Politics May be Local
But God’s Kingdom can be
Everywhere, or Nowhere
by David Somerville+
The Gospel coming up for next Sunday has several themes. I believe I found one of them. It was (to use a figure of speech) brought out from under the sick bed that belonged to Simon’s mother-in-law. I want to make sure it stays out from under the bed. The theme from “under the bed” suggests that as Christians, we are all missionaries. This late Epiphany Sunday, then, is a good time to explore the theology of mission, and by the end of this article, see how we need to keep the theology in public view — now that the mother-in-law is out of the bed and doing what God had called her to do.
Epiphany is the season of two processes in our spiritual development as the Body of Christ. The first process began last January 6th, a day bathed in a light without boundaries, the day of the star in a seamless sky, shared by both Jew and Gentile, the light of Christ’s manifestation to the world. Second, we entered the process of saying “yes!” to the Son whose Gospel calls us to active responsibility in bearing the light. It cannot be denied that bearing the light is what we promised to do upon seeing it. It is in our baptismal vows. It makes sense, then, as I begin this reflection, to look and learn from a great missionary role model, Albert Schweitzer, and duly noting his words. He chose early in his life to be one of the
… glad instruments of God’s love in this imperfect world … to which men are called [anticipating the] bliss that awaits them in the perfected world, the Kingdom of God.
This quotation reveals how Dr. Schweitzer understood his life and work. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the young musicologist and theologian, received his call to serve with an organization called The Society of the Evangelist Missions of Paris. The Society had a specific requirement for their mission. They needed a medical doctor. Schweitzer had not been to medical school. In response to the requirement, he plunged himself into three more years of training as a doctor. In doing this, the young man accommodated the local policy of his chosen organization in order to bring legitimacy to his vocation. As he matured and experienced the cruel effects of European white colonialism, Schweitzer’s theory and practice of spreading the Gospel evolved further. Schweitzer saw a lot from his location in the primitive, corrugated steel hospital that he built near his living quarters.
The concept of Local, as the late Senator and Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill developed it, refers to the people that one gets to know while living in their midst. The speaker’s success as a politician came from his listening to the local concerns of his Boston area constituents. Missionaries, if they are going to make a significant impact on their target group must, like the senator, go to the places of the people and hear them tell of their struggles with life. How they experience themselves with their poverty and disease is more important than academically learned ideas.
The work Dr. Schweitzer was called to do was of the sort that the demands of his mission would outlast him, even though he lived into his nineties. But completing a mission is not the point. Living it, following an agenda formed by the local needs of the constituents, is.
Jesus’ ministry begins in the local synagogue in his first neighborhood as a young adult, Capernaum, having moved beyond his childhood home in Nazareth. After preaching there, he goes to Simon and Andrew’s house, and heals Simon’s mother-in-law of her fever. Immediately she rises to serve!
After restoring Simon’s mother-in-law to wholeness, Jesus has a run of other successful healings. His popularity grows. Then he goes into retreat for discernment in that lonely place and time, the small hours of the morning before dawn where nobody else is around. But Simon and others find him anyway! A good thing has started; they don’t want Jesus to escape. What is suggested by the healing of the mother-in-law, and the other healings as well, is that Jesus became popular for what he produced. But what he produced needs to be understood as a by-product of something else that is to be fully manifest later in the lives of the people who are at the moment rejoicing in the novelty of their rejuvenation. Wonderful though the healings may have been, we need to understand that the new wholeness of the local townspeople was not the end, but the beginning foundation of a new era in which a disciplined life of service to others becomes the norm. The chemistry of this new social behavior is what brings an idea hidden under the sick bed of the soul out into view. (We must remember, of course, that the sick bed is now vacated).
I believe, that the author of Mark, what I like to call the “Immediately Gospel”, trusts readers and hearers of his work to know that the mother-in-law was inspired not only to enjoy her recovered personal well being, but to live out the rest of her life in service, doing her part to continue the effects of her recovered wholeness to the brokenness of her neighbors.
Simon’s mother-in-law, and Dr. Schweitzer entered into eternal life with their missions up and running, but not completed. Completion of missionary work is not the point. Getting it up and running is. Schweitzer’s work in Africa continues because of the thousands of people inspired and made whole by his work. Thousands of his former charges, their children and grandchildren continue his ministry to this day.
My conclusion is that the most effective missionaries are the ones who know that, through compassionate listening, they must gain the rapport and trust of their target people. They do so by acting through the hallmark principle similar to Tip O’Neill’ modus operandi. In addition to O’Neill’s understanding that a particular mission is politically local, the missionary must remember that it is also temporary. He must not loose sight of the fact that he has no permanent home. He is of the Kingdom reality, a state of grace that can be at once everywhere, and materially nowhere! This is suggested, I believe by Jesus, who stood firm against the predawn request by Simon and his companions to get back to work in their neighborhood. Jesus did not yoke himself to their control. Instead he said to them…
Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message….
The local Capernaum witnesses don’t need any more than what they already were given. Simon had to be reminded that they had received their epiphany glimpse of the Kingdom life; it is now time for them to continue to live by that faith, following the discipline required to let the sower go, and then continue the work of keeping his seed watered and free of obstructions.
Am I reading too much into this short passage of scripture? I don’t think so. Mark’s Gospel is the briefest of the four, almost abrupt. But every word is like gold – not because they are beautiful, but because they bear so much mass! So this is not a Gospel to be read by speed-readers to be sure, but a document to be read prayerfully. Like the cryptic parables in it, this work is something like a complex personality. I feel better acquainted with the “Immediately Gospel” than I did in my youth. But there are still many things about it that it has not disclosed to me yet. (And as I write this paragraph I wonder how appropriate the pronoun, “it” may actually be when I consider my relationship to Mark as something like a conversation. One can neither talk to, nor hear talk from, an “it”).
I have discovered that an epiphany-tide reading of Mark leads to what I believe is a really authentic theology of mission. It is a theology confirmed by what those who brought me to Christ and his Church in 1960 instructed me to do — to confirm the vows of my baptism. I did that through the evangelism of my sponsors. They valued me and spoke to my worries and anxieties as an adolescent. Their counseling and the confirmation liturgy promised me that the best life is the one in which the righteous live by faith, and through their restored wholeness, rise from the sick bed of a broken world’s way of influencing them. Those who conducted their mission to me knew that they were, to use the doctor’s words,
…glad instruments of God’s love in this imperfect world in service to … the Kingdom of God.
And, I will add, as I have lived in the community that is the Body of Christ, I have been helped as I have done my small part as a helper in the work of Kingdom building. From my experience I know that the Kingdom can be either everywhere or nowhere. But it is no longer under the mother-in-law’s sick bed. You will recall that the mother-in-law was bringing her part of the Kingdom to better places than its original spot under her sick bed. So Everywhere even anywhere is good. Letting Kingdom–work be forgotten – either under your former sick bed, dear reader, or mine, is not good. So to do something about that is up to us.
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information: