The Most Reverend Robert Runcie, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in his book, Seasons of the Spirit, that he once got on a train in England and discovered that all the other passengers in the car were patients at a mental institution being taken on an excursion.
A mental hospital attendant was counting the patients to be sure that they were all there: “One, two, three, four, five…” When she came to Runcie, he said “And who are you, then?” “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Runcie replied. The attendant smiled, and pointing at Runcie continued counting, “six, seven, eight…”1
Archbishop Runcie right then knew what it must have been like for the 12 disciples after Jesus sent them out to tell people that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” and to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”
How many times did people in the towns and villages visited by the apostles just assume they were in need of a little help? Even Jesus was a bit suspect in the eyes of many of His fellow Jews: John writes in his Gospel that after hearing Jesus’ teaching, “Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and insane. Why would you listen to Him?”…”
But then we get the reply of those who witnessed Jesus being Jesus. John records, “But others replied, “These are not the words of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?””
There’s the rub. If the disciples just went around claiming to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, then yeah, people might have dismissed them out of hand or had them swept out by the town constable. Something, or someone, must have been moving through them.
Now, that brings up the issue at hand today. What I saw as most interesting is “that Jesus authorizes such a powerful ministry for disciples who were clearly—at least as of that moment—completely clueless as to the meaning and shape of Jesus’ wider mission. It’s like authorizing some high school students to go out and start building skyscrapers…”2
The disciples are often depicted as just not getting the whole story, even when God the Son is literally spelling it out for them. As we talked about on Pentecost, this rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling continued until that long-awaited gift of the Holy Spirit, and so in today’s story, we’re still dealing with twelve guys who could really screw this whole “Mission of God” thing up.
And so there must have been some sort of urgency to the matter. We find throughout the Gospels that Jesus knew that His time on earth was not long, that He wouldn’t grow old and grow a long beard and sit under a tree, teaching like an old sage.
When Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, He meant it! Nearness brings urgency, even danger. The Kingdom of God is Christ’s, and Christ is coming to a city near you, and so gear up and get ready! Tell them the Kingdom is near and then show them what the Kingdom looks like, Jesus tells the disciples: show them that it looks like healing, cleansing, holiness, and life.
Sometimes it seems that the Church has lost this sense of urgency, the sense that people are in danger because they have not heard that the Kingdom of God is near. Perhaps we think that because none of us can miraculously heal people or cast out a leper or Lazarus our neighbors, that we have been left out the mission, that we didn’t get the marching orders straight from Jesus.
But that’s just not true, and you know it. I know you know it because every time Jesus gives us a mission, whether it be cooking a HomeFront meal or washing the clothes of our deserving neighbors or seeking out the under-served and under-recognized in our community, you guys are all over it. I asked for some detergent and quarters for three hours of laundry and you all responded with enough for about fifty hours of laundry. Ministry to our neighbor in Jesus’ Name is healing, cleansing, sanctifying, and life-giving. Will we sometimes look a little crazy doing it? Sure. Will we sometimes go off on a mission not really knowing the full story? Absolutely. But so did the twelve disciples. Jesus is urgent in His pursuit of the lost, and so are we.
1From the Transfiguration 1999 issue of TAD, as seen on the Facebook page of Catherine Salmon.
2Scott Hoezee, This Week: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-6a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel