St Stephen, Lewisham

19th July 2009

‘… at some length’


…and he set himself to teach them at some length Mark 6: 34

Those are the final words of today’s Gospel passage. The Apostles had just returned from their first experience of working in pairs as teachers and healers, but without having Jesus Himself ready to hand to guide them. It had been both a successful and exhausting experience and Jesus reckoned that they could all do with some time-off together, if only to be able to have a square meal without being interrupted

However, that was not to be. ‘People saw them going’ St Mark tells us ‘and many could guess where’. So by the time they had crossed the Sea of Galilee a large crowd was already there waiting for Jesus. ‘He took pity on them’, St Mark says, ‘because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and He set Himself to teach them at some length’.

Now, it’s those five words ‘teach them at some length’ which caught my attention, because ‘teaching at some length’ is not something which happens at all often nowadays (unlike previous ages). However helpful a ten-minute sermon at Mass may be, it can’t be described as ‘teaching at some length’. Preachers like John Wesley and George Whitfield and Father Stanton all ‘taught at some length’ – and they were listened to not by hundreds but by thousands of people. And even nowadays some six thousand people, mostly in their teens and twenties, flock to the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road every Sunday to what is, in practice, a teaching service – though having been to the Dominion myself a week or two ago I have some serious misgivings about the quality of such teaching.

But that’s not the point. The fact is that there are just as many people today as there were 200 years ago who want to be taught about Jesus Christ (though there are, of course equally many who don’t want to learn about Him) and, like sheep without a shepherd, they simply aren’t getting fed the right things.

If we fail in our duty to teach the truth to those who want to be taught then we shall become like those religious leaders we heard about in the first reading, upon whom the prophet Jeremiah pronounced the Lord’s doom. – leaders who, in God’s words, ‘allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed and scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them’.

Well, how do we go about teaching people the truth?

Our first clue lies in what St Mark’s says about Jesus, that when He was faced with people who wanted to learn, He set Himself to teach them at some length. When we ‘set ourselves’ to do some task it means that we apply ourselves, our minds and our wills and our hearts, to whatever that task may be: and of course the first step must always be taking the trouble to understand exactly what that task is.

It’s the same when we go to the doctor about something that is wrong with us. We don’t expect that doctor to take one look at us and say ‘you look a bit pale, I think you should have some Marmite for breakfast’. We expect that doctor at least to take the trouble of asking us about our symptoms, examining us, and then applying their medical knowledge to diagnose what is causing our illness; it’s only after they have gone through those procedures that they are in a position to prescribe something to make us feel better.

So when we ‘set ourselves’ to teach others about Jesus Christ and His Gospel it must be assumed that, like the doctor, we have taken the trouble to learn about Him ourselves. Unfortunately many Christians haven’t a clue about this, either because they themselves have never been properly taught, or else the last ‘teaching at some length’ they received was before they were confirmed perhaps half a century ago – and which of us can lay hand on heart and say that we remember everything we were taught then?

But, assuming that we do ‘have the knowledge’ (and it is a big assumption!) we next need to discover how much or how little the people who are asking to learn, know already – which will vary, of course, with the age and personal background of those people. So ‘setting ourselves to teach at some length’ normally involves forming some kind of relationship with those who want to be taught by us; and that, in turn, means, in my experience, dealing with very small groups of people to begin with, one, two or three at the most. That’s what Jesus told his apostles to do before he sent them out as missionaries. He didn’t tell them to start by trying to get a big crowd together. What he advised them to do was to ‘find out who is worthy and stay with him until you leave [that place]’.

Of course there is a place for big Mission services: the 5,000 or more who gathered to hear Jesus speak presented Him with a valuable opportunity; but over and over again it is with small numbers that teaching is most effective.

So first, make sure you ‘know the knowledge’ yourself; second, get to know a small number of would-be learners; then, and only then, decide how you are going to begin teaching them.

‘But,’ you may well ask ‘where does persuading people to attend church come into all this? Isn’t that an important part of our Mission?’

Yes, of course it is, and next Sunday’s gospel reading will tell us how Jesus immediately went on from ‘teaching them at some length’ to feeding the five thousand them with ‘bread from Heaven’ as a curtain-raiser for the Eucharist which He was going to institute on Maundy Thursday. But all that follow-through teaching about the Bread of Life (and which St John’s Gospel describes in such detail) which Jesus gave to these same people only goes to reinforce what he said on a previous occasion namely that ‘man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’.

In our Eucharist, as you know, there are two stages. Stage One is called the ‘Ministry of the Word’ which ends with the Homily, the Creed and the Intercessions. Stage Two is the Ministry of the Sacrament which follows it. Nobody could possibly accuse Christians of our tradition at churches like St Stephen’s Lewisham of neglecting the second of these, the Ministry of the Sacrament. But we have as much to learn from our Evangelical fellow-Christians about the Ministry of the Word as they do from us about the Ministry of the Sacrament.

Evangelicals attach great, perhaps excessive, importance to the Ministry of the Word which means that they underestimate the importance of the Ministry of the Sacrament. Churches of our tradition are at risk of making the opposite mistake.

The vital truth which both Catholics and Evangelicals need to learn from each other is that it is not a case of ‘either/or’, but ‘both/and’!

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