Truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
In the name of the Father…
There is something positively cinematic about the opening of today’s gospel. Jesus looks out on the huddled masses that surround him wherever he goes and what does he see? Sheep. Aimless, leaderless, helpless, a harvest ripe for the reaping. And, right on cue, behold the mighty men of God who are going to get the job done. Simon Peter “the Rock” and Andrew his brother, the fishers of men, James and John the Sons of Thunder, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, Simon and Judas. It’s a scene straight out of hollywood. And Jesus’s charge to them is no less sweeping in its scope, “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” he tells them, “Proclaim the good news[…]Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”. It’s stirring stuff. And in this season of ordinations and commissionings, it’s impossible not to think of the men and women who are responding to that call today, of all those who will be offering themselves to the mission of the Church in the coming weeks, of our own would-be-deacons lined up before the altar receiving their stoles and of the students of St Hild assembled on the front lawn.
I suspect, however, that anyone taking today’s gospel as the basis for a rousing address to a group of ordinands in the coming days is liable to confine themselves to the first half of the gospel. Because, at the very moment his powerful words ought to be reaching their rhetorical peak, Jesus’s charge to his disciples comes to what can only be described as a rather disorientating climax. Having just told them that their quarry is the lost sheep of the house of Israel he declares: “See I am sending you out like…sheep”. Sheep? Well that’s no good is it? I’m no shepherd, but I’m pretty sure that if your aim is to round up a group of sheep, then you don’t send out a group of sheep to get the job done. And it gets worse. “See I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves.” Now hang on a minute, wolves? Yes, and they will flog you and beat you and drag you before governors and kings and…everyone will hate you. Wow, that picture didn’t half change fast did it? A minute ago the disciples were consigning whole towns and villages to a fate worse than Sodom and Gomorrah with a shake of their feet, now they are fleeing for their lives from one town to the next.
So how are we to make sense of this sudden shift of gear? Well, there are no doubt a number of possible explanations, but I suspect that we won’t get very far with any of them unless we first get clear in our minds what we are talking about when we talk about the mission of the Church, and to do this we need to go right back to the beginning of today’s gospel.
Any account of the mission of the Church that takes today’s gospel for its starting point has to take into consideration the rather awkward fact that by the time the disciples get a look in there doesn’t seem much left for them to do. St Matthew tells us quite explicitly at the beginning of the gospel that Jesus has been through all the cities and villages in the region, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. In other words, he has already done exactly what he is about to commission his disciples to do. It’s not that Jesus has made a good start of ushering in the kingdom of God and is about to hand over the reins to his disciples. St Matthew’s is very explicit on this point: Jesus has been through all the cities and villages, and cured every disease, and every sickness. Now, in any other circumstances that might strike us as rather strange. And yet it is precisely what we should expect to find if we have our heads screwed on about what the mission of the Church really is, and, more importantly, what it is not.
In this season of ordinations and commissionings especially, it’s all too easy for us to think of the mission of the Church as something that Christ began and then left to his disciples to finish, as if he were a master painter who had done the faces and hands and left his apprentices to fill in the rest. And one of the reasons we are inclined to think of things this way is that it is considerably more flattering to our sense our own importance. To continue the painting analogy, it gives the apprentices the opportunity to impress the master with how skilfully they have done the bookshelves and window frames. But the mission of the Church is not an unfinished masterpiece. The mission of the Church is nothing more and nothing less than the mission of the Son. And that means that to offer our lives to the mission of the Church is, paradoxically, to offer our lives to a task that is already finished, that is already fully accomplished in Christ.
I came across a little piece of patristic commentary on this text which illustrates this point rather charmingly. It is from a homily of St Ambrose in which he refers to the part of today’s gospel in which Jesus is talking about the disciples receiving hospitality in the mission field. He says this:
This passage, taken literally, is an admirable precept concerning the sacred duty of hospitality, but its words also offer us a heavenly mystery: he who chooses a house is to enquire as to the worth of his host. Does not this suggest that the house to be chosen is the Church, and the host, Christ? For what house is more worthy of the entrance of the Apostolic preaching than Holy Church, or who is to be preferred before all others but Christ? He who is accustomed to wash the feet of his guests, and who suffers no stain of sin to remain on the soles of the feet of those who enter his house.
It a beautiful, if rather speculative, piece of exegesis. And yet, the picture it presents us with is really quite startling. What St Ambrose is suggesting is that when the disciples have travelled to the remotest corners of the earth, when they have climbed over the Andes, and macheted their way through the jungle and crossed the frozen tundra with the gospel, what they will find at the end of their journey, knocking on the door of the nearest hut or igloo, is Christ, opening the door and welcoming them in for a cup of tea. Which rather scuppers the whole idea of the disciples boldly pioneering new frontiers for the gospel. Or any of us for that matter.
And it is only when we see this that we can begin to see why there might be such a dramatic shift in the tone of Jesus’s charge to his disciples. For if the mission of the Church is nothing more and nothing less than the mission of the Son, then to offer our lives in the service of that mission, is to allow our lives to be conformed to a mystery, the mystery of Christ, a mystery which not only includes, but climaxes in, the Cross. And that means allowing our lives to be made cruciform in ways we cannot anticipate or control, and which have little or nothing to do with our ability to preach a good sermon or cast out a demon.
Listening to todays’ gospel we might wonder what exactly Jesus himself is intending to do while his disciples go about proclaiming the kingdom of heaven and casting out demons, and the answer of course is that he is setting his face toward the Cross, to that definitive encounter with the darkness and evil of the world that the disciples will themselves come to in time, when they have finished arguing about which one of them is the greatest.
After everything I have said, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a note of mischief in that last statement of Jesus’s in today’s gospel. “Truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” But, in the end, there can be no more thoroughly missionary activity of ours than to say with all the apostles and saints: Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.