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6 November. Mark chapters 4-5
What strikes me from today’s reading in that great crowds gather round Jesus. As I remarked yesterday, from time to time there are great preachers (though obviously none to equal Jesus himself), who draw similarly large crowds. Some of them also have the gift of healing, but not all – Billy Graham, for example, attracted many converts just with words and music, and made no claim to be a spiritual healer. What all churches do have, though, is the Bible, and particularly the record of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. Why is it then that so many churches find it difficult even to get their regular members enthusiastic about Jesus’ radical teaching, let alone draw people in from outside? Whole books have been written on the subject, but “culture” often seems to be presented as a reason – “you can’t make this ancient religion relevant to modern people”.
All Anglican clergy, and Readers such as I, are charged by the Bishop at our licensing with “Proclaiming the Gospel afresh to each generation”. The idea is that the message never changes but the best way to present it, and the practical implications of it, do change from one place to another across cultures and down the generations. The fact that within forty years after Jesus’ resurrection (and crucially the gift of the Holy Spirit) the Church had spread across the widely varied cultures from the Near East to India in one direction, North Africa in another, and to the pagan city of Rome, shows that culture should not be a barrier to spreading the Christian faith. Nor is the lack of education – many of Jesus’ hearers in Galilee would have been illiterate, which is why he spoke in the picture-language of parables, and the Church is growing today more in poorly-developed countries than in sophisticated Western or Asian ones.
One clue can be found in the story of the Gerasene man in chapter 5. Sometimes I am sceptical about the idea of “demonic possession” whether in the Bible or today – I think it has often been misused to describe people with a range of psychiatric illnesses. But there are some cases such as this one where there is no other explanation – if he was merely mentally ill, why would he have shown superhuman strength, or why when he was healed would the pigs have rushed lemming-like into the lake?
Most of the people Jesus healed were told not to spread the word about him, but simply follow the Jewish ritual for being officially cleansed. But this man across the other side of the lake was not a Jew, as can be seen from the fact that his people kept pigs. And Jesus actively told him to spread the word. Why? I think it was because Jesus knew that he himself would not be accepted by people whose whole culture and history made them opposed to the Jews. So he had to raise up witnesses – apostles – from within those Gentile cultures to be credible speakers to their own people. We see this happening in the book of Acts, but perhaps it is this unnamed former ‘demoniac’, rather than St Paul (a Jew) or St Thomas, who truly deserves the title of “first apostle to the Gentiles”. And whom will God raise up within your own local community, or mine, to preach the word to their neighbours, if we ask him?