The priest lay on the beach, looking most uncomfortable. To be precise, he was lying on a tartan groundsheet with a picnic hamper, thermos, holiday novel and his wife next to him. He looked uncomfortable because the August sun was beating down, and he was wearing full black clericals and an all-round collar.
I guess he felt he was still a priest even if he was on holiday, and it was his duty to be available if anyone needed him. I thought of that priest when I read today’s gospel, because he had one particular solution to the issues the gospel raises. Questions of work and rest, wholeness of living, Christian service and rhythm of life.
In v.30 the apostles gather round Jesus. They’ve returned from a missionary journey, when he sent them out in pairs to practice ministry. They tell him all they have taught, all the healings they had been part of. And then Jesus tells them: ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.’
Jesus knows the importance of rest. It is God’s invention. Genesis Chapter 2 tells us how God rested on the seventh day after all the work of creating that he had done. He gave his people holidays to celebrate and be renewed, to spend in worship and community feasting. Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath by freeing it from legalism and insisting that ‘the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.’ Notice how Jesus tells the disciples to rest – as leader he models it and insists on it.
So when we take holiday it is part of a God-given pattern for life. That’s a wonderful thing isn’t it as we approach the end of term – holidays are a sign that God loves us and wants the best for us! A weekly day off is one of God’s blessings, the rhythm of work and rest keeps us healthy and sane. Even within a day it is good to have breaks from work – notice how Mark writes in v. 31 ‘they did not have leisure even to eat’ – implying that food was a leisurely activity for them.
Of course, some of us have a tendency to overwork. In our culture that is often admired. But how does God see it? Not taking time off is actually often a failure of self-discipline and a lack of obedience. In the Old Testament God reminds his people that the Sabbath is a gift and not resting is a way of closing one’s heart to his blessings.
But why is rest so hard?! My day off begins, and there’s a shopping list, washing to put on, a lawn to mow and the tax return to fill in. Sometimes I enjoy gardening, other times it’s a burden. When I spend time with family I have to turn the Blackberry off otherwise that little red light blinks at me. It is actually a discipline to stop thinking about all the things I need to do! I’ve got to be honest: it is a bit of a problem.
The biggest thing that’s helped me is seeing each situation as God’s call to me at that time. So when I’m working, focus on that and not get distracted. When I’m with people try to give them my whole attention and not think about the next thing I’ve got to go to. When it’s time off, put everything else to one side. Focus on each moment and do that particular thing well. Including resting. We all approach this in different ways and I think we’ve got to be honest with ourselves: what is actually restful for you? What are your temptations? To miss out work, or prayer, or rest? And what can you do to keep that rhythm?
Of course, it’s not helped if our best laid plans go awry. Imagine the disciples sharing food or nodding off as the waves lap the side of the boat. And then becoming aware of a cloud of dust moving on the shore. What on earth can it be? It’s a crowd, rushing round the lake to greet Jesus. Jostling, bundling, calling out questions, holding up babies, the sick crying out for help. I wonder how the disciples felt?
‘And Jesus had compassion for the crowd, for they were like sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them many things’. His rhythm of life was not rigid. He was able to respond with compassion when he saw need, because love went all the way through him.
If we are followers of Christ, then we are Christians all the time. At work, at home, at leisure. Our standards, our compassion should be the same whether people know we’re Christian or not. Whether we’re on duty, or off duty. On home turf or in a foreign land, with boss and with staff. integrity demands we treat people with the same respect and love.
So in the middle section of the gospel reading Jesus feeds the 5000. We’ve missed it out because we’ll be telling that story over the next few weeks. Eventually, in v.53 the disciples and Jesus cross over the lake again, meet another crowd, and heal more people.
Healing was so important in Jesus ministry. Everywhere he went he healed people. It wasn’t an added extra, but right at the core. God’s Kingdom is coming, preached Jesus, and that included making people whole. Jesus trained his disciples to heal. The Early Church carried on. Great hospitals like St Thomas’ in London have a Christian foundation, and the healing ministry continues today.
In all sorts of ways. Jesus calls some people to use their talents as medics. A Congolese woman called Pulcherie had been blind for half her life, as cataracts took over her vision. Her husband abandoned her to raise their child Guychelle alone. Then she came aboard a Mercy Ship, supplied by a Christian charity and received free surgery. When the bandages came off she saw her daughter for the first time.
Jesus enables us to let go of the past, bringing healing of memories. His Holy Spirit can liberate addicts from all kinds of things which bind them. Sometimes he heals someone from illness or evil power. At other times healing comes in patience, strength and the ability to cope. Even death is transformed by Christ, so that the last enemy is now the gateway to being made whole in the presence of God.
Healing is so important in the gospel, and I sometimes wonder if we make enough of it? Yes, we pray every Sunday for those who are ill, but is there more we could do in these churches to be open to the healing presence of God? I’m sure we believe God can heal in all sorts of different ways, so should we be providing more opportunities? A healing service on Sunday? The chance to receive personal prayer or perhaps the laying on of hands at the communion rail? I’d love to see someone develop the healing ministry here.
Because it was a regular part of what Jesus did. And those regular rhythms are important. The passage ends with these words from v. 56 ‘And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market places and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’
Wherever Jesus went, this kind of thing happened. Several times in the gospels we read summaries like this: Jesus went around their towns and villages preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick. In between the big miracles, the detailed accounts, and the full parables, there are little generic descriptions of the kind of thing Jesus did. Lives changed but not recorded. Minor ailments healed. Teaching repeated? Did the disciples mutter to themselves: ‘ah, he’s telling the lost sheep again?’
Why do we have these summaries? Well what did you have for supper last Tuesday? Can’t remember? But I’m sure you had something to eat. And it kept body and soul together. And you probably enjoyed it well enough at the time. Unless it’s a special occasion most of us don’t remember a particular meal – or a sermon for that matter! Yet it probably did us good at the time.
Much of life is like that. Necessary. Keeping us going. Building up strength. Not unusually memorable but enabling us to live from day to day. Whether it’s meals, or church, housegroup, Bible reading and prayer, the regularity and daily nutrition is important.
When I look around at the people I’ve known for years, the ones who persevere in their faith are usually the ones who’ve got those regular disciplines sorted. The people who grow in Christ are often those who try to spend time with God each day. They’re the ones who know their need of one another, who are part of a church and a housegroup. It really does seem to make a difference. We can’t sustain ourselves with the spiritual equivalent of an occasional banquet followed by a long famine. We need that regular spiritual meal.
The choices we make form us. A rhythm of life is so important. Rest and work; prayer and leisure; exercise and church – it’s surely not coincidence this theme is intertwined with healing. Put those disciplines in place, stick with them even when it’s difficult, and you will reap much benefit.