When the church operates from a position of power and wealth, it has no authority. (Listen to a much earlier version here.)
I have a confession to make. As I prepared to travel to Canberra and preach on this story, that is, a story where disciples are sent out carrying no bag and no change of clothing, I panicked. I hadn’t been to this city before, let alone this church; and I suddenly realised two things. One, my usual op shop clothes probably wouldn’t cut it; and, two, my only good pair of pants had moved to Melbourne earlier this year with my oldest daughter. So I ran out and bought myself a new pair of pants, and shoved them into my already overflowing bag.
But I’m not quite sure where the confession lies. Is it that I don’t think people can speak with authority when they’re wearing ratty pants? Is it that I’m so compromised by consumer culture that I don’t trust Jesus’ instructions? Is it that I suspect that you, too, wouldn’t trust a scruffy preacher, particularly not a scruffy woman? I’m not sure: but I do know that, once upon a time, I was at another capital city church: and there, clothes mattered.
Way back in the dark ages, when I was a teenager, our family attended a church in Washington, D.C.; and if I wore white shoes in the wrong season, boy did the ladies of the church let me know about it. We had to dress up for church, and I always seemed to be too hot, too cold, too itchy, too uncomfortable, my feet jammed into narrow pumps which slipped on the polished stone floor. Many of the women wore fancy hats, soft furs, expensive jewellery, full make up; while, except for the homeless blokes wandering in off the streets, the men and boys wore suits. Attenders included political staffers and advisors, stockbrokers, CIA and military folk, as well as the odd senator, ambassador, and governor of the federal reserve. Sometimes, the president came to church. When this happened, we in the youth group would be distracted from our Sunday morning Bible study as snipers with machine guns crawled up the sides of the building to secure the roof; we were supposed to ignore them.
From time to time, a member of the congregation would invite my family to Sunday lunch at one of Washington’s elite clubs. There we’d be greeted by a doorman in top hat and tails. Once inside, we’d be ushered into a hushed dining room with thick carpets, double damask tablecloths, and silver service. One wall was tiled with photographs of members who were Justices of the Supreme Court; another, Nobel prize winners; yet another, Pulitzer prize winners; and I think there were some Fields Medallists, too. The hall to the restroom was lined with first edition stamps featuring members’ faces. Everything about the club oozed opportunity, excellence, wealth, power. There was no entry even to the dining room without an invitation from a well-connected host.
I think of these institutions now, the club and the church, and of the wealth and power which those places embodied. I think of how, despite good work at high levels and a culture of volunteerism, they essentially upheld the status quo. I think, too, of their property holdings; and then of many other elegant buildings in Washington which are now embassies. My mind wanders to how politicians give plum posts to wealthy cronies, and send them away with the power of the state behind them, extensive staff to welcome them, and generous allowances to enable them to host. Then I think of how, even in Australia, going to the right schools and belonging to the right clubs give people immense access to power; and of how, in these settings, wealth is passport and virtue and blessing.
And I think of how deeply the institutional church is implicated in this culture. Bishops live in palaces; megachurch pastors boast of their wealth; and conservative evangelicals are a lobby group to be reckoned with. Pentecostals have the ear of the prime minister; and a lowly Baptist pastor feels she has to buy new trousers simply in order to be heard.
Like movers and shakers in the wider world, it seems, too often the church positions itself with the wealthy and powerful; too often it aims to look successful or convincing or in charge. And so it tries to dominate, seeking to regulate not itself but other people’s bodies and lives. It trumpets family values, even as it resists efforts towards justice for families and children who have suffered at the hands of religious institutions and their adherents. Like so many rich people, it congratulates itself for its charity, while remaining largely silent on the need for radical structural change: for it clings to vast property holdings and assets beyond imagining even as it claims to preach the gospel of one who had not even a pillow on which to lay his head. And so it has lost its authority.
Because people outside the church have no time for Christians who embody a culture of dominance. And why should they? For when the church tries to operate from a position of power, it becomes hypocritical and self-serving. It looks nothing like Jesus, and it entirely misses the point.
And the point is this: The gospel is marginal, and the only way to share the gospel is to be marginal, too; for in Mark’s account, the messenger is the message. At least, Jesus seems to think so; for when he sends his disciples out, he doesn’t give them a list of preaching points. Instead, he tells them how to be in the world: that is, that they must live with radical trust in God.
For when he tells them to hit the road, he instructs them to take nothing but his authority. They are to carry no food, no bag, no money in their belts, no closed shoes, and no change of clothing. They are to have no weapon beyond a walking stick; they have no status. Instead, they must rely on other people to feed, clothe and shelter them as they go about proclaiming the gospel, teaching and healing.
More, Jesus warns them that they will be rejected. It should come as no surprise. In Mark’s account, between calling the twelve and now sending them, Jesus has already been rejected four times: by his family, by legal experts, by foreign people across the sea, and most recently by his hometown. For those who follow in his footsteps, it seems rejection is pretty much inevitable. And just in case there are any lingering doubts, Jesus instructs the disciples what to do when it happens: simply walk away, shaking the dust off your feet as you do so.
In other words, disciples are not expected to be wealthy. Nor are they expected to be at the centre of power. They are not expected to be independent or well-resourced or popular; nor are they going to be deferred to: there will be no doorman. They will not be making strategic small talk as they host lavish banquets for carefully selected guests. They are not even guaranteed a welcome, let alone success. Instead, as Jesus’ ambassadors they are told to travel empty-handed, relying on other people to meet their needs.
This suggests that their true power and authority will emerge precisely when they live with an attitude of radical trust. And while this doesn’t preclude being wealthy—indeed, some of Jesus’ supporters were extremely well connected—it is more likely to mean poverty. And why? Because as long as we are wealthy and powerful, we are tempted to rely on our own strength: but then all we convey are human values. God’s power is different: God’s power is made perfect through weakness. And so if we want to share in God’s power, we must learn to trust only God: and we do this best from a position of weakness and vulnerability and humility.
As long as the church clings to being powerful, respectable, self-sufficient, and in control, as long as it trusts in its wealth, working from a position of weakness will feel very costly; in fact, it will feel scandalous. And it is. To a world schooled in empire, it is scandalous that God works through insignificant shameful people: pregnant teenagers, stinking fishermen, low level bureaucrats, and other ordinary disciples. It is scandalous that Christ is proclaimed not through access to power or a good marketing campaign, but through bleeding women, blind men, and ragamuffin children in the street. It is scandalous that, when we do God’s will, there is no guarantee of reward or success; indeed, we might even be marginalised and rejected.
Yet for those of us who wish to follow Christ, this is the only way. And when we live this way, when we place our trust not in power, wealth or shiny new pants but only in God, then, like those first very ordinary disciples, we too will become Christlike. We too will be granted his authority; we too will be sent to surprising people and strange new places; we too will be formed into bearers of good news and healing.
So as ambassadors for Christ, let us lay down our privilege and power, our education and entitlement, our credit cards and KPI’s and expectations of success. Let us lay down our aspirations and ambitions, our good connections, our self-importance, self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Let us lay down any illusion that we are the arbiters of morality and righteousness. Let us lay them all down as the false gods that they are; and let us confess our sin and place our trust in the one true God.
And when we do, when we risk vulnerability and life on the margins, when we choose simplicity and act for justice, when we work humbly, when we listen attentively, when we speak words not of judgement but of love: perhaps then people will experience us as bearers of good news and workers of healing. And perhaps then they will welcome us into their homes, and into their hearts and lives. Let us pray:
you emptied yourself,
taking the form of a slave
and humbling yourself even unto death.
Empty us of our pride,
strip us of our self-importance,
shatter our self-reliance.
Help us to trust in your provision
and to accept the gifts of others.
For it is in weakness that your power is known,
and in receiving that we can give.
Lord, help us to be weak.
In the name of Christ we pray: Amen. Ω
Reflect: What false gods do you trust? What do you need to be emptied of in order to follow Christ more faithfully?
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