God With Skin On There’s a story some of you may know of a parent tucking in her young child for the night. When she gets up to leave after singing a lullabaye, the child cries out in fear of being left alone in the dark. “You won’t be alone, sweetheart” the parent says. “God is always with you.” “But Mommy,” the child replied, “I want God with skin on.”
The passage from Mark’s gospel this morning is about Jesus sending his followers out into their world to be God with skin on. The first century church hearing this would have understood it as a “How To” text on the nature of faithful mission—a sort of “Mission Church for Dummies” handbook: “How to be God with skin on in a dangerous and complex world.” For the 21st century church, the challenge to understand and stay true to our identity as a mission people is no less of a struggle. But Mark gives us some guidelines—I found seven steps, seven just seeming like a good Biblical number to go with. You may find others too, but in this brief and succinct passage there are at least seven steps for “how to be God with skin on” in our dangerous and complex world. Are you ready? Here they are:
Step 1: “Jesus called the twelve”. This first step is called the “Yes you” step: each new generation needs to get over the sense of “who me?” God chooses peculiar, incomplete, imperfect, and usually unlikely people to incarnate his kingdom, and that means you and me. Amos was a country bumpkin—a shepherd without power, prestige, family lineage: you hear him say “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees”. But God sent him to the urban elite in the most affluent neighborhood in Northern Israel, and that was that.
The Apostle Paul did have all the right credentials, but as a high society Jewish intelligentsia—and where did God send Paul? Out into the world he knew least about and seemed least equipped for: the vast Greco-Roman gentile world who didn’t know about Jewish Torah, Jewish history, and didn’t care about Paul’s place of prestige within that history.
And let’s just take a look at the disciples. They are on their way to understanding who Jesus is and what he’s about for sure, but up to the end of the Gospel they never fully understand. Always they are vowing and trying to follow him, but their repeated failures are more spectacular than their achievements. But Jesus doesn’t wait for their full understanding or admirable discipleship on their part—flawed as they are, he calls them. In the world of God, who you are as an individual is not very important; what is important is that God calls you. There are no “Habits of highly effective missionaries” that we have to have memorized—it’s just not about a person’s character, worth, abilities, or talents. The only thing that matters is the authority of God’s call.
Step 2: “Jesus began to send them out”. This step is about understanding that the Christian life is the continual movement between being filled up and being sent out. We need time for both activities. If we were honest, we would not call coming to gather for worship “church”; “church” is what we are sent out there to do: to be as best we know how God with skin on. Sundays are for going to the Source that nourishes your soul, strengthens you for the journey, renews your hope. We all come to this place in need for these things, we gather round a table hungry for the presence of God to fill us; and then we are sent out to do the work God has given us to do: “Let us go forth out into the world” we are told at the end of our time together. After being filled, we are sent.
There are Lots of forces, and some in the name of religion, will encourage you to fight the world or flee the world, either way hardening yourself to the complexities, ambiguities, and difficulties of real life as it is. But Jesus sends you into the world as it is: raw, beautiful, tragic, broken…temptations to get stuck in both places: the world with is fast-pace, promise of happiness with the more stuff and the newest stuff—and forget to be renewed, refilled; or to get stuck in the peace and quiet of the retreat, the feeling of tranquility—no problems, no bothers, no interruptions, no unwanted noises or people or stuff—just you basking in the presence of the Almighty, your soul drinking in the water of true life—and forget that God needs us in the world, not removed from the world.
Step 3: “two by two”—this step is harder to translate into 21st century America. In a culture that upholds the rather glamorous ideal of rugged individualism, the gospel commission is about working out of a rootedness within community. Not only don’t you have to go at it alone; you should not go at the journey alone. The most pervasive demon in society is isolation and isolationism, which breeds a contempt for others mixed with self-righteousness. Our pride wants to do it ourselves; God sends us to do it with others—that means we bear the blessing and burden of sharing our mission with others. Further, Jesus didn’t commission his disciples to self-realize/find themselves as separate individuals. The mission was for a community to bear a message as a body, an alternative society.
Step 4: “gave them authority”: Claim the authority given you over the unhealthy forces of the world—forces that drag you and others down, persuade people they have no dignity or worth, forces that try to keep a person from claiming that he or she is created in God’s image, forces that drive people to despair, forces that lie, forces that treat death as a greater god than resurrection, forces that legitimize injustice. It is the authority given us that we trust when we seek to be God with skin on. There is no greater power than the power of resurrection begun in Jesus Christ; We must allow the power of the risen Christ to speak to the unhealthy forces of our day with authority.
Step 5: “travel light”: This step is especially hard for the American community. We like to accumulate, to settle down, to get comfortable, to pretend we’ve reached the promised land. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” To travel light means we remember to rely on God alone to complete mission. Traveling light reminds us that we are a pilgrim people—on the move, not meant to get too comfortable in one place. To carry more than we need would hinder the mission. This one really challenges the church today: if the heart of our calling is to be sent, why are so many resources used for self-maintenance?
Step 6: “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.” Trust that where you are now is where God wants to use you—Resist the anxiety that makes you mistrust where you are. Don’t shop around for a better deal. You don’t have to have first class accommodations every time. Keep mind and energy on appointed task.
Step 7:”If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” This step is about how to deal with rejection and refusal, unkindness: stay faithful to the message/communicate message as best and as faithfully as you can. Resist pride of taking personally—the mission’s not about you; it’s God’s mission and their decision. Success in God’s standards is staying faithful to the message, not the number of souls you save. Notice what the disciples do NOT do: they do not force or coerce—no conversion at swordpoint or gunpoint-- and they accept the decision of others for or against.
It is when the flawed 12 go out in obedience as “sent ones”—that’s when the authority of Christ becomes operative and effective. Can’t be done sitting at home or in a church building; only goes into effect out there. It’s not about being ready or prepared perfectly; it’s not about feeling adequate. It’s not about who your parents are or where you grew up; it’s not about how gifted you are or how ordinary you are or how small you may feel. It’s about going out trusting in the authority given you.
An extraordinary message has been entrusted to us. With the world caught in cycles of violence from Beirut to Baghdad to the recent surge of murders in Washington, DC, the need is as urgent as ever for us—the church—to be for the world God “with skin on.” Amen.