Jesus comes to his hometown, and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath where he teaches, and the people are astonished. Now, astonished is an interesting word choice. It simply means that the people were filled with “a sudden and overwhelming surprise or wonder.” (dictionary.com) But we don’t know, at this point in the story, if it’s a pleasant surprise or not. They start to wonder where Jesus got all this wisdom and power, and it’s at this point that things take a decidedly negative turn. The crowd starts to recount what they know about this Jesus guy, and their astonishment turns to offense! And as a result of their unbelief, Jesus is only able to heal a few sick people before moving on to another place.
It’s at this point that Jesus starts to send the 12 apostles out in groups of 2, with authority over unclean spirits. They’re to travel light and to depend on the hospitality of those to whom they’re sent. This sending follows Jesus’ inability to do signs and wonders in his hometown, and ends with the 12 being more than able, as verse 13 says: they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them. Jesus is revealed as the weak one here, prefiguring his passion wherein he’s the one who can’t lift his hand from the wood of the cross, and who appears to be unable either to prophecy or to save himself, when challenged to do so. The whole thing is quite paradoxical. (Gordon Lathrop, New Proclamation, Year B, 2000)
This Son of God who has been doing amazing things is, here, weak and rejected, and can do no deed of power in his hometown.
Paul’s boasting in 2 Corinthians is equally paradoxical.
Paul boasts, not in special revelations, or in his call to be an apostle, but in his weakness. Paul understands the power of paradox: “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s in weakness that we connect to the One who became weak for us, and in connecting to his weakness, we are joined to him in his death. And if we are joined to him in his death, we will most certainly be joined to him in his resurrection.
But living in paradox isn’t really the most comfortable way to live, now is it?
Let’s be honest. It’s much easier to be strong, and to be able to make sure things go the way you think they should go. But that’s not the life of discipleship that we’re called to live in Christ. For far too long, the Church has forgotten this, especially in the Western world, including here in our nation where we have enjoyed astonishing levels of privilege and power. We got way too used to being in control, and to being a dominant voice in the dominant culture.
Many lament the change in our status over these past few decades, as the Church is no longer at the center of culture. We’re having to learn, again, what it means to be disciples of a crucified Christ. We’re having to learn, again, that there’s a possibility that, when we speak in God’s name, people might choose not to listen, or they might reject what we have to say out of hand, precisely because we speak in the name of God in Christ. And I am, in some ways, I’ve got to admit, glad for the change.
It’s all too easy for us to be tempted to look back longingly at those days when we were a dominant voice in the culture, able to impose our will on others, and to do so in the name of God. But I think it’s worth considering whether that’s ever where, who or what God intended us to be as the Church. As Gordon Lathrop writes in a commentary on this text: “The Christian assembly today gathers around the weakness of Jesus Christ, known most profoundly in his sharing the lot of the wretched and rejected of the earth on the cross.” (New Proclamation, Year B, 2000) This is not the position of a dominant religion functioning in the midst of, and with the sanction of, a dominant segment of a dominant culture. Like the 12 being sent out 2 by 2, facing the very real possibility of rejection, and like our Lord who, even in his hometown, faced rejection and offense and unbelief, we are living in a missionary field right here in our own nation.
The most recent Lutheran magazine (July, 2015) reports the findings of a new Pew Research Center study that shows that there are now nearly 23% of Americans identifying themselves as “nones” – those with no religious affiliation – which puts this group second only to Evangelicals at just over 25% and ahead of Roman Catholics at just under 21% (Pew Research Center May, 2015). There are more “nones” than Roman Catholics in our country today!
This is the reality of the religious and cultural landscape into which we are sent each week, as we hear the call of God to: “Go in peace. Serve the Lord!”
We are the little ones, the weak ones, the outsiders, once again. And this makes us much more like the Church was in the days when Mark’s Gospel was written than like what the Church was in 1950s America. But this shouldn’t be cause for worry, or fret, or the wringing of hands. This is the time to rejoice, and to lean into mission, trusting in the Spirit of God to come, to empower and to lead us out with the saving word of the Gospel. This is the time for us to go out as apostles, sent by God, proclaiming the power of God in Christ – the power to heal, to restore, to reconcile, to renew, to change, to save…
People like to fret over this new reality, as if the Church can or ought to be measured according to some worldly metric of success or failure. But our metric ought to look very different from any the world might propose. Those obsessed with power and success in the world often say things like: failure is not an option! But our message, the Gospel message, is exactly the opposite: failure IS an option, because whenever I am weak, then I am strong. When I die, then I am born into eternal life. When I am treated with dishonor, then I join with Christ in his suffering. When I join with Christ in his suffering, then I learn to boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
So, not only is failure an option, really, it’s the ONLY option. It’s the option of the cross. It’s the way of Christ. It’s the path to life eternal, the entryway to the eternal banquet of God in Christ.
As Lathrop says: “The Eucharist, a little bit of food which proclaims the death of Christ is still, today, the meal of the Spirit, since it is the breaking out of life, and healing, and community amid our weakness.” (New Proclamation, Year B, 2000).
As we come to the Lord’s Table in just a few minutes, may this meal be exactly that for us – may it be the breaking out of life, and healing, and community amid our weakness. And, having been fed and nourished with this little bit of food, may we be empowered to go forth in Christ’s name to be a source of life, and healing, and community breaking out in our daily living for the sake of all the needy world. Amen.