Becoming Part of the Story
For Mark, Jesus’ baptism was the beginning, the point at which Jesus enters the “large narrative” of God’s dealings with the world. For Jesus himself, it is a moment of turning and change, the beginning of everything, the source and origin of all that follows. Whoever Jesus was before, his baptism changes him.
When he returns to Nazareth, and teaches in his local synagogue, amongst his relatives, friends, neighbours and clients, people are astounded. Mark suggests that this is more than a reluctance to be preached at by the local carpenter, or to take seriously the wisdom of a lad you remember when he was still wearing nappies. Jesus himself has changed, almost beyond recognition: “Where did this man get all this?” they ask. He has now “got something” he did not have before.
This “something” was the “sense of abundance” he received at his baptism, an experience of abundant life which drew together, animated and refocused all that he had learned of God, all that he knew of himself, and all that mattered to him about his context and his time. This sense of abundance made him feel resourced - approved, affirmed, encouraged, equipped and empowered - and because he felt resourced, he was able to act as he did. Now he understood that abundance was available to everyone; that anyone could access it. Now he saw his vocation, his task, his mission, his life’s work, as being to help everyone he met discover the way to an abundant life.
 Mark 6.1-6.
Seeing the Good News
telling stories about our experience. turning events into stories -
Getting people involved in the story.
To understand what we are witnessing, we have to listen to the story as a story. That is, we have to hear it, not only as the record of an event in the life of Jesus, not just as an account that is giving us interesting information about Jesus and his times, nor even as a story that tells that Jesus is Lord. Having “ears to hear” the story means that we listen to the story as a process. As a narrative which invites us into itself. As a tale which builds a scenario in our mind’s eye and allows us to enter into the dynamic of that scenario - not just as an observer, but as a participant.
Stories invite us to become part of themselves. They invite us to engage in a process. They allow us to witness the process as it unfolds around us, and to imagine ourselves engaging with it. They invite us into the drama - not as a member of the audience, but as a player on the stage - listening and speaking, reacting and acting, being influenced by events, and making choices which change the way events proceed.
Stories arouse in us a desire to take part in the drama that is unfolding before our inner eye. When we listen to a “news story” we are listening for information. We want to understand what is going on, and why, and how it will affect us. We are preparing ourselves to respond. And the most appropriate response is always some form of action. Which is why listening to the news can made us stressed and depressed, angry and frustrated - not because the news is bad, but because the storytelling prepares us to make a response, but then leaves us hanging. So often, there is nothing we can do. There is no appropriate action we can take. Consequently, our desire to respond has nowhere to go. We cannot release it by acting in response to what we have heard, so it stays with us.
This happens when we listen to any kind of story, including the stories of Jesus. This was what was going on in my ten-year-old self as I listened to the story of the Feeding of the Multitude. There is nothing wrong with this. This is what always happen when we hear a story, and the Evangelists make full use of this effect. They want us to absorb the information that the story is giving us. They want us to prepare ourselves to respond. And they want us to respond by taking action. By taking part.
But there is another way of listening to a Gospel story: a way which is more akin to the way we listen to music. When we hear Mozart, we are not listening for information, we are listening to the music. We are not listening in order to find out who Mozart was, or what it was like to live in Vienna during Mozart’s lifetime - we are listening to Mozart’s music. The music invites us into itself. We become caught up in it without knowing anything about the composer or his context or his time. By hearing it again and again we get to know it better. By listening with closer attention, we immerse ourselves in the music, as music. By learning to play the music, we become its instrument, an exponent of its beauty and its truth. We reveal its subtleties to others by the quality of our playing.. We enthuse them by the passion and commitment that we bring to our study, our practice and our performance. We may still know nothing of Mozart, but does that really matter? We have his music, and in his music, we have the essence of the man.
The Gospels were written to be heard in a similar fashion. When we listen to them, we are not only listening for information, we are also listening for a process. These stories turn hearers into doers; to convert listeners into players, observers into participants - yes- participants in a process. We are not only invited to respond by taking action. We are invited to respond by taking action in a particular manner. We are invited to join an orchestra playing of a particular kind of music. The music that is the essence of Jesus. The music of the Way.
In the words of the game-show host, the Evangelist says “Come on down.” The purpose of these stories is not to inform us about the past, nor even to inform us about Jesus, but to invite us onto the stage and equip us to play our part in the drama that is happening there. The “stage” is our own situation. The company is the congregation to which we have been sent. The story shows us the Way so that we can apply it to our that situation amongst and with the help of those people. And we learn how to do this, we begin to see how we can apply it to any given situation. The experience sends us back to the story, to hear it again; to listen so that we can be obedient, grow in faith, become disciples.
When the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 is read, where do you see yourself? How do you engage with the story? As an observer? As someone on the edge of the crowd? As a recipient, in amongst the multitude, wanting to be fed? Or amongst the disciples, in that small group of people close to Jesus, who share with him the responsibility for feeding the crowd, and ensuring that their needs are met?
On a number of occasions, working with those in pastoral ministry - both lay and ordained - I have asked this question. And I have discovered that almost everyone sees themselves as part of the crowd. One of the multitude. Not as one of the disciples. This is where we place ourselves - in the crowd. Perhaps because we are so aware of our need. Perhaps because we feel it would be arrogant to claim a place amongst the disciples. Or perhaps because we fear it might sound like arrogance to others.
We place ourselves in the crowd because we want to be fed. Fair enough. But where do our responsibilities place us? Where does our vocation place us? Where does our compassion place us? It seems to me that, whether we like it or not, these place us very firmly amongst the Twelve. And if we place ourselves there, we discover very quickly that their dilemma is our dilemma, their hunger is our hunger, their impoverishment is our impoverishment, their questions are our questions, their fear is our fear.
Which is where we came in at the beginning of this book. We see the crowd and their outstretched, empty hands. And we know how they feel, because we are hungry, too. We see and feel - perhaps even more clearly than they - the immensity of the need, its vastness of depth and scale. And we have nothing to give them, because our hands are empty, too. We have nothing that will be effective. Nothing that will be sufficient. Nothing that will be enough.
It is at this point that we choose to become a disciple. Or perhaps discipleship chooses us. Jesus turns to us and calls us by name. “Follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people. How will show you how to face this situation; how to face it, handle it, deal with it, and turn it around. Follow me, and I will show you how all the things you already know can be gathered and focused into an approach which is creative. An approach which gets results. An approach which transforms people and situations. Follow me, and I will show you the Way. I will show you how the Way can work for you. Whatever you have to face. Whatever you have to do.”
We are called to be disciples. Not followers or devotees, but disciples. Disciples are not experts, they are novices who have taken responsibility for their learning. They listen so as to be obedient, grow in faith and become better disciples. Disciples are formed by a process of life-long learning. Becoming a disciple means we are learning from Jesus how to behave like he behaves. We are acting like him while we learn how to do what he could do. We are becoming like Jesus in his ability to generate and deploy the transforming power of God.
Becoming a disciple means taking responsibility for the power that God has given us to follow and apply the Way. If we take responsibility for the multitude without also taking responsibility for the Way, then we cannot hope to survive in ministry. We may not even survive as a human being. We will end up gutted. The need of the crowd will destroy us. The hunger of the crowd will devour us, and very possibly those around us, too.
Becoming a disciple is our only hope. As a disciple, we are learning how to use this power as Jesus used it. We are learning to discover this life within us and amongst us. We take responsibility for the Way, for the life that is generates, and for deploying it where it is needed most. We apply it as Jesus applied it. We observe, listen, practise and refine our practice until we have the same impact on people, situations and events that Jesus did. We replicate his effectiveness, we magnify his power.