Reading Matthew 9.35-10.8
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
When I was pondering this sermon, I decided in the end to base it on three quotations. After all, it was Trinity Sunday last week, so the number three is in the air. I didn’t quite know what those three quotations would be, though I had a good idea what I wanted them to say.
I also thought it would be neat if the quotations had been written or uttered by three bona fide canonised saints. One quotation sprang readily to mind – from Saint Teresa of Avila. I then thought I had a second – by St Francis of Assisi – but it turns out that the attribution is spurious. Mind you, this quotation does hit a certain nail firmly on the head, as you will soon hear.
For my third quotation I had to resort to something written by an ex-bishop of Durham. Not quite what I had in mind, but I suppose that life rarely provides exactly what we need – or at least what we think we need.
So here’s my first quotation – from St Teresa of Avila. You may well be familiar with it.
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Let’s think about those words in the context of today’s gospel reading. At this point in his ministry things are going pretty well for Jesus. True, he is encountering a degree of opposition, so there’s a hint of the suffering to come, but for the moment people are flocking to hear him, to be cured by him, to see others cured by him. He has acquired a number of close followers. He has momentum.
Yet even Jesus is constrained by human limitations. The task of bringing the good news of the kingdom to all of what he calls the lost sheep of the house of Israel is too much for one person.
So he sends out the twelve disciples to help in this task. They become his hands, his feet, his eyes, as St Teresa puts it.
How the disciples reacted to this turn of events is not recorded but one may legitimately imagine, I think, a few gulps of trepidation among them.
The gospels record historical events but they aren’t simply neutral accounts of things that happened two thousand years ago. The disciples were given a daunting task, which – by a series of relays – has been passed onto us. The disciples were the hands, the feet, the eyes of Jesus back then. We are his hands, his feet, his eyes now.
That doesn’t mean that we have to tread the dusty streets of South West London button-holing people about Jesus or standing on a soap box in George Street. But knowing the love of God does mean sharing the love of God. It should as it were radiate from us as heat and light radiate from the sun.
We are not to so much preach salvation (though that’s always a live possibility) as we are to be salvation.
That brings me to my second quotation. Though he probably didn’t, St Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said: preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.
In many ways it is indeed a daunting responsibility that Jesus lays on our shoulders. If we are to fulfil it, we need to find ways of allowing the love of God to flood into our hearts more and more abundantly. It will then flow out from us. It really is as simple and as difficult as that. Ultimately, it’s always God doing the work. Maybe we’re not so comfortable with the thought but we are merely the hands, the feet, the eyes, through which he draws people to himself.
We are channels of his love. In so far as we are given the grace to be able to love others, we are participating in the love that God already has for them.
And so to my third quotation = from an ex-Bishop of Durham. I made a vaguely facetious remark earlier on about ex-Bishops of Durham, but there’s nothing wrong with bishops of Durham, ex or otherwise. This one is Tom Wright, probably one of the finest scholars and spiritual writers that the Church has ever had. He says this:
The church exists primarily for two closely correlated purposes: to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world … The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform.
We are not in this alone. We are individuals, it’s true. We are not like worker ants who, as far we can tell, have no individuality whatsoever. We can accomplish much as individuals but not nearly so much as we can achieve together. We are communal as well as individual beings.
Without those around us we are next to nothing. Just think of the ability we have of language. If we hadn’t had a community of language around us when we were young, we would have no power of speech and our lives, our ability to act would be immeasurably impoverished.
Those disciples two thousand years ago weren’t sent out alone but in pairs (as we learn elsewhere in the gospels). They had the fellowship of the other twelve disciples and of the wider group of disciples who weren’t members of the Twelve. So they had others they could talk things over with, whom they could encourage and be encouraged by, with whom they could debate what they were going to do next. Above all they had Jesus and the power of God. And so, through prayer do we. We are not alone.
St Teresa, in our first quotation, is picking up the language of St Paul about believers being the body of Christ. The thing about a body is that all its constituent elements are necessary. They all need each other. We need Christ and Christ needs us.
All of us need all of us.