Sermon for Sunday 4 July 2021
“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff: no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.”
What you pack for a trip says a lot about you. Are you the sort of person who packs for all weathers and all occasions? Several pairs of shoes, hat boxes, coats for every category of rain, extra layers for if it’s cold? Or are you that infuriating sort of person who can travel light – the kind of individual who can get by with a toothbrush, a bar of soap, and a fresh shirt?
Amongst the things discussed in today’s gospel, we see Jesus giving instructions for how his disciples are to pack as they travel about proclaiming the good news.
They are to take nothing but a staff, no bread, no bag, no money. They are to wear sandals but not wear two tunics. Why does Jesus give this rather peculiar and intriguing set of instructions? What does it matter what kind of shoes they wear, and why is it so important they don’t wear two tunics?
This actually tells us a lot about how Jesus understands their role, and how we, in turn, should go about spreading the Good News ourselves.
The ancient world was full of a wide range of wandering philosophers and vagrant prophets. They signalled their vocation through what they wore and how they travelled. The walking staff and provisions bag was very closely associated with wandering cynic philosophers.
The cynics thought life’s goal was to live virtuously by giving up worldy wealth and fame, and living a life of asceticism. Many of their philosophers wandered around begging and preaching as they went.
Epictetus himself gives us a hint at how thoroughly annoying and insufferable they could be. He tells us the distinguishing features of a cynic prophet are his “provision bag and his staff, and his big mouth.”
The cynic’s provision bag and staff signalled they were self-sufficient, that they were finding fulfilment through their own ascetic efforts, and didn’t need to rely on anything outside themselves.
So it seems Jesus is telling his disciples a very specific thing. They are to be careful not to look like wandering prophets selling mere secular wisdom. No, they are to be far more than that – signs of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. They are not just carriers of a philosophical message. Rather, they are signs of healing, casting out demons, and anointing the sick. They are not self-sufficient philosophers saved by their learned wisdom, but apostles of Jesus Christ wholely dependent on the God who empowers their ministry.
But Jesus’ rather odd instructions about what to pack also hint at something else. For there is another story in the bible where a staff and sandals are important…and that is the exodus. For the ancient Israelites are told to eat the Passover with sandals on their feet and staff in their hand, eating hurriedly, so they are ready for God’s intervention in their lives.
So it’s possible there’s an even deeper significance in these instructions of Jesus. Those sent out in his name are in fact participating in a new exodus. They are to be the signs that God is intervening decisively in human history again in just the same way that he did in parting the Red Sea. This exodus will be sealed in Christ’s blood and the defeated enemy will not be Pharoah but death itself.
So what do we learn from this gospel reading when we come to think about our Christian discipleship? Christians are not sent out into the world with a philosophical message. The Gospel is not a political creed, or a set of thoughts. In making new disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not trying to persuade someone of an idea.
Rather, we are inviting people to enter into a relationship – a relationship with God. We should live in such a way that people see God present in us. If we live like that others might start to wonder what life might be like if God was working in them too. And as they wonder and imagine that, we should seek to do the same things that the disciples sent out by Jesus did. They healed the sick and cast out demons. So we too, do far more to convince people of the Gospel by being agents of healing and welcome and reconciliation than we ever do through intellectual argument.
And the place we experience most clearly the exodus action of God is right here in what we are doing now – celebrating the eucharist together. Our goal is to draw others into eucharistic community so they too can experience God’s saving action here. Our job is to help people be incorporated into Christ by Baptism, fed on his Body and Blood, and healed through the sacraments.
So to return to my first question – what does the way you pack say about you? Do you weigh yourself down with the baggage of this life, or do you stride forward with just sandals and a staff, ready for God to work through you, as he brings his people to safety in the promised land of his love?
Fr Peter Anthony