Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sermon: “The Fellowship of the King”, Mark 1:14-20 (January 24, 2021)


We all know our job as Christians, right? The resurrected Jesus told his disciples what they were supposed to do in one of his final messages to them; we call it “The Great Commission.” All four gospels include some version of it. In Mark’s gospel, from which we take today’s reading, Jesus says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News.” Huh. Not very instructive, is it? For a job so important that it makes the cut in all four gospels, Jesus’ very last words to his disciples, we really don’t have a lot information to get us started. Where should we begin?

Maybe we should look to a role model for guidance. An exceptional person who’s undertaken serious, urgent responsibilities themself, who can help us figure out our first steps in global ministry. The type of selfless person who loves others unconditionally. The type of person who sacrifices themself for the salvation of all.

You know, like Frodo Baggins. Yes, THAT Frodo Baggins. The hobbit, in case you’re confused. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy series, “The Lord of the Rings”, Frodo Baggins takes it upon himself to travel to Mordor and destroy the “One Ring” in the fires of Mount Doom. A noble quest, if ever there was one, because if the evil Sauron were ever to be reunited with the ring, he would gain complete power and control over all of Middle Earth. Certainly, Frodo is a good role model for anyone taking on a huge responsibility.

So Frodo volunteers for this task, but it’s not just a matter of being willing to make the trip. As the movie puts it, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” The journey itself would be perilous, to say nothing of Sauron’s defenses and the temptation of the ring’s power. This halfling, who had never been on any sort of adventure before in his life, had taken on a doozy of a challenge. So what was the first thing he did upon taking on this responsibility? Did he gather supplies for the trek? Did he begin training for battle against Sauron’s minions? Did he try to learn as much as he could about the history of the ring and his opponents?

No. The very first thing Frodo did after agreeing to this responsibility was to gather a community around himself. And not just any community; not just a community of his friends and fellow hobbits, but a community representative of all the beings in Middle Earth. A “fellowship of the ring”, if you will. Not only was gathering a community around himself the first step of Frodo’s quest, it was the title of the whole first book, for crying out loud! 

You may think it’s a bit of a stretch to compare the events of this fantasy novel to ministry, but it isn't as far-fetched a sermon illustration as it might sound. Although “The Lord of the Rings” is a work of fantasy, Tolkien has admitted that many of its themes were influenced by his faith. The story isn't an allegory, strictly speaking, but scripture echoes throughout its pages. Frodo’s adventure parallels Jesus’ life of ministry in ways you might not expect.

For example, Jesus begins his ministry the same way that Frodo begins his quest. Jesus could have followed his cousin John’s successful leadership model—many people still do. He could have undertaken a solo ministry, pulling away from the world and separating himself from those he ministered to. But he doesn’t. Like Frodo, the very first act of his ministry, THE VERY FIRST, is to gather a community around himself.

Now, why is that? Why would Jesus’ first priority be to recruit an inner circle? It wasn’t to build his base—John’s arrest likely caused many of his disciples to join Jesus, since he’d already told them that Jesus was greater than he. It wasn’t to gain prestige or status—fishermen like Simon, Andrew, James, and John were pretty low on the social ladder, the blue-collar workers of their day. It wasn’t for protection—that would have been pointless given Jesus’ ultimate self-sacrifice. It wasn’t just for help spreading his message—the disciples tended to be pretty clueless, and besides, God doesn’t require human help to accomplish God’s ends. Gathering a community must have some deeper purpose.

Although Frodo admittedly benefited from his community in ways that Jesus did not (having the sword, bow, and axe of Middle Earth’s greatest warriors at his disposal was definitely an advantage for the hobbit) his companions were more than just brawn. While they did initially gather together for the purpose of increasing Frodo’s odds of success, they weren’t called “The Guardians of the Hobbit” or “The Protectors of the Ring.” They were the FELLOWSHIP of the Ring. They were bound together by more than the skills they had to offer; they were bound together by their relationship with one another.

This is important to understand because the most difficult part of Frodo’s task wasn’t the journey, as treacherous as it was. It was the burden of carrying the ring: the lure of power, the weight of responsibility, the temptation of possession. The Fellowship became more than just companions; they became Frodo’s family, even when physically separated, whose purpose was to support him in any way they could as he continued his odyssey. Moral support might not sound like an essential ingredient for an epic quest, but as the Fellowship demonstrated time and time again (most visibly in the character of Samwise Gamgee) Frodo couldn’t have succeeded without it.

I imagine that Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, had similar motivations in calling the first disciples. Sure, he wanted followers to carry his message after he was gone…but he could have accomplished that through John’s ministry model. Jesus, being fully God as well as fully human, knew that he had a long, difficult road ahead of him that would be made easier by close companions on the journey. Friends who would encourage him when he was criticized. Confidants with whom he could share his fears and dreams. Family who would trust him when he doubted himself. Colleagues who would be by his side wherever he went. Jesus knew that if he wanted to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, he would need to start with his own circle: a community that shared joys and sorrows, a cohort that supported one another, a family that didn’t always see eye to eye but always acted out of love. A microcosm of Heaven. A Fellowship of the King, if you will.

Honestly, the comparison to Tolkien’s work goes farther than just the fellowship part. Like Frodo’s journey to Mordor, ministry isn’t just something we do in our spare time. Despite Jesus’ simple instructions to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News,” it’s not just a matter of a few good conversations. Ministry is hard work. Sharing the Good News is an uphill climb. When we speak of God’s unconditional love that expects so much from us, we’ll be rejected, reviled, and ridiculed—even by those who claim to believe the same things. The weight of ministry can feel like the weight of the One Ring around Frodo’s neck. It can seem hopeless and futile, and it can make us want to hand the responsibility off to someone else or to give up completely.

But if we truly follow Jesus, if we truly consider ourselves part of the Fellowship of our King, if we truly believe in his message, then we must go into all the world boldly in spite of all adversity. In spite of those who wish to exclude some from God’s love, in spite of those who declare you heretical, or weak, or unAmerican. We must continue to put one foot in front of the other even when we feel unable to stand. And for that, we need our community around us to encourage, to support, to love, and to share the burden.

It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re fighting for the very soul of humanity. Christ’s message of radical love, unconditional acceptance, and uncompromising justice may have spread far and wide over the past 2000 years, but it’s still being twisted and corrupted to benefit the powerful and the privileged. We must band together, as Jesus showed us, not to create a show of force, but to lift one another up as we continue the wearying work of standing against the false prophets of the world.

If we find it intimidating to compare our own ministries to Jesus’, surely we can at least imagine ourselves as hobbits: short, shy, and barefoot, but willing to do what needs to be done. We don’t need divine authority, physical ability, profound insight, or even any special skills. All we need is a little bit of courage and enough wisdom to surround ourselves with those who can help us face the journey.

When you were baptized, the Church promised to support you, uphold you, and encourage you, and you promised to do the same. The apostle Paul reminds us that we’re always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are never alone as we follow Christ’s Great Commission, and this is by design. Jesus doesn’t just want a relationship with each of us; Jesus wants us to be in relationship with each other. Community is the thing that supports us. Community is the thing that sustains us. Community is the thing that reminds us what we’re working towards. Don’t try to do this ministry thing alone.

From the very beginning of Christianity, its very earliest days, before it could even be considered a movement, the intention has been for us to come together as a family. So embrace and cherish that gift. Encourage one another to lean into it. Welcome all who wish to be a part of it. Claim your place in the cloud of witnesses, the tradition of disciples…the Fellowship of Jesus, our King. Amen.

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