Sunday 8 July 2012

Training Apostles

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on 8th July 2012, the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, Year B

In today’s Gospel St Mark (6:1-13) tells us how Jesus sent the Twelve out by themselves, two by two.
The same story is also told in slightly different words by Matthew and Luke.

The Twelve have been chosen and called specially by Jesus. They have given up everything to follow him - career, family in some cases - everything. They have watched as he carried out his travelling ministry. Now Jesus decides the time is right to send them off by themselves, on what is really a training exercise to prepare them for their future role as apostles – the Greek word apostle literally means ‘one who is sent out’.

The story conjures up for me the memory of the training exercises I took part in as a member of the School Corps – they were called manoeuvres. We went off in a bus, in battledress with boots and spats, with a packed lunch, a map and a compass. We were dropped off in pairs or small groups at different grid-references with instructions to march across country to rendezvous at another grid-reference some miles away where we would find our tea. Now I’m much too bolshy to make a good soldier. I confess I rather admired a worldly-wise friend who chose to spend the day in a near-by village pub and order a taxi to get to the rendezvous in good time. But I did learn one useful lesson – if you do not know where you are a map is completely useless!

Jesus gives the Twelve precise instructions as he sends them off.
Their task is to practice what they have seen Jesus do, to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near, to call people to repent, and to heal the sick. And to bolster their confidence he gives them ‘authority over the unclean spirits’, which were then believed to cause illness.

They are to travel light, very light - to take with them just the minimum they need, a staff, sandals and a single tunic – no food, no bag to carry stuff, no money, no spare clothes. They must rely entirely on the hospitality of the people and the villages that they meet. That means of course that they will have to look outward, to constantly engage with other people around them.

And they are to avoid any confrontation. If people in a place do not welcome them and offer the hospitality that was traditional in Palestine then, they must simply leave, but ‘shake off the dust that is on (their) feet as a testimony against them’. This is what pious Jews did when they returned after visiting an unclean gentile village so as not to pollute Jewish soil. I wonder if Jesus did the same as he left his home town of Nazareth, amazed at the unbelief he found there.

Mark tells us that they did as Jesus asked them. ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’ And when they came back, they ‘told (Jesus) all that they had done and taught’ – in other words Jesus de-briefed them. No doubt the Twelve learned important lessons from the whole exercise. And no doubt Jesus too would have understood their individual strengths and weaknesses much better – for none of them were perfect.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus. I wonder which of the others was paired with him. And I wonder how Judas scored on the training exercise.

Jesus calls a specially chosen few of his disciples to be Apostles.
Apostles are those that are called to give up everything else to follow Jesus, and to travel light as they continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. They’re not perfect – they share our common human faults and weaknesses, as the Twelve did. The difference between them and us is the gift of their special call. The rest of us Christians have other gifts and are called to different forms of discipleship. And as St Paul had the insight to see, our gifts as well as theirs are necessary to build up the body of Christ, which is the Church.

I attended Lucy Green’s ordination 2 weeks ago in Killaloe Cathedral – it was a magnificent occasion. In it Bishop Trevor exhorted Lucy in these formal words:
‘We trust that … you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself to his service … that you will devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit’.
All ordained clergy in the Church of Ireland make this commitment to give up other lives they might have led, in order to follow Jesus and devote their lives to his service. Theirs is an apostolic ministry which we need to receive.

We do not always give our clergy the recognition which they deserve. We should give thanks for them and for their commitment, both to the ministry of Jesus Christ and to us, often at great personal cost to themselves. And we should pray that in the future men and women will continue to respond to the call to selfless apostolic service. 

Sunday 1 July 2012

Jesus' Healing Ministry

Address given at Templederry & St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 1st July 2012, the 4th after Trinity.

Have you heard this one? - Sermons are like biscuits – they need shortening!
These words jumped out of the page at me, as I was sitting idly in a waiting room the other day, scanning the jokes page of an old copy of the Tipp Tattler. It seemed to be meant just for me – a message from on high! I wish I could preach a sermon like a wicked, buttery shortbread biscuit, but I fear it’s beyond my capability.

Three things strike me particularly as I read today’s NT reading (Mark 5:21-43).
First, notice how hectic Jesus’s healing ministry is.
·        Jesus has just returned from healing a mad-man on the other side of the lake, to find a crowd clamouring to see him. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, begs him to come to heal his desperately ill daughter. Jesus immediately responds as he always does to people in need. But on the way, pressing through the crowd, he suddenly senses another person in need, a woman with a haemorrhage has touched his cloak. He turns aside with healing words for her too. When he finally reaches Jairus’s house, he heals the girl who everyone else believes is already dead.
·        Jesus is always on the go, he never stops. How tired he must be with all the crowds and all their demands – but he keeps at it, because he knows it is God’s work he is doing.
Second, notice how sensitive Jesus is to the needs of all he meets.
  • He recognises Jairus’s agitation and goes with him straight away to see the girl – there are no waiting lists for Jesus, unlike our own health service.
  • Despite the crowd pressing around him, Jesus senses the touch of the woman with a haemorrhage, and pauses to talk to her directly.
  • When people come to tell Jairus his daughter is dead, Jesus reassures him. When he reaches the house, after sending away those in hysterics, he lovingly takes the girls hand, and gently says, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And he even makes sure that she gets something to eat when she comes to and can walk about.
Third, notice how important faith is to Jesus’s healing.
  • “Daughter, your faith has made you well”, he says to the woman with a haemorrhage, “go in peace, and be healed of your disease”.
  • “Do not fear, only believe”, he says to Jairus.
  • Wise doctors, I think, have always appreciated that the faith and belief of patients in the treatment they receive is important for recovery. A consultant proposed injections of colloidal gold to treat my father’s rheumatoid arthritis. He replied, ‘I believe in gold injections about as much as I do in rhino horn’, and sought a second opinion. The gold I am quite sure would have done him no good, because he did not believe it would. But his faith in the second consultant’s treatment gave him several more years of good health.
  • Mark also tells us, in the very next passage of his Gospel, that Jesus’s healing powers were almost completely ineffective in Nazareth. People who knew his family, people he had grown up with, just could not bring themselves to believe in his message of good news.

Mark records these healing miracles to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
But for me the real miracle is that Jesus continues his healing ministry even today, both in us and through us.

There are times when each and every one of us desperately needs healing. And Jesus, who told his disciples ‘Remember, I am with you always’, offers us his healing touch whenever we need it.

Jesus is never too busy to respond to us. With his great sensitivity he understands our needs beyond what we ask, and he will heal us in whatever way is best for us. If it is physical healing we seek, we may not always receive it – healing miracles are rare enough these days - but he will surely give us the spiritual healing we really need.

The only thing he needs from us is the faith and boldness to ask him in prayer.

But as well as healing us, Jesus also heals through us. Jesus calls us as Christians, corporate members of Christ’s body, his Church, to continue his ministry in his name.

St Teresa of Avila puts it beautifully, Christ has no body now but ours. No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but ours.’

Today’s reading has something to teach us as we do our poor human best to live up to Jesus’s call. First, we must expect our lives to be hectic – there is so much that needs to be done. Second, in order to minister successfully to others we must cultivate in ourselves a Christ-like sensitivity to their needs. And third, our ministry will do little good unless we also foster faith in the good news Jesus preached, not just in those we meet on the way, but in ourselves.

I shall finish with St Ignatius Loyola’s beautiful prayer for Jesus to strengthen us in his service:
Teach us, Good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve:
to give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will;
through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen