Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
As someone who spends half her time working with those discerning a call to ordination in the Church of England, I find today’s gospel passage a bit disconcerting. Jesus sends out the Twelve, entrusting to them the mission and ministry he himself has begun. And I find myself wondering: who are these Twelve? What are their qualifications for being appointed? If they were being appointed nowadays, we’d have to ask ‘is their vocation realistic? Do they know what they’re getting themselves into? Have they got a mature faith that they can communicate attractively to others? Are they psychologically sound? Can they respect and work within the diversity of the church? Do they have the capacity to exercise mission-shaped ministry with openness, creativity and innovation?’
All of which leads to the unsurprising but nonetheless discomfiting realisation that the apostles would probably not make it through the selection processes of the C of E. From the evidence of the rest of the gospel of Mark we learn that the first disciples of Jesus were slow to understand his message, frequently got it wrong, promised more than they could deliver, when tested demonstrated lamentable lack of faith, and at the end, deserted their Lord.
And on these foundation stones God built his Church. Thank God! At the ordination services in the cathedral last weekend, as the bishop read out the impossible role descriptions of being a deacon and a priest in God’s church, he ended by saying, ‘you cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ At which point, the ordinands and the entire congregation dropped to their knees.
For this is the paradox at the heart not just of ordained ministry but of the ministry to which we are all called: God makes us those through whom his gospel is proclaimed, in word and action. In baptism he calls us to put on Christ, and throughout the rest of our lives to live out Christ’s life, in the varied places and contexts in which we find ourselves. But he doesn’t call perfect human beings. He calls us: fallible, fickle, faithless – just like his first disciples.
And he gives us what we need, however counterintuitive that may seem. In the gospel reading today, the disciples are told to take with them only a staff – the symbol of authority (think of the staff still carried by bishops today when they are speaking or acting in Christ’s name). That’s it: they carry with them only the authority Christ has given them. They are to take ‘no bread, no bag, no money in their belts’. To go out so unencumbered is to be vulnerable. There is no fall-back: the disciples have to trust themselves to God and to their neighbours. They are to rely only on what Jesus has given them, and to trust that it is enough.
There is no packing of extra provisions, just in case. No reassuring heft in their purses that reminds them they can at least pay for a bed for the night if they need to. And notice that they don’t go out with a guarantee of success: ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place,’ says Jesus. ‘If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ They are sent out with no guarantee they will be received – just as Jesus had little success preaching in his home town, among his own people.
And as someone who can make caution into a virtue, who likes to be well-provisioned and well-prepared, this passage is uncomfortably challenging. Do I act as though I believe Christ is enough, and has given me all I need? Most of the time I prefer the reassurance of knowing that I have enough packed away in the purse I’m not supposed to be carrying not to need to depend solely on Christ. I can, I rationalise, always depend on experience, or training, or on my gifts. But that is not what faithfulness to Christ looks like.
Here, Millie is something of an icon for us of what Jesus means in this passage. In her baptism, she is given what she needs for the journey ahead: the gift of the Holy Spirit that conforms her to Christ, and a community that will help her grow in faith. She has no other provisions for the journey, yet – she’s a baby, unencumbered by the temptation to rely on her own power or strength or gifts or achievements. She needs others, and so shows us something of the radical interdependence to which Jesus commits his disciples. We know that she can’t do this on her own: she needs Will and Lucy and Anna and Jack, and her godparents and the rest of us if she is to grow into the fullness of life she is given today.
We are, most of us, schooled in the belief that independence is a virtue. In political discourse, it is often seen as a bad thing to rely on others for support. But this leads to some very questionable ends: to the elderly ill wanting to die rather than be a burden to others; to an unwillingness to talk about mental health issues because they reveal our vulnerability; to policies that hurt the disabled and dehumanise the immigrant. This is not the way of Christ. What he commits his disciples to is the way of interdependence: they will go hungry and homeless without the hospitality of others; and those others will go without the good news that the kingdom is near without the disciples. We are supposed to be a burden to one another, to be in this together.
Those first disciples discovered the power of God at work through them. They were not called because they were already faithful; because they had a proven track record in mission and evangelism behind them, or a good reputation that would open doors wherever they went. They were called because Christ chose them, flawed and imperfect as they were.
We see this at work in a different way in the reading from 2 Corinthians. In a rather peculiar passage Paul talks about a vision in which he was caught up into the third heaven. Jews at the time believed in a plurality of heavens – usually seven but sometimes three, as in this passage. Paul is therefore talking about being caught up into the highest heaven, in some sort of vision. He’s clear that this is entirely down to the action of God: he did not induce it through prayer or fasting, and it’s not something about which he often speaks or writes – perhaps doing so here as a way of responding to rival leaders who taught that those marked out by God must have had special visions or revelations.
But Paul does not depend on this vision to bolster his authority. Instead he reaches for his weakness, the ‘thorn in the flesh’ which keeps him grounded in the grace of God. We don’t know what this is – whether it’s a physical or mental or spiritual ailment or affliction. And the details don’t really matter. What does matter is what God has taught Paul through it, that ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
Paul could very easily have chosen to depend on his visionary experience, on his own personal gifts and charisma, on his standing as a Jew in order to try to fulfil the ministry Christ called him to. But he doesn’t: he chooses to depend on Christ and his grace. It is precisely in the places of our weakness that God is most free to act: the places where we are not confident; where we are broken or vulnerable; where we know we can’t depend on ourselves.
To trust that Christ’s grace is sufficient is to go out unencumbered, like those first disciples, who discovered the power of God at work through them, fickle and fallible as they were. And the call remains the same: to trust that Christ is enough; that, like Millie, he has given us everything we need.
Every time I choose to depend on myself rather than God, I limit his ability to act. I become like the neighbours of Jesus who limit his power by their lack of faith. I keep having to learn, over and over and over again, what Paul learnt: that God’s grace is sufficient; that his power is made perfect in weakness. And I learn that only by learning to trust God with the flawed and fallible and faithless and broken bits of myself, and discovering that God works not despite them but through them, for they are what keep me depending on his grace.
Without that grace, the apostles were the friends of Jesus who denied him and deserted him. With his grace, they are the foundation stones of the Church. What the bishop said to the ordinands last weekend is something we all need telling, over and over again: ‘you cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God… pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.’