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Thursday, 12 January 2017

Ministry and withdrawal, ministry and moving out

Here is my sermon from yesterday's lunchtime Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Mark’s Gospel begins a little like an action movie. Before we have completed the first chapter John the Baptist has preached, Jesus has been baptised, tempted in the desert, called the disciples, and healed a man in the synagogue. The pace of action is breathtaking. Read it at home and see for yourself! We are still in the first chapter with today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1. 29 - 39) and, although that is the case, have here ten verses that show us the pattern of Jesus’ whole ministry. Mark tells us stories that sum up what the whole of Jesus’ mission and ministry were about, so that we can follow in Jesus’ footsteps by doing the same.

The first pattern that we see in this story is the balance been ministry and spirituality. Mark describes an intense period of ministry. Jesus returns from the synagogue where he has just healed a man to find that Simon’s mother-in-law is unwell. He heals her and then spends the evening healing many “who were sick with all kinds of diseases and drove out many demons.” We know how busy and exhausted we can feel through the ministry we do in our workplaces, homes, community, and here at St Martin’s. We can imagine how Jesus would have felt following this ministry.

In the morning, everyone is again looking for Jesus but he is nowhere to be found. Long before daylight he had got up, left the town and gone to a lonely place where he could pray. In order to pray effectively and well to needed to get away from the demands of ministry and away from his disciples. He needed to be alone with God in order to recharge his batteries for further ministry to come and this is his pattern throughout his ministry; active mission together with others combined with withdrawal for individual prayer and recuperation. It needs to be our pattern too.

The busyness of ministry here at St Martin’s and in our weekday lives cannot be sustained if it is not fed by regular times of withdrawal for prayer and recuperation. The two are clearly separated in Jesus’ life and ministry and he is prepared to disappoint people, as in this story, in order to ensure that he has the times of prayer and recuperation that he needs in our to sustain his active ministry. This is why prayer and spirituality is prioritised here at St Martin’s, as can be seen with our current adverts for the Silent Retreat and Lent Course; but also in many other ways.

The second pattern that we find in this story is that of ministry and moving on. Jesus has this time of active ministry with the people at Capernaum and then he moves on to preach in the other villages across the whole of Galilee. The people don’t want him to go. The disciples tell Jesus that everyone is looking for him. They want more of what he has already given them. But he refuses them and moves on to preach to others. There are two aspects to the pattern of Jesus’ ministry here. First, is his concern for all to hear. That is why he has come, he says, that he should bring God’s message to all. We need that same motivation. The message of salvation cannot stay wrapped up inside this building or our congregation but must go out from here. That is the motivation behind the HeartEdge network of churches we are currently building and other partnership and mission activities with which we are involved.

This also needs to happen for our own growth and development. We grow as Christians not by staying where we are and being ministered to but by getting up and following in Jesus’ footsteps ourselves; by becoming active ministers of the Gospel ourselves. That is why Jesus constantly challenges his hearers to take up their cross and follow him. It is not that he wants to condemn all of us to suffering and a hard life instead he wants us to become people who learn how to give more than we receive.

William Temple famously said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” What he meant is that the Church is not about us members getting our needs and wants satisfied; it is instead about equipping and motivating us, the members, to bless others in the love of Christ. That is what Jesus sought to achieve by moving from town to town, village to village and challenging his disciples to go with him.

We need to mirror these patterns of ministry and withdrawal, ministry and moving out in our lives and our Church. St Martin’s is a society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. As we follow Christ, we cannot simply be about getting our needs and wants satisfied but need to be about being equipped by God through times of prayer and recuperation to be signs of Christ outside of this building, outside of our congregation, out where it makes a difference, out in our community and workplaces.


John Dunstable - Quam Pulchra Es.

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