Ordinary People — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 6:1-13

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That’s the main thought for today, so I’ll say it again. The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Our oldest son, Stephan, is blessed with a beautiful singing voice. He majored in vocal music performance at Wartburg College, sang the lead there in Fiddler on the Roof, and sang professionally with the Minnesota Opera. Stephan always sang, but he didn’t get really serious about it until his senior year in high school.

The musical that year was Les Miserables. Stephan tried out and landed the lead role of Jean Valjean. We were immeasurably proud of his accomplishment. On opening night we sat in the audience waiting for the curtain to rise. Some folks in front of us were discussing the cast. “Who is this Hennigs fellow?” one asked. “He’s never been in anything here before. Nobody knows him. Where did he come from?”

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

Stephan’s mother couldn’t restrain herself. “He came from us,” she said shortly. “Beyond that, what does it matter?” Fortunately, the orchestra launched into the overture, and we were spared any further unpleasantness.

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” The folks at Nazareth had an interesting complaint. “But he’s so ordinary!” they moaned. We know this kid! His family is standing here. We changed his dirty diapers! We caught him shooting spitballs in synagogue school. How can this be anyone important in the kingdom of God?

Due to this attitude, Jesus was unable to do much of anything in Nazareth. Jesus takes no prisoners. Jesus will not kick your doors in. Jesus will not do violence to you or to anyone else. Violence is one of Satan’s tools. Instead, Jesus will suffer violence from those who expect a miraculous rescue.

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

It’s an old story, but’s it’s a good one for today. A terrible storm hit. Local officials ordered everyone in the town to evacuate immediately. A faithful Christian man heard the warning and decided to stay. He said, “I will trust God to send a divine miracle to save me.”

Neighbors offered him a ride out of town. The man declined. “I have faith that God will save me.” A man in a canoe paddled by and offered him a spot. The man again said, “No thanks, God will save me.” The floodwaters poured into his living room, and the man retreated to the second floor. A police motorboat came by and they urged him to leave. But the man refused, “Use your time to save someone else! I have faith that God will save me!”

The flood waters rose higher and higher. The man climbed to his rooftop. A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. But the man STILL refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. “No thank you! God will save me!”

Shortly after, the floodwaters swept the man away and he drowned. Then the man stood before God and asked, “I put all of my faith in You. Why didn’t You come and save me?” God said, “I sent you a car, a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

There was nothing more ordinary in first-century Palestine than Roman crosses. During outbreaks of Jewish unrest, hundreds of them might line the roads of Jerusalem. There is nothing more ordinary than dying. Special effects and virtual reality are for the movies. God works through the most ordinary ways.

But the result is the most extraordinary thing in the universe! Death is defeated. Evil is undone. Satan is dethroned. And all of it through Mary’s little boy who is also God in the flesh.

More than that, God pours out Jesus’ life on the Church. There was nothing special about those disciples. They had neither credentials nor degrees. They had neither status nor power. They had no particular gifts or abilities. They didn’t, that is, until the Holy Spirit chose them to change the world.

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

That process started right away. “They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” Don’t skip past that. They went out, and it worked!

It didn’t work because they came fully equipped for mission and service. In fact, Jesus tells them to strip down to the bare minimum necessary for survival. How can that be?

Paul describes this in our second reading. Paul had some sort of disability. Perhaps he stuttered. Perhaps he was partially blind. Perhaps he had frontal-lobe epilepsy. Scholars have speculated on each of these possibilities. But what really matters is the result. He prayed for this roadblock to be removed. He got a shocking answer.

 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” When we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have all the equipment we need. We can leave behind all the baggage of perfection and power and prettiness. God’s grace is sufficient for us. Anything else just gets in the way.

The Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

What does that mean for Emanuel Lutheran Church? If churches don’t dump some of their baggage, the Holy Spirit will do it for us. That’s why constructive change is coming first from small and struggling churches. Adversity leads us to consider alternative strategies. So we should expect the Holy Spirit to make our lives difficult!

Look at the results. A year ago, we had fourteen young people in our Vacation Bible School. It was a great time, but it couldn’t really be sustained. So we tried something else. We partnered with our friends at Our Savior’s. VBS with thirty-five is a completely different world. It was awesome. And the fringe benefits go far beyond VBS. That joint worship service was inspiring! And our young people have built powerful bridges to their sisters and brothers as they journey to Detroit together.

So the message is plain. We may be the most ordinary congregation on the planet. And that is the best news we can get. After all, the Holy Spirit uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And extraordinary is a word to describe our mission and service here and now.

Let’s pray…

Pastor Lowell R. Hennigs

Text Study for Mark 6:1-13 (Pt. 4); 6 Pentecost B 2021

Vulnerable Missionaries (Mark 6:7-13)

In her award-winning book, Native, Kaitlin Curtice reminds us of the story of John Allen Chau. Chau travelled in 2018 to the Sentinelese Islands to evangelize and “save” the indigenous people of that place. “Chau ignored years of legal protection placed on the Sentinelese peoples,” Curtice writes, “who have remained connected to their own culture and traditions without contact by outsiders and who wish to remain as they have always been” (page 50).

“What happens when white supremacy taints our Christianity so much,” Curtice wonders, “that we would rather scream the love of God over someone than honor and respect their rights to live peacefully within the communities they have created and maintained for generations?” (Page 50). Chau’s solo intervention cost him his life. It also illustrates what Curtice names “The Problem of Whiteness.”

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

As we read this gospel text, we need to keep in mind how we white, Western, Christians have done missionary work historically. “We remember that stories of Christianity and imperialism, of power and control, have been present all over the world as Christianity became a religion that benefited those at the top more than those at the bottom,” Curtice writes, “rather than a religion that encouraged people to follow the lifestyle and teachings of Jesus. Instead of doing good in the world, many Christians used the name of God to actually create those hierarchies” (page 45).

We are painfully reminded of the real grounds upon which much of our white, Western Christian missionary work has happened as authorities in Canada (and soon in the States) examine the burial sites and grave records (if they exist) for Indian residential schools. We remember with shame and horror the words of Captain Richard Pratt, who succinctly described the mission of those schools – to “kill the Indian” in order to “save the man.”

The actual result of this approach stops at the first phrase and never gets to the second one. The goal was simply to kill the Indian. “Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others, considering them less-than,” Curtice writes, “It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the ‘other’ within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really,” she concludes, “assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color” (page 45).

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30, NRSV, my emphasis). That is the summary statement that rounds off the apostolic mission journey in our reading. By itself, the report of the disciples may be quite innocent. But when we place it in the context of all the ways The Twelve get off the track, the self-aggrandizing element is warranted.

It would appear that Jesus sends the “apostles” (as labelled in the text) as de-colonizing servants who are to be vulnerable as part of their mission strategy. Instead, they seem to perform as colonizing heroes who bring the answers to the places they visit. Lots of good gets done, it would seem, There’s no doubt about that. But I have to wonder if the loudness of their method tended to drown out the power of their message.

“America was founded in part on the image of the ‘just missionary’ who came to save the ‘heathen,’” Curtice reminds us, “and flowing out of that was the inability to see humanity in Indigenous peoples all over the world, including Indigenous Africans stolen from their homelands and shipped to the US to be enslaved” (page 50). One of the reasons why Critical Race Theory has become such a rhetorical flash point in our public discourse is because CRT seeks to tell the whole truth about this history – and we white folks simply don’t want to hear it.

I am reminded of one of my favorite theological films, Bruce Almighty. The movie is, among other things, a meditation on the purpose and function of divine power. Bruce begins by thinking that power is for his own priorities and pleasures. It takes him a whole script to discover that power is only worth having in the context of love. When power is placed under the rubric of love, it is not about the self. That kind of power is always in service to the Other.

The Twelve never really grasp this notion of power in Mark’s gospel account. They are constantly squabbling along the way about which of them will be the greatest – the most powerful – in the new administration. These squabbles present Jesus with opportunities to set them straight about power. Jesus comes not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. That is how it is supposed to be among The Twelve and in the Church. But the lessons are lost on them, and perhaps on us as well.

In this text we see, Moloney (2001) summarizes, that “the Twelve are missionaries of Jesus only insofar as they respond to the initiative of Jesus, remain with him, recognize that their authority to preach conversion, to cast out demons and to heal the sick is from him.” Thus, they are always “followers” of Jesus and do nothing on their own. This is, perhaps, the lesson that is lost on them. And it is, perhaps, precisely the lesson that we must grasp here.

In our text, we appear to learn about what some have described as “vulnerable mission.” On the one hand, The Twelve are authorized to cast out demons. They exercise the power of healing and engage in teaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God. They are able to do these things because Jesus is with them. But it would seem that they want to take the power for themselves.

Jesus instructs them to be “dependent disciples” as they go. They can have a walking stick which, perhaps, could be used to fend off attacks. But they had no road trip snacks, no walking-around money, no extra shoes, and one jacket for the rain. They were not to shop around for the best accommodations and menus but rather to stay where they landed. If they wore out their welcome, they weren’t to take it personally. Cut your losses and move on, is Jesus’ counsel.

They were to be vulnerable in their mission work, not powerful. Anne Dyer describes this approach to missionary efforts. “So, ‘vulnerable,’ non-indigenous missionaries are those who, by their attitude, adapt to each context and attempt to use local resources only to meet local needs. When choosing to be ‘vulnerable,’ people deliberately choose not to assert control, or take authority and power” (page 39).

“Westerners have tended to see another culture from the perspective of ‘have’ or ‘have not,’” Anne Dyer writes, “particularly from a material perspective. If Christian, compassionate Westerners consider that they can improve the lot of some other people materially, they will try to do so. The problem with this,” Dyer concludes, “is that it can result in a patron-client relationship with all the colonial-postcolonial connotations of superior-inferior relationships” (page 40).

It seems that Jesus is intent on preventing these dynamics from occurring. It’s not clear The Twelve cooperate with this emphasis. In the season of summer mission, work, and vision trips in Christian congregations, this text is a challenge to our standard models of doing “short-term mission work” both in the States and abroad. Jesus is not looking for heroes and conquerors. Jesus is looking for self-giving servants who can be vulnerable in order to accompany the vulnerable and be accompanied in return.

This is not a critique of the overt motives of many folks who go on such mission and work trips. But it is a call to reflect deeply on the underlying assumptions behind and motivations for such trips. In the process of seeking to serve, are we rather underwriting and deepening the system which assumes that white is superior, and all other “colors” are inferior and in need of the “improvement” of assimilation? I know this will make life complicated for lots of youth leaders in white churches. But our life should be far more complicated than it currently is.

Our ELCA theology of mission is based on the notion of “accompaniment.” “Accompaniment helps us see mission differently,” we read in our foundational document for this approach, “In reconciliation, we realize that my story and your story are not divided by boundaries, but are both reconciled within God’s story.” We acknowledge the asymmetrical power relationships inherent in our mission efforts. And we strive to address those asymmetries through willing vulnerability to one another.

The values of the accompaniment theology, we would say, include mutuality, inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment, and sustainability. We don’t bring gifts or resources. We share with one another and privilege local rather than outside perspectives. We seek to build relationships and communities, not just buildings. We regard all partners in a mission effort as those who have assets for the project.

My experience with accompaniment has been to listen and learn first. Opportunities for doing will come when appropriate. If I assume that I come with the power and the goods and others are mere recipients, then I will inevitably engage in cultural and racial violence whether I see that or not. In this day and age, there is no excuse for ignorance in this regard. The failure to pay attention to the need for vulnerable discipleship is an exercise in unthinking privilege and white supremacy.

I resemble that remark. Sigh…

References and Resources


Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Dyer, A. (2017). A Discussion of Vulnerability in Mission for the Twenty-first Century from a Biblical Perspective. Transformation, 34(1), 38-49. Retrieved June 27, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008944.

MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251.

Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.

VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.

Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 6:1-13 (Pt. 3); 6 Pentecost B 2021

Inside Out(side)

One of the major themes in Mark’s gospel is how to move from being an “outsider” to becoming an “insider” in the project of God’s reign. Our reading this week gives us some insight for how not to make that move.

First, insider status does not come from a prior, “impersonal” connection to Jesus. The folks in Nazareth seem to be guilty of some combination of the “charter member” and “genetic” fallacies of insider status in the Messianic community. The sheer fact that they are from the same place as Jesus and have been part of that village for generations does not qualify them for special status. Nor does the fact that they know (or are) Jesus’ close relatives. Those facts do not translate into elevated status or privileged position.

I think immediately of experiences I have had in congregations over the years. I served a congregation where charter members of that community were still alive and active. It was not unusual, in the midst of some controversy, for one or more of those folks to stand up at a meeting and begin a small speech with the phrase, “As a charter member of this congregation…” That historical fact was intended to overwhelm any other arguments and to grant the speaker and associated members a special authority in the debate.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Even in congregations where charter members were long dead and buried, longevity is often regarded on its own merits as grounds for authoritative veto power. I think of congregations where, early on in my ministry, I was taken aside and told that “we” do or don’t do things that way here at X congregation. The “we” was clearly made up of an insider group that claimed special authority due to the average length of tenure in that group.

The genetic fallacy contains a measure of longevity privilege by default. But the real clincher is an appeal to authoritative and (sometimes) honored forebears. The most egregious example of this in my experience came in a conversation with a leading conflictor in a congregation. “My family has been part of this church from the beginning,” he declared, “four generations so far. My grandfather ran out a preacher who got too big for his britches. So did my dad. And if I have my way, I will too. That’s our job in this church.”

I can report that in this instance, the conflictor in question failed in his (self) appointed task. But my real focus is on his assumption of privilege through inheritance and biological connection. His authority did not come from the content of his argument or even his moral standing in the congregation. It was a simple function of being related to the right people and sticking to the standards of that genetic heritage.

Congregations are often structured as concentric circles of relationship and status. The “inside insiders” make up about twenty percent of the active adult membership of a congregation. They are the ones who do everything and then complain that no one else does anything. The “outside insiders” are in the next circle from the center. They complain that the insider insiders control everything and won’t listen to reason. The next circle is the outside outsiders. They are the ones who are glad the inside insiders do the work, that the outside insiders do the complaining (policing?), and that both insider groups generally ignore them.

One of the interesting aspects of Mark’s gospel is that the assumed “insiders” are not insiders at all. Jesus’ family and neighbors have no special status. In fact, they are actively resistant and hostile to his Good News campaign. The Jerusalem authorities and their Galilean delegates are the first who become last and who are cast into “outer darkness.” The Twelve seem to be insiders, but they just can’t “get it.” They take the authority they receive and use it for self-aggrandizement rather than self-sacrifice.

As I noted in the previous section, it’s the outside outsiders who actually get it and are portrayed as non-failed disciples in Mark’s account. The real target of this whole conversation is the audience of Mark’s gospel. There is some deep concern in that audience about how one becomes an authentic “inside insider,” a genuine disciple, a real member of Jesus’ “family.” I have to wonder if there were audience members who claimed privileged positions and special authority based on either the charter member or genetic fallacies. What does it take, according to Mark, for an audience member to become an inside insider?

“What it takes for the audience to become insiders,” writes Stephen Ahearne-Kroll (hereafter AK), “is not just more knowledge; it takes discipleship. Discipleship for Mark is not construed as assent to a series of faith propositions or the full acquisition and understanding of divine mysteries,” AK continues. “It is predicated on becoming connected with Jesus by following him after his call and acting like him because he is the manifestation of the kingdom on earth” (page 734).

What does this say about the original audience for Mark’s gospel? Commentators continue to debate about the place for which the gospel was composed – somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor or in Rome. I find the tradition of the church most convincing in this regard – that Mark’s gospel was composed for and presented to the churches in Rome in the aftermath of the Jewish War of 66-70 CE.

The congregations had been in some measure of turmoil since the return of Jewish Christians from the exile imposed during the persecution of the mid-40’s. The Gentile Christians were left on their own and developed ways of life and worship that deviated from traditions they had received. When the Jewish Christians returned, there was a power struggle for the “soul” of the congregations and a debate about who was “inside” and who was “outside.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses this situation about a decade earlier than Mark’s gospel. Paul’s solution to the problem is for the Gentile Christians (who were in charge) to welcome and embrace their returning Jewish-Christian siblings. One of the arguments made in those churches, it would seem, is that the Jewish-Christians were more Jew than Christian and thus had been rejected for their unbelief. Paul disputes this argument, especially in Romans 9-11.

Mark’s gospel may well be evidence that Paul’s words did not put an end to the debate or the struggle. I wonder if Mark’s “solution” was a sort of “pox on both your houses” approach. Neither the “charter members” nor The Twelve come off at all well in Mark’s account. As noted earlier, it’s the minor characters who get the Gospel right and are commended for their faith. It’s the outside outsiders who repent and put their trust in the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps Mark wants his squabbling saints to realize that the same thing is true of their life together.

AK notes that “one learns the mystery of the kingdom through the action of following after the one who manifests it. Insider status comes from following after Jesus,” he continues. “Additional knowledge of the kingdom does not determine insider status but flows from it…” Even though Mark’s gospel account excludes the audience from insider status at several points, AK concludes, it also “simultaneously entices the audience with enough inclusion to want to seek the status of insider where they can live the mystery of the kingdom with others of the same mind” (734-735, my emphasis).

In his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz writes one of those paragraphs that I can only wish I had composed. Let me quote it here.

“Organized religion and organized crime can be frighteningly similar at times. Both tend to rely on unwavering loyalty and on participants passionately defending their own. In ministry and in the Mafia, when things are going right, you’re well fed and fiercely loved, but make one bad move, cross one wrong person— and it’s horse heads in the bed and concrete sneakers. In either house there’s often a startlingly narrow line between a holy kiss and the kiss of death and learning how to stay on the boss’s good side becomes a matter of survival” (page 25).

I’ve worked with enough conflicted congregations over the years to know that Pavlovitz’s description is hardly hyperbolic. In congregational systems where the inside insiders are thoroughly embedded and emotionally enmeshed, physical violence and death threats can be a feature of the pastor’s experience. Short of that, efforts to cut salary, reduce hours, slash benefits, and attack family members are somewhat typical. Please remember that in Luke’s gospel the home folks want to pitch Jesus headlong off the nearest cliff.

Reminding congregations that the outside outsiders are typically the ones who get the gospel the best is often a way to organize a move from one pastoral call to the next. “Despite their claims of gracious hospitality, churches are often far more aggressive than they’d like to admit,” Pavlovitz writes. “Regardless of our language about being part of the greater body of Christ, the truth is that most local faith communities feel that they are doing religion better, smarter, more biblically, more faithfully than everyone else— most especially the other churches in the neighborhood. In this way,” he concludes, “the table is almost always going to default to self-preservation, to competition rather than collaboration” (page 27).

The outside outsiders in our time are getting hammered in certain parts of the Christian universe. In our ELCA part, they are just gaslighted. After all, we have documents that say the outside outsiders are “all” welcome. In Marks’ terms, authentic disciples do that welcoming rather than merely writing about it. And I hasten to add, I am often chief among sinners in this regard.


References and Resources

Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251.

Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.

VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.

Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 6:1-13 (Pt. 2); 6 Pentecost B 2021

So Much for Home Field Advantage (Mark 6:1-6)

Leaving home is hard enough. But it’s nothing compared to coming back. Thomas Wolfe may have claimed the phrase, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” as a book title. But he was naming an experience as old as human connections. Leaving home means rejecting to some degree, whether we wish it or not, the values, priorities, and practices that make “home” what it is. When and if we return, home has changed. And so have we.

This is a pressing issue for many as family conversations have become more political, more fraught, more prone to explosive outcomes. Do an internet search on how to survive difficult holiday conversations with family members. The returned results will number in the tens of millions. Producing advice on such survival has become a literary genre and a publishing bonanza – especially for those prone to the listicles, the “Ten Ways to Survive Thanksgiving with Your Crazy Relatives” sorts of things.

Photo by Angela Roma on Pexels.com

So, perhaps, we should not be surprised that leaving and returning are fraught moments for Jesus as well. The home folks expect the returning hero to support the values and people that raised and nurtured him. They expect to get a certain amount of credit (known in sociological terms as “honor”) for the success he has become. They don’t expect him to be an irritant, a disagreeable and critical outsider, or an ungrateful snot who has forgotten where he came from.

Why does this story appear in Mark’s account? I was quite taken by Leif Vaage’s 2009 article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, “An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism.” Perhaps that article will spark some thoughts for you as well. Vaage wants to make and then expand on four points: (1) following Jesus requires strenuous and intentional effort; (2) following Jesus is “anti – (conventional) family;” (3) the Twelve ultimately fail as disciples, both individually and together, and (4) the successful and exemplary Jesus followers in Mark are the little people, the minor characters in the narrative (page 741).

Vaage describes asceticism not as a superficial renunciation of sensual pleasures but rather as a rejection of the normal world as normative and satisfying and an embrace of a way of life that finds real satisfaction by living against the grain of the normal world – finding a better or larger life (page 743). He argues that following Jesus requires a “domestic asceticism” – a leaving home as norm in order to find the alternative and then a return to that home to critique and change it from within.

He proposes that it is “Mark’s conviction that the proper and most effective way to enter the kingdom of God is by redoing life at home. This,” he continues, “may be the evangelist’s most enduring challenge to us” (page 744). If that is, in fact, part of Mark’s agenda, then this gospel is the most timely and relevant tract for the times we Christians could have at this moment. And the reading from Mark 6, landing as it does on July 4, could be nuclear in its explosive potential in the pulpit.

“One of the more obvious ways in which discipleship, in Mark, entails serious effort at significant social cost,” Vaage writes, “is the break it requires with ordinary family life. Following Jesus,” he observes, “means, first, leaving home” (page 746). The first disciples abandon their families and their family businesses. Jesus identifies his own family, not as those who are biologically connected to him, but rather as those who do the will of God. In our reading this week, Jesus rejects the limiting identity imposed on him by the home folks and describes himself as a prophet dishonored by them.

The project of Jesus, in Mark, is not at home in the ancient Mediterranean world of normal social relations, including the patriarchal household,” Vaage writes. “Moreover, it does not seek a place within this world,” he continues. “The goal of discipleship is not enhanced participation in the way things are; neither does it seek reform of this world or any other possible improvement. Instead,” he argues, “the first order of business for Jesus and his disciples is deep withdrawal: deliberate dissociation from so-called ordinary social reality” (pages 748-749).

It is difficult to understand how the Jesus in Mark’s gospel could be regarded as “pro-family.” As Vaage notes, the rhetoric of Mark’s gospel sees the conventional family as part of the world’s “business as usual.” The business of the kingdom is to see the world in a new way and to trust in the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, more than in any conventional arrangements of life.

The real disciples in Mark’s gospel, then, are the edgy people – the minor characters who appear on the edges of the narrative and live on the edges of society. They make single appearances in the story and “get it” right away – in contrast to the Family and to the Twelve. The edgy people are healed, saved, and restored. They are commended for their faith. They get permission, at least in the case of the Gerasene demoniac, to tell the story publicly and fully. The edgy people include pushy women who are not punished but rather are praised for their initiative and courage.

All these edgy people act “shamelessly,” to use Vaage’s description. They are guilty of “breaking with indicated cultural roles of reticence and social reserve or distance…for the sake of finding, through Jesus, a better life” (page 750). The people who stick to the cultural script, such as the folks in Nazareth, aren’t able to find that better life through Jesus, because of their hardness of heart. The Twelve are in danger of such an outcome as well and seem to have failed at the end of the gospel account.

“In summary, discipleship in Mark is, finally, not a saga of effort in vain or tragic striving plus forgiveness,” Vaage writes. “In fact, discipleship, in Mark, requires, first, that one break all customary family ties. Following Jesus is initially an act of total renunciation,” he suggests, “unless, of course, one already is a social nobody.” But what happens after one has taken that initial step?

Discipleship, in Mark, Vaage proposes, “is not homeless.” Instead, Jesus and the Twelve spend large amounts of the first ten chapters of the gospel precisely in homes. But everything has changed. “After one has stepped away from the demands and privileges of conventional social life (including the structures and obligations of ordinary kinship,” he continues, “following Jesus, in Mark, next entails returning to the same social terrain to live there otherwise” (page 753). Notice how many times Jesus sends the edgy people home rather than allowing them to follow him on the road to Jerusalem.

Thus, discipleship, in Mark, according to Vaage, “is an alternate domesticity” (page 756). In Mark, disciples must go home again. Disciples leave in order to enter a new world of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Disciples then take on the discipline of returning home to disrupt the conventional structures of life with that Good News.

Jesus is not in the business of composing listicles for how to survive contentious family gatherings. Instead, he tells stories about how to leave and then come back to piss off the home folks.

At least, that’s how it appears in our reading for this week. Vaage imagines the “ideal disciple” addressed by Mark’s account. “In this scenario, the successful disciple first forsakes his or her family of origin as well as other customary affiliations and concerns in order to ‘go after’ Jesus,” Vaage argues. “A process of unlearning is thereby set in motion, during which many standard conceptions and usual expectations – regarding, for example, the nature of salvation, social authority, the Messiah, and so on – are challenged and abandoned, even as other unfamiliar, traditionally unauthorized, socially liminal persons and experiences serve to teach the alternate way of life identified by Mark with entrance into the kingdom of God” (page 760).

Perhaps we are called to disrupt the settled structures and assumptions of our biological, church, and social “families.” I can do that, but I don’t often do it for the sake of the gospel. I’m just difficult. Doing it for the sake of the gospel is an ascetical discipline, if Vaage is right, and not merely an exercise in self-justification.

I’m still working on that one.

References and Resources

Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251.

VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.

Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863

Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 6:1-13 (Pt. 1); 6 Pentecost B 2021

Context and Structure

The lectionary committee, alas, has taken texts from two different sections of Mark’s gospel and put them into one reading. Mark 6:1-6 is the conclusion of a section that begins in Mark 3 (either verses 1-6 or 7-13, depending on the commentator). Mark 6:7-13 begins a new section that may run through the end of chapter 8.

In addition, Mark 6:7-13 may be the first part of another Markan sandwich, including the sending of the disciples and the death of John the Baptist. Therefore, in our reading, we get an incomplete version of that sending and may have to fill in the results through our sermons in order to get a fuller picture.

Indeed, it is difficult to understand the discipleship mission in Mark in depth without a brief mention of the execution of John the Baptist. We will return to this text in more detail next week, but it’s helpful to read it now. Herod Antipas is convinced that Jesus is John the Baptist back from the dead to haunt and taunt him. This allows Mark to insert a flashback reporting what happened to John – an event that was hinted at briefly earlier in Mark’s account.

Photo by Thiago Schlemper on Pexels.com

Just for clarity, let’s remember that one of the main issues for Mark’s account is Jesus’ identity. We get a preview of the conversation in Mark 8 as we listen in on the panicked conclusions of Herod Antipas. The same speculations that later come from the disciples now echo in Herod’s council chambers. But Herod’s conclusion is clear. This is the beheaded John, back to make his life a living hell.

“For the reader,” Moloney (2001) writes, “the issue has been raised of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, and with it the awareness that as the Baptist went to death, so also must Jesus.” Perhaps we can see that in the midst of the missionary success of the disciples, the shadow of the cross still looms. Discipleship has both rewards and costs, and the cost is everything.

I can’t help but think about Bonhoeffer’s oft-quoted line. When Jesus calls a person, Bonhoeffer asserts, Jesus bids that one to come and die. “John’s martyrdom not only prefigured Jesus’ death,” Moloney (2001) writes, it also prefigures the death of anyone who would come after him. The one who comes not to be served but to serve is the one who gives his life as a ransom for many. And we who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection are called to die to self in order to live to Christ.

John’s execution foreshadows a number of elements in Jesus’ suffering and death, as Moloney notes. Both John and Jesus are put to death by rulers who regard them as good and holy men. Both rulers are stark contrasts to the goodness of their victims. Neither John nor Jesus gives in to the pressure either of the crowds or the rulers. The difference, of course, is that John’s tomb was not emptied.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the lectionary choice is the impression that the disciples were unqualified successes in their missionary efforts. Moloney (2001) gives a summary of the issue. “The disciples of Jesus, true to the call which comes to them from God, and like the Baptist, are to commit themselves unflinchingly to the mission for which they have been empowered by their association with Jesus,” Moloney writes.

“As with the Baptist, it will cost them no less than everything,” he continues. “Despite the good signs that accompanied the initial response of disciples to Jesus’ call,” he argues, “they show the signs of their inability to accept all the consequences of that call. They return to Jesus,” he concludes, “the source of all they do and say, with whose mission they are privileged to be associated…to tell him everything they have done.”

As Moloney notes, these are the same disciples who panicked in the boat in chapter 4. I would add that they are the ones who can’t figure out who touched Jesus’ garment. They are, perhaps, wondering along with the local folks where Jesus gets his power. Moloney argues that not only can the disciples not yet figure out who Jesus is. They can’t even figure who they are and how they fit into the “power picture.” As Moloney notes, no matter how much short-term success they experience, these are the ones who desert Jesus when things get tough.

“But that is not the end of the story,” Moloney (2001) reminds us. “That can only be found somewhere in Galilee, in a meeting between the risen Lord and the disciples There they will see him,” Moloney continues, “as he promised, despite the failure of everyone in the story…”

We have noted previously that one of Mark’s concerns is Jesus’ identity. Moloney helps us to see that Mark is also concerned with the identity of the disciples and, by extension, the members of the Markan faith community. It seems likely that Mark’s gospel is, in fact, a tool in forming the identity of that faith community in at least a couple of ways.

Walker (2016) argues that this community identity was shaped by participating in the gospel as oral performance of the gospel. That performance reported Jesus’ miracles as a central part of Jesus’ ministry and “that he expected The Twelve and other disciples to carry on the miracle tradition in their mission to Israel and beyond” (page 86). As we noted above, to be a disciple was (and is) to rely on Jesus’ for the authority and power to continue the mission.

All that being said, what are some elements which can tie together the two parts of our reading? One common factor is that both the home folks and the disciples center themselves in their relationship with Jesus. The Nazareth folks are sure that Jesus is “gettin’ above his raisin’,” as the phrase goes in some parts of this country. They are sure his identity and anchoring must come from the home territory. Anything beyond that is suspect.

We will talk further about this in the next section. But the salient point here is that the home folks are convinced that their reality defines Reality. The Nazareth perspective is the definition of normal, rational, and acceptable. They know the True, the Good, and the Beautiful when they see it, because their experience defines all of the above. This Nazareth-centric perspective means that they cannot see Jesus beyond his origins. Nor can they put their trust in him to do the works of the Kingdom among them.

The disciples are apparently sure that they are the ones doing the works of power on their mission. They are like me when we got our first remote control for a television. My dad told me to stomp my foot. The channel on the set “magically” changed. He told me to do it again, and the channel changed again. I was certain that I had developed a channel-changing superpower.

My dad let me figure out reality for myself (which took a bit). Parents and grandparents have engaged in variations of this game, I suspect, for as long as there have been parents and grandparents.

I’m not suggesting that Jesus was messing with the disciples here (although I imagine he did on occasion). Instead, I’m pointing out how easy it is for us to assume that we have the power to make something happen, when in fact that power comes to us from God through Jesus in the Spirit. When good things happen, I want to take the credit for making them happen. When bad things happen, I want God to take the blame.

We know that in Mark’s gospel account, this overreach on the part of the disciples will reach a climax in chapter 8. Jesus describes the necessity of his confrontation with the powers of sin, death, and the devil on the cross. Peter takes him aside to straighten out this troubling line of thought. Jesus names him Satan and identifies the power that seeks to convince us that we are the center, in charge of the universe.

It’s not much of a stretch for us to think about life in our congregations. How easy it is to believe that our local perspective is the definition of what is normal, acceptable, and right. How easy it is for us to treat anything from the outside as perverse. That is also the perspective we have adopted as white people in a cultural where whiteness is centered as normal and worshipped as supreme. The problem in Nazareth and in our white churches is the idolatrous worship of what we think we know for sure.

And we think that we are the ones who will make our lives, our churches, and our history turn out right. We invest so much in finding the right path, program, procedure, or plan to make our congregations grow. As we learned earlier in Mark, most of the time our best strategy is to get ourselves out of the way, out of the center, so the Kingdom can arrive and flourish as God intends. Of course, we really hate that.

The good news is that even though we all respond with such resistance, the Reign of God has come and is growing among us. Even in our childish self-centeredness as disciples, Jesus invites us to come along and to be changed by the journey.


Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251

Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863

Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.