Scripture: Mark 6:7-13
If I asked you the question “What is church for?” what would you say?
What is the point? What are we here to do?
Here’s the answer I’m looking for: the church exists to make disciples. In our full UMC mission statement, we would say: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Here at Arlington Temple we might say: to equip people to go out as God’s people in the world.
We’re here to become and make disciples. As I told you a couple weeks ago, Bishop Lewis wants all churches in the Virginia Conference to have an intentional discipleship-making process in place by 2020, so this is something we’ve begun to have some conversation around in Admin Board. And as a way of bringing you all into that discussion, we’re spending this Easter season with the twelve disciples and their own discipleship journeys: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Not too long ago there was a hashtag going around in some of my social media circles, #worldsokayestmom. (For the less social media savvy among you, a hashtag is a word or phrase that you add to the end of a Facebook post or Tweet that allows that post to be grouped with other posts with the same hashtag.) This #worldsokayestmom hashtag allowed people to confess the ways that they didn’t feel like the greatest mom that day – you know, not terrible or dangerous things, just ways you didn’t meet your own high bar of momhood. So, for example: “I was going to take the kids to the park but instead I let them have screen time all afternoon while I took a nap on the sofa, #worldsokayestmom” or maybe, “No clean clothes so I dressed my kid in an outfit covered with yogurt from yesterday #worldsokayestmom,” that sort of thing. (I would know nothing about these, of course.)
In one of my clergy groups someone actually started the spinoff #worldsokayestpastor, but I’m not going to go there.
Well, it occurred to me that we might call the twelve disciples as Mark depicts them #worldsokayestdisciples.
They get scared when they’re supposed to trust Jesus. They try to do disciple-y things and fail. They sometimes miss the point of what Jesus is saying completely. When the going gets tough, the disciples get going – as far away as they can.
And yet they also leave their jobs and families on a moment’s notice to follow Jesus. And they do try really hard, mostly. And they do, once in a while, manage to get out of their own way enough to let the power and love of God be shown through them. They’re not terrible at this whole discipleship thing, really. They’re just not that great at it either. And for those of us who have ever felt like we’re not quite awesome enough to qualify as a disciple, maybe we can see a lot of ourselves in them.
At the beginning of this series I talked about how there are different levels of discipleship, from the inner circle of the Twelve to the rest of the crowds of people following Jesus a lot more informally, and how for us at least those aren’t fixed categories – we can grow from one into the other over the course of our lives or faith journeys (recognizing that even those in the inner circle are far from perfect!)
The question of today is: how? How does a disciple become a disciple? Or maybe I should say, how does a just-okay disciple actually-fairly-mature-though-still-imperfect disciple?
To answer that question let’s meet back up with our disciples.
Two weeks ago we heard the stories of the twelve disciples being called by Jesus and appointed as his inner circle: to be with him, to be sent out and preach, and to have authority to throw out demons. But notice that here we are today a couple of chapters later and they haven’t done any of that stuff yet – except for being with Jesus. So what have the disciples been up to between chapters 3 and 6?
Well, they have followed Jesus around as he teaches. They’ve heard a number of parables by this point, depicting the Kingdom of God in new and evocative images. They’ve observed an early conflict between Jesus and some legal experts, one that foreshadows more to come. As Kelvin told us last week, they’ve weathered a bad storm together and learned a bit about the necessity of trusting Jesus even when things seem really bad. They’ve watched Jesus perform an exorcism and heal a couple of people. They are learning. They may not quite get it, but they are learning. They are getting a taste of what this life of discipleship means.
But ultimately, as important as all of that is, a disciple’s job isn’t just to soak it all in. A disciple’s job is to take the message into the rest of the world.
One day as Jesus is traveling around teaching in different villages, he gathers the twelve disciples and he tells them, guys, it’s time. The disciples are about to be set loose.
First he gives them authority over unclean spirits. He appointed them earlier to have this authority, but they haven’t been given it yet. Then he gives them instructions. He tells them to take nothing with them but a walking stick – no food, no money, no change of clothes. He tells them not to keep going from house to house looking for the sweetest accommodations but to accept the hospitality that is offered in the first house they come to, and if it’s not offered at all, to shake the dust off their feet and move on. He tells them to go, proclaim the Kingdom of God, cast out demons, and heal the sick.
In other words, how do these disciples become ready to do the work of disciples? It’s not automatic. It’s not magic. They have to be equipped for the job.
You may have heard the saying, “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.” This saying encourages us to believe that we can do God’s work even when we don’t feel particularly worthy of it. Once in a while that may mean that God’s Spirit will instantaneously come over us and magically empower us to do this work that we can’t do on our own. But I suspect that very often it means both that God will empower us with the Holy Spirit AND that God will give us the opportunity to put the necessary tools in our toolkit, so to speak, to do what we need to do.
When I preach, I listen for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for what God might have to say to you all through a text. I also have a number of commentaries on my shelf that help me understand what I am reading, because the Holy Spirit never rejected a little faithful preparation.
I posed this question to our Admin Board members during our discussion, and I want to pose it to you now too: How do disciples become equipped to be or grow as disciples?
Jesus equipped his disciples for their mission, and he wants to equip us for ours, too.
BUT. Do you imagine that when Jesus was done talking to his disciples, before they set off, that they felt fully equipped for what was ahead of them?
Honestly, I can only guess that when Jesus finished this speech the disciples just stared at him wide-eyed for a moment.
Personally, I would have had a couple problems with all of this. First of all, going door to door, you’ve got to be kidding me. Second of all, I’m kind of a “be prepared” kind of person, you know? I don’t really like to wing it. So I have trouble with these instructions to pack light and just trust that everything you need is going to magically show up when you get there. You can get into some real trouble that way. And third of all, healing people? That sounds like maybe the upper-level discipleship course and I’m still kind of on Discipleship 101, you know?
I can imagine that if I were one of those first twelve disciples, I might have responded something like, “Please, Jesus, just a little longer. If I can just watch you do this exorcism thing a few more times, I’ll be good. If I can just hear a few more stories, maybe I’ll be ready to tell other people about the Kingdom of God. If I can just be around you a little longer, maybe I’ll be ready to trust God even when I’m scared and it’s cold and I didn’t bring a coat.”
But the thing is we don’t get to wait until we’re the perfect disciples to respond to God’s call and go out into the world and do God’s work. Because as it turns out that discipleship is comprised of a lot of on-the-job training, too.
In our Admin Board discussion of how disciples are formed as disciples, do you know what emerged as the one overwhelming theme? That our church leaders had been formed in their own discipleship through people who had invested in them and gave them opportunities to serve and to lead that they never thought they could do.
This mission that the disciples get sent out on in Mark 6 is their training wheels mission. I don’t mean it wasn’t a real mission. The people they healed certainly thought it was a real mission. The people who heard the good news of the Kingdom of God for the first time certainly thought it was a real mission. But what I mean is it was as much about the disciples realizing they could do this work as it was about the work they did.
I know when Pat Booher talks about ASP he often says that one of the best parts, for him, is to watch a young person who has never built something before, or never operated a power tool, learn that they can do something they never though they could do. (Sometimes that young person with the power tools has been me.) That mission is both about someone getting a safer house, and someone learning they have what it takes to do God’s work. Sometimes, in the life of discipleship, we need someone to give us that chance – and then, of course, we need to say yes, trusting God to equip us in ways both spiritual and practical.
In your bulletins today you’ll find an index card, and that’s because I want some information from you. I would like to know how you think you could be better equipped as a disciple. What could we as a church be doing to give you that knowledge or those skills or that confidence to be God’s people in the world? What is God calling you to that we could help you with, so that you are ready to go out into the world and answer that call, even if it’s scary and you don’t really know what you’re doing?
For example: a couple years ago we had a church meeting or conversation in which someone said they could use help with how to talk about their faith with others, so last summer we had a couple of workshops on Holy Conversation. What is it that you need to be equipped to do God’s work here at church and out in the world? Do you need a better knowledge of the Bible so you can talk about it intelligently? Help formulating what yourself believe? Do you need help finding the right opportunity to use your gifts in God’s service? Help discerning what God’s call actually is in the first place? Help fitting spiritual practices into your life in a way that is sustainable? What else? Take a few minutes…
Here’s the flip side of all that. When I say “what can the church be doing,” I don’t just mean me. I don’t just mean Divine. I don’t just mean Admin Board. Who is the church? All of us. What are we doing to support and equip each other on this discipleship journey? Who are you investing in because you see God working in them and want to see them use their gifts for God’s glory? How are you using your experience and gifts and skills and the tools in your kit you’ve acquired along the way to help other disciples grow?
You may think, oh man, I need to be a pretty good disciple to do that, to help other people grow in their discipleship.
And it’s true that that might come more as you grow yourself. But you don’t have to be a perfect disciple to help make other disciples. You can be a just okay disciple and do that, like those first disciples did. Because reaching out and spreading the word and healing and helping others grow is part of your own growth in discipleship, too – your on-the-job training.
And I have to say that sometimes it’s way better to learn what discipleship looks like from someone who isn’t perfect at it – just like me. Because then I think that I can do it too.
A few verses later in Mark, we read “The disciples returned to Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught.” I actually really like how Luke puts it when Jesus sends out not just the Twelve but 72 disciples for the same purpose. They come back and say, “Jesus! Jesus! Even the demons submit to us in your name!” In other words, “We did it, Jesus! We didn’t think that we could do it, but we did!”
God is calling you to discipleship. You don’t have to be a model disciple. You don’t have to be amazing and holy. You need to learn what you need to learn then you need to go and figure the rest out along the way. Who knows, maybe through you God will heal somebody’s pain. Maybe through you, someone will experience liberation from something that has been tormenting them. Maybe through you, they will hear about the Kingdom of God in a way they never did before, in a way that makes them want to know more.
And maybe you’ll come back and say, “God, look what I did!” And God will smile and say, the work I have for you is just beginning.