Are We Charging People for the Gospel?
We have a fascinating window into the life of early-career Jesus in our gospel lesson today.
This is right at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 1. Jesus has been baptized, called the disciples, healed one other person, and then we arrive in our scene today.
Simon and Andrew take Jesus to their house, presumably to show their other relatives this amazing person they’ve decided to follow.
I can imagine the skepticism of their parents, spouses, and other siblings. “He’s who? And he does what? Heals people? Proclaims the Kingdom of God? And you’re going to follow him? What about your job and your responsibilities?”
Peter and Andrew are totally sold on Jesus, but the rest of their family isn’t. And so it’s not surprising that they want proof of the miraculous works Jesus supposedly can accomplish.
Conveniently, Peter’s mother-in-law is right there, and she is ill.
And Jesus heals her.
The word spreads through the town like wildfire, and by suppertime, as Mark says, “the whole city was gathered around the door.”
Scores of broken and hurting people offer themselves to Jesus in desperate hope of being healed.
And he heals them all.
But it takes a severe toll.
This is a Jesus who is young in his ministry, who is just coming to grips with how to harness and direct the immense power given to him. Mark says, “They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons,” and he healed them all.
It was a massive outpouring of Jesus’ energy.
Imagine the scene in this little town.
With every person getting up from their mat to walk, with every person who blinks at the newly-revealed world as they receive sight, with every person who hears his or her own name for the first time with healed hearing, the celebration grows more raucous.
What began as a tense scene by the bedside of Peter’s mother-in-law has now become a city-wide party of flabbergasted rejoicing. The healed people and their family and friends are mad with joy.
No one notices that Jesus is growing paler and paler.
First he was standing to lay hands on the afflicted, but eventually he has to sit down.
The circles under his bloodshot eyes grow darker and darker.
His voice, as he casts out the demons, grows thin and hoarse.
But no one notices or cares.
All they can see is the next person standing up to walk or restored to their right mind.
Jesus heals every last one of them, but it costs him.
He hasn’t yet learned to temper his strength. He hasn’t yet learned to measure his self-giving, to care for the people given to him in a sustainable way.
He simply pours himself out on all of them with abandon, and he almost goes too far.
By the early morning, he has to get out of the house.
He has to reconnect with the Father and replenish himself in communion with the Divine Source.
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
But his respite is very short.
The very next verse says, “And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’”
They didn’t just look for Jesus. They didn’t search for him.
They hunted for him.
Jesus is prey being run down by the wolves.
The disciples don’t mean to exploit Jesus like this.
Their intention is not to hound him to his death, to drain him of his strength until he is used up and thrown away.
They are simply so thrilled with the good works Jesus is doing that their eyes are dazzled by them.
They can’t see their friend, Jesus, through the shining light of his miracles.
They have not observed how much it cost Jesus to heal all those people.
And so it doesn’t dawn on Peter and the others that Jesus might not just want but actually need time alone for restoration, to regather his strength and reconnect with the Father.
They hunt him down, unaware that they’re compounding the problem and robbing Jesus of the precious hours he needs to refill his internal well.
We witness, in these few short lines from Mark, Jesus demonstrating the cost of discipleship in his own body, long before he approaches the Cross. He gives of himself freely and fully, and it costs him deeply.
This self-emptying of Jesus takes on a sharper edge when we read Paul’s words in our lesson from 1 Corinthians. “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge.”
I’ve observed that although we think we offer the gospel free of charge in our churches, we really don’t.
There are a lot charges for the Good News, some subtle and some blatant.
We often behave as though the price for the Good News is adhering to our preferred set of doctrines, behaviors, and community norms. You can participate in the Body of Christ, but only if you assimilate and become just like us.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t have standards of behavior in Christian community—they’re incredibly important, in fact. Nor should we throw out generations of carefully discerned theology and doctrine.
But the basic Good News of Jesus Christ really should be free of charge.
We should be committed to helping other people learn and receive the radical truth that God loves them unconditionally. We should pair God’s unconditional love with some of our own.
But it’s often hard to see the subtle charge we place on the gospel.
We think that the way we think and live is the best—why wouldn’t everyone else want to adopt it?
And so unknowingly we become like Peter and his friends, hunting people down and demanding that they perform for us, unable to see their needs through our own goals.
This is when evangelism tips over into Christian malpractice.
What Jesus demonstrates and what Paul explains is that there is a very important difference between a charge for the gospel and a cost for the gospel.
A charge is something the “owner” of the Good News imposes and demands on the receiver.
A cost is something the giver of the Good News bears himself, to his own sacrificial detriment.
When we see the two concepts side by side, the difference is clear.
The question we have to ask is this: are we sharing the gospel as though it has a charge or a cost?
Charging for the gospel is exploitative and wrong.
Bearing the cost of the gospel is following Jesus with integrity.
Charging for the gospel drives people away.
Bearing the cost of the gospel by pouring out ourselves for others builds community and hope.
It transformed the outlook and priorities of not just the disciples, but the entire town where Jesus gave himself totally to heal them.
Paul commits himself in this passage to offering the gospel free of charge.
If we’re going to do the same, we have to realize that we are simultaneously committing to bearing the cost.
We know that we will need to pour ourselves out with generosity and trust.
But we also know that we have only to go to a deserted place to pray, as Jesus did, to find ourselves filled up again and ready to return to serve.
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