The method of Jesus

Rev. Doug Cunningham

May 7, 2011

MFSA awards presentation, First Church of Round Hill, Greenwich, CT

Mark 1: 14-20

I.  The Method of Jesus

A.  The Message

We talk a lot about the message of Jesus.  We discuss how his teachings of loving enemies, forgiving and confronting injustice relate to the great issues of our day.  These are urgent conversations.    The economic onslaught against working people and the ongoing discrimination on the basis of race, class and sexual orientation are causing a great deal of suffering.  It’s not enough to be right on the issues, we also need to figure out how to make significant changes. 

B.  The Method

We are familiar with the message of Jesus.  But this morning, I want to focus on his method.  What does he teach us about how to spread the good news effectively and challenge the status quo with it?  Mark 1:14-20 outlines the method of Jesus and it consists of three components:    casting a vision, calling followers and crossing boundaries.   Each of these three steps are detailed throughout the gospel story – but Mark introduces us to them in these six verses in his first chapter. 

II.  Casting a Vision

A.  A Bold Vision

Jesus begins by casting a bold vision.  “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom (or nation) of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”  This is a vision with urgency.  The time has come to turn away from the Empire and embrace instead the Way of God.  This is a proactive vision that urges us to challenge the status quo with a whole new way of living.  In Luke’s gospel, the announcement is more detailed:  Jesus comes to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and to proclaim the Jubilee year where all debts are forgiven and where every family returns to their ancestral land.  

B.  Casting a Vision in our Churches

Many of us struggle to develop a clear vision for ministry in our local church ministries.  I have been the pastor of 5 churches over the last 17 years.   In three of those ministries, I was never able to develop a consensus with the congregation around a clear, guiding vision.  In the other two I was able to do that, and it made all the difference. 

C. Lack of Vision

There were several reasons for my difficulty in forging a common vision in three of the congregations.   My understanding and passion for the gospel was very different than that of the congregants.  Even within the congregation, people came to those churches for many different reasons.   That’s not to say that we couldn’t do good ministry together.  We cared for each other in many ways:  celebrated marriages and birthdays and graduations; mourned deaths and other tragedies.  We prayed for each other’s health and well-being, read the scriptures together, encouraged and occasionally challenged each other around faith matters.  We reached out to the community through soup kitchens, and engaged in various mission projects.  There were great moments of spiritual break through, people came to faith, and made changes in their lives.  But, I feel the ministry was limited because we never really moved decisively together as a body of Christ toward a well-defined and agreed upon vision of what the church was about. 

D.  Clear Vision

But one church I pastored in Baltimore did come to such a consensus.  We were a mostly white church in a neighborhood that was changing demographically and becoming mostly black.  We had a decision to make:  whether to be an irrelevant monument to the past, or to engage in ministry with our neighbors.  We made a clear decision to become a multi-racial church that was going to engage significant community issues.    That decision made a huge difference in our ministry.  We ended up replacing most of the former leaders of the church who did not embrace this new vision with a whole new set of leaders who, were on fire around that vision.  Out of a common commitment to this vision, we were able to work strategically and effectively toward our goal.  We developed a multi-racial Spirit Chorus, started conversation circles on race, joined a community organizing effort to deal with significant issues in the community, started a community festival with a local middle school, and within a couple years were well on our way toward living our vision.  Clear vision makes a difference.

E.  MIND Covenant of Conscience

I love the vision MIND has developed for a Covenant of Conscience around marriage equality.  It is a bold and proactive vision.  We are not making ourselves dependent on anyone’s permission.  We are not deterred by the recent judicial council decision that the discipline prohibits us from marrying same- sex couples.  We are called by a power higher than the judicial council to perform weddings without discrimination on the basis of race, class, or sexual orientation.    And we are going to do just that.  This is the most exciting thing going on in United Methodism right now.

III.  Calling Disciples

A.  Commit to Marriage Initiative

Now that we have a clear vision, we need to call people to that vision.  We have 100 clergy committed.  That’s pretty solid.  Soon we’ll have 150 and if we keep working we can get to 200 clergy along with hundreds of lay people.  Vision is critical, calling people to the vision is what develops the momentum to make it real.  The more people we call to the vision, the more powerful it becomes. 

B.  Step Two for Jesus

This is step two in the method of Jesus.  Immediately after he casts a vision, Jesus begins calling disciples to join him in enacting this vision.  And when he calls them, he lets them know that their mission is going to be fishing for people.  He calls them to call others.  He reiterates this call in the first chapter of Acts.  His final commission to the disciples is to witness to the Word in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  This is the work of the church and our work as leaders in the church.

C.  BUILD – Bring People

Evangelism is our mission!  I first learned this from community organizers.  In the early 1990s in Baltimore, I connected with a group called BUILD, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation – one of the big, national Saul Alinsky-style community organizing networks.  I went out to a meeting and introduced myself to the organizer as a pastor. 

He said to me, “It’s good to see you here.  Next time, bring 5 people from your church.”  I smiled.

I didn’t realize how serious he was, so I showed up at the next meeting alone and he said to me, “We’re really not interested in having you come out to another meeting unless you’ve brought some of your people with you.”

“Well I’m just checking this out,”  I said.  “I’m not sure my folks are ready for this level of organizing, but I’m here to give my support

He said, well, when you get your folks ready to come out, we’ll be happy to see you again. 

D.  Evangelism

Those of us on the more liberal or progressive wing of the church do not always understand the central importance of evangelism.  We seem to think that it’s enough to be right.  But that’s not the teaching of Jesus.  We are called to get out and meet with people, new people.  We are called to invite them into a relationship with Jesus, and into the movement for gospel change.  Community organizers have concept they call the individual meeting – meeting with someone for the purpose of getting to know who they are and what their passions are.  Jesus talks to people about their issues and concerns.  In Mark 1:16-20 we see Jesus issuing the invitation to discipleship.  How intentional are we about inviting to join us in enacting the vision.  Without a growing number of people engaged in making it happen, a vision has no legs and our church becomes lifeless.  Evangelism is the life-blood of the church!

IV.  Crossing Boundaries

A.  Social Class – Simon and James

And this brings us to the third important step in the method of Jesus:  crossing boundaries.  Jesus does not confine himself to calling one kind of person, but rather he intentionally crosses boundaries and builds boundary-crossing community.  Mark describes the significant class difference between these first disciples in detail.  Simon and Andrew are standing in the water casting a net.  This is survival fishing.  They are barely putting food on the table from the fish they can catch in shallow water.  James and John are partners in their father Zebedee’s fishing company.   They have boats and hired workers.  They troll in the deep waters of the Sea of Galillee.  These four fishermen may live in the same community but there are significant class distinctions that divide them.   Mark, who has a bare-bones writing style, goes into an unusual amount of detail here to make sure we see the class difference among the earliest disciples. 

B.  All Boundaries

As the gospel story progresses, we see Jesus crossing all the boundaries of his day – between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Pharisee, tax collector, prostitute and sinner.    Jesus crosses all the boundaries of his day, and we are called to cross all the boundaries of our day.  At New Day Church we explicitly name race, class, sexual orientation and age.  Being conscious of one boundary doesn’t exempt us from crossing others.  As Dr. King put it, “We are all woven into one single garment of destiny.  An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

C.  Inclusion to Boundary Crossing

The word I hear a lot in the church is “inclusive.”  I’m not sure “inclusive” really gets to what Jesus is talking about here.  In actual practice, I think inclusive means that one group controls the space and invites a few folks from other groups to be there, but not to significantly alter the culture of the space.  For example, a white congregation may be happy to include people of other ethnic groups, as long as they don’t change the essential culture of the church.   Boundary crossing starts from the premise that no one controls the space but that we are all equally called to cross social boundaries in order to build the body of Christ.

D.  Disciples Struggle to Cross Boundaries

It’s hard work crossing boundaries.  As we read through the gospels we see the disciples continuing to process and work through their class differences.   In Mark 10, we see that James and John have not abandoned their sense of class privilege as they ask Jesus to let them sit on his right and left hand in glory.  The other disciples were angry when they heard this, and Jesus had to help them reconnect with what it means to serve in a community that is crossing the boundaries of class. 

E.  Central to Ministry

Crossing boundaries must be a central focus of the church.  It’s not enough to bring people together across boundaries of race, class, sexual orientation and age.  We are also called to talk to one another in ways that raise our consciousness about realities of racism, classism and homophobia.  We are also called to challenge the injustice of those boundaries and work diligently toward building genuine community.

V.  Conclusion

We could talk in much more detail about ways to follow the method of Jesus.  These are important conversations.  It’s not enough to be right.  We are called to make an impact on our society, to challenge injustice and live together in God’s nation.  Jesus shows us the way to cast a vision, call disciples and cross social boundaries.