“You don’t have time for breakfast,” I told Bryan. “You’re supposed to be at work in 20 minutes. Your shift starts at 10. You don’t want to be late.”
It was a Saturday morning & he had emerged, sleepily, well past his alarm. It took 15 minutes to get to Chic-Fil-A. Pull on a pair of shoes & a shirt, here’s some money, & off you go. I hoped he would make it.
Jesus didn’t even let the disciples take an extra shirt or money. These are emergency instructions for a swift & dangerous mission, not a program for the continuing life of the church after Easter. There have been a few brave souls who have tried to live like this in later times, but the church has usually, & in my view rightly, recognized that these commands are specific to Jesus’ own day & the setting of his mission in 1st century Palestine.
There is, though, some similarity between what the disciples must have looked like as they went on their way & the appearance of some wandering teachers, of whom we have scattered reports, who went about the ancient world begging & teaching people – often in stark & shocking ways – that the present world with all its pomp & show was a sham & foolishness & they shouldn’t pay any more attention to it. These were the Cynics, so called because of the Greek word cyon, meaning “dog” – this in a world where dogs were more likely to be vermin than family pets. They had the reputation of ‘barking’ at the rich & respectable. Some people, seeing a pair of Jesus’ disciples coming into a village, might have thought at first they were that sort of people.
They would soon learn otherwise. The similarity between the Cynics & Jesus’ disciples wasn’t more than skin deep. Cynics did not cast out demons; Mark makes this the main thing the disciples were to do. Nor was that simply a way of healing distressed souls. It was, as it was throughout Jesus’ ministry, a sign that God’s kingdom was breaking in at last.
That is why it was so urgent, & why they had to take minimum supplies with them; why they had to rely on local hospitality & keep their focus entirely on the task at hand. They were kingdom-heralds, outriders warning people that something was about to happen. The Cynics didn’t think anything new was going to happen, just that the present world was an unredeemable mess. The disciples message was that everyone should get ready for what was about to happen. Getting ready would mean repenting: not just feeling sorry for particular sins, but changing one’s heart & life. Jesus’ agenda left no room for compromise, & no time to waste.
Jesus anticipated that some places would not welcome the message. There are always some who would rather stay sick than face the daunting challenge of a new way of life, a new outlook. But the disciples are to respond with solemn symbolic action, shaking the dust of the place off their feet. How easy it would be, we might think, for this to become an act of judgement. Yet in the context of Jesus’ mission, nothing else would do. There was no time to waste. Mark’s breathless gospel focuses here on the disciples’ breathless mission; & if people won’t have it, there is no time to lose. It is on to the next place, & woe to those who have missed their chance!
The Dispatch ran a column a few weeks ago by Shayne Looper of Lockwood Community Church in MI. It was titled, “It’s time to get out of line.” I want to share some of what Pastor Looper wrote.
“The church I attended as a teen had a gold-colored carpet, cream-colored walls, & a dark-stained wood trim. Our pastor in those days was an older man in his final pastorate, & he was not what you would call a dynamic speaker.
“The possibility that our pastor’s sermons were especially boring didn’t occur to me until years later. I assumed all pastors were boring. I knew Christianity had developed out of the most important & exciting events in the history of the world, but, paradoxically, I believed the church was uninteresting by its very nature.
“But then I hadn’t converted because I thought Christianity would be fun & adventurous. I converted because I thought it was true.
“So it came as something of a surprise to find that following J is a massively big adventure. Long prayers & dry sermons are not only not integral to Christian faith, they are antithetical to it. I had absorbed the idea that Christianity was boring from people who were bored. And how could they not be bored? In their minds, the main reason - & for some of them, the only reason – to become a Christian was to go to heaven when one died. Enduring long prayers & dry sermons was the price one paid to reserve decent housing in eternity.
“I labored long under the misconception that Christianity was only about getting into heaven. I now think of that as amusement park theology. The anticipated ride – heaven – will be worth the wait, yet the wait will be long & boring. During the long wait, one should not be rude; one should talk to others in the line; & outside the line; but whatever else one does, one must not step out of line.
“In one version, stepping out of line means one can never return, while another version insists it is always possible to get back into line (that’s Methodism). A variant on the first of these claims that stepping out of line proves one was never really in line to begin with. These views possess value, but only if they are recontextualized in a biblical, not an amusement park, theology. It is time to get out of line.
“Amusement park theology did not originate with Jesus. His chosen image of the Christian life, which he presented repeatedly, was not of people standing around doing nothing while they wait for their shuttle to heaven, but of people following him in this world. The Christian life, as Jesus presented it, is a follow me life. It is active, not static; adventurous, not boring.”
Jesus’ sharing of his urgent message with the 12 was not, then, simply an example of a good leader choosing to delegate, to give his followers experience & get the work done more quickly – though no doubt that was all true as well. It was a deeply symbolic act of witness to the Israel of his day as to what day it was in God’s urgent timetable. History – Israel’s history & the world’s history – was rushing toward its climax, the final showdown. Off go the 12, symbolic of God’s renewed people, driving out evil before them, awakening memories of old prophecies of the sick being healed as the kingdom came. Jesus, it seems, was doing 3 things: he was gathering support, he was giving as many as possible a final chance to repent before the great moment came, & he was preparing the ground for the very different work that would take place following the great catastrophe.
If we want to apply this passage in our own day, then it won’t do either to suppose that we have to copy exactly Jesus’ instructions to his followers, which were for a specific time, place & purpose, or to imagine that we can set the whole thing aside as irrelevant. Though the greatest crisis came & went with Jesus’ death & resurrection, the church & the world have faced all sorts of crises at various times ever since. In fact, we are facing one now. Part of Christian discipleship is spiritual sensitivity & discernment to know when there is an emergency, & what steps to take. There have been many times in recent years, in many places around the globe, when the church’s task has been, like the 12, to go urgently around, with minimum hindrances or distractions, warning people that the world is heading rapidly in the wrong direction. The church has done things which show clearly that evil has been defeated through Jesus & can be defeated again today.
Friends, we are not called to be standing around waiting for the shuttle. We are sent out, to follow Christ & share the gospel.
By the way: yes, Bryan made it to work on time. But just barely.