BISHOP JAMES T. SCHUERMAN
During this time of the COVID-19 emergency, many of us have had to make use of video and phone conferencing in order to carry out our necessary tasks while conforming to the social distancing guidelines. I am not particularly technologically well-informed, but I have learned a lot in these past weeks about alternate ways of communication.
One of the things I did, which I have never done before, was to lead a webinar. The president of the United States Catholic Mission Association (USCMA), Dr. Donald McCrabb, invited me to lead a reflection via video conference on mission spirituality. I serve as the episcopal advisor to the USCMA, and I was happy to accept. Mission, of course, is all about going forth to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. In the midst of feeling a bit cooped up following the “Safer at Home” policies, it seemed to me a good thing to focus on what we, as Christians, are longing to do – to go forth into our neighborhoods, our communities and our world to give witness to Jesus Christ, the Risen One.
The first part of the webinar on mission spirituality focused on the theme of mission in the Gospel of Mark, and that will be the focus of this article. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum, and continues preaching, teaching and healing throughout Galilee. He then takes his mission across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and his disciples cross the sea several times. The sea serves as both a physical and symbolic boundary between the Jews and the Gentiles. (Mark 4:35 – 8:21)
Crossing the sea, Jesus and his disciples enter Tyre, Sidon and the district of the Decapolis, and carry out the same ministry in Gentile territory that they had been doing in Galilee. There are several important moments of interaction between Jesus and the Gentiles during these trips. Jesus liberates a Gentile from demonic possession in the land of the Gerasenes. (Mark 5:1-20) He drives a demon out of a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. (Mark 7:24-30) He heals a deaf man from the Decapolis, who has a speech impediment. (Mark 7:31-37) In addition to feeding the multitudes on the Jewish side of the sea (Mark 6:34-44), Jesus also does the same on the Gentile side. (Mark 8:1-10)
The Gospel of Mark is a story of communication. Jesus is a man with a message, announcing the approach of the Kingdom of God. He communicates by word and action. Mark’s Gospel depicts Jesus beginning the communication of the Kingdom of God in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then he and his disciples quickly take this communication to the Galilean countryside and beyond the borders of Israel. Ultimately, the story takes Jesus to Jerusalem where he is crucified. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples that they would inherit the message of the Kingdom of God and spread it throughout the earth. For example, Jesus tells his disciples in Jerusalem, “Watch out for yourselves. They will hand you over to the courts. You will be beaten in synagogues. You will be arraigned before governors and kings because of me, as a witness before them. But the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” (Mark 13:9-10)
The mission of Jesus in Galilee and in Gentile territory found in Mark’s account is meant to reflect the universal mission of the early Christian community. The mission of the disciples has the same character as the mission of Jesus – preaching repentance, casting out evil, welcoming sinners and crossing borders to proclaim the Good News. The disciples of Jesus continue his mission after his death and resurrection.
The early Christian community knew, as we do today, that crossing religious and cultural boundaries does not come easily. Mark’s Gospel hints at this in different passages. Even before reaching the shore of the Gentiles, Jesus and his disciples must brave the storm at sea to make it to the other side. (Mark 4:35-41) In Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus at first appears hesitant to heal her daughter, explaining that his mission is to Israel first. (Mark 7:27) When the crowds gather to listen to Jesus, his disciples would rather dismiss them than feed them (Mark 8:4). Crossing borders is a difficult and challenging thing to do. (See the Catholic Study Bible, General Introduction, p. 412)
An important border-crossing exchange takes place between Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman in the district of Tyre. (Mark 7:24-30) The woman requests that Jesus exorcize a demon from her daughter. As mentioned above, Jesus’ initial response emphasizes his mission as a mission to Israel first: “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)
The story does not reach its climax with the words of Jesus, but rather with the reply of the woman in her persistence: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” (Mark 7:28) With a turn of a phrase, she works Jesus words to her favor. By communicating a profound insight concerning the inclusive love and compassion of God, she wins the argument, and Jesus grants her request.
The Gospel of Mark portrays the border crossing experiences during the time of Jesus’ Galilean ministry as a sign of the universal mission of the Christian community. Jesus’ eventual rejection at the hands of the leaders of Israel in Jerusalem, allegorized in the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:1-12), becomes the occasion for the transfer of the mission of Jesus from Israel to the wider world.
The border-crossing imagery found in Mark’s Gospel captures an important insight for mission spirituality. The communication of God’s Kingdom cannot be contained within the particularities of one or another group of people. Crossing cultural borders to communicate the love of God is at the very roots of Christianity. Mark’s Gospel drives home the point that from the very beginning Jesus’ message was inclusive of all peoples.
Perhaps the most moving part of the section of Mark’s Gospel dealing with the theme of the universal salvific mission of Christ and his Church is the response of the man in the territory of the Gerasenes, whom Jesus cured of demonic possession. The passage reads, “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him. But he would not permit him but told him instead, “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.” Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.” (Mark 5:19-20)
Through his encounter with Jesus, this man, now healed and evangelized, becomes the evangelizer. He is empowered to spread the Good News of salvation in his own country, his own culture, using his own voice to amaze and touch the hearts of his own people, bringing them to conversion.