Consider the bees..."
8th Sunday After Trinity Mark 6:30-34. 53-end
Remove the queen from a honeybee colony and the hive rapidly shifts from organised activity to disorganised restlessness, for without her it cannot survive. If the queen is returned then there is another flurry of frantic excitement before the hive settles back into its ordered routine, each bee enacting its individual role. For some worker bees their allotted task requires them to leave the hive and scout for nectar and pollen. On returning they draw the next batch of foragers to them and by means of a figure-of-eight patterned manoeuvre, known as a “waggle dance”, they communicate the direction and distance where the best food source is to be found.
Mark’s Gospel is so tightly constructed that it pays to scrutinise the context of any given passage. That is especially true today, where the text has been “filleted” to fit the purposes of the lectionary. Chapter 6 opens with Jesus being rebuffed in his home town of Nazareth, then continues with his sending out the twelve disciples on their mission, prior to cutting away to describe the death of John the Baptist. These indeed have been our texts for the past two Sundays. Our Gospel reading today begins with the return of the disciples from their mission, brimming over with excitement and a sense of triumph. The lectionary then “jumps over” the stories of the feeding of the five thousand and of Jesus walking across the lake, before concluding by relating Jesus’ gathering popularity and the success of his healing at Gennesaret.
The behaviour of the exuberant disciples is reminiscent of foraging worker bees and their waggle dance. You might be surprised to learn that verse 30 is one of only two times in Mark’s Gospel where the term “apostles” is used – a technical term that indicates that they were official agents of Christ. As such, part of their work was to bring back a “progress report”. What they reported was a community in a state of excitable disorder, crying out to be led – a hive, perhaps, that had lost its queen bee and its sense of purpose and direction. This was surely not unrelated to the death of John the Baptist. He had been a focal point for the people, preaching repentance and igniting spiritual energy. His death left the people rudderless. The presence of Jesus among them, however, brought a new sense of purpose and direction – hence the buzz around him.
Bees hardly get a mention in the Bible, although a queen bee makes for an apposite image of the prophet, drawn out from among the people, giving order and purpose to their lives and ultimately sacrificing herself so that the colony may continue. Of course the hive could not survive without the worker bees and their waggle dance. Notice how in our reading the disciples – widely described by Mark elsewhere in his Gospel as uncomprehending, secretive and suspicious – are seen in an uncharacteristically positive light. Their encounter with Christ emboldens them to proclaim the good news, deliver healing and cast out demons with an all-consuming solidarity of purpose. A hive won’t survive without a queen; it also won’t thrive if the worker bees don’t make substantial efforts to travel to find the best nectar and pollen. When they do find it, they don’t keep the discovery to themselves, but communicate it to others for the good of the colony.
As churches it is often tempting to act in an enclosed world, deriving sustenance from within known boundaries. But to thrive we need to be apostles, flying off in various directions, not simply spreading the good news, but engaging with and learning from the wider world. Mark calls the disciples “apostles” because in our reading they are receptive to God’s people, excited by God’s vision and deeply connected to God’s purposes by their encounter with Christ. In the same way, healthy churches will be continuously reawakened and revitalised in creatively engaging with the world, rather than withdrawing from it.