Sunday 8 July 2018

How to train apostles

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th July 2018, the Sixth after Trinity

What begrudgery the people of Nazareth showed toward Jesus in the first part of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (6:1-13)!
The people of his home town took offence at him when he taught in the synagogue there, saying, ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ So, they could not receive his saving message, ‘and he was amazed at their unbelief’. Begrudgery hurts not just the one begrudged, but the one begrudging.

But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the Gospel reading, about how Jesus sent the Twelve out by themselves, two by two. The same story is told in slightly different words by both Matthew and Luke.

The Twelve have been chosen and called specially by Jesus. They have given up everything to follow him. They have watched as he carried out his travelling ministry. Now Jesus decides the time is right to send them off by themselves, on 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 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 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. I’m much too bolshy to make a good soldier. But I did learn one useful lesson – a map is completely useless if you do not know where you are!

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 - 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 others around them.

And they are to avoid any confrontation. If people in a place do not welcome them and offer traditional hospitality they must simply leave, ‘shak(ing) 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.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus. I wonder which of the others went out 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 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.

St Paul was called to be an apostle on the road to Damascus, when suddenly he saw a great light and heard the voice of Jesus. Perhaps it is this experience that he recalls in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, when he writes about being ‘caught up to the third heaven’. He refrains from talking about this – it was after all a private vision he received.

Instead he tells us about 'a thorn ... given (him) in the flesh'. We do not know what this was, but it must have been painful and debilitating. Paul believes this thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, was to remind him of his weakness. When he asked the Lord to take it away, the Lord told him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’.

‘I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ’, says Paul, ‘for whenever I am weak, then I am strong’. I think this must be the common experience of all apostles: that when they are weak they are strong. They are given the grace by God to understand that they can achieve nothing through their own strength, but only through God working in and through them. And surely this is a lesson the Twelve learned, when Jesus sent them out two by two without supplies.

At their ordination, the presiding Bishop exhorts every priest ordained in the Church of Ireland in these formal words:
‘We trust that … you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly 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, to follow Jesus and devote their lives to his service. Our Rector made that commitment. It has brought him and Rosemary to minister to us, far away from their family, their new grandchild, and their friends in Northern Ireland.

The ministry of priests is an apostolic ministry which we need to receive. We do not always give our clergy the recognition 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.

Let me finish with a Collect of the Word:
O Lord our God,
you are always more ready
to bestow your gifts upon us than we are to seek them;
and more willing to give than we desire or deserve:
in our very need,
grant us the first and best of all your gifts,
the Spirit who makes us your children. Amen

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