Sermon for High Mass Trinity 3 Sunday 7 July 2019
Trinity 3 HM
Only Luke tells us (in today’s Gospel) that in addition to the twelve, Jesus commissioned seventy others to go out in pairs as what we would call missionaries.
We are so used to the concept of mission and missionaries that, as so often with scripture, we make a large leap from the New Testament proposal (something entirely new in its day) to our context in which waves of missionary activity have flowed back and forth from reformation and counter-reformation, from empires and post-colonial guilt, to the present time where we are being offered the benefit of, e.g., the Primate of Nigeria sending what he thinks is the gospel back to us. All of that, reflecting so much, often heroic, human activity has been a vast enterprise of the Christian project and one which seemed almost to define Christianity for some people, especially English-speaking Christians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (or Spaniards in South America before that). As many of you know my own parents were both CMS missionaries, my father in relatively unevangelized West China, my father and my mother together in a more Anglophile and Anglican Hong Kong of the 1950’s.
I’ve often heard and read sermons which link this vast enterprise of Western Christianity with today’s gospel, even down to the exact details of the commission: you must go in pairs, you must have only the possessions permitted here, you must treat these verses as an exact set of rules on how to behave as a missionary. The punchline of such sermons is always that conversions and growth will magically follow the correct performance of these rubrics. As you’ll expect me to say, we need to pause and step back from that proposition.
First, we know that the motive behind a lot of this missionary activity was either competition between denominations or secular imperialism. That does not denigrate the heroism of individual missionaries, but it has usually driven the funding.
Second, most of the real impetus for missionary expansion can be found not in the Gospel but in St Paul, both in his letters and in the accounts of his journeys in Acts. It is unclear whether Jesus envisaged mission as we understand it: expanding a church (which he hadn’t even invented yet) to encompass all the races on earth.
You might point to the great commission which concludes Matthew’s Gospel (28.19f.):
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
But we know that is a late addition to the text: the too-neat Trinitarian formula, found nowhere else in the Gospels, makes that certain. Paul correctly understood a driving theological imperative for world-mission, but Jesus’ concern, as articulated in the Gospels, was more local. After Paul, it was necessary to make a link to the sudden expansion of the faith with the founder, not just a firebrand missionary apostle.
There are, however, a couple of things we can take from the instructions. These instructions are really a repetition or doublet of the instructions to the twelve given earlier, which are paralleled in Mark and Matthew. The twelve always stand for Israel (twelve tribes) so their mission is to Israel. Luke also wrote Acts and knew all about Paul’s missionary journeys (and maybe even knew Paul personally). He now reports Jesus sending out 70 disciples: Moses chose seventy elders to assist him; Jewish tradition, from Genesis 10, numbered the nations of the world as 70. QED.
So what can we take from these verses? It is noteworthy that the disciples are charged to proclaim Jesus’ own message: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you’. This is not a later message being read back into Jesus’ time, but Jesus’ own proclamation. The mission is to be characterized by urgency and detachment, as we heard last week. There are the underlying themes of stability (‘do not go from house to house’) and invitation rather than bombast. The details are particular to the place and time, but urgency and detachment are to be at the heart of the church’s mission.
But in that last sentence is a further trap. It is not the disciples, and therefore not the Church, that initiate the mission. The initiative comes from the Lord of the harvest, in response to the church’s prayer. The disciples return from their mission elated by their success, but Jesus at once dampens their elation:
…do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
The joy for the missionary is to be employed in the task, not in counting the successes. Whenever it becomes a counting exercise, missionaries will be tempted to think that cause is their own and the success their personal achievement. Like the people they are addressing they too are to remember that they are justified sinners.
At the end of his life my father used to reflect on his time in China, where he never returned after being forced to leave as the Red Army took possession of Szechuan and western missionaries were understood to be inextricably linked with the Nationalists. Chiang Kai Shek’s wife was a Methodist; American Methodists (and American Methodist money) had been highly privileged under the previous regime. To the new government denominational distinctions meant nothing, so all, protestant, Anglican and Catholic, were tarred with this brush and suspected of imperialist motives. To some extent Mao was right: we wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for trade and empire. That problem has been with us since Constantine.
But my father, who acknowledged that compromised position, used to reflect more on something else. He would say that he went to China in the fervour of his own evangelical conversion, wholly committed to Christ, to convert others using a simple programme of preaching and bible teaching. He returned, having learned things; having learned, he suspected, more than he had taught, not least that a simple narrative of offering to ‘save’ people was almost always met with the reasonable question ‘from what’, or an equally reasonable request for money. He was judged to have been an effective missionary by those who sent him. But he learned that if we listen to God and other people rather than making God a cause, a thing which quickly becomes our own project, then we are closer to the Gospel: the kingdom of God, near us. If we talk about God as people who are cheerfully accustomed to God’s company, if we do it simply and generously, more often than not only after being asked, if we listen and are led, then we will find ourselves in the right place in the end, and the mission, our lives, will eventually be God’s, not ours.
Of course we want the church to grow and we want many others to come to faith. But the gospel is not propaganda: it is good news which is supposed to be evident in us. In the words of the second reading, we are called to witness to the cross of Christ, not to glory in ‘circumcision’ (circumcision, meaning, for us, our own version of religion, religiosity or piety). We are not called to impose that on others as propaganda, inevitably compromised by alliances with money and power.
This is Christ’s mission and message, not ours. That is why our worship is not a rhetorical lecture or a concert but the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass, Christ with us at the altar, present for us in our Holy Communion.