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Pentecost 7

Sunday, 7 July 2024
John Conway, Provost

Jesus is interested in the kind of power that can only be exercised mutually, that requires both an exercise of power and a trust in that power, for it to be effective, for things to change.

Pentecost 7

Two weeks ago in our Sunday worship, we contemplated Jesus’ reaction to his disciples’ understandable fear in the midst of a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus challenged the disciples’ reaction: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? And I suggested that for Jesus, faith is most fundamentally a basic orientation toward the world, and to the God who made it and who holds it in life. An attitude of trust that can counter our fears, and enable us to take the next step.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his home town, to Nazareth, to teach in the synagogue there. But he doesn’t receive much of a welcome – his growing fame, and the claims being made about him are given short shrift by those who know him instead as the carpenter from down the road, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon. And they take offence at him we are told. Cynicism abounds.

And there is then an intriguing little detail given: And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

We are often tempted to think of Jesus as possessing some kind of superhuman power, an ability to heal and perform miracles that is outside the scope of ordinary mortals. But here we suddenly discover the part so often overlooked in that account of things. That’s its not all about him – that his power relies on the faith and trust of those he is among. That healing is a mutual act. That the power Jesus embodies is mutual. That his instruction to the disciples for them to have faith, and overcome their fear, is fundamental to things changing.

It's been a week of change in our nation, as the General Election ushered in that almost miraculously quick, and peaceful, transition of power from one Government to another that is a hallmark of our democracy. In that context, and particularly with the widespread acknowledgement that there is a deep mis-trust of politicians in our country at present, that small detail from our Gospel reading is particularly striking: that the cynicism and unbelief that Jesus encounters means that he could achieve little.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting that we greet Keir Starmer as a Messiah figure who needs our unquestioning faith! The relationship between religion and politics is not so straightforward that you can simply substitute one for the other. But I am suggesting that that detail from Mark’s Gospel indicates that Jesus is interested in the kind of power that can only be exercised mutually, that requires both an exercise of power and a trust in that power, for it to be effective, for things to change. Power doesn’t have to operate like that – we see plenty of powerful leaders who think that power is a one-way street. That power is what gives them the right to behave as they like; and who rail against checks and balances to that power. But the power encountered in Jesus, embodied by Jesus; the power of God, operates in mutuality; where acknowledged need, desire and faith in the possibility of things being different, meets the power to enact that together. And then things happen.

So I’m not suggesting that Keir Starmer is Jesus, but I am interested that our system of democracy embodies, at its best, the practice of power as mutual that Jesus too displays. For our democracy depends not just on the five yearly exercise of crosses being put next to names on a ballot paper, but on ongoing trust and co-operation in the creation of our common life. The fact that we recognise currently a deficit in that trust – both in low voter turnout, and in widespread cynicism that politicians can make a difference – indicates the task that lies ahead.

The other thing that I was particularly struck by this week was the emphasis placed by our incoming Prime Minster on public service. I was struck that in the two enactments of a transfer of power in our nation in the past year – both in the coronation service of our King, and in this week’s new government – the centrality of public service has been forcibly expressed as being at the heart of the exercise of that power, the power given and bestowed. On both occasions, it has been articulated that power is given to serve others. That seems a strikingly different account of power to that which is often expressed: that power is the ability to seek and bolster self-interest; that finally power is about the chance to look after me and my own. Rather, in the past week, power has been presented as that which is fulfilled in the service of others. The connections are obvious to idea that power is at its best mutual, that our fulfilment is found in service of one other, and that we are the best version of ourselves in that service.

Now I am not so naïve as to think that that rhetoric doesn’t need to be held to account. The proof will of course be in the pudding, and by their fruits we shall know them. But, for now, let us welcome that different account of power – that is fulfilled in mutuality and service – being articulated in our common life.

Jesus responds to the unbelief he encounters in Nazareth by sending the raw, untrained vulnerable disciples out, two by two, to travel light, heal the sick, and proclaim God’s coming kingdom, a kingdom embodied in the power of forgiveness, not coercion. They are to make a home with those they meet, accept the gift of hospitality, and then amazing things will happen. Not only Jesus, but the disciples, and we, are called to embody a very different practice of power. The kind of co-creation, life flourishing in mutual recognition, trust and service, that is God’s way in the world. Amen.

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