The revised common lectionary is a fickle friend. Our Gospel today is from Mark Chapter 6 verses 30 to 56. Only they take out twenty verses in the middle. What we are left with after they do that, is Jesus getting into a boat and then out of a boat, and then doing that again.
What, you might ask, is so dull about middle verses, that the compilers of the Revised Common lectionary thought they should leave it out?
They left out the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on water in order to leave us with this dynamic and vivid passage of Jesus getting in and out of a boat.
If feels a little like when I have in the past boiled up a chicken carcass for stock, and then without thinking poured away the stock down the sink leaving me with a pile of old bones. It feels as though they’ve thrown away the wrong bits.
But that is deliberate, I think. Because actually the focus on this Gospel is on the Apostles. They have just come back from their great commission, and the are exhausted. There is a contrast here between what Jesus does, and what Jesus tells the Apostles to do. He does what he always does, healing, preaching, teaching, being himself. But what he tells them to do is to rest. To, for want of a better term, to waste time with each other. This Gospel is about wasting time with each other.
The reckless pace of Mark’s Gospel takes us in our grip again today. No wonder they kept getting into boats, it was probably the only peace they could find.
And what Jesus saw that they needed to have a time without agenda, without purpose, just time out, wasting time.
We’ve sort of lost the art of that. When our time is full, when we are busy, we sometimes feel that every bit of time has to be justified, every hour has to be accounted for, and if we take time off, or time out, it has to be purposeful or valuable. I think we’ve lost the art of wasting time.
When I was about to go to University, someone said to me, “remember, when you look back on your University years, you will remember the people, the girls you fell in love with, the eccentrics who taught you. You’ll look back on summer days on picnics and good friends, on playing rounders in the park, of evenings looking up at the stars with friends, of times in a coffee shop talking about love and Wagner, those little moments of ease and joy.”
There’s a real and sometimes poignant truth in that. We work so hard, we do so much stuff, but the moments we look back on as feeling truly alive, the moments that feed us, are moments when we are with God or with one another, with no agenda, with no purpose other than being present.
This Gospel I think gives us leave to find time to be with one another and with God, without a worthy excuse. We must find and make as many opportunities as possible for us to spend time together. That is how communities are built, how friendships are formed, how people learn to love one another. It doesn’t have to have a purpose, any more than prayer has to have a purpose.
Being with each other and with God, without an agenda, is the way we learn to love one another and love God – which is really the point of being alive. Love God and your neighbour.
Love your neighbour as yourself – and that’s actually the second thing I get about this Gospel – about loving yourself.
The Apostles were exhausted, I think, because they weren’t like Jesus. He got his energy from doing those things, teaching, preaching, evangelising. And you can see how they would want to be like that because they admired and loved Jesus so much. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But Jesus could see that this would exhaust them in the end. This time out, this break, was a way of saying to them that they didn’t have to copy him, they could remember what it was like to be themselves
We are called as Christians to try and imitate Christ in many ways, but we are not called to try and copy Jesus, or to do his work. We are called to be truly ourselves.
There’s something very appealing about trying to do God’s work, as they say. I remember a very busy priest rushing past me in the street, waving and saying “can’t stop, doing God’s work”. And I wondered how much better the world might be if everyone stopped trying to do God’s work for him, and instead did their own work, which is loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself.
We like doing God’s work, because God’s work is so much more glamorous. Moreover, we don’t always trust God to do it, so we like to help him out. And we always get it wrong when we do.
We try and make people Christians, but we can’t. Only God does that. Often when we try to, all we are doing is cloning our particular brand of Christianity.
We try and teach people what is right and wrong – but we can’t. Only God can do that, through the Holy Spirit and through conscience. Often when we try to, we just sound like we’re telling people off.
We try and judge people – and we really can’t. Much as we would like to, only the all-loving God can do that. That’s really not our business and we make a horrible horrible mess of it when we try.
Too often I think the church feels it ought to be like some sort of doctrinal sausage factory, churning out people who believe the same thing, stuffing us with the so-called correct ideas about God, teaching us that we have to pray the same way, think the same way, behave the same way. That’s what happens when we try and be Jesus, when we try and do God’s work, instead of our own. It can often close off new ideas about God, it can close off imagination, reduce God’s opportunities for getting through to us. But we are called to a much smaller task. To be attentive to God, to love God and our neighbourl.
So the message from this strange in-between Gospel is twofold.
God made you for a purpose – to be you. Don’t try and do a DIY job on yourself and turn yourself into someone else. Let God be God, and let You be You.
And the second message is that the best way to do that is to spend time with God and with your neighbours; time without an agenda, without a purpose. It is in relationships that the kingdom is built. Don’t’ waste time by doing things. Spend it properly by wasting time with one another.
In the words of CS Lewis:
“The moment you wake up each morning, all your duties and false hopes rush at you like wild animals. The first job consists in shoving it all back; letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”
Amen to that.