In the Name...
"Good morning, Mr Phelps." A lot of us may remember that as a tagline of the TV series "Mission: Impossible." The line continued with the words, "Your mission, Jim, if you choose to accept it, is..." and then some incredibly difficult – impossible, in fact – task was described. Well, have you ever wondered what the disciples thought when they heard Jesus say to them, "Your mission, my friends, is to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons."
I can only imagine they must have been a bit surprised, even apprehensive. I mean it's not like Jesus gave specific directions as to how they were to accomplish these things. He didn't provide any set prayers or liturgy. And if, as we read, the crowds following Jesus felt "harassed and helpless", the Twelve must have felt doubly so as they were sent out without even loose change.
But there's a word shift in the reading which goes by so fast you may not even have noticed it. In the first sentence, they're referred to as "disciples." Then, suddenly, they're "apostles." Yes, so? "Disciples", "apostles" - what's the difference? They're the same twelve guys, aren't they? Well, no. The difference in the titles is because they've undergone a transition
All over the country, at this time of year, young people (and some not so young) have been making the same kind of transition. The papers have been full of pictures of people tossing mortarboards into the air to celebrate their own personal transitions. One minute they were learning the formulas and logarithms, the syntaxes and structures. But then comes the moment when, diplomas in hand, shifting tassels from one side to the other, grinning for pictures with proud moms and dads, suddenly they're somebody else, something else - they’re graduates, ready to start practicing what they've been studying.
And that is the difference between a disciple and an apostle. A disciple is in class. An apostle is in the world.
This passage from Matthew marks the moment when the Twelve graduated. The moment when Jesus seems to have decided that they were formed and shaped and changed enough to be sent out to share the mission and ministry with him. Unlike academic or professional graduates, it wasn't that they'd completed so many credit hours and passed so many exams. It was more a matter of Jesus deciding that the world now needed their ministry.
And ours. For that is the commission and ministry of the Church.
In the Old Testament, the job of the priest was to break down and reach across the barriers between God and His people. So, when the Israelites are told they are to be "a priestly kingdom" that was a job description that they were to be a nation which demonstrated union with God to all the other nations around them.
And, we as the Church, the New Israel, have inherited this same task, to break down and reach across perceived or real barriers between people and God. Christ gave himself body and soul to reconcile the world to the Father and we, apostles and members of his mystical Body, are to use our own bodies and souls for the same end.
Now, this may sound surprising, but this mission does not involve fixing the world or telling people how to live their lives. That is not the work of the Church. What we're supposed to be doing is breaking down barriers so that people can sense the presence, the peace, the pardon of God in their lives, and respond accordingly.
And if, as a result, the world gets fixed and people shape up, that's a bonus. But it's not our job.
So, if breaking down barriers is the job of apostles, then what does healing the sick have to do with it? Well, the fact is that sickness, of all kinds, is one of the biggest barriers we have to face. People who don't feel well don't always relate well to other people, let alone to God. So, how can we heal the sick?
There was a news item recently which involved a doctor who specialized in treating back pain. This doctor said that some years ago there was an epidemic of ulcers which was generally recognized to be the result of stress and overwork. Medicine can now treat ulcers and the occurrence of people getting them has dropped dramatically. But there has been quite a rise in people who suffer back pain. This doctor's treatment? A three-hour discussion. The doctor, you see, was a psychiatrist - not an M.D. or chiropractor.
How much illness is due to stress? How much physical pain is the result of mental and spiritual pain - feeling unvalued, unaccepted and unloved? How much illness could be cured if people, in the words of the bumper sticker, Know Christ and Know Peace?
That is how we can heal the sick and we can do it because we are valued, accepted and loved by the self-same God we can extend to others.
All too often people are tempted to treat church life as if it were an end in itself. They're happy to gather within the comfort of worship and community and be disciples - perpetual students. Always taking courses, but never quite graduating.
I’m sure the Twelve weren't any different. They weren't eager to go "out there", but Jesus knew the world and felt its brokenness in his own bones, in his own heart, and he knew his first apostles could bring the power of God to heal the sick, to bring the reconciliation of love. And, he sends us still, to do the same.
Is it a "mission impossible"? To break down and reach across barriers, to bring healing in the power of the grace of God. Each of us has our own places to which we are called to this mission and ministry - our families, homes, workplaces, clubs and groups. For wherever there are people, there are people who are searching. Our world is just as full as Jesus' world was of those who are "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
And, like the first apostles, we won't be perfect. We'll make mistakes, miss opportunities, panic, and even betray our Lord. But he’ll keep sending us back in his Name because he knows we can do it.
May this be a mission we choose to accept.
In the Name...