As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Some people have called this passage of Matthew the “Little Commission,” in contrast with the Great Commission we looked at last week.
In it, Jesus sent his 12 disciples out into Israel to teach the same message he had been teaching; to do the same healing and transformative work he was doing. Here is where the 12 are first called “Apostles,” which is a word meaning that they were sent out.
There are scholarly voices that question parts of this passage, especially the bits that warn of future persecutions, and ask whether Jesus actually said these things, or whether they were read back into his instructions by a community that had experienced such things.
It’s a fair question, but in the end, not as important as the overall question about whether Jesus did this at all. Did he send his disciples out in pairs to spread his message that God was breaking into the world with a new order, a new Kingdom, as he called it?
Matthew’s gospel, as I’ve pointed out, is the gospel from a Jewish Christian perspective and the focus of this is on sending the disciples out into a familiar setting to the people they knew, speaking a language they knew, sharing a background they understood.
In other words, this would have been a fantastic first step in training leaders in the church: like when a seminary places student ministers
into an actual church. It forces them out of the classroom, with all its theory, and into the real world to deal with real people.
In Jesus’ day there were a lot of messiahs; a lot of people who claimed to be bringing the truth; who promised to restore Israel to its past glory, or at least to kick out the Romans.
And the Romans, or their client kings like Herod and his sons, dealt with them following a long-established Roman policy: “cut off the head and the serpent will die”. It generally worked.
Most of these leaders were pretty charismatic and powerful speakers: persuasive leaders who could not be replaced with any success.
Look at what happened when John the Baptist was beheaded by the younger Herod. His disciples scattered; some followed Jesus, others went elsewhere, but his movement died. That was usually what happened.
But not so with Christianity. That’s because Jesus really believed what he taught. He expected the last to take their place at the front and so he trained these uneducated labourers, these outcast tax-collectors, these radical zealots who wanted to blow up the world order and die in glorious battle against impossible odds. He took them and trained them to go out, to stand up and be heard, to teach, heal, help, and bless in exactly the way his message suggested: with the last stepping up to be leaders, to make a difference.
In this passage we get a glimpse of how it worked. He taught them intensively. They lived together, he told them parables and invited them to understand deeply. And then he sent them out in pairs to try it for themselves.
Today we would call this succession planning. Jesus didn’t let his ego get in the way, so when he wasn’t there to personally lead the church anymore, his students were able to step up and apply what he taught them to keep things going: indeed, to spread it farther and wider than anyone ever expected.
There are some important elements to this that we can’t ignore:
First, the disciples were sent out in pairs. They never had to be alone; they had support in this scary job. And they also had someone who was there for accountability if they went too far off message. The other person would balance that.
This is a very effective model. That’s why the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons still use it today and why they are able to grow as churches. Even when the logic of their message is challenging to so many people, their blend of a supportive community and a focused message is really compelling.
Another element is the fact of the backgrounds of the people sent out. They were not the established leaders of the society that produced them. They were from the edges: Jesus took them and shaped them so they were immersed in his message and then he taught them to lead.
It was quite the experience when they came back. We are told that they were positively giddy: “It worked! It worked!” was their report.
Obviously they had gone out with fear and trepidation and they had been very well received.
Luke’s gospel tells us he did it again, sending 70 people out that time with much the same results. There’s lots of symbolism in the numbers we see here, of course:
12 being related to the 12 tribes of Israel;
70 being a mix of human and divine, with:
7 being the number of perfection; and
10 symbolizing the works of human hands.
And again, scholars raise the question of whether this literally happened.
I believe that regardless of the specific numbers, this method of training is one Jesus used because he expected his followers to get out and do stuff. Not just to absorb his teachings like sponges, but to make those principles a real part of their lives and to pass them on to others.
To stretch the sponge analogy, we are called to get out and clean things up; something we all can relate to these days.
That’s what it all comes down to for me: we’re all in this Christianity thing together, no matter our background or status, ministers and lay people. We are all equal in God’s eyes and we are all given a voice and an opportunity to make a difference. We are all given a chance to show others that the message of Jesus matters; that in God’s economy we get to share, and help each other and lift each other up so no one is left behind and no one is ever really left alone.
In Jesus time, people were hungry for that message and right now, in this time of enforced isolation they are hungry again.
Let’s take our role seriously. Let’s reach out and touch other lives. It’s something we can all do. And when we try, we too, like those first disciples, may discover to our giddy delight that it works and that we have made a difference for someone.