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. 

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