The Location and Intention of Ministry

What a wonderful story we have heard from the Gospel of Mark this morning.  I hope that however familiar it is to you you were excited again as we listened to it together.  Perhaps it might be more accurate to speak in terms of the two wonderful stories that we have heard.  The main event of Jesus’ encounter with Jairus, the president of the local synagogue in Capernaum, and his daughter; and within that story the second encounter of the anonymous woman who grabs on to Jesus’ clothes, and is healed from her infirmities.  Or maybe we might go even further and talk in terms of the three stories that we heard just a few moments ago.

If the story of Jairus’ daughter being raised from the dead, or the woman being healed in the middle of the crowd, are not enough to excite us this morning, then the third story at work within both of those stories might inspire us today.

We know that the Gospel writers did not simply bring together the experiences of Jesus and his followers as a kind of historical piece of memorabilia.  They recorded the events of the life of Jesus for us, because they knew that these encounters spoke not only of encounters with Jesus back then, but also pre-figured – anticipated – the way that God would continue to be at work in the Body of Christ, you and me his Church, long after the death and resurrection and ascension of our Lord.  So whenever we come to read the Gospels together, we are always alert not only to the story that they describe, but also to what God intends to say to us about his working in and through us today.  Studying the Scriptures is never merely an academic exercise, because as we uncover the stories of Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels, we uncover our story, and our purpose and our calling as his followers today.

So we focus this morning on the three stories within our Gospel reading.  The story of Jairus and his daughter who is raised from the dead, the story of the woman who reaches out to Jesus and is healed, and the story of us, his contemporary disciples who are called to continue to act in his name and following his example today.  As we focus on these stories I want simply to make two probably very obvious points both about the ministry of Jesus, and about our ministry as Christians here in the Parish of Wingham.

The first thing to say, is that neither of these encounters happen within the religious establishments of Jesus’ day.  They do not take place within the context of religious worship, they do not happen at the equivalent of a Parish Council meeting, nor at a social function for people who share the same religious convictions.  In fact very few of the miracles of Jesus happen to his disciples.  In other words, perhaps to our great surprise, Jesus according to the Gospels, does not focus all of his time and energy on those who are closest to him.  The miracle accounts that are recorded for us in the Gospels are in the main, encounters that Jesus has with people that he has not previously met.  Jesus’ ministry is , by and large, directed beyond those who have followed him, and that is true in both of the stories that we heard this morning.

Jairus is the president of the local synagogue, a congregation of probably a couple of hundred people.  He is almost certainly highly suspicious of Jesus and his disciples.  We know from other stories in the Gospels the kind of reaction that Jesus receives when he goes to speak in a local synagogue or to meet with religious leaders.  People are threatened by him, and opposed to the new teachings that he is bringing; and yet there is something in the desperate situation in which Jairus finds himself that leads him to ask for Jesus’ help, perhaps because he feels that he has no other option left.

The  woman who reaches out for Jesus is, and I think that this is really the point of the story, in a situation that is about the furthest away that one could possibly be from being one of the disciples of Jesus.  In a society where there was a clear distinction between what was clean and what was unclean, this woman who has bleeding problems ticks all of the boxes for being in the unclean category.  She should not be out in public, certainly not in a crowd where people might brush against her, and inadvertently become unclean themselves just simply by being in her close proximity.  That is what is so significant about how her healing takes place.  The purity rules of her day, prevent her from touching or being touched by anyone.  She is an outcast, and yet as she reaches out to Jesus she is not only healed, but made clean and restored to her place in that community.  By doing the very thing that the law prevented her from doing, reaching out and touching him, Jesus heals her and restores her.

All of which rather begs the question about our story, our understanding of ministry.  If is it true that the majority of Jesus’ ministry, as illustrated by these stories this morning, takes place amongst people that he has not previously met, why is so much of our ministry focused around the group of us who are already here and committed to Christ?  As I hear these stories again this morning I am challenged by the fact that Jesus’ ministry takes place in the world, not merely amongst his followers.  I am challenged because the Gospels are not about what happens when we gather for worship on Sundays, they anticipate what we will do in Jesus’ name for the rest of the week.  To put it simply, we are not called to be a light in the Church, we are called to be a light in the world!  Jesus meets this girl and her father Jairus, and he encounters this anonymous woman and he demonstrates God’s love to them where they are, in their place of need; that challenges me, as I look at what I do in my life, and perhaps it challenges you as well.

Secondly, it is clear that Jesus’ entire ministry is all about service.  God comes among us in human flesh to show us how to serve.  Of course the culmination of this service is Jesus’ willingness to give up even his life that through his death on the cross we might be reconciled with the one who created the universe and who has loved each one of us into being, and who goes on loving us despite all the things that we do to alienate ourselves from him.  But just because we know the wonderful end of the story (his glorious resurrection and ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit to be with us forever) should not lead us to somehow understand everything that Jesus does before he dies as being simply incidental.

In our intertwined stories this morning, perhaps one of the most telling examples of this blueprint for us to serve, is that Jesus is willing to have his own plans, his own itinerary changed in order to show others the love of God.  At the beginning of the story he arrives from his boat journey in Capernaum, and given the large crowds that have gathered around him, we might reasonably presume that he planned to teach them as he does on so many other occasions.  When Jairus comes to explain the predicament of his daughter and to ask for Jesus’ help, Jesus does not respond by saying that he is about to preach a sermon, that he is already too busy, that his agenda is already planned out: he instead allows his own plans to be changed for the sake of demonstrating God’s love to Jairus and his family.

Even then, when he is on the short walk to Jairus’ house, he allows himself again to be diverted from that journey, if even just for a few moments, to minister to the woman who reaches out for his cloak, such is her desperate need for his help.  All of which challenges me to wonder how available I am, how changeable my plans are, when I encounter someone who needs to experience God’s love through me.  So often it seems that my days are planned out in such a way that there is little space for me to drop everything because there is an opportunity to show God’s love to someone else, in a way that I hadn’t pre-planned or already arranged.

How is it for you?  When you are running ten minutes late for an appointment and you meet someone in need, or when you have a hundred things on your mind but you sense an opening to share your faith, is it an inconvenience in your day which you shy away from, or an opportunity to be as Christ to the person that you have met?  It is true to say that we are not saved by serving, but we should also say that we are saved to serve.  Life as a modern-day disciple of Christ is not just about attending services, it is about living a life of service, shaped by the example of Jesus our Lord.

The whole point of the Gospels is that we learn about God’s calling on our lives through hearing stories.  So I want to finish this morning by telling you a story which I hope encapsulates something of the heart of both the location and the intention of the ministry that each one of us is called to share in with Christ.  It is a true story about an encounter in the life of a man named Tony Campolo. Tony is a minister in Philadelphia in America. He is a well known preacher in international circles, and his mission agency in Philadelphia is known throughout that State for its work in caring for those people who are not cared for by the rest of society, it is an organisation like our own Anglican Samaritans Foundation.

Tony was speaking at an international Christian conference in Honolulu. On his first night in a hotel there, he woke sometime in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because of jet-lag, and got up and left the hotel in search of a coffee bar.  Eventually he found somewhere to get a cup of coffee and a doughnut and sat alone in the bar with the manager.  But he wasn’t alone for long, quite suddenly the coffee bar was filled with girls. Some sat at small tables and others were at the bar near him.  From their conversation it became quickly apparent what kind of girls these were, and Tony recounts that he found out a great deal about Honolulu’s night life whilst the girls were discussing their night’s work and their male clients.  The girl who was now sitting next to Tony told her neighbour on the stool next but one that tomorrow was her birthday.  Her neighbour replied, “So what Mary? What do you want us to do about it?”  Then, as suddenly as the girls had entered the coffee bar they all left, leaving Tony alone once more with the manager.

Now this is the point in the story at which most of us, myself included, would have thought nothing more about it, and gone on our way.  But Tony didn’t, rather like Jesus in our wonderful Gospel stories this morning, he allowed himself to be diverted for the sake of sharing God’s love.  So he began a conversation with the manager about this girl Mary, he discovered that she was a regular, and that all the girls came in about the same time every night.  Tony made a proposition to the manager, “Tomorrow’s her birthday,” he said, “would it be alright if I bought her a cake and some streamers and came here early to put them up for her tomorrow night?”    The manager consulted his wife in the kitchen. The idea seemed to appeal, and the woman offered to make the cake herself.

The next day Tony did his speaking at the Christian conference and then went shopping for all that was needed for a birthday party. He set his alarm for the appropriate time, got up, dressed and went to the coffee bar.  When he arrived he found that word had already got around about what was going on. Some of the girls had come back from the street corners early and were putting up streamers.  When everything was ready Tony waited at the door for Mary, offering her his arm when she arrived, so that he could conduct her to the table.  They sang “Happy Birthday,” got Mary to blow out the candles, and then applauded when she did.  Then they gave her a knife to cut the cake, but Mary hesitated.  “I’ve never had a birthday cake before,” she said. “Would you mind if I didn’t cut it, I want to take it home with me?”  They watched her, as she picked up her cake, said her thank yous and then left the coffee bar.

Tony said, “let’s pray for Mary,” and he then led the group of girls in a prayer for her. The girls said a hearty  “Amen” and then left back into the night.  After they had gone, the manager of the coffee bar said to Tony, “I didn’t know you were a priest.”  “Well, you never asked,” he replied.  Then the manager asked him, “what Church do you represent?”  There was a long silence, and then Tony replied, “I belong to the church that fixes birthday parties for prostitutes.”  The manager pondered these words, “if there were a church like that around here,” he said, “I would be the first to join it.”

I think that you’ve got the idea.  When I told that story in another Parish a few years ago some of the members of that Church got really excited and wanted to put a banner up above the entrance which said “prostitutes welcome here!” and I had to explain to them that that might bring a very different response from the one that they hoped for!

This morning we are caught up in the most extraordinary stories in the Gospel as Jesus brings healing and wholeness to those who he encounters: Jairus and his daughter, and the woman in the crowd.  The story of Tony and Mary is one example of how Jesus continues to do that through those who follow him today.

God is calling us to be part of his story too.  What Jesus did for the daughter of Jairus, and for the unclean woman, what he did through Tony for Mary he will do through us if we are willing to let him.  Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.