I am grateful to my colleague in the diocesan Ministry Team, Canon William Gulliford, for (perhaps inadvertently) pointing me in the direction this week’s blog has taken, which is, I hope, appropriate for this season of ordinations. The pictures below were taken at two recent ordinations, one in the diocese, the other of an ordinand from our diocese now serving as a priest in the Diocese of Chelmsford. We focus mainly on the Gospel lectionary text for this coming Sunday, Mark 6.1-13, though also draw attention to the Epistle, 2 Corinthians 12.1-10.
This is the time of year when most ordinations happen in the Church of England. Our ordinations in the Diocese in Europe are taking place in these days. Given that, as Anglicans, our understanding of ministry and ordination is linked to the role of the ‘apostles’ in the New Testament, it is interesting that this week’s lectionary Gospel (Mark 6.1-13) refers to Jesus sending out ‘the twelve’ in mission and ministry (The particular verses that do so are verses 6 to 13).
As often with episodes in the Gospel of Mark – it is interesting to see what comes immediately before – and immediately after – the passage. This may well offer a hint as to what Mark is wanting to say to us.
The focus of the previous chapter of Mark’s Gospel (and indeed the verses at the end of chapter 4) is ‘faith’. The faith of the woman with a haemorrhage is specifically noted (5.34), while Jesus reassures Jairus when he learns of the apparent death of his daughter with the words, ‘Do not fear, only believe (i.e. ‘have faith) (5.36).
These interwoven stories therefore present a sharp contrast to what greets Jesus when he returns to his home town (which we assume to be Nazareth). The brief account (6.1-6), which forms the first half of the coming Sunday lectionary Gospel, remarks on the lack of faith Jesus encounters in this place, ‘He was amazed at their unbelief’ (6.6).
And then we move directly into the sending out of ‘the twelve’ on a mission of teaching and healing, which is also a story about faith. The mission seems to go very well. The ‘faith’ which is implicit in this story is both the ‘faith’ of the twelve who were willing to go out in the way that Jesus has asked of them, and the faith of the people that these twelve encountered and whose lives were changed as a result.
But… and this is where the issue gets slightly problematic yet also very interesting… what exactly was the faith of the twelve at this point in Mark’s Gospel? For we still have more than two chapters to travel before in 8.29 Peter finally manages to blurt out ‘You are the Messiah!’ And intriguingly the last direct (before 6.10) words of Jesus to his disciples had commented specifically on their lack of faith, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (4.40) So whatever ‘faith’ the twelve managed to muster, it was certainly focused on what Jesus had been teaching and enacting in relation to the kingdom of God, rather than any clear understanding of who Jesus was in his own person.
There are two practical outcomes that I want to refer to in exploring the implications of this. One is very specific, the other more general.
Currently I am working, along with a working group of interesting, interested and committed people from around our diocese on a Christian educational course for lay people. We hope to have something prepared that we can ‘launch’ in September 2022. It is intended to be the sort of course that in some other dioceses is referred to as a ‘Bishop’s certificate’. The course will be structured around four modules, with their titles and foci taken in turn from the four ‘pillars’ of the Rule of Life presented to the Diocesan Synod in 2019:
- Knowing God
- Growing in Christ
- Building Community
- Living beyond ourselves
We have already done a lot of work on the first module ‘Knowing God’ and hope to finalise a complete first draft of this over the summer. The thread that runs through the five ‘units’ that make up this module is the Lord’s Prayer, and each of the units explores a phrase from this central Prayer of our Christian faith – which, as a book I was reading yesterday reminded me, is ‘older than the church’!
But of course one thing that it is interesting to realise is that the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t tell us directly anything about Jesus at all. It doesn’t even end with the classic phrase used at the end of many Christian prayers, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. The Lord’s Prayer is called the Lord’s Prayer because it is the prayer that Jesus taught, rather than a prayer about him.
So in consequence in our first module we are not focusing directly on Jesus, although the Gospel passages we are drawing on include several of his great parables, such as the story of the Prodigal Son. Rather in this first module, we are thinking about drawing closer to God, especially God the Father, through prayer, through the psalms, through our need to be forgiven and to forgive, through reflection on the nature of God’s Kingdom and its coming, through wrestling with our perplexities about pain and suffering. We will certainly be focusing in the second module ‘Growing in Christ’ on who Jesus was and is, and what he as accomplished for us, but we deliberately haven’t quite got there yet. So it is interesting to see such a similar pattern being expressed in our Gospel, and in the lives of ‘the twelve’. The starting-point for their mission at this point is what Jesus had taught, rather than who Jesus was.
The other implication that I want also to touch on briefly relates to this ordination season. Those who are ordained deacon or priest at this time, are, if they follow in the apostolic pattern of ‘the twelve’, people still with much to learn, both about Jesus and the nature of ministry. We might be entitled to hope that ordinands have at least some idea what the Christian church has affirmed about Jesus (!), but all the same ordination is not a finishing line, but a ‘staging post’ on their way. The ‘faith’ that sustains newly ordained clergy must have an element of wondering yet perplexed excitement. The much more that they have to discover will come in considerable part as the result of the practical lived experience of exercising their ministry, as, we can assume, was also the case for those first ‘twelve’.
It was a stroke of serendipity or an instance of inspiration on the part of the lectionary compilers to link this Gospel passage with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12.1-10, in which Paul reflects on the importance of his own weakness, culminating in his powerful affirmation that the Lord had proclaimed to him ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made known in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12.9). Once again the ‘apostolic’ pattern of ministry is not one of omniscience or omnipotence, but rather the reverse.
And one more thing. Also salutary to remember during this ordination season. I said that it is always interesting, especially in the Gospel of Mark, to discover what comes immediately before or immediately after a particular passage. In this case this first mission of ‘the twelve’ is followed by the account of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6.14-29). At the beginning of this Gospel the pattern has been established of a journey ‘on the way’, with Jesus himself as the centre of this pilgrim party, with those he calls literally ‘following’ him on this path (e.g. Mark 1.17) and with John the Baptist his ‘forerunner’ on the way. It is no accident, I am sure, that this first mission of the twelve, on which they report back to Jesus only after we have heard of the Baptist’s death (Mark 6.30), is so closely associated with the account of the fate of the forerunner, who will foreshadow not only Jesus’ own later passion, but also the suffering of ‘his followers’. Christian ministry in the apostolic tradition most assuredly requires faith which even if it may not be complete, may well prove to be costly.
‘I have sometimes wondered if we might be surprised and disappointed by what it means that our faith is ‘built on the faith of the apostles’ as we have so proudly sung and proclaimed. They barely ever got the point, and seem as thoroughly foolish as we are; but God still used them, because like all of us they were little children too. I indeed share in this very faith. We are all and forever beginners in the journey toward God and truth. (Richard Rohr, ‘Falling Upward’)