Protect and serve

Mark 5:21-end

I am a Christian who lived in Rome between the years 60 and 70 after Christ. It was about that time that Mark wrote his gospel for us. In that gospel he tells these two intertwined stories about the ruler of the synagogue and the woman with an issue of blood. I’m trying to make sense of what they meant to us, to try and help you to make sense of what they might mean to you.

So you think the church in your time is experiencing difficult times because of pressures from both without and within? From outside there is the constant undermining of the faith from aggressive academic atheism. There is also the secularisation of society and the lack of any reference to God in the political and social decision making of your time. And within the church you cannot agree amongst yourselves. Apart from the centuries-old divisions between the denominations, within each of them there are bitter disagreements. Can there be female bishops? Can there be such a thing as same sex marriage? Can scripture be taken literally? What room is there for interpretation? What are the relative merits of scripture and tradition? The convictions are deep and the arguments passionate.

You will have found that, once any organisation feels itself to be under threat, it is tempted to turn inwards, put up the barriers and protect itself. Survival becomes the only objective. All resources are deployed to this end.

How do I know this? Because it was what was happening to us?

Talk about being under threat! Of course we were. Once Christianity had come to our city we were perceived as undermining the authorities. Once we proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord, it sounded as if we did not accept the authority of the Emperor. So a few years ago Claudius, the then Emperor, expelled many of our number including Aquila and Priscilla.

To make things worse we could not agree amongst ourselves. The story of Jesus was first preached in the synagogues and some Jewish people became believers. But some Gentiles also came to believe. So we had Jewish Christian congregations and Gentile Christian congregations. Of course there were differences between us. The Gentile congregations would not keep the Sabbath Day holy and they ignored the food laws that were so precious to people who had been brought up to keep them. Given that we followed Jesus, the Jew, how Jewish should the church be? We could not agree. When Paul wrote his letter to us he reprimanded us for these arguments between us.

Then Paul actually came to Rome, but as a prisoner. That did not stop him preaching. Then the city was set on fire and Nero blamed us for it. Further persecutions took place. Both Paul and Peter were killed.

The threats to our existence as a church were very real. They were literally life-threatening. So we knew of the temptation to turn inwards, to put up the barriers, and use our resources to simply survive.

Then Mark wrote his Gospel for us. He told the story and the stories of Jesus to help us in our predicament. Included in it were these stories of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum and the woman with an issue of blood. So how did those stories help us?

At the time Jesus was under threat from the Jewish authorities. They followed him everywhere, trying to trip him up. They wanted to find reason to do away with him. Yet here he was, ministering to his local representative of Jewish authority. Rather than withdraw into fellowship with his disciples and keep away from any authority that might threaten him, Jesus engaged with one of them and found him to be a man of profound faith.

This helped us to realise that we could not hide behind closed doors, but that we had to engage and dialogue with the authorities of our city, even if, in the end, it was dangerous. Keeping ourselves to ourselves would help no-one. Keeping ourselves to ourselves would mean that we would lose any chance of the authorities coming to realise that the message we carried was for them and their world.

This story also reminded us that we could not cut ourselves off from our Jewish roots. The issue is not Christian versus Jew but people of faith against people of no faith.

That other story, the one about the unnamed woman with an issue of blood, a woman so excluded from society that she could not be part of the synagogue, reminded us that while we are so concerned to protect ourselves in order to survive, there are people out there, beyond the life of our community, who desperately need us. Using all our resources to build protective walls around ourselves denies the very purpose of our existence, which is to serve others.

I think that these stories might help you too. Let the story about Jesus engaging with authorities that might threaten him encourage you to leave the security of your own community to work with others. You will find that once you start to understand them and learn their language (isn’t learning other people’s languages a gift of Pentecost?) that there is as much faith with them as there is within the church. You will also find that it will begin to clear up any false images they have about your own faith. I cannot help but remember that when Paul was in Ephesus he held discussions every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus – and this went on for two years. When he was in Athens he debated with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

Let the story of the unnamed, outcast woman touching Jesus and being healed encourage you to remember that outside your Christian group there are others who feel cut off from you but desperately need your help. They include the neighbour who comes and says, I know you are a Christian. My daughter has got cancer, pray for her won’t you? It includes those who say, Say one for me!

I think in your times, there are many who, for many reasons, feel cut off from the church. Their faith depends on yours.

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