‘For many were coming and going.’ Mark 6:31
Watching detective stories on television were a lesson in paying attention to detail. Episodes of Morse would run for two hours, but the entire storyline might revolve around a few seconds of action. Miss the critical moment and the story became difficult to follow and its outcome a mystery.
Reading the Gospel stories, it is easy to miss important details; it is easy to skim read passages; easy to be looking for action, for the big moments, and fail to recognize words that are significant.
Look at verses 30-34 of Saint Mark Chapter 6 and it can seem to be a passing piece of narrative, a continuity item linking one story and the next. The only spoken words in the verses are from Jesus, telling the disciples to take a break. Yet within this short piece of the story there an extraordinary amount of significant teaching.
Verse 30 tells us, ‘The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught’. In Mark 6:7, Jesus has called the Twelve together and sent them out two by two to preach, to exorcize and to heal. Now the apostles have come to give a progress report on how things have gone with their first efforts at ministry.
Do we ever do that? Every Sunday our worship concludes with the words, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’: how seriously do we take those words in the six days that follow? In our lives from Monday to Saturday, how conscious are we that our response, to the words that we should go out to love and serve the Lord, has been that we will do so in the name of Christ? How often in our workaday lives do we ever think that the things we do are meant to be done in the name of Christ? How many things would we do differently if we were mindful of our own words?
The apostles are sent out and now they report back. Coming to church on a Sunday morning, are we mindful that this is a moment for reporting back? Do we have a sense when we sit down in church that we should give an account to God for all that we have done in the past week? If this is what Jesus expects of the apostles, he also expects it of us, that we take his words seriously and that we take our own words seriously.
Jesus is satisfied with the reports given by the apostles. Saint Mark does not report on any comment Jesus might have made other than Jesus saying to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’. The apostles have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the work, Verse 31 tells us, ’For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat’.
Do we ever throw ourselves into Christian things with such enthusiasm? Isn’t it more the case that God gets a look in if we can spare him the time?
In a remote town in Tanzania, I met Doctor Samuel. He could have found lucrative work in the cities or outside the country, but he believed God had called him to work in the 100 bed hospital (that sometimes had 200 patients) in this obscure place.
At the end of his rounds he would begin the paperwork for he was also the hospital administrator. A non-stipendiary priest, Doctor Samuel devoted Sunday morning to church duties. If there were no emergencies, Doctor Samuel’s time off was Sunday afternoon before the rapid sunset at 6 pm and his evening rounds.
Doctor Samuel drove us to a lakeshore in his old battered jeep, he heard that going for a drive was what we did on Sunday afternoons. He stood looking out across the lake.
‘Do you ever have a holiday?’
He smiled. ‘A holiday? How could I? Who would there be to do my work? Who would run the hospital?’
Dr Samuel did not take holidays, but this spot on the lakeshore was the deserted place where he found peace.
The apostles accept the need to be busy, but accept also the need to be quiet. If we sometimes lack the enthusiasm to be the people we should be; we sometimes also lack the willingness to be still, to be quiet. Sometimes it is almost as though we are afraid to stop for fear that we might catch up with ourselves; for fear that there might be questions that we couldn’t answer about our priorities; for fear that there might be questions about what were the things in our lives that really mattered?
The moment of quietness for Jesus and the apostles is a brief one, it lasts no more than the duration of their boat journey. Saint Mark tells, us in Verse 33, ‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them’.
The presence of Jesus has people running around the lake to be there when he stepped ashore. When we come to church, when we join in the Communion prayer, we say ‘the Lord is with us’, but have we ever a sense of the Lord’s presence so strong that it would compel us to hurry somewhere? If we haven’t that sense, what does it say about our faith?
Verse 34 says, ‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things’. How much like our own times were the people in Jesus’ time. There is a constant spiritual searching in our own times—look at the books on sale, look at the fairs and exhibitions there are—and there is not much finding. In Jesus, people found their answers; it should be as true now as it was then, but they will only find him if the church is there to point the way.
Skim over these five verses that might appear as simply a connection between one story and the next and vital details are missed. Like the detective story that demands attention if it is not to remain a mystery, the Gospel story demands our full attention, because there is nothing in the world that can be more important.