic commission: for an apostle is simply a messenger or delegate for a higher authority: in our case, Jesus.

As apostles, then, most of us have found work which serves people close to Jesus’ heart: people who are marginalised because of poverty, trauma, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social or cultural background: vulnerable people. And most of us spend significant time each week working with and caring for such people.

And so I suspect that most of you can identify with the disciples. No matter how hard you work, there is no end to teaching, and healing, and helping people fight demons. You stop for the day, but the texts keep coming in. You schedule time off, but a client needs an urgent appointment. You plan a holiday, and work ‘til the small hours to get away, then pick up hundreds of emails when you get back. You lie awake at night, thinking about the people you serve and everything you need to do. And even when you aren’t working, the people you encounter often see something in you, something they need, and they reach out to touch you and tell you about their lives. Somehow, everywhere you go, you end up working. In the face of the people’s need, there is barely time to eat.

“Come away,” says Jesus, “come to a deserted place, and rest awhile.”

And you are lured into thinking that the secluded place is where you will find renewal, and wholeness, and healing. The silent retreat; the holiday without the kids; the me-time. Yet even in the secluded place, you find people with needs; or, if you actually manage to be alone, you come face to face with the Accuser.

Is there truly no rest for followers of Jesus?

The answer depends on what we think rest is. We live in a society which has built up an elaborate consumer vision of recreation. We spend thousands of dollars on leisure activities and equipment and holidays, and we are told this is all about rest. Now, recreation is not bad, in and of itself: it can be great fun to play sports, or have games nights, or go away with our families—and sometimes it can even be restful!

But when Jesus talks about rest, he’s not talking about sports, or shopping, or tourism. Nor is he referring to flopping on the couch to watch Netflix. Instead, when Jesus talks about rest, he’s talking about Sabbath. This type of rest does not mean inactivity, or doing whatever we like. Instead, Sabbath is about plugging into the source of all life. It’s about opening ourselves to divine nourishment, and learning to work not in our own strength, but in God’s.

“Come away,” says Jesus, “come to a deserted place, and rest awhile.”

But if we plan to rest in the secluded place, then this story is a disappointment. The crowds are waiting, and Jesus becomes the Duracell bunny of faith. If we follow his lead we’ll keep on keeping on, serving the people and proving ourselves, all the way to burnout. For we can’t sustain things in our own strength; we can’t do compassionate work without God’s help.

So here’s a question: How do the apostles get to the secluded place?

Answer: They travel in a boat with Jesus.

And that’s where Sabbath rest happens. When people regroup around Jesus, they are refreshed, reoriented, renewed, fed by the Bread of Life, healed by the Great Healer. Then, and only then, are they ready to land on the next shore, encounter the next crowd, teach the next group, name the next demon, point the next client towards healing.

Throughout the Gospel, Mark uses the boat as a symbol for what we might call church: a gathering of the faithful with Jesus in its midst. Ever since the resurrection, his followers have encountered him most powerfully in Word and Table, bread and stories; and in the encounter, his followers are renewed. As the Gospel says, everyone who touches him is healed.

Here, then, is where we are sustained in our apostolic work, for Jesus promises to be present whenever we meet in his name. Each week, we too gather around bread and stories. There is no service without bread, no service without stories, for through these elements Jesus feeds us and heals us. In the boat we call church, drained apostles are recharged by the source of all life, plugged back into the One whose guts wrench with compassion for the crowd, the One who keeps sending us out into the world as his agents of reconciliation and healing.

For we are his ambassadors, and this is the rhythm of discipleship: come and be healed; go and heal others; proclaim the good news to everyone you meet; repeat. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56, given to Sanctuary on 22 July 2018 (BP11; Year B Proper 11) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image found here.

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