Ordinary Sunday 11A (14-06-2020)

The Jesus Thing

Read  Matthew 9:35 -10:23

Over time, words change meaning, or take on additional meaning. Example? The word ‘thing’. When I was young the most common use of ‘thing’ was as a general word for any object. Thing could be a stone or a tea towel or a motor car or maybe even a living creature, such as a snail.

About 40-50 years ago there came a change. ‘Thing’ also became the word for an emotion, an opinion, a way of life, a belief, and most commonly for a characteristic activity. As in ‘doing my own thing’ or ‘get out of here and do your thing elsewhere.’

Let’s apply it to Jesus; the Jesus ‘thing’. What was his thing? It was actively living  the life of loving God and those around him, with characteristic grace and good humour.

The Gospel of Matthew has a fine summary of the Jesus thing, at the end of chapter 9: “Jesus went around all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and curing every infirmity. When he looked at the crowds, he had compassion for them. They were harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd.”

Compassion is an essential element of the Jesus thing. Jesus practised compassion. He had compassion on the crowds that gathered around him, desperate for help and guidance.  “When he looked at the crowds, he had compassion for them. They were harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd.”

It was a part of his thing for Jesus to have compassion on them. His heart went out to them. He travelled around the Galilean region, meeting the common people in open spaces or in towns and synagogues, teaching them the love of God, preaching the presence of God’s kingdom in their midst – a kingdom where they each were precious citizens – and healing their diseases and curing their handicaps. This was the Jesus thing.

So a defining part of the Jesus thing is compassion; not compassion as a binge of treacly pity, but compassion as doing something for the flock without a shepherd; helping them; gathering them and serving them; loving them to the point of self sacrifice. There is no true Christianity which does not share this Jesus thing.

Immediately after Matthew summarises the Jesus thing, he moves on to the sending out of the twelve disciples on their first mission. They are to go and show the same compassion. They are to practice the deeds of love displayed by their Master.  They are to do the Jesus thing.

Here, for the first time, the disciples are called apostles. Apostle, apostolos in Greek, meant an emissary, a person sent out on a mission with the authority of the sender behind them. The disciples cannot stay at the point of being learners in the school of Christ. The times comes when the disciples must become the practitioners. 

Jesus told his apostles, “Do your best, go to everyone in peace, but if they will not receive you, shake the dust of that place off your feet and try elsewhere.”  This is the bit that usually jumps out at me. Unlike those early apostles, I don’t have to suffer scorn and rejection, nor do I have to flee from persecution.  I have only to endure mere frustration; the frustration of bearing Jesus’ wonderful news for the world, but regularly coming up against blocked ears and hardened hearts; the frustration of having been given a vision of what the world could become – that which Jesus called the Kingdom of God – if only people would taking his teaching to heart and live it.

In the face of such frustration, it is very easy to take Jesus at his word, kick the dust off my sandals, stomp off toward the horizon, and leave people to wallow in the mire that has become for them their world.  This world may not be the best way to have life, but it is not too bad most of the time, at least for us in Australia, and after all, it has the advantage of being known, and it gives the illusion of security.

I actually did this a few years ago. I tried early retirement at the ripe old age of 55, tired of the frustration.  The role of minister is traditionally described in terms of three components: prophet, priest and pastor.  Individual ministers rarely are experts in all three; we each have different gifts, different priorities, different personal preferences.  Some are known as wonderful pastors, some as great preachers or some as agents of profound wisdom.  Most never get accolades for anything, carrying the gospel the best they can, yet still find particular identity in one of the three traditional functions of ministry, each with its own trials and joys.  I am most content in the ministerial role of prophet. I can handle the other two alright, but satisfaction in ministry for me is derived as prophet. 

As can be readily gleaned from the Old Testament, the role of prophet is the least popular by far. Everyone loves the caring pastor, and people find satisfaction in a well-presented worship service, but prophets? Well, they are only worthwhile when they are saying something  you agree with.  And since the prophet inevitably is taking issue with the way things are; that is, the comfortable status quo,  an ordinary prophet is merely pain in the neck to be ignored or massaged away with a dose of reality. A good prophet raises the ire of  those who depend upon the status quo, and is stoned, run out of town or, on occasion, crucified in one way or another.

There is little joy in the role of prophet, and a good deal of frustration, even for an ordinary prophet, so I decided to retire; to kick the dust off my sandals and, as retired men usually do, plant a garden, write a book or build a boat.  It lasted about six months.  You see, one of the curses of this Jesus thing that we do is compassion.

“Jesus went around all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and curing every infirmity. When he looked at the crowds, he had compassion for them. They were harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd.”

Walking away from those who are not disposed to receiving the message of Jesus may be a relief for a prophet, but alas, Jesus’ advice is couched in the context of compassion.  In those early days, there were few apostles and much work to do. Compassion to all meant that there was no time to waste on the hard hearts while there were so many others living in the dark.  You could justify walking away from a bad situation because you had to make the best use of limited time. Now with Christianity being one of the largest religions in the world, and having at its disposal the technological benefits of mass communication, the resources exist to reach the whole world; so, I think that kicking the dust of one’s sandals and walking away from anyone is much harder to justify today.  Compassion demands persistence in today’s world. 

So here I am, after having retired a second time (at the usual age) almost nine years ago, back into the fray.  The issues may have changed since Jesus’ day, but the urgency has not.  There may not be demons to drive out of people, but there are demons to drive out of our institutions.  There may not be quite the same degree of poverty and oppression in Australia as there was in first century Israel, but there is an urgent need to deal with human oppression of the environment.  We may not be under the thumb of  religious law, but still we are bound up by life-denying  religious beliefs.  

I am probably just as frustrated as ever. I continue to marvel (and be appalled)  at the ability of people to face the world ignorant of the unlocked potential of their lives, and satisfied with living sedated by the powers that be that offer illusions of security and satisfaction.  The one thing that encourages me to continue is the realisation that I am not responsible for achieving anything other than spreading the word.Matthew does not tell us how fruitful the twelve apostles were on their first mission. We don’t know how well people received the Jesus ‘thing’ when presented by those who were, like us, so obviously inept when compared with Jesus.  The parable of the Sower and the Seed reminds us not to jump to conclusions either about success or failure. Reception of the gospel may be hampered by the deficiencies of the messenger and the receptivity of the recipients, but it will never be annihilated by such deficiencies.

For those first apostles, just as it can be with us, some people would recognise that the power of what the apostles said and did had nothing to do with them, but with the Jesus thing itself. As Paul later wrote, “We have this treasure in clay pots, so that the glory is clearly not ours but God’s.”

It is even possible, that because of their (and our) obvious flaws, the apostles may have been more successful in some quarters than Jesus would have been in person. We should never underestimate what God can do when the gospel treasure, more precious than sparkling jewels and radiant gold, is presented to the world in ‘clay pots.’ If the good news displays its glory despite our folly and ineptitude, then how great that good news must be.

Twice in the last few seconds, I have referred to ‘us’, and intentionally and rightly so.  Although I used my own ministry as an example, we are all ministers.  Today we are the sent out ones, the emissaries, the apostles. It is not sufficient to be just disciples,  i.e. to be only the learners. What we learn must be practised, and that which becomes precious needs to be shared if its value is to grow and increase day by day. All our lives we will remain disciples, learners in the school of Christ, yet it is also essential that all our lives we also live as apostles, to share the precious Jesus ‘thing.’

The task has not become any easier. We still go out like sheep among wolves, exceedingly vulnerable (to borrow from Shakespeare) to ‘the slings and arrows of an outrageous’ and arrogant secular culture. Some will delight in the love we share by word and deed. Others will mock it. It is not our role to be either deliberately provocative, or timidly apologetic. We still need to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. The Jesus ‘thing’ is too precious either to throw at people like a missile or undersell like some timid trainee salesperson.

We are simply the emissaries of his love; students who are also teachers; heralds with a message from the king; ambassadors of reconciliation; bearers of a torch that is entrusted to us to be passed on to others.

In so doing, we need to remember that the Jesus ‘thing’ carries its own intrinsic power. And it always will. Otherwise our mission would not only be complex and difficult, but impossible.

An open, virtual door to the world