This is truly an odd little Gospel we have today. If you’ll take a look at the verse numbers on your insert, you can see why. What’s odd about it? Well, it’s two snippets, isn’t it? It’s all Mark chapter 6, but we get verses 30-34, and then 53-56. Two scenes. In the previous chapters, Jesus has been proclaiming the Kingdom and healing and casting out demons, and now, as we heard 2 Sundays ago, he has sent his apprentices out to try their hands at it as well. So the text shows us two scenes of what happened when they returned.
In today's first snippet, the apprentices share their field work experience. How does Jesus respond? It’s there in the second line: he suggests that they all get away to a private place to rest and debrief. But the crowds figure out where their boat is going and run, it says, to intercept it. The crowds they were trying to avoid are there waiting on the shore when the boat arrives.
Our second snippet starts right after the words “teach them many things.” In it, they sail to Genessaret, where Jesus is recognized at once. Again, it says people rushed to find him, bringing all their sick relatives, deploying them at every street corner Jesus seems likely to pass, pushing forward, desperate for a healing. “Wherever he went,” the text tells us near the bottom there, people begged “even to touch the fringe of his cloak.”
These two snippets put together offer us a picture of reactions to Jesus, different reasons people come to him and different things he gives in response when we do come. I want us to look at three of these, and we’re going to do it by working through the reading backwards. Three reasons people come to Jesus; three things Jesus offers when we do come to him.
Let's start down near the end, with the group in Genessaret, the group of people who lay their sick in the marketplaces. Why do they come to Jesus? Because they are looking to have problems solved. Their relatives are sick and they want to see them get well. Now if any of you have a serious illness, or a loved one with a serious illness, you know how understandably that reality is with you all the time. The pain looms so large. You can't go to work anymore. You have to accept all kinds of things you don’t want to deal with. So of course they come; of course they lay their sick down wherever Jesus may pass by, of course they beg to touch his robe. We'd all do that, if we were in their place.
With that said, though, I want to point out a couple other things about these people who come to Jesus looking to get something fixed. Because there's a kind of limitation to how they engage with Jesus. Did you notice, for example, the assumption of distance they bring with them? They lay mats down hoping for a random miracle as he walks by. They feel that he wouldn't want or have time to engage with them as persons, so they ask to touch his robe, confining themselves to secondhand contact. And even for that contact what verb is used? They “begged,” it says, as if speaking to a VIP who they assume would not normally be merciful to someone like them. Even so, Jesus meets them where they are: the text says that on that day, all who touched the fringe of his cloak were healed.
In the same way, people who decide to visit a shrine or a special healing service, not so much because they’re seeking God for God’s sake as because they have pain they want to get fixed, sometimes experience some kind of healing. Not always, but sometimes, even people who don't much care who he is and what he's like. He’s generous that way. And all of us sometimes, either early in our journey of faith or at all those low points and crisis points that inevitably come along in every life, need solutions to our presenting problems. So in this case people come to Jesus to get their problems fixed, and Jesus responds to them as a compassionate fixer of problems. But that's not all he is.
Now let's look at the group in the middle of the reading, the ones who follow the boat and are waiting for Jesus and the apostles on the shore. Interestingly, they don't voice a need; they just kind of know they want to be around Jesus. But he discerns a need in them. How does the text describe it? It says he “had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.”
This is more personal and sustained, isn't it? This has moved on from the connection point being a problem that is presented to Jesus for fixing. The connection point here is an openness to learning from Jesus, to being shepherded and shaped in his Way of life whether or not your problem gets fixed. It says he “began to teach them many things.” Now I don't think "many things" means Palestinian geography or facts about the kings of Judah. The Gospels tell us that the way Jesus teaches often causes people to remark that he communicates with a unique authority that other religious leaders don't seem to have. There is a freshness to it that wakes people up and actually makes God’s active involvement seem possible. And of course we know, in hindsight, that this is because he is the prototype of the new life he’s announcing. It’s standing right in front of them. He is inaugurating the kingdom among them and inviting them to enter in.
As Jesus teaches, the Word he embodies is changing them and initiating them into that new reality. Of course he's conveying some facts: what God is like, what he cares about. But more than that, by who he is he's changing what they love. That's what it means to be taught by Jesus. He takes our self-preoccupied, cold, legalistic hearts, and as we let his Word penetrate them we begin actually to love. To love him, first, which makes obeying him and doing his kind of stuff an entirely new affair. When Jesus begins to teach you, you instinctively love him. And then living his way becomes possible.
So here, we have a group of people who come to Jesus needing to learn, and his response is to communicate with them in a way that shapes and forms them for his Kingdom, to be their mentor and the one who brings their imaginations to life. But that's still not all he is.
Finally let's look at our third group. Now you may look at your insert and say, “What third group? I don’t see a third group.” But there is one! -- from the very first sentence of the reading, the apostles, who are already Jesus’ apprentices. They come back from their experience of doing mission full of stories about what it was like to spread the Kingdom, and all the things they saw God do. So what do they want from Jesus? They aren’t hoping to be fixed, and they aren't primarily focused on being shaped by him right now, though both those needs will probably come up again at times. What they want at this point is to tell him what happened. They want to be heard and to be known by him.
This is even a more direct and intimate connection, isn't it? The desire to share what they've experienced with Jesus, to process life with him, to be known. There’s a psychiatrist named Curt Thompson whose area of interest is neurology and attachment theory as they relate to spiritual practices. In his work he talks over and over about the profound human need to be known: to feel that our stories have really been heard and valued by another person. He talks about the peace and integration that come when we sense that the key people in our lives, like parents or close friends or spouses, truly understand who we are and love us for who we are. And he walks through several stories of his clients who discover through spiritual practices that whatever your parents were like and whatever your spouse is like, that deep experience of being utterly known and utterly loved is always available through Christ. You and I can be amazingly resistant to letting that happen, but no one can ever know you so fully and love you so powerfully as God.
I mentioned that in today’s Gospel the apostles come back from their experience of mission and narrate themselves to Jesus. I wonder if any of you, who joined us as we gave away food from the Eastern Illinois Food Bank to 75 hungry households yesterday, took that next step after your experience of mission? Did you go to Jesus in prayer after the morning and tell him what it was like, and how seeing those barriers between people crossed was, and where you noticed God in your experience? And if you did, what happened?
We've seen today these three ways of approaching Jesus: longing to get pain healed or a problem fixed, hoping to be coached and shaped, and finally opening ourselves to be known. Maybe you have experienced all three, or maybe one or more is new to you. Maybe you are in so much pain this week that finding some comfort and healing overshadows everything, or maybe you're ready to start getting shaped and apprenticed by Jesus, or maybe you actually feel brave enough to admit that what you want most is to be known inside and out by that unimaginable holy Love. All three of those are available at the rail this morning as we receive Christ's Body and Blood.
And in fact, more than three things are available at the rail. It could be a much longer list. We could have had eight groups coming to Jesus in this Gospel, or twenty, or a hundred. Because one of the many extraordinary things about Jesus is how many needs he can meet. Or, to say it a little more carefully: how many real needs he can meet and how many perceived needs he can distill into real ones. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.